Imre Pákh, a Hungarian-American art collector, has the world’s biggest privately owned collection of some 50 paintings by the great Hungarian artist Mihály Munkácsy (1844-1900). In the context of the unofficial Munkácsy Year now taking place, we had a conversation about the unknown side of Munkácsy, which was uncovered partially with Pákh’s help, and his plans for a worldwide tribute to the Hungarian painter.
How did your special relationship with Munkácsy begin?
I was born in Munkács – just like Munkácsy –, which is called Mukatschewe today and belongs to Ukraine, a little later than him but still in the same city. So my special attention to the works of Munkácsy comes a bit from local patriotism as well. The other reason is that my family owned a drawing by Munkácsy that later served as the first piece of my collection of his work. As in the 1990s there were many important Munkácsy works appearing at Sotheby’s, Christie’s and other auctions, and I liked them, I continued my art collection and became a Munkácsy collector.
So you were already an art collector even before owning anything else than that drawing by Munkácsy.
Yes, exactly. I had collected especially Russian and French art before, not really Hungarian. I was looking for these artworks at the auctions as well and then along came one of Munkácsy’s works. I bought it without much hesitation. Then I bought another and another. Finally I came to Hungary to look around, where after the political change the auctions slowly began and here and there some Munkácsy works appeared as well. In my opinion he is the greatest Hungarian painter. When you get the opportunity to buy and collect the biggest and the best, you have to use that opportunity, of course. However, as you can see if you take a look around my house, I like other Hungarian painters as well.
Do you buy any work by Munkácsy that is offered for sale?
No, I mainly focus on works that have never been in Hungary so far; the ones that have been painted by Munkácsy abroad and still are found outside of Hungary. Munkácsy painted about 700 paintings in his life. We only know the whereabouts of about half of them. In conclusion, half of the work of the great artist’s lifetime is completely unknown. There are some black-and-white photographs of some of these works, about others we only have written references, and with many we only have indirect proof like invoices or other records.
How is it possible that so many Munkácsy works are still missing?
Many were bought directly from his workshop in Paris and brought to England, France and – the majority – to America. Some of them were returned to Europe in the meantime but most are still there (in the US). The picture that made Munkácsy, as they say, a star painter today was the Milton. It is still hanging on the wall of the New York Public Library. The two bigger and better pictures of the (Christ) Trilogy stayed on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean; they finally – after 100 years – returned to Hungary and can be seen in the Déry Museum in Debrecen. However, they are still in foreign ownership. One of them, the Golgotha (second in the Trilogy), belongs to me, and the other, Christ in front of Pilate (first in the Trilogy), belongs to a Canadian Museum. Sadly only the Ecce Homo (third) is in Hungarian ownership.
There were some reports in the press stating that the two pieces of the Trilogy – that are in foreign ownership – may leave Hungary this summer. What do you think about that?
I am convinced that the three most important works of the Hungarian painter-genius should stay in Hungary, and I fully agree with the opinion of Lajos Kósa, the mayor of Debrecen and leading Fidesz politician, who said: “The Trilogy is one of Debrecen’s most important tourist attractions, so it is in the best interest of the city that all three pieces stay exhibited in the Déry Museum. This can only be guaranteed if they are owned by the Hungarian state.” Just recently the Hungarian National Bank launched a program to acquire Hungarian art that are in foreign hands – a wonderful initiative! The paintings of the Trilogy surely belong to the “National Art Treasure” category according to the criteria of the program.
Would you like to exhibit your Munkácsy works in Hungary?
Yes, exactly, that is my goal. In 2005, when I already owned a collection of 25 Munkácsy paintings, I brought them to Hungary. At that time we organised a large Munkácsy exhibition at the National Gallery that had almost 400,000 visitors in three months. Beside my collection 100 further works from foreign museums and collections were exhibited. None of the 115 paintings had been exhibited in Hungary before. The paintings were new even for the specialists. This is no wonder, since we can read already in a biography from Munkácsy’s time, from the 19th century, that: You cannot know Munkácsy’s work unless you travel to America. All the biographies that were published in Hungary about him – the last one was written by Professor Végvári in 1958 – appeared without these pictures. We only know these works from photographs, stories or from books.
