1971 Parallel Nonsynchronism
The exhibition is coorganized by Kiscell Museum – Municipal Gallery and tranzit.hu
13th of October 2018 – 24th of March 2019
Curators: Dóra Hegyi, Zsuzsa László, Zsóka Leposa, Enikő Róka, László Százados
Through the back door
Everyone who thinks that the political situation in Poland is bad should get oneself off to Budapest and talk with the local artist communities. Seven years after Fidesz had decreed the new constitution, had given all the power to control the artistic field to Hungarian Academy of Art (Magyar Művészeti Akadémia, MMA) and had changed the cadre of the heading artistic institutions of the capital – Ludwig Museum or Műcsarnok – not much has changed; or if it did so, then only for the worth. At the moment of my visit, falling at the break of November and December of 2018, in Budapest there was actually a student’s protest of the Central European University (CEU) taking place. It is one of the last islands of freedom in Hungary, of which since a year Orbán’s government tries to get rid off by implementing appropriate amendments of the higher education law. Despite the efforts of the authorities of the university, after all, its Hungarian establishment will have to move to Vienna. In educational issues Fidesz is tying their ideas up more and more: the imagined enemy forces (Soros!), which were broadening the scientific mayhem (part of CEU’s program were including, the banned in Hungary, gender studies), are leaving the country. It means, that Hungary, after an artistic collapse is entering a faze of intellectual backwardness.
In the ambient of gradual ossification of the Hungarian culture, padding of a new elite in positions and the marginalization of progressive environments, exhibition 1971 Parallel Nonsynchronism appears interesting, opened in October 2018 at the Kiscell Museum located at one of the Buda Hills, in a splendid complex of an old cloister – an institution of a municipal status, so until now enjoying a moderate autonomy considering governmental politics. However their situation is a bit chaotic these days, just as the situation of the whole museum landscape in the Hungarian capital. The parent museum of Kiscell, BTM (Budapest History Museum which has 4 branches) is in the Buda Castle, where the government started an ambitious reconstruction project: restoring a historic (or rather imaginary) look of the Castle that never really existed in that form. The collection of prints previously located in castle building of BTM now moved to Kiscell. As a result of this some parts of Kiscell’s permanent exhibition are closed. In the meantime Kiscell is continuing their contemporary program but this is not always welcome by BTM’s administration. So Kiscell is almost forced to defend their positions, sneak contemporary art in through the backdoor and prove again and again that their concept is right and Kiscell deserves a place in the museum structure of Budapest.
The exhibition 1971 Parallel Nonsynchronism prepared together with the curators of the local tranzit (tranzit.org) is a history of two artist generations, who were happened to act in the 60’s and the 70’s, in the Hungarian People’s Republic. These groups existed beside each other, but on different conditions – one as a legitimized elite, the other as an off functioning avant-garde, which was recognized only after years, while the first one was forgotten.
Patronage goes around comes around
The exhibition basically is divided into three parts: the first one is dedicated to artists, who were formed by the language of the avant-garde (this part is called “Museum”), but after 1949 had decided to comply with the socialist doctrine, earning by this a status of official authors fostered by the government and public institutions. It is worth to point out, that the Budapest History Museum – the parent institution of the Kiscell Museum – belonged to these institutions as well, so the works of socialist avant-gardes shown at the exhibition are mainly coming from the collection of this gallery. The second part of the exhibition concerns the neoavantgarde, emerging in the 70’s [part „Imagination(s)”], and the third, their collateral work beside each other in an institutional-political context (section „Context”).The Inbetween Genres section includes works connected to the Imagination/s section showing that many of the project ideas were already existing as art works in the time of László Beke’s call. Who knows Hungarian could relish them, for the rest has remained the attempt of understanding the curatorial notes, which were translated into English just after a while.
