Katalin Néray: Towards the End of the Millenium: Hungarian Artist
In January 1990 numerous debates broke out in the Hungarian press over whether 1990 signified the beginning of the nineties or the end of the eighties. If the bounderies of art historical periodicization are examined, the situation becomes even more complicated; it's common knowledge now that the legendary "sixties" ended with the student revolutions of 1968. In the United States Barbara Rose organized the exhibition "Art of the Eighties" in 1979; postmodernism in architecture has been written about and discussed now since the end of the fifties, at a time when it was completely inappropriate in the fine arts.
can we even speak about the art of the nineties, in 1991? Undoubtedly, in 1990 the radical political changes in Central and Eastern Europe marked the end of an era in one blow. But how should we wiew the outlines of the new period?
In the period immediately following the Second World War progressive Hungarian art found itself for the second time in the situation of fastening itself back onto Europe's political and intellectual formation. The group working in 1946-47, known as the European School , consciously undertook this, in both its name and its programme. The Stalinist turning point of 1949 forced Hungarian democracy into the background, and consequently the development of progressive Hungarian art too. Those artists and intelligensia who were persecuted under the pre-war fascistic conservative system for being left-wing, were pushed to the periphery again in the new, post-war situation for being the propagators of western art and ideology, thus endangering the direction of cultural policy. A pseudo value system was created: art and sham art, as if there seemed to be a distorted hierarchy between official and unofficial art, which very often even the authorities didn't believe in. The revolution of 1956 signalled a renewel of hopes and the chance of a clean break, but afterwards, however, it was ompossible to carry on work where it had been left off. The situation in the following years only became more confused, as occasionally one or two individuals, mostly in the area of literature or music, would come to terms with both the authorities and the public. Out of such a long traumatized: the older generation, which provided an example from a moral standpoint, suffered on account of the hidden public appearance, while the new generation after 1968 simply gave up, and left the country. It would be conceivable to devote a special exhibition to the casualties of Hungarian art, from the First World War to the present day.
And now here we are again, freshly regaining our European character, and maybe many different kinds of changes can be expected in Hungarian visual art. Finnland and the Finnish public are probably better informed about East and Central European affairs than Western Europeans or Americans, and wouldn't regard this region as one unified mass. The artistic situation and development of the former socialist countries shows many similarities, especially during the Stalinist art era of "Socialist Realism", but the events of the last decades have been influenced for the most part by whether the dictatorship that led the country was a so called "hard" or "soft" one. The change of system here started at the beginning of the eighties in the arts and in intellectual life in general, and that indeed paved the way for the political transformation. Of the seven artists exhibited here, it would be untrue to say that they didn't receive publicity in earlier years, or that they never exhibited in Hungary or abroad; in the very worst instance they never received state comissions, or filled posts in the hierarchy of artistic life.
These seven Hungarian artists don't represent the whole spectrum of contemporary Hungarian art by any means, since other, significant movements have been left aside - like geometrical - concrete art, like the political, critical-ironic grotesque circle - and this list itself is not complete in the least. Neither the Hungarian Trans-avantgarde, nor the Hungarian New Painting movement have been deployed here, and neither are the initiatives of the New Sensibility present. By the close of the 1980's, which is also the opening of the 1990's, it is not movements, but individual achievements that have become dominant.
Amongst Hungarian artists Imre Bak and István Nádler represent the first generation of the Hungarian neo-avantgarde, that certain "great generation" who , christened the IPARTERV Group entered the history of Hungarian art from the Budapest Architects and Planners Institute. It was here in 1968 and 1969 that two exhibitions, not officially permitted, were organized, where for the first time the Hungarian avantgarde appeared before the public. The group weren't unified as such, neo-constructivism appeared beside pop art,conceptual art and abstract expressionism.
Bak Imre at this time affirmed the rediscovered legacy of Hungarian constructivism as the centre-point of his activity, amalgamating it with his studies of American colour field and hardedge painting. Later in the 1970's Bak became more engrossed in his research into Eastern European folklore motifs, transcribing these into monumental signs while all the time maintaining the rigorous principles of constructivist structure. In 1982, Bak displayed his new work, which had taken a surprising turn in the direction of the endeavours of eighties post-modernism. Lóránd Hegyi, the most significant curator of eighties New Painting, termed Bak's work of this period "radical eclecticism". Not merely in his paintings, but in his theoreticel writing too, Imre Bak has given an exact analysis of the inclination towards Venturi-Mendini-Memphis design, the enriching role of post-modernism in architecture, painting and in object and environmental culture. At the same time Bak has put to himself questions of regional identity and the the programme of Central and Eastern Europe, and in a rare synthesis has brought together references to the legacy of Kassák's and Korniss's constructivist-surrealism, Viennese Secession, Art Deco and forms of folkart. He works with extreme discipline, intensity and faith, carefully balancing on the boundaries of liberation and rigorous order. More recently he has curbed the playful eclecticism in his works, and carves out single details from the composition with a sure hand, enlarging the motif, while great, liberalizing memories reside amongst the disciplined forms.
Nádler István was likewise a founding member of IPARTERV. He also started out from constructivism, and these early compositions were extraordinarily dynamic, not least as a result of their diagonally structured style. There early compositions were almost bursting at the seams with their energy and inner tension, signalling the post-modern turning-point in painting which was to later follow in his career in 1980. In the preceeding decade however, he still continued his geometrical-constructivist activity, also making poetical objects from newspaper, drawing out Malevich's Cross-motif. At the end of the seventies he produced compositions reminiscent of repetitive music, computer tapes and contemporary music score images, primarily from the influence of Steve Reich. The "great motif" of the eighies has appeared in his overwhelmingly painterly images containing the inspiration of Malevich's Yellow Parallellogramme, preserved in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. It wasn't by chance that Nádler István
was drawn towards the greats of constructivism around Malevich, none of his contemporaries could deal with these so-called exact, geometrical forms in a more fragile and falliable way.
