Patrons of contemporary art
1999., Hungarian Art Forum
Over the past few years, the Körmendy-Csák husband-and-wife team has become more widely known both at home and abroad for their art collection and -patronage. These activities are something a rarity, indeed, a bit of a risk, in a country where organic manifestations of artistic autonomy have been largely discouraged by a number of factors: the subordinate function assigned to art, its narrow definition, the policy of a politicize approach tightly controlled by ideology, and the lack of fixed parameters of intellectual taste which would act as a yardstick in judgment.
Nevertheless, the artistic output of the last half century reaching into the present, exists as a highly instructive body of art, representing the intellectual tendencies, artistic trends hovering on or suppressed below the surface, as well as its irrepressible pictorial and sculptural „statements“ and „judgement“ – something that should not be forgotten! – that first came into being in this part of the world, exposed or adjacent to (whatever you call it), various intellectual influences. Among other things, this encounter usually involved, some kind of connotation, personally directed or more general in intent, which added to, and thus enriched, the artistic inspirations and the „formal devices“ derived from external sources.
Against this background the patronizing activity of the Körmendy-Csák partnership can be appreciated and assessed as it rightly deserves: as something not only meritorious, but also risky on account of the range of art involved. It is no accident that Mate CSC talks about a past friend, the architect Geed Gerlóczy, who was widely known for discovering, salvaging and for over half a century safeguarding the most important pieces of Csontváry’s work. His artistic tastes, his aesthetic and art historical (design) knowledge were shaped by men like Milan Füst, Mate Major, Fridges Progeny and Károly Weichinger, as well as Antal Nemcsics, and internationally acknowledged authority on color dynamics. Despite his attachment to the Technical University, his beloved Budapest and especially the historic 6th district, he had the independence of mind to see, that as a patron of contemporary art he did well to look beyond the capital and look at some of the unduly neglected provincial centers.
On area of his activities was the organization of exhibitions at regular intervals at a variety of venues. Between 1993 and 1996 works by the following Hungarian and foreign artists were exhibited: 1993: Tihamér Gyarmathy (inaugural exhibition at the Academy), Antal Bíró, 1994: Peter Widen, Zoltán Szabó, Pal Gerzson, an introductory exhibiton of the 1994 prize-winning work of art school students, István CSC, Tihamér Gyarmathy, István Haraszty, László Gyémánt, Zoltán Tölg-Molnár, Tamás Hencze, Lajos Sváby, 1995: József Bartl, Kristin Frey, Gabon Dines and Zsuzsa Katona, Georgics Tzortzoglou, Árpád Szabados, János Fajó, Tamás Szabó, Robert Hammerstiel, the Society of Hungarian Watercolorists, Ildikó Vernally, Peter Donáth, Imre Chocks, István Haász, an introductory exhibition showing the work of art students in the school year 1995, Tibor Nádler, Oszkár Papp, Zoltán Szabó, Tibor CSC (memorial exhibition), Attila Csáji, József Baksa, István Ilosvai Varga (memorial exhibition), Milks Barna, Gaza Németh, Antal Luxe. 1996: Zsigmond Karolyn, Judit Wellisch Ethel, young Japanese and Hungarian painters, TKOs Matzon and István Ézsiás, Mihály Schooner, Gellért Orson, Pal Gerzson, Zoltán Tölg-Molnár, Robert Virally.
