Constant DETRÉ, whose real name was Szilárd (i.e Constant ) Eduard DIETTMANN was born in Budapest, Hungary, which was then a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, on january 2nd 1891 and died in Garnat s/ Engièvre, near Moulins ( Central France ), on April 10th 1945.
The circumstances of his early life are shrouded in mystery. Indeed, his only daughter, who is attempting to safeguard both his memory and his output has few documents to rely upon. Not having known her father and not having communicated about this with her mother due to the latter's early and tragic demise (1953), her only material has been some family papers, and the accounts of those who knew her father, whose memories cannot be relied on to fill in the gaps.
The artist’s biography is therefore difficult to piece together for lack of precise data. All we know with a some degree of certainty is that his forbears were all in varying degrees central European artists. His great-grandfather Clémens DITTMANN, was a sculptor who left Vienna in the early XIX century in order to settle in Budapest where he worked on several important buildings (1). His grandfather Eduard was also a sculptor who married a Hungarian (2). As for his father, Eduard DIETTMANN (3), a steam engine mechanic, he died too early to make a name for himself as an artist.
This meager information is hardly counterbalanced by what followed regarding his childhood and adolescence, those formative years which are so important in understanding his artistic meaningfulness. Of this we can be sure though : he was brought up and schooled in Budapest, but loses both parents early, his mother last at barely eighteen. He finds himself cast adrift, at a loss what to do. We can easily imagine that his natural artistic gifts were paramount in his decision to embrace an artistic career. Thanks to critic and friend Maurice Henrion (4) whom he confided to later on in Paris (see further on), we learn he resided in Munich to study painting with HOLLÓSY who was given to organizing study sessions in the Carpathian Mountains for his students at the private painting school he had founded in the Bavarian capital in 1886. But Paris was the city in Europe to go to for any artist desirous to perfect one’s art and Constant Detré was no exception. He came to Paris for the first time in 1914 to that end, then returned to Hungary. After 1918, he may ot may not have played a role, be it minor, in the short lived Belà KUN (5) government (21st March – 1st August 1919) as an “artistic advisor”, at least this was rumoured in his future wife’s family, but we have found no official confirmation of this state of affairs in the course of our investigations. If such had been the case, of this we can be sure, he would have fled the brutal anti-communist repression launched by the Miklós HORTHY government after 1919. Quite naturally, thanks to his knowledge of Germany and of the German language, he returns to Munich, and becomes the producer of a pantomime company, then moves on to Paris, for the decorative arts exhibition of 1925 and it is around that time that he got to know Henri MATISSE, Raoul DUFY, FOUJITA, and more especially, PASCIN.
The reason why after that Constant chose Detré (which incidentally is an actual French surname) as a nom d’artiste, is utter guesswork (6).
His first (childless) marriage with Marie Mirkovsky (7), a Hungarian, ended in a divorce.
After his marriage with a much younger but equally talented artist (a case and puppet designer) from a well-to-do French family, Claire CARNAT, in 1933, he became a naturalized French citizen in 1936.
A life abruptly interrutped
A few months before he passed on, his friends in Moulins organized a benefit exhibition (December 1944) where he could respond to requests for doing children’s portraits and people came from Vichy to be painted in this studio. The Town mayor expressed a desire to visit him there and admire his works as an official letter testified (17 feb) Success seemed within his grasp, notoriety would no longer elude him, poverty would be a thing of the past, but...
A heavy smoker all his life, he was stuck down by cancer, being consumed like a bundle of dry sticks, as M. Henrion expressed it, very soon after rejoicing in the birth of his beloved baby daughter Marie-Claire.
After his death, his work remained stored between hardboard covers or hung up on the walls of the house where his life ended at the village of Garnat sur Engièvre.
(1) Catholic Church of de Budapest-Ferencvàros. Karoly Palace : one of the most important classical buildings of the 5th district of Budapest, edified in 1822. The amphitheatre of the National Theatre (1837).
(2) A particularity of the Diettmanns was that the males were Evangelical Protestants (= Lutherans) while the females were Catholics : for each wedding a dispensation was required in order to conduct the wedding ceremony at the Evangelical church of Deàk square, Budapest.
(3) Around that time the letter E appears in the Diettmann surname.
(4) A Belgian, Treasurer of the French Foreign Critique, which is the way he described himself on the presentation booklet of the sale described further on. He authored several literary works : Sunset Rainbow, A Free Man’s Ballad (1963), The Soothsayer on The Road, Poems.
(5) Lenin himself complained that this « dictatorship of the Proletariat » should waste so much time in cultural actiivities… not to mention paper work : 531 decrees published in 133 days ! On August 4, or before, at any rate at least two days before the entry of the Rumanian forces, Bela Kun decamped « together with most of his collaborators » for Vienna. What seems beyond doubt is that he left with a war chest. His government was composed of 13 members 4 of whom only were communists.
(6) One can imagine a pun on several levels, possibly coined after his meeting with several members of the Masonic Order « Le Droit Humain ».
(7) It appears Mary Mirkovsky, of Budapest, may have been a dancer…