Introducing 3 Secretly Influential Hungarians
Spend enough time in this country and the Hungarian pride of famous people of Magyar origin begins to rub off on you. I went far beyond being satisfied in announcing that Albert Szent-Györgyi, who discovered ascorbic acid or vitamin C, did so in Szeged in the 1930s, or that Drew Barrymore’s mother was Hungarian, as was Goldie Hawn’s.
Recently, I made three deeply satisfying discoveries regarding the Hungarian origins of the most unlikely characters: American painter Georgia O’Keeffe, writer Alexander Lenard and architect Antti Lovag, only the latter of which has a hint of Hungarian in it. this name. Each of them influenced their chosen art form in a surprising way.
O’Keeffe is best known for her paintings of giant flowers, landscapes of New Mexico where she lived for many years, and New York skyscrapers. She was born in Canada in 1887, one of seven children. His father was of Irish descent (hence the surname), but his grandfather was George Victor Totto, a Hungarian count who arrived in America in 1848.
I found nothing of great interest in Totto other than the fact that he was born in 1820, the year an 80 ton sperm whale attacked and sank a whaler in Nantucket, Massachusetts, 2,000 miles off the coast of the ‘South America. This story partly inspired Herman Melville’s classic novel, Moby-Dick. Melville, however, did not have Magyar blood.
Although she lived to be almost 100 years old, O’Keeffe was a legendary figure and an inspiration to women as early as the 1920s. It was as much for her free spirit as for the art, which embraced abstraction with paintings of flowers and landscapes. An exhibition of photographs of O’Keeffe by her lover (and future husband) photographer Alfred Stieglitz in 1921 caused a stir as many of the photographs were nudes.
One of Stieglitz’s portraits of O’Keeffe shows her looking at the camera. His eyes are smart and lightly hooded. His nose is heroic. She looks Hungarian.
While Georgia O’Keeffe’s grandfather had sailed to America to seek his fortune, Alexander Lenard, born in Budapest in 1910, had no choice but to leave Hungary. He was studying medicine in Vienna in 1938 when the German Anschluss forced him to leave Austria for Italy. Lenard was Jewish and returning to Budapest was not an option.
In Italy, Lenard traded his medical knowledge for food and shelter while spending his time at the Vatican library in Rome reading Latin. He has read so much that Latin has become second nature to him.
In 1951, Lenard emigrated to Brazil with his Italian wife and settled in the Dona Irma valley, in the municipality of Santa Catarina. The daughter of a local resident Lenard was teaching in Latin complained that she had nothing to read, prompting Lenard to translate Winnie The Pooh into Latin. Lenard worked on his translation for seven years. Unable to find a publisher, he printed his book privately. Its reputation spread by word of mouth until it became a bestseller.
In the foreword to Lenard’s Latin Bear Valley, one of the books that followed Winnie the Pooh’s translation, poet and author Robert Graves described Lenard as “like the most educated Hungarians. of his generation, a polyglot; writes very lucid, unaffected English, speaks it without any perceptible accent. He has a well-knit body, a calm laugh, an iron-gray curly beard and two dedicated professions: medicine and poetry.
I was alerted to my latest discovery by my Hungarian partner whose Instagram feed is extraordinarily eclectic. She discovered that the architect of the “Palais Bulles” or “Bubble Palace”, the home of Pierre Cardin in the south of France who, after his death on December 29 of last year, went to the market at the price of about 390 million USD, was Hungarian. architect Antti Lovag, born in Budapest in 1920.
Lovag, known for his organic architecture, arrived in France in the late 1940s. Working with Jacques Couëlle in the 1960s, he was exposed to organic architecture. He took it to extraordinary heights with the Maison Bernard (later renamed Palais Bulles) in Théole sur Mer, on the south coast of France, built for the industrialist Pierre Bernard.
The mansion, started by Lovag in 1975, took 14 years to build. According to Wikipedia, it was sold to Pierre Cardin in 1991, two years after its completion, after Bernard’s death. Cardin himself never lived in the house, preferring a nearby residence, but used it for entertainment.
Quoted in “Architectural Digest”, Hugh Wade-Jones, Managing Director of Enness Global Mortgages, says the Palais Bulles faces an uncertain future.
“The Palais Bulles is without a doubt an emblematic piece of real estate; however, the prevailing view is that the property is a bit of a white elephant, ”he said. “It’s architecturally amazing, but largely impractical for residential living and would require a tremendous amount of work to fix.”
Lovag himself didn’t seem to care about the practicalities of designing homes for clients. He said, “I have three conditions that I am forced to meet: I don’t know what it’s going to look like, I don’t know when it’s going to be over, and I don’t know how much it’s going to cost.”
Despite the almost absurd use of bubble shapes at the Bubble Palace, Lovag was deadly serious. He was trying to overturn the tyranny of the cube in architecture, claiming that “the circle structures the way human life is conducted”.
I started this article as a celebration of the simple fact that O’Keeffe, Lenard and Lovag were Hungarian and made their mark on the world beyond the borders of this country. Thinking about it more deeply, I realize that all three of them were true artists whose work was more about artistic expression than anything else. This is in addition to a certain search for purity and liberation from material constraints which, for me, is an essential part of the Hungarian immigrant spirit.
This article first appeared in the print issue of the Budapest Business Journal on February 26, 2021.