Székesfehérvár, Hungary

“We, East-French: Hungarian Art in the 1980s”

Csók István Gallery

Surveying the art of the past decade in Hungary requires an effort to understand the still enigmatic period that ended so abruptly in 1989. More autonomous and less political, art started to articulate a new vision in the relative liberalism of those years of late communism, and this vision was reflected in the focus of this exhibition.

Fifty-eight artists and artist groups were chosen by curators Péter Kovács and Márta Kovalovszky to represent the major tendencies of Hungarian art of the ’80s. In retrospect, the eclecticism of the “new arrivals” of the decade seems to have dominated the early ’80s. Parallel to the heftige Malerei in Germany and to the transavant-guardia in Italy, the ironic and dynamic painting of Károly Kelemen, András Koncz, Ákos Birkás and Tamás Soós marked, after the long and dry years of Conceptual art, the new era of painterly expression. Paraphrasing Pablo Picasso and Sandro Chia at the same time, the Ironing Bear, 1985, by Kelemen was the emblem of the “new sensibility.”

The group Hejettes Szomlyazók (Substitute Thirsters) constructed mock-heroic environments. Their Condemned Cell, 1986—a parody of a well-known 19th-century Hungarian painting—displays tin and wire figures and objects in Dada anarchy. The group’s stated ideal is collective creation and their kindred spirits are the artists of the Vajda Lajos Studio at Szentendre (a small town nine miles from Budapest), whose pseudo-childish pictures avoid even the appearance of professionalism.

Philosophical and ironic comments appear in the paintings of Miklós Erdély (-1, 1984), in András Böröcz’s ceramic object, Prisoner Chimney-sweeper, 1985, and in Gábor Roskó’s picture, Hard Protestant Life, 1987. These works introduce a new dimension in the show as well as in Hungarian art of the last decade by presenting tangible images that prove to be mere surfaces, hiding something more essential, and marking the transition from conceptualism to sensual painting.

The great lonely figures of the decade stood out in this show. László Fehér’s intense, stylized images radiating with mysticism and the expressive symbolism of El Kazovsky’s object—a four-level toy theater populated by cardboard figures of bandaged dogs, idols, and sirens (MultiLevel Still Life, 1986)—are among the most important achievements of recent Hungarian art.

An important presence was that of the great generation of the ’60s: Ilona Keserü, Tamás Hencze, István Nádler, Imre Bak, András Baranyay, and György Jovánovics, some of whom have become increasingly interested in spontaneity and in the power of gestures. After the political drama of the ’60s and of 1968 truth no longer surfaces in historic utopias; it seems to have sunk into the depth of the ego and that is where these artists are seeking it.

Unlike the conceptualism of the ’70s, which was an accurate and often creative translation into Hungarian of Fluxus and Viennese Actionism, the new spontaneity—although paralleling international trends—was the genuine product of late and tired communism. The curators did well to borrow the title of the show from writer Péter Estérhazy: those were the years when most Hungarians preferred to think of themselves as “East French” rather than “West Ukrainians.” This nonexistent term also refers to that strange and ghostly world of the last decade of communism so vivdly brought to mind by the artworks in this show.

Éva Forgács