Even so he is one of the greatest Hungarian painters!
Exactly! Although you have to add that most of Munkácsy’s greatest works are here in Hungary. However, there are still some new important paintings discovered that have been unknown even to professionals.
How is that possible?
Munkácsy did not record every sold painting. Some of his works changed owner without an invoice. Three hundred from the total of 700 works are at known locations, in museums or in private collections. Concerning the other 400, we know that about 350 exist, that they are large or small and so on. About 50 to 100 paintings we do not know anything at all.
How do you know that these works exist at all?
Munkácsy wrote over a thousand letters to his wife and friends that we only began to analyse recently. In these letters he mentions his work as a painter – which is a rich source of information. Once every year or so an unknown Munkácsy painting pops up. My collection also has some pieces that are not mentioned even in the Great Monography of Munkácsy, which lists about 630 works. The biography contains important information about each of the pictures, like where it can be found, part of which collection it is, when was it painted and so on. Sometimes it has photographs of the works. Often there is nothing at all.
As there are so many blank spots in Munkácsy’s career, can we be sure at all that newly discovered paintings are really by him?
Without any doubt. On one hand Munkácsy had a unique painting style, on the other hand there are certain typical Munkácsy topics that you can surely relate to the painter. Besides, there are some special methods to tell exactly how old a specific painting is. My goal is to find his missing paintings and add them to my collection.
How many Munkácsy paintings do you currently own?
About 50, which is the largest private collection. From the state side the Hungarian National Gallery owns the most Munkácsy pictures. They have about 80. Of course, I am not done with these 50 works yet. I am looking to find new ones continuously. However, I do not buy every Munkácsy painting now, like I used to, I only buy the ones that fit into my collection. However, there are still quite a few Munkácsy paintings that I would love to own. They are part of private collections, so that means that sooner or later I will be able to buy them. For that I have to be patient and persistent. I think that my Munkácsy collection will grow to 70 to 80 pictures in the coming years.
This must be a very exciting task that needs some detective skills as well, right?
Yes, especially since you cannot know when and where and which new work will pop up. The next big exercise would be to publish a new catalogue of Munkácsy’s works that will include all the new paintings that were discovered in the meantime. When Végvári wrote his monography of Munkácsy there were still many works that he was not able to see with his own eyes. Today’s professionals have many more works at their disposal. This is why a complete re-evaluation of Munkácsy’s art should take place.
Is there still “another” Munkácsy?
In Hungary you can mainly find works from the early periods of Munkácsy. His later works are located more in the West and in America. There are big differences between the two groups. The later ones include many so-called Salon pictures but there are also many landscapes that he painted primarily of Paris. His topics clearly changed. Perhaps because of the more gracious lifestyle and his stable financial situation. During his lifetime Munkácsy was the best-paid living artist painter of all time. I always like to mention this because in America this impresses people.
How did he make it? Through his talent or good marketing?
Both. On the one hand he was unbelievably talented; on the other hand he had a superb manager, who sold “Golgotha” to a rich American for almost USD 185,000. Today that amount would be around USD 40 million! Munkácsy was compared to Rembrandt already when he was still alive. In the famous American collections his paintings hung together with Titian, Raphael and Rembrandt. Munkácsy had such a good reputation that he was even invited by US President Grover Cleveland to dinner in the White House. I don’t think many of the European painters of his time had the same opportunity; most likely he was the only one. He was one of the three Hungarians who had worldwide reputation at that time: Lajos Kossuth, Ferenc Liszt and Mihály Munkácsy, who was a good friend of Liszt.
He must have been exceptional among the painters due to his wealth too.
It earned him much criticism and envy. Also because he did not hide his richness. He built a palace for himself and he lived the life of a rich person. His wife was a baroness, the widow of a baron. They gave large parties every Friday with up to 700 guests. They say that at such events about 80 waiters served. You can imagine that the couple did not lead a modest life.
