Gyula Batthyány’s 'At the Races'

Gyula Batthyány’s 'At the Races'

Embodying the Jazz Age

A shimmering expression of Gyula Batthyány's unique position, At the Races is an enigmatic and mysterious painting of both an insider and outsider perspective. Capturing Batthyány's voyeuristic fascination with the rarefied circles in which he moved, this embodiment of the decadence of the Jazz Age will feature in our inaugural Avant Garde : Art from 1890 to Now auction.

The thrill of the race and the promise of the after-party: Gyula Batthyány’s mesmeric At the Races embodies the decadence of the Jazz Age, in its European form, where the ‘sport of kings’ itself was the perfect vehicle for the display of money, class and the freedoms won – for a few – through the bitterness of the World War One. Batthyány himself was a Hungarian aristocrat and socialite - great-grandson of the country’s first Prime Minister and a Count by marriage – and so this world was one he knew. In this magnificent composition spectators spiral up the canvas, watching not only the horses but each other, and are dressed to impress, as well-suited to a ball or night-club as to a day at the races. Batthyány composes the attendees tightly, emphasising that they are the primary attraction; the racecourse itself merely hinted at, through the absinthe-green of the grass, which ripples around their elegant silhouettes, almost in deference.


Gyula Batthyány’s 'At the Races'
signed (upper right) | oil on canvas | 99cm x 70cm (39in x 27 1/2in) | £30,000 - £50,000 + fees


View Lot 7 ⇒


Batthyány, like many young aristocrats, had enlisted for war service in 1914 and returned from the battlefield as a lieutenant. Artists of the 1920s were faced with a stark choice: record the horrors of war and challenge and lampoon (as George Grosz did) those who prosecuted it and profited from it; or turn your back and seek a higher ground, in the world of dreams or the Elysium of abstraction. Batthyány chose what is in many ways a middle path: to treat it all as theatre, both celebrating and mocking the world in all its absurdity (it is no surprise that in the 1920s, alongside his artistic practice, he established a successful career as a set designer, with a particular interest in the ballet, and his theatrical background appears to manifest in the rich ornamentation and lavish and characterful gestures and expression of his paintings). At the Races maps the zeitgeist¸ as the world swung from the heady ‘Roaring 20s’ into the Great Depression. Batthyány had a voyeuristic fascination with the rarefied circles in which he moved and At the Races has an unsettling undertone: the attendees’ faces possess an unhealthy pallor which their gorgeous attire can’t quite obscure. They recall characters from an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, at once beautiful and well-heeled, yet also grotesque and troubled, their languid attitudes belied by their watchful eyes. Whether this work is a satirical commentary on his milieu’s unease in the face of decline seems a deliberate ambiguity on the artist’s part.



Stylistically At the Races is decidedly (and self-consciously) mannerist, with more than a nod to El Greco, who fascinated Batthyány. Yet Batthyány clearly also had the Viennese Secessionists in mind: the rendering of the figures and faces feels indebted to Egon Schiele, with their elongated bodies and sultry, doe-eyed stares, whilst the dense, glittering, helter-skelter composition has a Klimt-like visual dazzlement. Also evident – particularly in the green-heavy palette - is the legacy of Art Nouveau: Batthyány studied at the Munich Academy of Art from 1907, and was impressed by the glamour and linear sophistication of the ‘Jugendstil’ movement. The ‘stacked’ composition, with its forced perspective pushing the attendees’ forms upwards across one flattened plane, is highly Art Nouveau, and enhances the stifling, almost claustrophobic, atmosphere of high society at play.

Batthyány was undoubtedly a product of the Establishment, but also moved in bohemian circles and would have been receptive to the growing European appetite for portrayals of post-war disillusionment and the effects of Depression. At the Races is a shimmering expression of his unique position, an enigmatic and mysterious painting of both an insider and outsider perspective.



Auction Information


AVANT GARDE: Art From 1890 to Now

Thursday 27 April 2023

Mall Galleries, London | Live Online


View the auction catalogue ⇒



Contemporary & Post-War Art


Characterised by competitive bidding, strong results and a high selling rate, our auctions that include Contemporary & Post-War Art are among our most popular auctions. Our strong private client base and excellent international marketing reach have seen these sales which take place across the UK grow into flagships of our company.


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Simon Hucker



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