Nádler istván has used, tormented and deformed this motif completely freely over the past decade. His extraordinary dynamism from the middle to the end of the eighties at the time was amazingly lively and clolourful, but he is currently increasingly subdued and more restrained. Sand is often mixed into his browns, and one or two white streaks slash into it, or a red, suggestive of the colour of congealed blood. This is rather the world of Tapies, and of course of Nádler, always susceptible to dramatic situations in painting, to the intensifying of the conflict between colour and form.
Birkás Ákos became the central figure of Hungarian New Painting in the eighties, both as a painter and as a theoretician. He acts as a teacher at the Art School, an exhibition organizer and a writer of theoretical texts; and after a long intermission when he produced only photographs, he has begun to paint again. In the seventies he examined the relationship between kitsch and art in a series of hyperrealistic paintings of details from appartment interiors. If there is such a thing as conceptual hyper-realism, then this was it, in painting photography. His irregular landscapes, painted at the beginning of the 1980's in explosive colours introduced a formal ingenuity into painting: he began to paint diptychs, but these image tablets were never mirror images of each other, but displayed fine, or meaningful deviations. From this it was just one more step to the series of Head motifs that have lasted until today, in relation to which from the outset the critics referred to Javlensky. Later Birkás broke up this sacral, oval form even further, so that the whole result is in three parts, in a form extremely dynamic in its brushwork and surface. In his latest paintings the powerful oval shape appears in a more settled form and with reduced colours, which may have as much to do with the Byzantine mosaics of Pantocrator as with Buddhist mandalas. It is actually all the same whether it is a head, or a universe. Birkás explores infinite reserves in this basic, divided form, and in ever-deepening circles represents the transcendental depths of the human soul.
Bak Imre, Birkás Ákos
and Nádler István
successfully won international approval at the Hungarian pavilion of the 1986 Venice Biennial, and this was followed by the significant New Sensibility exhibitions mainly in Germany, which also helped make their names known in Western Europe. We schouldn't forget however, the "Wet Paint" exhibition of 1984 at the Ernst Museum in Budapest, where the Hungarian trans-avantgarde appeared officially for the first time in one of the capital's exhibition spaces. This was followed in 1985 by the exhibition in Graz, "Three Generations of Hungarian Painters", later shown at the Mücsarnok in Budapest. In this collection there emerged László Mulasics, who was still a student at the time, and Fehér's László first new paintings following his abandonment of hyperrealism.
Fehér László emerged with his coolly objective, socio-photo realist images at the annual exhibitions if the Young Artists' Studios at the end of the seventies. These paintings recorded the sad instances of city-life with its bleak locations, and later with themes of Jewish folklore. In 1982-83 a radical turning point occurred in his painting, his colours and forms disintegrated and he stepped into the tracks of the great, lone painters of Hungarian Post-Impressionism, Ferenczy, István Farkas, even Csontváry. A scholarship to Rome intensifies his attraction towards antique culture, lost empires and towards powerful architectural groupings. At the same time he bore his own private history even closer, especially with the bringing together of antique culture and Hungarian classicism in monumental locations. During his childhood Fehér lived in Tác, in the trans-Danubian region, beside the ancient Gorsium ruins and the classical Festetich Castle at Dég. In his family photo albums fehér discovered a characteristic slice of Hungarian private history. From the ourset the individuals in the family pictures appeared as silhouttes, before the richly painted background became more and more stylized and subdued. In his black and yellow works painted for the most recent Venice Biennial, he reflects the resignation and quiet terror of peoples' situations in the 1950's and 1960's, while allowing more irony into his most recent silver and black paintings.
Mulasics László's initial New Wilde, figurative, powerful compositions were followed at the end of the 1980's at his first one-person show by surprisingly clear compositions, geometrically composed between object and image. In these relief-like paintings he built architectonic details composed from lead-plating. As he went beyond these drastic, canvas-lead combinations, their place was taken by silver and gold encaustic. He worked carefully with wax, and from an almost pointillist surface buildings, and indeed whole ground-plans of a necropolis, mysteriounsly shine out, details of organic motifs, messages from lost cultures. Mulasics handles the sense of surface and motif-relations with an uneven sense pf proportion, allowing a free area of association. The use of paper has a unique place within his work, his combinations of gouache, aquarelle and collage are not merely studies for larger paintings, but independent works in themselves.
In the renewel of visual arts in the eighties, an extremely significant role has been played by those architects who partly in the film industry and partly in architectural offices have actively created utopian design, absurd architecture and forms of architectural installations. This can be said of Gábor Bachmann, of László Rajk who often works together with him, Attila Kovács and Tobor Szalai.
Together they held a joint exhibition in 1986 in the Dorottya Street Gallery, Budapest, and later in a Viennese Gallery. They were to go down separate paths later on, but in the recent past they have got together again in the programme of the most exciting new gallery in Budapest, the NA-NE Gallery.
Katalin Néray: in FREE ZONE -Contemporary Hungarian and Finnish art
Exhibitions 8.1-27.1.1991 Taidehalli/ Helsinki
Dr. Néray Katalin, Director Museum Ludwig, Budapest