II: The Early Years (1893 - 1924)


Lahner was born on 22 September l893 in the village of Nagy-Berezna in the Carpathian mountains.[2] His family were Roman Catholics of Alsatian origin and had settled in Hungary sometime in the early part of the nineteenth century.[3] Lahner occasionally spoke of an ancestor who was one of thirteen officers executed in Hungary for fomenting revolution in l848.[4] Lahner's mother died in childbirth and he became an orphan at the age of seven when his father was killed in an accident. Other details of his youth are sketchy, but he appears to have been sent to boarding school around l902 by a bishop relative who acted as the boy's guardian.[5] Lahner received a degree from the School of Mining in Banseca Stavnice in l9l0, but he must have continued his engineering studies beyond then.[6] The choice of an engineering career had been his guardian's, Lahner having early on expressed a preference for painting. He later credited the bishop for saving his life, however -- for, as an engineer, he managed to evade military service in the First World War.[7]

Lahner's enthusiasm for painting stemmed from a boyhood incident when he came upon a man restoring a roadside crucifix near his village.[8] The artisan offered the boy a tube of green paint, which he readily accepted, and what began as an amusement gradually assumed the dimensions of a vocation.

In abandoning his engineering career, Lahner enrolled at the School of Fine Arts in Budapest where he studied under Janos Vaszary and Kochine.[9] Possibly he began art school as early as l9l5-l9l7 when the influence of Futurism and Expressionism had drifted east, but it is improbable that Lahner had time for serious study before l9l7 or l9l8 on account of the war.[10] Since Lahner's teachers were both followers of the Impressionist movement, it is moreover unlikely that Lahner's work of this period seriously reflected German or Italian avant-garde prototypes.

A few surviving watercolors and drawings in collections in Paris and Spokane chronicle Lahner's years in Hungary.[11] With one exception they are all landscapes, views of tiny villages and wooded hills, signed "Lahner Emil" and dating from l9l3, l9l4, l9l5, and l9l8. The absence of drawings from the l9l5-l9l8 period, while not conclusive, tends to confirm that Lahner's artistic activity was minimal during these years. Lahner himself remarked that:

The moral and economic depression that instigated the war of l9l4-l9l8 was the reason for the collapse of my projects. It was certainly a great inconvenience for me in terms of the precious time lost. However the times were beneficial in fermenting ideas and pushing towards total liberty in art.[12]

Like many artists in Eastern Europe, Lahner would find that "liberty" to paint as he pleased only after leaving his homeland.

In addition to bucolic subjects Lahner made at least one caricature revealing a sharply satirical wit. The Three Men of l9l5 shows three bulky individuals exchanging conspiratorial glances. While not identified by the artist, the three are probably military officers, businessmen, or government officials. Such a drawing reminds us what the social and political conditions must have been like in Hungary during the war and its aftermath, and that on some level they must have had an effect on Lahner.

In l9l8 upon the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire, much of Hungary, including Lahner's birthplace of Nagy-Berezna, was annexed by neighboring Romania and the new Soviet Republic.[13] The same year a Soviet-inspired revolt brought the greatly diminished state of Hungary under the leadership of Bela Kun. During the subsequent "Red Terror" thousands perished or were incarcerated. The counter-revolutionary "White Terror" of l9l9, under Admiral Miklos Horthy von Nagybánya, proved even bloodier, and in this general atmosphere of harsh repression many artists and intellectuals -- including Lahner -- chose or were effectively forced to emigrate. When Lahner left Hungary in late l923 or early l924, it was officially as a student of the School of Fine Arts of Budapest which had awarded him a traveling scholarship.[14] He did indeed travel and presumably saw much of the new art being made in the West, but he did not return to his homeland.

