Big in Budapest

Why Hungary's Exhibiting Works of a Long-dead Interwar Graphic Artist

Hungarian-born Pesach Ir-Shay impressed his birth-country with his modernist posters.

Ádám Ackermann

Even the family of Pesach Ir-Shay, a renowned graphic designer of the 20th century, is surprised by Hungary’s interest in his work. An exhibit at Budapest’s Museum of Applied Arts features around 100 posters created in Hungary between the world wars – and 20 of them are by Ir-Shay (1896-1968).

Meanwhile, the Israeli Cultural Institute in Budapest has launched an exhibition devoted entirely to Ir-Shay, featuring works he created both in Israel and during the Holocaust at Bergen-Belsen.

According to Katalin Bakos, the chief curator of the museum exhibition, the modernism expressed by Ir-Shay’s posters is part of the Hungarian aesthetic experience to this day. His works are poetic; he could bring out the artistic side of the most everyday or technical object like a radio tube.

Ir-Shay, born István Irsai in Budapest in 1896, served as an officer in the Austro-Hungarian army and was handsomely decorated for his contributions during World War I. He was critically wounded in a battle on the Italian border.

After finishing architecture studies at the Budapest University of Technology, he worked as a graphic artist. In 1925 he married and moved to prestate Israel, where he was a jack-of-all-trades. He played the violin during silent films at cinemas, illustrated the newspaper Hamahar and designed the ads, sets and costumes for Avigdor Hame’iri’s satirical Hakumkum Theater. He also worked as an architect in the Tel Aviv municipality’s planning department.

Annoying the rabbinate

Shortly after arriving in Mandatory Palestine, Ir-Shay designed the Haim font, the first sans-serif Hebrew font. It was the first font to shape Hebrew letters using straight lines and the simplest geometric forms.

Not everyone was pleased; the rabbinate condemned Ir-Shay for allegedly defiling the holy Hebrew letters, and Haaretz declared him, “a madman lacking any sense of tradition.” But Haim Nahman Bialik told him not to worry about he rabbinate, so Ir-Shay named the font after the famous poet. To this day the font is widely used in Israel, including for obituary notices and newspaper headlines.

A piece from Ir-Shay's Hungarian period. Photo by Ádám Ackermann

"Ir-Shay was one of Israel’s first modernists,” says David Tartakover, an Israel Prize winner for design who has been researching Ir-Shay’s work for 30 years. “My interest in his work began in the early 1980s. Till then I’d never heard of him, and the person who made me aware that he even existed was Shlomo Shva, Tel Aviv’s popular historian.”

As Tartakover tells it, “One day Shva directed my attention to a fashion shop on Dizengoff Street called Exclusive, whose display window was cut in an unconventional, asymmetrical way, and which had an iron statue of Diana the goddess of hunting over the entrance. He told me Ir-Shay had done it, and I realized I had to learn more.”

Ditching the eastern style

According to Tartakover, two people brought modernism to Israel, Ir-Shay and Arieh Elhanani. “That period was dominated by a decorative, eastern style that was distant from a Western perspective,” Tartakover says.

“[Ir-Shay] brought a new way of looking at practical graphics; he had a unique sense of space that he integrated into the typography of his posters, a perception of letter and image that differed from the German school brought here by immigrants from Central Europe. He represented the spirit of the period and spoke about the direct link between architecture and typography.”

A piece from Ir-Shay's Israeli period. Photo by Courtesy David Tartakover

In 1929, Ir-Shay returned to Hungary, after his wife had several miscarriages and their first child died young. There he became one of the most important designers of the modernist movement.

Ir-Shay was a passenger on the so-called Kasztner train, the train carrying nearly 1,700 people whom Adolf Eichmann agreed to spare in exchange for gold, diamonds and cash. The train was diverted to Bergen-Belsen, where Ir-Shay produced a raft of drawings. Those works are housed in the Ghetto Fighters House Archives on Kibbutz Lohamei Hagetaot.

In 1945 he returned to Tel Aviv, where he continued his work as a graphic artist and wrote articles on typography and design. In 1952 he won second prize in a UN competition to draw a human rights stamp. After his first wife died, he remarried in 1961 and died in 1968. During his career in Israel he worked with the Jewish National Fund and the Tel Aviv Zoo, creating pictures, sculptures and blueprints for monuments.

A piece from Ir-Shay's Hungarian period. Photo by Ádám Ackermann

Anikó Katona, the curator of posters at Hungary’s national library and curator of the exhibit at the Israeli Cultural Center, says that although Ir-Shay was known in Hungary for his posters, he didn’t get the attention he deserved. She says the typography in his posters was far better than that of anyone else between the wars.

Katona says Ir-Shay’s Jewish identity and the importance Jewish culture ascribes to texts and letters helped make him successful. And he had to work in two languages and cultures that have totally different types of letters, giving him outstanding perspective.

Ir-Shay’s daughter, Myriam Ettlinger-Sommerfeld, also believes that her father’s background played a role in his success. “He was a very sensitive person, which stemmed from his personal history and the serious wound he suffered at age 19 when he was an officer in the Austro-Hungarian army,” she says.

A piece from Ir-Shay's Hungarian period. Photo by Ádám Ackermann

Ettlinger-Sommerfeld was born in Budapest in 1936 when her father was 40. “What he went through during World War II wasn’t easy, as you can imagine. He took on himself the responsibility to take care of us, his wife and children — he was the one who decided to get on the Kasztner train,” she says.

“In the concentration camp he kept himself busy and drew and painted, even when there were no materials, paper or paints. He used what he had and many of those works survive; some are on display at Yad Vashem and some in Budapest. All his life he never stopped painting except when he had to sleep. He was always working.”

Ettlinger-Sommerfeld notes her father’s many squabbles with Israeli designers. “He thought the graphics here were very undeveloped and there were designers that did better than others even though they really couldn’t draw,” she says.

“He had a lot of trouble with this; he was bitter, especially when he came back to the country after being widely appreciated in Budapest. No one remembered him here. I think he was before his time, and no one really understood what he wanted.”

The Ir-Shai archive
A piece from Ir-Shay's Hungarian period. Photo by Ádám Ackermann
A piece from Ir-Shay's Israeli period. Photo by Courtesy David Tartakover
A piece from Ir-Shay's Israeli period. Photo by Courtesy David Tartakover
A piece from Ir-Shay's Israeli period. Photo by Courtesy David Tartakover
A piece from Ir-Shay's Israeli period. Photo by Courtesy David Tartakover
A piece from Ir-Shay's Israeli period. Photo by Courtesy David Tartakover
A piece from Ir-Shay's Israeli period. Photo by Courtesy David Tartakover
A piece from Ir-Shay's Israeli period. Photo by Courtesy David Tartakover
A piece from Ir-Shai's Israeli period. Photo by Courtesy David Tartakover
A piece from Ir-Shay's Israeli period. Photo by Courtesy David Tartakover
A piece from Ir-Shay's Israeli period. Photo by Courtesy David Tartakover