Detailed History of the Széchenyi Academy of Letters and Arts

Preliminary to the Széchenyi Academy of Letters and Arts



The by-law on arts* The thinkers of the Hungarian enlightenment and Vormärz (Reform period) considered the creation of a national culture and its promotion as a prerequisite for progress in general, and the transformation of feudal society into a bourgeois one in particular. They were convinced that the functioning of a learned society, i.e. an academy, was highly instrumental in achieving their goal.

In the plans and suggestions for establishing an academy, the encouragement and promotion of sciences, humanities, and the cultivation of the mother-tongue and the arts, were very closely linked together. In these proposals amongst the units - where they were sufficiently detailed to elaborate the organisation of the planned learned society - there was reference to one or more departments that would be dedicated to philology, literature and the fine arts.

It took several decades until these suggestions of establishing an academy crystallised into a definite plan eventually carried out by Count István Széchenyi (1791-1860) in November 1825. He and his three fellow-founders in a letter addressed to the Palatine and the Estates of Hungary in which they declared their intention to officially found such a society. Their objective was also expressed in the Parliamentary Act on the establishment of a Hungarian Learned Society (Act IX:1827). The first by-laws of the Society set as its goals the cultivation of humanities, sciences and arts in the Hungarian language. In all the sections of the by-laws, sciences, humanities and arts were always mentioned together.

In the mid-1840s, as the individual departments of the Academy were gaining increasing independence, it was resolved which groups of learning belonged to each unit. Two groups were created within the first, so called Philological Department: A/ Language and literature and B/ Arts. The latter included theories on the various branches of arts, art history, art critique, prose and poetry.

In 1858, the absolutist regime modified the by-laws and determined that the task of the Academy was to foster and spread sciences, humanities, and belles-lettres. These altered by-laws renamed the first department as "Department of Philology and Arts".

In 1869, two years after the Compromise, newly accepted by-laws retained the basic notions of the original ones and again set the tasks of fostering and spreading "sciences, humanities and literature in Hungarian". In 1891, individual departments were divided into sub-departments. The first Department was split into two sub-departments, that of Philology and that of Arts.

The fact that the word "arts" was first substituted by "belles-lettres" and then by "literature" reflects changes in attitude towards more realism. There were only a few members who represented the fine and performing arts at the Academy. At any given time there were fewer than five of them. The notion of "széptudományok" (fine and liberal arts) came to include besides aesthetics and the various types of artistic theories belles-lettres as well as all non-literary artistic forms. From 1891 onwards literary history was included as well.

In 1949 the sub-department of Arts counted 33 members (17 literary historians, 12 writers and poets, 2 musicologists and composers, 1 sculptor and 1 architect).

The first decades of the Academy

At the beginning the representatives of arts and those of literature were scattered over all the six departments of the Academy. Since there were not enough experts in the various fields of science the following practise was adapted: if a famous writer had publications in another field of knowledge, he was elected a member of that department, not the Department of Philology. This is how the poet Dániel Berzsenyi (1776-1836) became a member of the Department of Philosophy, and the writer and language reformer Ferenc Kazinczy (1759-1831) and the poet and critique József Bajza (1804-1858) members of the History Department.

Apart from the fact that several writers, critiques, editors and other literary figures belonged to other departments, the main organisational unit for arts remained the first Department, the Department of Philology.

In the first decades of its activity, the Academy considered the cultivation of the mother-tongue as its main task. In the Reform Period the "Triumvirate" of the above mentioned József Bajza, the literary historian Ferenc Toldy (1805-1875) and the poet Mihály Vörösmarty, played the chief role in the cultivation of language and the promotion of literature in Hungarian. By the second half of the 1830s, this movement was decisive not only in Hungarian literary life, but also greatly influenced the activity of the Academy. Bajza, through his literary criticism, and Vörösmarty, through his poetry, helped and promoted the development of a new Hungarian literary trend, that of national romanticism. Toldy, who was secretary general of the Academy from 1835 onwards, was busy reforming the working of the Academy in the 1840s. In the meantime they were all engaged in editing dictionaries, working out grammatical rules, laying down the basis for the publication of scientific books and periodicals in Hungary, supporting the collection of folk-poetry, writing plays and dramatic criticism, offering prizes and evaluating essay-competition papers and - in Bajza's case - editing a periodical. Writers, poets, critiques and their colleagues were carrying out the great task of the Academy: the formation and propagation of the literary Hungarian language through working out the rules of Hungarian grammar, the compilation of dictionaries and the establishment of official spelling rules, and in general applying modern Hungarian to the needs of sciences, humanities, fiction and criticism.