The exhibition starts on the ground floor of the museum, at the vestibule of an old cloister chapel (which used to serve this institution as a place for presenting contemporary art), where two works were put together: Béla Kondor’s oil painting The Saints go marching into town from 1971 and István Haraszty’s kinetic work A red button/ button – give and take (1972–1987). In case of Kondor’s work the most conspicuous is it’s style: it is not a boorish socialist realism anymore, but a poetic figuratism, where the echo’s of European avant-garde of the beginning of the 20th century can be traced. Crucial is the time of it’s coming to being as well. In Hungary the 60s were the times of economical reforms (so-called New Economic Mechanism with elements of free market) and liberalization of the cultural scene, the beginning of the so-called Goulash Communism, lasting until 1989. In 1960, the contemporary vice-minister of culture, György Aczél prescribed a new cultural politic, expressed in a slogan „Support, tolerance, ban”, which permitted the organization of half official, individually sponsored exhibitions, facilitating foreign trips and the flow of information. In these times Hungarian artists didn’t have to rigorously hold on to the doctrine of the socialist realism – works rendered for public commissions could maintain a modern aesthetics, being a proof of modernization of the country. Kondor’s work has an interesting history – originally planned as a tapestry, it was about to decorate the presidential hall of the Hungarian Chamber of Commerce. However the work went down bad with the chairman of the chamber, so the project landed for two years in a storehouse, to be saved after all by Vilmos Bertalan, the director of the Budapest History Museum, who has decided to join Kondor’s work to the decorative unit of the newly opened establishment. Haraszty’s kinetic installation, which is standing right beside, consists of an accumulator, cables and a red weight moving up and down, seeming to be in this case, a comment on the arrangement of political forces at the contemporary patronage system – where possibilities to artists are given or taken away, depending on the current line of cultural politics. Haraszty’s work can be also interpreted as a more general metaphor for the functioning of the artistic environment of those times. But is that only of those times?
Entering the vast space of the chapel, the viewer is confronted by the spectacular installation of Tamás Kaszás, already a contemporary artist (born in 1976), Cabinet’71, which stands here as a decorative background for the socialist modernist tapestries and sculptures of the recognised artists of times of the Hungarian liberalization: Gyula Hincz, Endre Domanovszky or Jenő Kerényi. As well as the form, the title of this work-arrangement are cross-referring to El Lissitzky’s “Abstract Cabinet”, which came into being in 1927 in a cooperation with Alexander Dorner for a museum in Hanover. In the Abstract Cabinet works of cutting edge contemporary avant-garde artists, marked by abstract and constructivism – Piet Mondrian, László Moholy-Nagy, Pablo Picasso or Fernand Léger – were showed. The format of the cabinet itself was a reflection of Dorner’s beliefs on the necessity of finding innovative resolutions in exhibiting. Kaszás was referring to this modernist idea, however in case of Cabinet’71, innovativeness takes on a new, political meaning. Here, the story of modernism starts from 1971, a time when at the Budapest History Museum two important exhibitions took place. One of which has presented the works of Gyula Hincz and József Somogyi, a year before shown at the Hungarian Pavilion at the 35th Venice Biennale, and the other was a solo presentation of Endre Domanovszky, anticipating his supervention on the following edition of the Venice Biennale. So 1971 can be considered as a symbolic date of legitimazation of a new artistic elite in Hungary, which had access to public institutions, possibilities of showing their works on prestigious foreign exhibitions and were becoming the hard core of the professorial cadre of art schools.
In its construction Cabinet’71 is reminding indeed an extensive lounge or hall, recalling by this the primary predestination of the shown works: these works had a decorative character, designed with a notion of interiors of particular public buildings. Beside mosaic and glass, not least tapestry was trendy – in Cabinet’71 our attentions is drawn by a sketch to the tapestry Science, made by Hincz for the University of Horticultural Sciences of Debrecen (the original still can be found at its primary place) – a tripartite, agro-futuristic painting, depicting the coexistence of human and nature. At the very centre of the cabinet you will find a maquette by Jenő Kerényi, the Marchers from 1953, whose more then tree meters high original came into being as part of a monumental decoration of the People’s Stadium in Budapest. Kerényi’s works, the only ones from this group, have stood the test of time, inscribing into the new aesthetic trends promoted by an influential theorist and arts politician, Lajos Németh.
