Collecting Zsolnay art pottery, a conversation with Dr. László Gyugyi

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Dr. László Gyugyi, a Hungarian-born retired research engineer now living in Pittsburgh, has assembled the finest private collection of Zsolnay art pottery, numbering nearly six hundred pieces. A portion of his collection is now on view at the Forbes Galleries in New York City, before it will be donated to a new cultural center being built in Pécs, Hungary, in the former buildings of the famed Zsolnay facilties. We recently spoke with Dr. Gyugyi about his collection and Zsolnay’s remarkable history:


You have been collecting Zsolnay ceramics for over thirty years, how did this collection start?

The Zsolnay collection started almost accidentally, after my arrival in the United States in 1963 as a part of my overall collection of Hungarian art. At a local auction near Pittsburgh I bought my first Zsolnay piece, a folkloric ewer designed by Armin Klein, one of the most talented artists of the factory. The beauty of this relatively simple piece started my interest in Zsolnay. I should add that, although I had lived in Hungary from 1933 (the year of my birth) until 1956 (the year of the Hungarian Revolution), I—and most of my contemporaries—did not know much about the great, earlier achievements of the Zsolnay factory. The accumulating effect of major historical events—the First World War, the dissolution of the mighty Austrian-Hungarian Monarchy, the economic depression, the Second World War—had diminished the world famous artistic production of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, The subsequent Russian occupation of Hungary and eventual nationalization of the factory stopped production altogether. The rapid changes in artistic taste in the first half of the 20th century also tended to downgrade Zsolnay’s achievements as being “Victorian.” Fortunately, although the artistically great and technically innovative historicist pieces are still underappreciated, the major revival of the art nouveau period starting in the late 1950s reestablished Zsolnay’s eminence. This revival gave me the opportunity to become familiar with the great creations of the Zsolnay factory.

How would you characterize the nearly six hundred works in your collection?

They were assembled to show the unparalleled achievements of the original Zsolnay family (Vilmos Zsolnay, daughters Teréz, Júlia with her husband, Tádé Sikorski, and son, Miklós) in ceramic arts and technology, during the period from 1874 to about 1910, which can be divided into two main styles: Historicism (1874-1897) and Art Nouveau (1897-1910). Towards the end of the Historicism period, in 1894, Zsolnay introduced his new luster-glaze, called eosin, which he used on objects produced during 1894-97 in celebration of the Hungarian Millennium in 1896. Most, if not all of the artistic or historical styles in the these periods are represented in my collection. Many of these pieces appeared at major world exhibitions, and almost all of them were originally exported from Hungary to Western Europe and the United States.

Zsolnay was an artist, artisan and self-taught material scientist with an unshakable self-confidence that whatever had been done in preceding times in ceramic art, he would be able to revive. Thus, the Zsolnay period of Historicism brought back an unbelievable range of styles and techniques: Roman pottery, great Chinese glazes, Chinese and Japanese motifs, Arabic, Persian, Iznik, and Renaissance styles. Zsolnay developed his own high-fire, fine white earthenware with an enamel glaze technique which was awarded the Grand Prix Gold Medal at the 1878 Paris World Exhibition. Zsolnay himself was given the Cross of the French Legion of Honor. Later, he also developed techniques to produce unique luxurious objects with silver, gold and artificially colored “gemstones,” and openwork filled with colored glazes that resemble Fabergé’s jewelry boxes and the works of Renaissance goldsmiths.

In the Millennium period the objects were decorated with folk motifs, and the then-popular Eastern patterns. Particularly beautiful were objects made with the so-called “damascene” technique, laboriously etched eosin glazes to emulate fine Damascus steelwork.

The Art Nouveau period represents the Zsolnay factory’s “golden age.” By this time the factory was financially sound and technically advanced with superb designers and highly skilled craftsmen. Zsolnay had largely completed the development of the most comprehensive system of luster glazes in every possible color, shade, iridescence and surface finish, and also worked out applications techniques for the realization of complex multicolor décors (patterns). During the art nouveau period, the factory produced about 3800 new shapes and 2600 new décor (pattern) designs. During this period Zsolnay participated in, and received awards at practically every major world exhibition (1898 Vienna, 1900 Paris, 1901 St. Petersburg, 1902 Turin, 1904 Saint-Louis, 1905 Liège, 1906 Milan, 1908 London, 1910 Brussels, 1911 Turin).

How do Zsolnay works differ from contemporaneous work from Tiffany Studios or Clément Massier?

The iridescent luster glaze technology goes back a long time in history, and all three, Massier, Tiffany, and Zsolnay, were inspired by and studied ancient Roman, Syrian, Arab, Persian, and European Renaissance glass and pottery together with the subsequent works by Théodore Deck and William De Morgan. Also, all three were fascinated by colors in nature, which they tried to reproduce. For example, Zsolnay successfully emulated labradorite, and Tiffany agate. Zsolnay was keenly aware of, and respected the work of both Massier and Tiffany.  Although he saw Massier as his main competitor, he considered Tiffany a challenger: he wanted to emulate in pottery the beauty of art glass.