After the repression of the revolution and war for freedom in 1848-1849, the Academy was allowed to work only under close political supervision, and for a decade it was deprived of its by-laws. It was only in 1858, after the passing of a new set of by-laws that conformed with repressive governmental policies, that public sessions were allowed to be held and new members elected.

The changing mission of the Academy

The restoration of the Academy's legal framework helped stimulate scholarly activity appropriate to the demands of the new age. Since the beginning of the 1850s there had been a debate going on about the task of the Academy and the growing importance of humanities, and above all, the sciences. There was an increasing demand for real scholarly achievement when electing new members and this trend became prevalent under the vice-presidency and later presidency of József Eötvös, writer, poet and politician (1813-1871) and under the poet János Arany (1817-1882) when secretary general.

The new beginning thus did not simply mean reviving the Academy of the Reform Period. The main emphasis shifted from the cultivation of the mother-tongue and the promotion of national literature to the up-to-date cultivation of humanities and sciences.

Consequently, the role played by the first Department and the representatives of the arts changed heavily at the Academy. From the last decades of the 19th century their influence diminished considerably. The same was true of their influence in the literary world.

The growing importance of the humanities and sciences did not mean that the Academy had given up on its traditional role as promoter of language usage and supporter of literature and arts. Several literary figures and artists were members of the Academy until 1949. Although with a changed emphasis, the promotion and fostering of arts, re-emerged time and again in the opening addresses of Presidents of the Academy at the General Assemblies, or in the reports of the secretaries general between 1869 and 1949.

In the 1880s, the promotion of literary history was among the tasks of the first Department; at the turn of the century, however, art history was gaining ground and created the demand for the formation of a new sub-department of fine arts. At the end of the 1920s, when the Academy finances received a boost, there was a chance to broaden its activity, and new Committees were formed, namely for Music, Fine Arts, Ethnology and, finally, Folklore.

In 1948 the president of the Academy, Zoltán Kodály, composer and musicologist (1882-1967), gave the following reason for having artists as members of the Academy: "Although the Academy does not have a separate Department of Arts, the first Department welcomes artists and thus manifests the unity of culture. It is not only the various branches of humanities and sciences that belong together (for all fields of learning would suffer from isolation from other scholarly fields), but humanities, science, and the arts are also closely interlinked. The stronger the artistic vein scholars and scientists possess the better, and the same is true the other way round."

In 1949, when the Stalinist government decided to reshuffle the Hungarian Academy of Sciences on the basis of the Soviet pattern and make it functional (under strict party supervision) as the focal point of scientific and scholarly activity in a proletarian dictatorship, it started to cut the number of members and fill the Academy with people representing the new political orientation. This was carried out in the following way: half the members of the Academy were categorised as counsellors when they were re-elected, which amounted to excluding them from active membership. The Sub-Department of Arts was abolished altogether. Consequently, 13 members of that Sub-Department, including, amongst others, the poet Gyula Illyés, writer Áron Tamási, and sculptor Pál Pátzay, were deprived of their membership, whilst nine further members were qualified as counsellors, and the membership of another three members withdrawn simply because they lived abroad. Only eight continued as members of the remodelled Academy. They were mostly literary historians and musicologists.

40 years later: the formation of SZIMA

In 1989, the winds of change were felt by the Academy as well. The General Assembly rehabilitated members who had been excluded or classified as counsellors in 1949 and also restored membership to those who had belonged to the former Sub-Department of Arts. It was stated at the same time that this rehabilitation did not reverse the abolition of the Sub-Department of Arts as such.

The Academy accepted its new by-laws in February 1990. In a statement it welcomed the historical change taking place in Hungary and declared that the Academy regards itself as an autonomous national institution. It was the task of the new president of the Academy, Professor Domokos Kosáry, and the new Presidium (both were elected in May 1990) to carry out the reform of the institution and prepare a new Parliamentary bill on the Academy.

Professor Kosáry considered it as an important part of the reform to rehabilitate literature and arts at the Academy as well. Soon after his election to the presidency he elaborated his intention of restoring the membership of writers and artists at the Academy, but there was still a need to work out an organisational structure that promoted the "co-operation" of the representatives of sciences and humanities, and those of the arts, without actually re-establishing the former Sub-Department of Arts. Historical experience clearly showed that although co-operation between sciences and the arts was highly desirable, their inherent differences made it inconvenient to unite them in one institution.