However, I guess what is the most interesting, but non-verbalised at the exhibition, is the paradoxical status of Cabinet’71, which basically can be equated with the status of the artworks it presents. For it is a work of a contemporary artist, who is recognised in progressive ambience, only on this account, he could not have his own exhibition in certain museums in Hungary these days. However he is entering this space as its arranger, showing here works, which theoretically do not have a status of artwork. I am writing works, as this is not the only intervention of Kaszás at the exhibition space; albeit about this later.
However 1971 in Hungarian art is not only a time of a symbolic triumph of the socialist modernist elite, but it is also a key moment for the fledging neo-avant-garde scene. That year, a fresh out of college art critic, László Beke has contacted by post 28 artists of the young generation and has made a call for participation in a project called Imagination – creating a non-material collection of artworks, which were presented at his own flat. According Beke’s concept, already the sent over ideas had an artwork status; years after, on this account Imagination was considered as the first manifesto of conceptualism in Hungary. Within the framework of the exhibition 1971 Parallel Nonsynchronism, Beke’s collection is presented in a separate room, on the upper floor of Kiscell Museum. What is interesting, that it has been put together with an archive of another exhibition, which was planned, but not finalized because of political regards of those times in Hungary – namely it’s the exhibition Imaginations, planned by Márta Kovalovszky, a curator of a museum from Székesfehérvár. Kovalovszky invited 23 artists to cooperate, and her choices were mainly covering Beke’s intuitions – who, by the way was also invited to write an essay for the exhibition catalogue. However, finally the exhibition itself was not realized, the artists have sent their proposals to Kovalovszky, which ended up at the museum archives – the exhibition at the Kiscell Museum is their first presentation since 1972.
1971 Parallel Nonsynchronism, as an exhibition based on weaving contemplations about parallel phenomena, gives an opportunity to eye two collections of conceptual works, and it symbolically puts them together with the works of the older generations, creating by it a field for discussions, which couldn’t take place before. Hence the curators intended to collide two visions of leftist utopia – in one artists were actively creating a new social order, in the other one art was offering freedom from social norms and conventions, giving possibility to criticize the ruling political system and to artistic self-reflection. Amongst the conceptual works of Beke’s and Kovalovszky’s collections are to be found not least the works of Gábor Attalai – the conceptual work, Negative Star based on beating the sign of a red star in the snow or Dangerous Chair – a photo of a chair broken into half, a humorous reference to the flagship work of Joseph Kosuth, One and Three Chairs from 1965. The artists invited to participate in the project Imagination, took up also the subject of the collection itself – for example Miklós Erdély has sent Beke a fabric, soaked in goose fat. The work was provided with instructions to be presented without a cover („Do not separate! Do not isolate!”), which would destroy the whole collection of works. Then, Gyula Pauer promoting the idea of pseudo-art, within the framework of Beke’s project has decided to create his own pseudo-collection and asked 16 artists to indicate their best work, whose data they had to fill in to the deliberately prepared, museum catalogue cards. János Major ventured to reflect humorously on the subject of the artistic trends and their relationship with territorial politics. He has sent to Beke’s collection a photo of Lajos Kubista’s grave – probably an ordinary Hungarian citizen, but here introduced as the likely important father of -ism in art, whose origins are to be searched for in the country of goulash and thermal bathes. Finally, it is worth to mention, that in both collections real gems of progressive art are to be found – the early photographic cycle, a-b-c of Dóra Maurer, the works of Tamás Szentjóby non-artist artist and member of the Fluxus, Tamás Szentjóby or the projects of kinetic exhibitions of the aformentioned István Haraszty.
Teachers and students
From the part Imagination(s) we enter straight into the long corridor of the Kiscell Museum, where works of the socialist modernists and progressive artists function beside each other. Here, in a section called Context, we can learn more about the dynamics of artistic life of the second half of the 60’s and the beginning of the 70’s. First, the eyes of the viewer are drawn by a curio, Sándor Bortnyik’s picture Artists’ march into The Art Fund from 1956, which is a painted caricature of the contemporary artist elite. We will find here images of contemporary rectors of the Academy of Fine Arts (Endre Domanovszky and Gyula Hincz), as well as its professors, directors of institutions or chief personalities of art criticism. Part of this environmental puzzle is the format of the work itself – modeled after The Night Watch of Rembrandt, painted in the style of György Kádár, Bortnyik’s other fellow from the academy. It is worth adding in, that Bortnyik himself served as a director of this establishment, which was a very special capstone of his career as an avant-garde painter and poster artist, who in the 20’s worked in Austria and Germany, remaining close to Bauhaus. After the 2nd World War he became the director of the academy to deploy the doctrine of socialist realism, he has never followed.
