In the 80s, clandestine visits to the ateliers of Hungarian artists by West-European, mainly Austrian and German museum curators, gallery-owners and independent art collectors were quite frequent. Those visits offered much-wanted relief from the drudgery, poverty and restraint of the contemporary Hungarian art scene since not only did many of the visitors leave Hungary with freshly bought rolled up paintings and sculptures in the boots of their cars but they also commissioned future exhibitions and sales for their favourite Hungarian artists at their base institutions. (Much of this traffic was, of course, undercover if not downright illegal.)Courageous Hungarian art was acutely interesting in 80s Western Europe primarily for political reasons. There was a lot of sympathy for our excellent artists who, on top of everything else, could also be regarded as inveterate freedom fighters. Those happy days are long gone by now. With Hungary getting rid of its oppressive political system and joining the flock of Europe’s long-standing democracies, Hungarian contemporary art had lost all of its political allure without, let me add at once, losing any of its artistic quaintness and edge. But nowadays it has to compete with the art output of any other European or overseas country. A tall order indeed. No wonder that a lot of midwifery is needed for contemporary Hungarian art to be safely born and truly recognised at today’s West-European marketplaces. Such midwifery is rendered, with Government assistance, by the Association of Hungarian Contemporary Art Galleries whose project called “Budapest Contemporary” involves inviting “journalists, curators and critics to introduce them to the local art scene, and to show them Hungarian art represented by commercial galleries of Budapest… Our first guest will be Sebastian Frenzel from the Berlin based Monopol Magazine. Later this year we will invite journalists and editors from other prestigious reviews, as well as curators of important international art events.” Some shrewd piece of marketing if ever there was one. The stuff they will surely be asked to examine first will be, needless to say, the stocks of Hungarian contemporary art that the Association’s member-galleries themselves happen to handle.Those stocks are for the most part overgrown and painfully stagnant. So, nothing short of sheer force seems to be inadmissible in our effort to make Europe understand that our contemporary art is really worth having.
I want now to review two shows that go a long way to demonstrate that Hungarian artists have traditionally had little trouble integrating into the art scenes of foreign countries provided they have settled there! The first show opened on 24 May (and available until 30 September) is really a twin one. In one hall of the Vasarely Museum (a subsidiary of the Museum of Fine Arts) the art of geometrical abstract painter Victor Vasarely, Hungarian expatriate spending all his adult life in Paris, is presented together with documents and drawings from his close friend, notable Parisian gallery-owner Denise René. This show entitled Vasarely, René and the Adventure of Geometrical Abstraction in Hungary, is meant to mark the 25th anniversary of the Museum’s inception.In the adjoining hall, half-an-hour later, the Open Structures Art Society launched the simultaneous exhibition entitled Classics of Constructive-Concrete Art. The list of artists featured in this awe-inspiring show of mainly graphic art includes many who had been born in Hungary and who, with the exception of Lajos Kassák and Imre Kocsis, became expatriates and befriended the major non-Hungarian artists also featured: Josef Albers, Hans Arp, Etienne Beöthy, Anna Beöthy-Steiner, Max Bill, Erich Buchholz, Walter Dexel, Theo van Doesburg, Alfréd Forbáth, Hermann Glöckner, Natalja Goncharova, Jean Gorin, Camille Graeser, Lucien Hervé, Vasilij Kandinsky, Lajos Kassák, Imre Kocsis, Richard Paul Lohse, Konstantin Melnikov, Aurelie Nemours, Laszlo Péri, Arden Quin, Alexander Rodchenko, Nicolas Schöffer, Michel Seuphor, Jesus Rafael Soto, Anton Stankowski, Antoni Starczewski, Léon Arthur Tutundijan, Milos Urbásek, Victor Vasarely.
The mere presence of Hungarian constructivist artists in the show studded by such international greats as Arp, Goncharova, or Rodchenko surely points to the ease with which Hungarian artists, once they left their native country, could blend in and remain on a par with their non-Hungarian counterparts. The exhibition was introduced by perhaps the most knowledgeable scholar in Hungary of early modernism in painting Krisztina Passuth.Which leads me on to another major exhibition dedicated to the genius of another Hungarian expatriate, Lajos Tihanyi. Together with Orsolya Danyi, Dr Passuth has curated probably the most comprehensive exhibition so far of Tihanyi’s paintings, graphic art, related documents, photographs and even a brief but very telling silent film footage. The venue is KOGART, a private foundation dedicated to exhibiting and teaching art to the public in Budapest’ elegant Andrássy Street. To say that after his exquisite Fauve period Tihanyi became the most gifted member of the Group of Eight active between 1909 and 1912, and went on to create dozens of stunningly brilliant portraits of his many friends would be an understatement. One has to venture to say that until his early death in Paris in 1938 (he was only 53) he had amassed an oeuvre that, however slight in number, can be regarded as the pinnacle of 20th century Hungarian art. He not only produced fauvist and cubist work certainly comparable to that of Bonnard, Matisse, or the early Braque, but managed to merge those styles into an idiosyncratic, overwhelming kind of expressionism in the late 1910s and early 1920s that was surpassed by very few of his international colleagues. Even his last, organic-abstract paintings were on a par with the work of e.g. Gris, Miro, or the Braque of the 30s. For all his physical handicap caused by his nearly complete deafness and distorted speech (N.B. two other notable Hungarian painters, i.e. Jenő Paizs-Goebel and György Román were also deaf-and-dumb), he was a lovable and well-loved figure of Parisian life who would bring back his friends from despondency rather than fall into despair himself. His genius seems to grow rather than decline as years go by. Yet another Hungarian artist who is safely set within Western-Europe’s cultural landscape without any effort to be made. More effort is needed, it seems, for him to become truly appreciated in his native country. Previews
Very Special JoysRetrospective exhibition of Endre Tót 1971-2011MODEM, Museum of Contemporary Art, Debrecen2 June – 9 September 2012The retrospective exhibition of the 75-years-old Kossuth-laureate Endre Tót, expatriate in Germany since 1978, is on show in MODEM from the beginning of June. In his exhibition Very Special Joys Tót summarises the results of his continually repeated sentence that has become so very much his own over the last decades. His art questions the institutional system of political power, everyday communication, and art in an ironic, seemingly light, but poignant way. “What is Personal, and What is Sacred”Róbert Šwierkiewicz at 70Boat No. A38, anchored at Petőfi Bridge in Budapest30 MayThis one-off event includes a joint performance of inveterate deviant Hungarian artist Róbert Šwierkiewicz with like-minded Italian performance artists Emilio and Franca Morandi, Francesco Mandrino, Patricia Baraldini etc. on board the A38 enlivened by video footage made of his earlier actions entitled Perfomedia (2010) and Transparent Road (1992) respectively.