In 1991, an idea was formed which offered a solution to above dilemma. The president of the Academy outlined it in his letter addressed to his literary friends in June 1991: "I have been thinking about how it would be possible to return to Széchenyi's traditions and to give home to literature and arts at the Academy without mixing the different functions of science and art, thus preventing them from disturbing each other. Eventually I came to the idea that an independent associate unit, the so called "Széchenyi Academy of Arts" should be established within the framework of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. It should be autonomous and would function according to its own by-laws, elect its own presidium, and - within a numerical limit - elect its membership. ... This solution might enable both the representatives of the sciences and those of the arts (in the broad sense) to promote jointly, but in their own respective ways, the common goal: the maintenance of the internationally recognised high standards of our culture."

These thoughts initiated a process of preparation. After a series of consultations nine writers and poets wrote the following letter to the president of the Academy: "In the interest of promoting contemporary Hungarian literature and arts and enhancing its appreciation in the society, the undersigned are happy to support the proposal to return to the original intentions of the founder of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and also to the traditions of said institution - that is to the period between Autumn 1825 and Autumn 1949 when it accepted writers as members - and to establish, within the existing framework, the István Széchenyi Academy of Arts, which would enjoy complete autonomy in fulfilling its programme. It will work out its own programme, regulations, and working orders in accordance with its members. It considers as its main aim to continuously monitor the basic questions of literary and artistic life, and its influential intellectual trends, and to present the literary public with its views and proposals on them. It strives to promote the artistic tradition, the "golden reserve" of the national culture and to make it public property in the field of general and public education. It is also important to form an opinion on the influence of the institutional set-up of literary life, on creative work and their futures. It will form mutual and active bounds with similar types of academies abroad. It plans to make a mark on artistic life through a system of prize works and awards, and to organise meetings and debates on the general questions and problems of the literary and artistic life of our time.

The first members of the Academy of Arts will be invited as members to be accepted by secret ballot.

Signed by: Tibor Cseres, Sándor Csoóri, Mátyás Domokos, Miklós Hubay, György Konrád, Iván Mándy, Miklós Mészöly, Magda Szabó, István Vas".

The foundation of the Széchenyi Academy of Letters and Arts

" Domokos Kosáry, the President of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, informed the Presidium of the Academy about the ideas raised in the talks conducted with writers on the foundation of an academy of arts. The Presidium supported the idea and suggested that the General Assembly should be consulted on the issue. In December 1991, the next General Assembly discussed the president's proposal, gave the representatives of the writers a hearing, and made the following statement: "

1. It agrees with the initiative, that within the framework of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences an autonomous, associate Academy of Arts should be established and its formation should be helped by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

2. It agrees with the solution that the members and the activity of the associate Academy of Arts should be independent from the organisation of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, and that the two Academies should keep up contact with each other through delegations, counting two members from each side.

The General Assembly called upon the writers who initiated the suggestion to start organising the Academy of Arts.

The organising committee having presented its proposal, on this basis the General Assembly of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences officially founded the Széchenyi Academy of Letters and Arts (Hungarian abbreviation: SZIMA) in May 1992, and drew up the list of the founding members.

SZIMA held its first General Assembly on 3 November 1992. It passed its by-laws and elected its officeholders. Miklós Mészöly became the first president and Mátyás Domokos the vice president. The two members of the delegation who were responsible for keeping up relations with the Hungarian Academy of Sciences were also chosen. These were Miklós Hubay and László Lator. Thus SZIMA came into existence.

In April 1993, the second General Assembly of SZIMA chose new members (56 new members were elected in addition to the 25 founders).

On the basis of the new Parliamentary Act on the Academy (Article XL:1994), the General Assembly of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences again accepted new by-laws in October 1994. In conformity with its earlier decision, it thought it necessary to settle the relationship between the two Academies in its by-laws. Article 81 in this document states:

"The Academy [of Sciences] supports the foundation of new bodies that aim at promoting co-operation between science, literature and arts. Consequently, it supports the Széchenyi Academy of Letters and Arts as well, which is an associate partner of the Academy [of Sciences] and has it own by-laws and its own organisation. The relations between the two Academies are kept up through delegations, each counting two members. The delegates representing the Hungarian Academy of Sciences are nominated by the president of the institution for a three-year period. The Széchenyi Academy of Letters and Arts is to inform the General Assembly of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences of its activity."

This is how literature and the arts were - in accordance with the historical traditions - integrated or rather reintegrated in the organisation of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. SZIMA has been working since then. At present its president is film director Miklós Jancsó, and its managing president is man of letters László Lator.

*The out-dated original Hungarian expression "széptudományok" is untranslatable with one word, as it covers both the fine and the liberal arts.

As part of the process of rehabilitation, the Hungarian Academy of Sciences established the Széchenyi Academy of Letters and Arts, as an associated but autonomous body with statues of its own, to include the eminent representatives of literary and artistic life, which fields had also been excluded in 1949.