Besides organizing and impressive number of exhibitions designed, among other things, to create a friendly forum for people interested in art and the artists, the Körmendy Gallery is also publishing a series of books. The first volume in the series appeared in 1995 and eight of them have been published so far, while others are waiting to go to press. A number of other ideas for further volumes are under consideration. The volumes so far published are numbered, but the year of publication and their serial numbers do to tally. Let me list them according to artists“ names coming first and authors‘ names coming second: 1. János Thoma (Milks Bay-Judit Boros-Jenő Murrain, 1997), 2. Contemporary Hungarian Art – the Körmendy-Csák Collection, 1945-1977, a selection (accompanied by analytical essays by several art historians), 3. Gaza Németh (Katalin S. Nagy, 1995), 4. Pal Gerzson (Sándor Láncz et al., 1996), 5. József Civics 1945-1994 (Károly Pereházy, 1997), 6. Attila Csáji (Otto Mezzo et al., 1997), 7. István Birches (Mart Kovaloszky, Imre Péntek, Tibor Werner et al., 1998), 8. Mihály Schéner’s Work in the 1960s (Otto Mezzo, 1999).
Three of the volumes – the first, the second and the fifth – deserve a separate place and individual treatment. We shall speak of two of them. The book devoted to János Thrombi, a first generation painter of the Nagybánya School, is based on studies dealing with specific aspects of his work, and also on recent research. It provides the kind of fresh interpretation of Thermals work that has long been needed. This artist has been written off for far too long as an obscure, second or third rate painter.
The work of József Civics, a blacksmith who died early, deserves greater fame than posterity has so far accorded to him. Becoming acquainted with his work is a truly artistic experience, especially for two reasons. Kovács’s proficiency as a blacksmith was both a physical feat and an artistic achievement, his artistry was acknowledged by commissions he deserved. The writer of the book, however, goes beyond that to offer us convincing and thorough analyses of the genuinely contemporary quality of Kovács’s work, his affinity with 20th century non-figurative plastic art and the resultant vision of form.
The artist’s monographs that have appeared (including, for purposes of the present paper, a few other acceptable ones) offer us a picture of post-1945 Hungarian art and conveys a vision of rather varied achievement. The subjects featured are members of the old, elderly and middle aged generation, each pursuing their own individual artistic path, with a variety of intellectual affiliations and stylistic limitations, professing to one or several approaches to form during the course of to their careers. The gesture of ignoring transitory international „fads“, but accepting contemporary commitment to traditional („age-old“) art (yes, it does exist) is just as important here, as the use of suggestive and metaphoric layers meaning to add strength to the non-figurative impetus, or an attitude of ultimate abstraction.
„Starting from square one“, several pieces in the collection, old and new, represent the art of István Macs (b. 1922). Foreign or Hungarian notions describing the „truthfulness to what is seen“ do very little to characterize Műcassias art. He pursues a Vermeeresque program of pure colour painting for decades, although few parallels can be drawn with one or two German, Italian, Swedish or even Hungarian exponents of Nee Sachlichkeit, and some affinity can be detected between his work and the classically pure work of a few contemporary American artists he became familiar with recently. They have a heart-warming „conceptual message“.
A contemporary of Macs in his student days was Gellért Orson (a volume devoted to his work is shortly forthcoming) first committed himself to „Bio-Romanticism“ (not without encouragement from Thiamin Gyarmathy), an indigenous version of non-figurative painting developed by Ernő Kállai. Later on he worked with Lajos Cassock. Learning also from foreign trends, he developed his own special version of abstract painting, which has a certain cosmic dimensional quality about it. This indicates that „Bio-Romanticism“ is not purely restricted to the formal devices of representation but can be more broadly conceived as the inspirational starting-point for a vision rich in ideas. It is the expression of the „cosmic unconscious“, of which one of the theoreticians of Surrealism spoke about around 1950.
Those interested in the rather neglected underground manifestations of pictorial expression of the 1960‘s will find Mihály Schéner’s (b. 1923) work from the decade a pleasant surprise. After his sensational 1962 exhibition the artist managed to be allowed to spend some time in Western Europe (chiefly in Paris), where he became acquainted with contemporary art tendencies. His sketchbook from the period shows that he was producing a lot of „matieriste“ pieces using a variety of materials. What makes all this significant is that a number of young artists back in Hungary, working in a variety of fields, were producing work in a similarly vein. Although these explorations were born of a number of different factors, there is nevertheless, no doubt that this was the heyday of the liberal, abandoned use of materials. It was also while he was abroad the Schooner, whose career had already taken off in a highly individual direction, became interested in folk art. It made him turn to traditional and new Hungarian materials, subject matters and motifs, employed in a novel context, and to weave them into a style which is now fairly well recognized and to this day full of freshness and new inspiration.