All that working as a painter!
Exactly! He built a very special career. However, as I already mentioned, there were many critics, especially towards the end of his life and after his death. Many denied seeing him as a painter genius; instead they said he was only a clever opportunist who knew how to use the current moods of the market very well. The exhibition that I helped to organise has been presented in 24 different cities since 2005, lately in Békéscsaba where we could greet the two-millionth visitor. That does not mean the story of this exhibition is over: from October it will open in Shanghai. I have heard that Shanghai’s mayor is already looking forward to it. If Munkácsy was not a genius painter, his exhibitions would not have such success today and his works could not be auctioned for such high prices.
What else are you planning with your Munkácsy pictures?
There is an exhibition planned in 2015 in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow with the title “Munkácsy and his time“. The pictures have already been exhibited in Vienna. There are some negotiations going on with Munich at the moment. I would also like to exhibit the paintings in Paris and finally in New York as well. With that I would accomplish one of the greatest goals of my life, since Munkácsy would be known at the level that he deserves, and not only in Hungary but in the whole world.
So your mission is already a success in Hungary?
There is a real Munkácsy renaissance here at the moment. There is even a ballet dedicated to him: the Hungarian State Opera presented “The Golden Brush” in November last year, directed by choreographer Lilla Pártay. There is a very successful musical playing in the József Attila Theatre called “Munkácsy, the king of painters”, composed by Zsolt Bognár – I really recommend it. In addition, the Hungarian National Television presented a two-part documentary about him in August. So it seems like Munkácsy has already grown beyond being only an artist. I think he still has a lot to say to the young people today.
In what way?
Munkácsy’s story is simply an amazing Hungarian success story. Our nation needs people like him as heroes. Munkácsy was a real hero and a great Hungarian patriot. One time when he was being praised he responded: “I consider it to be the highest honour when I can improve the reputation of my nation as its devoted son.” He was an unbelievably great Hungarian, even though he spent most of his life abroad. His heart always drew him back to Hungary.
You collect works from other Hungarian artists as well. Which are your favourites?
I really like the “Corn Period” of Rippl-Rónai. Also I like Mednyánszky and Kádár, although I follow another collecting philosophy with their works. I try to get only the greatest works from the first third of the 20th century. I do not concentrate on a specific artist. My wife’s favourite artist is Egri; we also have some of his pictures. However, I could add many and more names to the list still.
What did you study?
I went to the University of Leningrad and graduated there in 1972. After that I moved back to Hungary. In 1974 I married an American in Budapest and moved with her to America. I have been living there ever since. My first wife died in the meantime. I have two children by my second wife. My son will be 17 this year, my daughter 14. We live in New York.
What is your profession?
I studied languages at the University of Leningrad. Later in America I received an MBA at NYU. After that I worked for big companies for a while and finally I founded my own commodity trading firm. My partner later bought me out. Since then I have been an investor, among others in the mineral and metal industries. Now I try to spend more time with my family, I still have relatively young children. My business activities are limited mainly to investments and business management; I do not participate in daily operations any more. My home base is New York but I frequently visit Hungary as well. One reason is that I find it important for my children to learn to speak Hungarian. Our staff in New York also consists of Hungarians for that reason. Some years ago I bought an apartment in Budapest so that I do not have to stay in a hotel, and my family can feel at home as well.
Among your family photos there is a picture of a large Turul, the legendary Hungarian falcon. With all due respect to your patriotism, isn’t that an unusual place for such a picture?
No, not at all because this Turul is very special: This is the Turul that sits over the castle of Munkács. Its ancestor was dismounted after World War I and melted down after World War II. It was my father’s dream that the Turul would one day spread its proud wings over the fortress again. With my family’s support his wish could finally come true: since 2008 the Turul has been sitting in its original place again. With its wing span of six metres this one is even bigger than the old one that was inaugurated in 1896.
Was it your idea to light a memorial candle on 20 February at Kerepesi Cemetery in Budapest to remember the 170th birthday of the painter?