Lahner did not arrive in Paris until October l924; the course of his travels before that date is therefore a matter of some speculation.[15 ] He is known to have spent time in Zurich, until 1921 the center of the Dada movement.[16] Dada, with its absurdist imagery, seems in any event to have left little imprint on Lahner's work. According to friends Lahner may also have visited Italy, going as far south as Rome. Some of Lahner's figurative paintings from the l920s and l930s do indeed resemble the automata of the scuola metafisica . Lahner could also have seen their work in Paris, however; and there is no evidence that he ever went south of the Alps.[17] A visit to a small retrospective of Impressionist paintings in a Lausanne gallery proved decisive, however.[18] Confronted for the first time with the works of Delacroix, Van Gogh, Monet, and Renoir, Lahner decided to head for Paris where he could study the French modern masters.


(2) E. Benezit, "Lahner," Dictionnaire critique et documentaire des peintres, sculpteurs, dessinateurs et graveurs, Paris 1976, VI, 387.

(3) Interview with Laszlo Laky, 27 August 1986.

(4) Interview with L. Laky; see also C. A. Macartney, Hungary: A Short History , Chicago 1962, 163.

(5) Interview with Madame Georgette Trichet, 27 November 1986.

(6) A 1910 degree from the School of Mining, Banseca Stavnice, is listed under études et formations in the fiche individuelle for Lahner at the Service de Documentation, Centre National d'Art Moderne/Musée Georges Pompidou.

(7) Interviews with L. Laky and G. Trichet.

(8) J. Bouret, Emile Lahner , Neuchatel/Paris 1974, 13-14. See also G. Cey, "Une Heure avec Emile Lahner," Le Pays Malouin , 24 September 1954.

(9) M. Malingue. "Le Grand Meconnu de l'École de Paris etait hongrois. C'est Emile Lahner, récemment disparu." Journal de l'Amateur d'Art, April 1981, 22. Like Lahner, Janos Vaszary (1867-1917; known as "Jean" Vaszary in France) had studied in Paris; he then returned to Hungary, where he taught at the School of Fine Arts. According to one writer (Eugene Kopp), his work was the embodiment of "the discord and incessant tension in Hungarian painting." See Geo-Charles, "L'Art hongrois et la peinture moderne," Le Courrier Graphique , XXXIX, February-March 1949, 41.

(10) Bouret 14; Malingue 22. Both Bouret and Malingue believe that Lahner began study at the School of Fine Arts in Budapest around 1915, but the "Lahner" file at the Musée Georges Pompidou gives the dates of 1921-1924. (He nonetheless left Hungary in 1923.) If Lahner did indeed work under Vaszary, he would have had to begin his association with the School before 1917, the year of that master's death. Between this date and 1921, little can be said of the painter's activities other than the speculation by Jean Bouret that he combined art studies with an engineering career.

(11) Most of these works appear to be dated in the hand of Lahner.

(12) E. Lahner, from hand-written statement in "Lahner" file, Musée Georges Pompidou.

(13) For the history of Hungary in the aftermath of the First World War see C. A. Macartney 1962.

(14) The "Lahner" file at the Musée Georges Pompidou indicates that the scholarship was for study in Paris, but Lahner did not go there directly.

(15) Bouret's account mentions Zurich and Lausanne as stops on Lahner's itinerary, but he is vague about a presumed visit to Italy. Laszlo Laky and Pierre Treuttel both believe that Lahner was in Rome by early 1924. There is, however, no record of this, an omission due largely to Lahner's vagueness on the subject in later life.

(16) Dada, French for "hobbyhorse," was a counter-culture movement that ridiculed traditional forms of art and promoted absurdist views of reality. The movement began around 1916 in Zurich and lasted only a few years, but it continued nonetheless to exercise considerable influence on avant-garde artists of the 1920s and 1930s. Malingue (p. 22) states that Lahner met the Dada poet, Tristan Tzara, while in Zurich, but this is unlikely as Tzara had left for Paris in 1919.

(17) The scuola metafisica (1913-1919) or metaphysical school of painting combined conventional realism with fantastic or dream-like imagery, impying alternate realities to the visible world. A mainstay of this school is the treatment of the human figure as a mannequin or robot, a tendency also found repeatedly in Lahner's work from the 1920s to the late 1950s.

(18) Bouret 14.