László Beke: Art during changes
…Two such turning points in Hungarian history readily present themselves as appropriate. One is 1956, the year of the Hungarian revolution, the other is 1990, the year of the first democratic elections in more than four decades. We chose the watershed year of 1956 as the dividing line, simply because it marked changes in artistic trends that began around that time, while the system change of 1990 produced only the fruition of a more free artistic expression that germinated in 1953 after Stalin’s death, took roots in the 1970s, and began to grow in 1984. With the exception of one piece, every work of art in the first part of the exhibit was created prior to 1953 under hard Communist dictatorship and requires only brief commentary. The Stalinist dictatorship in Hungary endeavored to develop its own representative propaganda machinery, with an abundance of portraits of Stalin and Hungarian potentates, pictures of people at work in various occupations, smiling pioneers, etc. – the quintessence of what was called”socialist realism”. But this artistic trend in Hungary was not original: it merely copied the prevailing Soviet style. The hard core dictatorship ran out of time before it could develop a characteristic local Hungarian version of "socialist realism". The demolition of the Soviet style Stalin monument in Budapest marked the beginning of the Hungarian Revolt on October 23, 1956, which put an end to our first period. After 1956, some Hungarian artists who managed to stay out of prison cautiously began experimenting with abstract and surrealist art, but the exhibition of such art was sometimes prohibited by cultural authorities even int he late 1970s. Therefore, abstract and surrealist art did not prevail int he late 1950s and the real novelty of the 1960s was a unique mixture of max Ernsts surrealism and realism, with increased dynamics – the so-called "surnaturalism" – as well as a trend called "happening" pursued by Tamás Szentjóby, Gábor Altorjay and Miklós Erdély. Int he late 1960s, a dozen or so young artists tried to introduce in Hungary every trend that prevailed at the time in Western Europe and the United States, such as new version of constructivism, pop art, object art and hyperrealism. Exhibitors belonging to this group of artists were Bak Imre
, Nádler István
, Deim Pál
, Keserű Ilona, Hencze Tamás
, Jovánovics György
and Birkás Ákos
In the early 1970s, conceptual art and related trends were almost the esclusive forms of expression used by many artists. Even those who did not express themselves in this form, such as Pinczehelyi Sándor
and Károly Zsimond came under its influence. On the other hand, the late 1970s can clearly be characterized by the performance trend, as evidenced above all by the works of the Hajas Tibor, and painters who appeared during his active life or immediately thereafter, such as Szirtes János and El Kazovszkij
. If any period can be viewed as the decade of "soft dictatorship" it is the decade of the 1980s. Aside from one or another member of the Inconnu Group, hardly anyone was arrested for the kind of art produced, but exhibits and publications continued to be banned. Hungarian artists listened attentively as avant-garde art was pronounced dead in the West yielding to trans-avant-garde and to post-modern art. Many middle-aged practitioners of the avant-garde trend were confused by having to face the "new" task involving traditional techniques of painting. At the same time, the official guardians of culture were also confused, because the sources from which they expected provocation produced expressive abstractions at most, and even those seemed without political implications. At that time, one could also begin talking quietly about selling art.
Three creative artists of this era characteristic from three different standpoints. Birkás Ákos
, who deliberately purshued the new trend, showed a path for a new generation of artists, and has, by now, reached the point of producing entirely pure, puritanic abstractions. Bak Imre
used postmoder international architecture as the example for his own eclectic composition style. And finally, Fehér László
is perhaps the best-known Hungarian painter in galleries all over the world today. His contour figures provide a bridge to the "sense of life" of the 1990s. Since 1990, we have only seen a continuation of what had already started in 1984, more or less. I attribute this in part to the fact that the Hungarian avant-garde had already performed the preparatory work for the social changes during the 1970s, and in part to a necessarily delayed reaction caused by the natural rhythm of life of creative arts. We may be able to recognize the impact of the large-scale social changes on creative arts only after the passage of several years. In one of Fehér’s paintings we see a tiny anguished figure at the foot of a monument. The monument cannot be identified with certainly. It could be from the recent past or from the future, but in any event, the picture is definitely ordinary man’s /the artist’s ?/ situation in a historical marked by change.
In: Cat. Hungary Before and After, The Exhibition is at International Monetary Fund Visitors Center in Washington D.C., 1993