In memoriam László Beke (1944-2022)

In memoriam László Beke (1944-2022)

László Beke (1944-2022)

On January 31, 2022, art historian László Beke passed away in Budapest. He was 78 years old. He was one of the most well-known figures of Hungarian art history in recent decades and he was primarily known for his research of 20th-century art. As chief curator of the Modern Department at the Hungarian National Gallery (1988-1995) and as director of the Műcsarnok (Kunsthalle, 1995-2000), he was instrumental in making Hungarian conceptual art and neo-avantgarde known to the wider public. From the beginning of his career in 1968, Beke was actually a key figure in the Hungarian contemporary art world, much of which verged on illegality. As participant, organizer, and researcher of this period, he left behind a very significant body of work. For the general public, he is most well-known for one of his early publications (apart from his directorial positions): In 1985, he wrote a high-school textbook on art history, which remained in use for decades. Titled Analyzing artworks, it shaped the early approach to art objects for a generation. 

However, László Beke started his career as a medieval art historian: he wrote his MA thesis on the gold background ornaments of medieval panel paintings and then – encouraged by Éva Kovács – he started researching medieval goldsmith works. His 1976 dissertation on filigree enamels was published in 1980 by the Art History Research Group (later Institute) of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences – the institute where Beke worked from 1969 to 1988 and where he later served as director between 2000-2011. László Beke also participated in the 1987 exhibition on King and Emperor Sigismund, being one of the editors of the two-volume catalogue. He was also one of the editors of the English-language Festschrift in honour of Ernő Marosi, published in 2010 on Hungarian medieval art and titled Bonum ut pulchrum.

The 1980 publication on filigree enamel decoration (Sodronyzománcos ötvösművek) traces the history and origin of this decorative technique, which became particularly popular in 15th century Hungary. The work includes a complete catalogue of medieval goldsmith objects with filigree enamel decoration and remains the most complete survey of this material, which makes it invaluable to this day. Despite its very average print quality (resembling a photocopied thesis) the 173 black and white reproductions are also unsurpassed regarding this topic.

Filigree enamel decoration on the foot of the Suki-chalice, c. 1437 (Esztergom, Cathedral Treasury)

The career of László Beke was summarized by Ernő Marosi in 2014, on the occasion of his seventieth birthday (Ernő Marosi: László Beke turns seventy. Acta Historiae Artium 55, 2014). Those of you reading Hungarian can also read an interview with Beke in MúzeumCafé (31, 2012). Beke’s inquisitive mind made him a great company at conferences, exhibition openings, excursions, and any other art historical events. I remember fondly our conversations over the last few decades. He will be greatly missed.

László Beke with Jaynie Anderson at the 2007 CIHA Conference in Budapest, at the Museum of Applied Arts

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