Bortnyik’s painting was put together with a graphic, depicting the contemporary institutional system of Hungary – formed in the shape of a genealogical tree, where all the institutions have their beginning in the ministry of culture and the party. The protagonists of the director’s of the Academy of Fine Art caricature, have found their ways pretty well in this structure; their students already were less well-off, however it does not mean, that they haven’t got any other possibilities to act. However the young artist generation basically was not part of the official artistic circulation, in clubs or offices they were organizing their own exhibitions, were also publishing catalogues, and their activity was occasionally commented in the press. The situation of young authors depended also on the geographical context – in institutions outside the capital, it was much more easy to push through more progressive proposals. In the exhibition, this system of dependence was extensively defined on the information boards, complemented by catalogues, recordings of the era and last but not least, by the works themselves, the key protagonists of the showcases of those times.
One of these works is György Jovánovics’s sculpture, representing a defragmented Pierrot, and for all intents and purposes only the lower part of his coat and trousers (Detail of Gilles the Great, 1967–1968), which was shown at series of independent exhibitions of progressive art IPARTERV (1968–1970), co-organized by the artist himself. The enigmatic sculpture inscribed into the post-abstract current by László Beke, after 1989 was bought for its collections by Kiscell Museum. Ilona Keserü, organizer of an exhibition at Fényes Adolf Hall in 1969, also had to wait for understanding and appreciation. Her colorful and abstract canvases were built on compositions of rounded shapes, clearly inspired by women’s genitals – the prudery of those days prompted the critics to interpret her works completely as abstractive, and with a complete ignorance of potential associations.
One can notice the differences of generational sensitivity, at least looking at Hincz’s sketches of tapestries or at József Somogyi’s sculpture-maquette, representing a sitting peasant with a nearby installed film of Dóra Maurer Looking for Dózsa (1971–1972). Hincz’s and Somogyi’s works are aesthetised performances, while Maurer’s film is a humorous proposal of taking a closer look at the idea of the sculpture, from a more critical point of view. Since the titular hero of this work is György Dózsa, a Székely (or Szekler) and a Transylvanian soldier, who in 1514 led a peasants’ revolt in the Kingdom of Hungary and Transylvania. During the Hungarian People’s Republic he was glorified as a national hero (by the way his story is quite bloody, he was an exceptionally cruel leader and finally has died, seated on a candent chair by the gentry), and 1972 was the official date of his 500th birthday celebrations. For this occasion the Hungarian National Gallery has announced a contest on a Dózsa sculpture, in which also Maurer decided to participate, offering an interacting collage, which was composed by eight portraits of Székely type men. The portraits were rotating in pieces, so the public could create a face of Dózsa, which suited them the most – the film shown at the exhibition is a registration of this experiment. Naturally, the work was rejected by the contest committee.
The failure of the avant-garde
Offering impossible projects for official contests in any case, were not only Maurer’s speciality. Walking through the exhibition, it was worth looking through the windows of the gallery, overlooking the castle terrace as well. Tamás Kaszás’s monumental construction was installed there, who has decided this time to recreate one of Dezső Korniss’s projects – a monumental sculpture-installation Space Grid, whose sketch he has sent to László Beke, replying to his – as we would say today – open call, for the project Imagination in 1971. The history of Korniss’s carrier is as much offbeat, as significant – he was an artist who was able to simultaneously rub shoulders with circles of the socialist avant-gardes and with the young generation of progressivism. In the 50’s and 60’s he was sending proposals to design competitions, but in general they were rejected, as being too experimental. Then, in the 70’s he has started to think of sculpture in a more autonomous way, but his works full of impossible futurism were always transcending times. Like this, as an “eternal avant-garde” he became a mediator in between the older and the younger generation.