Zsolnay surpassed Massier in four areas: (1) greater color palette; (2) better control of intensity, shade, and iridescence; (3) more sophisticated surface finish techniques; (4) much broader variety and more inventive designs in the art nouveau spirit. With regard to Tiffany, direct comparison cannot, of course, be made due to basic differences between clay and glass. However, it should be noted that Zsolnay did achieve his objective, in what the famous contemporary science professor, Dr. Wartha described as “Tiffany transferred into ceramic.”

What mistakes if any did you make in your early collecting? What lessons have you learned?

For every beginner collector, it is difficult to accept the advice to buy the best item you can afford. I learned that sometimes you have to go beyond that rule and buy an important item even if you can only afford it with considerable sacrifice, because that item may never come up again.

What are some of the ways that you have refined your collection? How do you determine quality?

I have not collected Zsolnay art pottery for investment, but for my own pleasure and enjoyment. My main objective for the collection was to represent fully the achievements of the original Zsolnay family with the best obtainable art objects from 1874 to about 1910, but with special emphasis on my favorite sub-periods of early Historicism (1878-1884) and early Art Nouveau (1898-1904), and on items exhibiting particular beauty and outstanding craftsmanship, like the objects produced by “jewelry” and “glass” techniques.

There are a number of ways to determine quality, but a natural “feel” and artistic sense are helpful, if not absolutely essential. (Years ago, the owner of one of the famous Art Nouveau galleries in London invited me to his home to show me the about twelve Zsolnay objects he had in his collection. When showing them, he said: “Look, I know nothing about these pottery pieces, except that they are from Hungary. However, just looking at them, I do know that they are good, very, very good.” And he was right, all of his pieces were excellent, both in style and quality.)

Is there a story about the acquisition of a particular piece that you wish to share?

Almost every object in the collection has a story behind it. The example here illustrates patience and persistence one sometimes has to have to acquire a piece:
Many years ago, in response to my “wanted Zsolnay pottery” advertisement, a man from a small town in Nebraska called to find out if I could give him some information about a bust he had received as a gift. From his description I knew it was the famous Luna, modeled by Sándor Abt. I told him this, explaining that the bust, a dreaming young woman in moonlight, is a symbolist representation of the Moon. He refused to accept this, stating that the breastbones are too strong for a woman, and thus it obviously represents an ancient warrior, modeled with ox-horns. I asked him whether he would sell the bust to me but he said no. To make a long story short, it took me four years of correspondence, plus numerous telephone conversations, until he decided that he would indeed sell it, because he needed money to buy an important piece of Tiffany.

If you could have any piece from another collection (perhaps from a museum) what would it be?

It probably would be a bust, “Fragrance of Roses” also by Sándor Abt. It was exhibited together with Luna at the 1900 World Exhibition in Paris. A surviving version of the piece was exhibited at the Bard Graduate Center’s Zsolnay exhibition in 2002 that I was almost able to acquire, but the owner cancelled the deal at the last minute. Sometime after this exhibition the piece disappeared and its present location is unknown.

Next year your collection will be donated to a new cultural center at the former Zsolnay factory in Pécs. What made you decide to give up your collection? Will you keep a portion of it, and will you continue to buy other examples?

I am over 76 years old and my son lives in Sunnyvale, California, an earthquake zone, with four relatively young children. The collection is too large to expect anybody without a dedicated interest to live with it and the restrictions it imposes. In addition, I have increasingly become convinced that the right place for my collection would be in Hungary.  For reasons discussed earlier, Hungarian museums do not have sufficient representation of the Zsolnay “golden age,” and some of the important exhibition pieces of Historicism. The fact that the city of Pécs won the competition to become a Cultural Capital of the European Union in 2010 has provided a perfect opportunity. The city started an ambitious program, with the financial support of the European Union, to modernize the factory and fully restore the living and working complex of the original Zsolnay family and associated factory staff. The restored Zsolnay Cultural Quarter will function as a historical site and active cultural center. My entire collection will be returned to Pécs, and will be permanently exhibited in the former residence of Júlia Zsolnay and her husband, Tádé Sikorski, inside the Zsolnay Cultural Quarter.
Only the future will tell, whether I will try, or be able again to bring together a small, manageable Zsolnay or other collection that I could eventually leave to my family.

Zsolnay Art Pottery from the Collection of Dr. László Gyugyi is on view at the Forbes Galleries through March 21. For more information visit www.forbesgalleries.com or call (212) 206-5548. All images copyright of Dr. László Gyugyi.