It was the initiative of the Munkácsy Foundation. Since Munkácsy has no direct descendants, we thought that the people who cherish his art could simply gather around his tomb and remember this great Hungarian man. For me it is very important that Munkácsy’s legacy lives on.
Is this year a Munkácsy year?
It is. This year we celebrate his 170th birthday. Unfortunately it is not part of the official birthday years, which include Miklós Ybl’s 200th birthday or the Ferenc Liszt year in 2011. I hope that for the 175th birthday of Munkácsy (in 2019) we can make it into an official memorial year and we can realise all those programs that we could not realise this year.
What are the programs planned for this year?
I really hope that we can accomplish raising a statue of Munkácsy in the city centre of Budapest. The exhibition in Shanghai takes place also in the context of our Munkácsy memorial year, just like the one in Békéscsaba. Fundamentally also the ballet play, the musical and the documentary are part of the programs as well. One thing that will not be organised in the way that we were hoping is an international professional conference. There will be a conference but not in Budapest, rather in Békéscsaba. In addition, I would have liked to publish a new monography, but that will not be possible to finish this year. Hopefully it will be ready for his 175th birthday! We also have plans for a full feature film about Munkácsy. We have been working on this project already for two years. Vilmos Zsigmond has agreed to work with us as cameraman.
Is there already a movie about Munkácsy?
No, it’s surprising but there is not even a single one so far. Although his life is a really interesting basis for a film. In general, movies about successful artists are very fashionable nowadays. Munkácsy really had an interesting life. I also really hope that sooner or later we will get the right support for this project. I am sure that a well-made Munkácsy movie will be a big success. All the Munkácsy exhibitions in every town have attracted an extremely high number of visitors so far. I am sure that the movie will be no different. Every Hungarian can relate to Munkácsy. A film would fit in well with the renewed wave of national identity that we are experiencing today. Even 114 years after his death, Munkácsy still has a lot to say to today’s generation. His message is that if you persevere, you will be successful. We know where Munkácsy came from and what kind of fame he reached thanks to his God-given talent and perseverance.
Carpenter’s apprentice became world-famous painter
Mihály Munkácsy, born in 1844 in Munkács, now a city in western Ukraine, was not lucky during his first years of life. After his mother, Cecília Reök, died in 1850, his father, Leó Mihály Lieb, followed her into the grave only a short time after, in 1851.
István Reök, his mother’s brother, took the orphan boy into his care in the south Hungarian city Békéscsaba. There Munkácsy later became a carpenter’s apprentice. After finishing his studies, he went to look for challenges in Arad, a city that today lies in western Romania. However, he was soon struck by syphilis and he returned to his uncle, who had moved to south Hungarian town Gyula in the meantime.
Munkácsy took some lessons from the local art teacher and after that he met the painter Elek Szamossy (1826-1888) and became his student. In 1863 he studied at the Academy of Arts in Budapest, and in 1864 he was admitted to the Vienna Academy of Arts. However, he was not able to pay the tuition and was dismissed.
He continued his studies in Munich from 1866 to 1868 where he was taught by the painter Sándor Wagner (1838-1919). In 1868 he went to the Düsseldorf Academy of Arts, where he learned from another painter, Ludwig Knaus (1829-1910). Munkácsy was particularly inspired by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) and Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) among the older and the contemporary painters. The contemporary Impressionist style, however, had no influence on his work.
Munkácsy lived and worked in Paris from 1872 to 1896, where he regularly presented his works in the Paris Salon. He acquired his legendary wealth also in Paris, partly through his marriage with the widow of Baron de Marches, Cécile (1874). In his elderly years he was treated for nervous problems, first in Baden-Baden, Germany, and finally in the mental hospital of Endenich, by Bonn, where he died on 1 May 1900, which was attributed to mental derangement.
Today, many of his works are exhibited in the Hungarian National Gallery, the New Pinakothek Munich and many other museums throughout Europe and the USA. The painting on the ceiling in the stairway of Vienna Art History Museum was painted by Munkácsy. His famous large-scale “trilogy” can be found in the Déri Museum in Debrecen.