However what is significant is that the contemporary replica of Space Grid is not a perfect realization of Korniss’s primary plans, who has designed it as a concrete, flat ornament supported by only two columns. Kaszás’s installation for all intents and purposes is a wooden mould, placed horizontally on the ground, where one could potentially pour concrete. Chances of finishing the work are rather faint – it’s hard to find a more telling picture of the avant-garde failure, the collision of ideas of the innovators with their realization. What should have been standing, here it’s obviously lying. In any case, similarly the ambitions of the young artists were cut short – in 1973 in Hungary one could already feel the effects of Brezhnev’s conservative politics, the authorities had ordered a retreat from the previous, liberal strategy towards culture. The regime tightened up at the universities – rebellious students were kicked out of schools – critical writers were censored, and the artists who were interested in progressive currents, were labeled as dangerous gang of hippies. At the exhibition this gloomy period is symbolized by – at the same time also finishing it’s narration – Sándor Pinczehelyi’s iconic photograph Hammer and Sickle from 1973 and the picture of Endre Tóth, representing a Hungarian flag with the writing “Regain Hungarian Avant-garde!” [Talpra Magyar avangarde! – The title ironically refers to a great revolutionary poem by Sándor Petőfi in 1848, a poem that every school-kid must learn]. Aurél Bernáth’s large-format painting Workers’ State (1968-72) is hanged on the opposite side – a standard visualization of the workers utopia, efficiently moderated by it’s portrayed contemporary leaders.
1971 Parallel Nonsynchronism is not the first exhibition in Hungary, which is raising an issue of socialist realism and its different scenes, as well as the relationship towards communist heritage (here we can mention as an example such presentations as BLOW-UPS – 1963. The Age of Jancsó’s Cantata, Uj Budapest Gallery, 2016 or The Symbols of Socialist Art, Centralis Gallery, OSA Archivum, 2017), however it is an exceptional presentation because of its perspective, approved by the curatorial group, essentially shunning an unequivocal evaluation of the researched times. The Space Grid placed at the castle terrace, at the intention of the curators of display can be interpreted as a sign, that the canon in art is a construction, which is constantly undergoing redefinitions – so we should have a critical relationship towards it, and should look at it in a context of the reality of a particular era. Such a view on the art of Hungarian People’s Republic is possible of course, first of all for the younger generations, who themselves has experienced socialism only faintly or not at all.
History repeats itself
In what a degree can the exhibition of Kiscell Museum be treated as a comment on the present situation in Hungary? The words of Ernst Bloch: „Not all people exist in the same now”, cited by the curators, can be easily transferred to current times. For the Hungarian artist communities, existence in parallel realities is a bleak norm everyone copes with it in their own way. One can run away from Orbán and the Hungarian Academy of Art (MMA) to the modest commercial sector, one can also put on the non-institutional activities, like the organizers of the OFF-Biennale Budapest are doing it. However, it can be sensed from the vibes surrounding this event, already shrouded by fame, that the enthusiasm for a precarious involvement in favour of something – not to say here – of this one-person organization is falling. Until now a real help could have been a foreign patronage, however at the moment disappearing from Hungary. I have mentioned the withdrawal of the CEU from Budapest, but this is not the end of the story; currently the team of tranzit itself, already shrunken to its 1/3 in size, is facing the reality of loosing the support of its main and only patronage, the Erste Foundation, supposedly planning to stop financing the net of tranzits, built up by themselves in five countries in Central-Western Europe. Hence it is not a surprise, that the essential and the most burning question currently in Budapest is “how and from what to live?” – considering the fact, that it is impossible to count on a truly good change in Hungarian cultural politics. The answer to this question can be related to moral choices, which I guess are more and more difficult to evaluate.
The text came into being within the framework of East Art Mags residency programme, with the financial support of Erste Stiftung and with the help of Artportal.hu and Polish Institute in Budapest.
Photos courtesy of Kiscell Museum – Municipal Gallery
Photos: Ágnes Bakos – Bence Tihanyi, György Orbán
Cover image: Gábor Attalai: Dangerous chair (Imaginations), 1972, photo, paper, King St. Stephen Museum, Székesfehérvár
Translation by Irén Sós