The extent to which abstract forms, rich with colour and alive with regular and irregular shapes either overlapping or floating freely, can be made to suggest real associations, the atmosphere of a particular place, or periods of geological history, is well illustrated by the gradually maturing art of the painter Pal Gerzson (1931). The point about being able to specify locality applies especially to his paintings made in Szigliget, at Lake Ablation. These pieces of abstraction are reminiscent of the classical period of modern painting, and a poet friend once remarked about them that if „the viewer was able only reraly, and even then only by suggestion, recognize the fragments of landscape in them“, then they conveyed something different. He goes on to say: „the road to the bare symbols, stripped of all non-essentials, leads through the spiritual history of the landscape. This history is both real and figurative. In fact, it is a re-living of time in the imaginary space of the mind(…) Strolls among red snail shells, seething lava streams, black tree trunks, dried-up seabeds, buried riverbeds and prehistoric massifs chaffed by winds, which the artist will recognize in the landscape absorbed in its sunny or cloudy present.“
It often happens that the ideal world created by painters is more easily penetrable by poets than by historians who restrict themselves to the use of technical concepts. This is especially true when an artist, du to his or her personality and emotional, intellectual or cultural attitude, is inclined to view his or her particular place in the world as his or her natural home. In the years following 1945 and 1956, the enfolding of this enfolding of his inner status was typically shaped by a wide of factors and influences, which repeatedly put the artist’s autonomy and inner resolve to the test. From this point of view, it is of no importance which particular intellectual milieu the artist inherits, or which period of world art history forms his or her conception of shape and approach, or indeed which of them he or she acknowledges as his or her standard.
On the final three volumes in the series, the one dealing with the work of Attila Csáji (b. 1939) is probably best considered first. Csáji, a member of the sixties‘ generation was active not only as a painter, but also as an organizer, and it was he who started the Szürenon group in 1969. By seeking out and offering support to young talent, and organizing exhibitions at home and abroad, Szürenon exerted far reaching cultural influence. It is impossible to categorize Csáji’s output in terms of traditional art: his inspiration has been contemporary right from the start. He has earned himself a fitting place in the contemporary art movement. Rather unusually for a Hungarian artist at the time, he saw the art he espoused as serving a critical function, both ethically and socially. It is certainly true that his paintings and assemblages, densely packed as they are with unusual materials, objects from industry, outlandish colours and all the visual tension resulting in a way of making the viewer think. And any viewer who is prepared to take on board the forces of destruction which are inherent in contemporary art will be set off on a train of thought akin to that produced in us by the greatest works of Hungarian literature, poems and epics that deal with the profundities of fate and existence.
In 1978 Csáji began to explore the artistic applications of the laser beam, he contacted well-known scientific institutions and bodies both at home and in America, and rose to international prominence both as an artist and as a researcher. Following the light mobile patented in 1980, he made the first eve Hungarian laser-animated film in Pennon Filmstúdió during 1982-83. The light scores written for Cell Crystals contained the following: „It puts an end to contradiction between representation and non-representation as even the most abstract forms, reminiscent of musical rhythms, are photographs, differentiated in layers, of materials with definite plastic characteristics. The abstract interference forms can be organized into any shape from a flower to a human head by appropriate plastic shaping and optical placement. He builds a bridge of vision between the visible and the mathematically conceivable.“ From the 1980’s onwards Csáji also experimented with the hologram. Spring Voltaire and the Message to J. Kossuth, serial works first shown in 1984, exploit top of modern art and the ability to the hologram to conjure up a real space with a view to expounding philosophical and epistemological problems. Csáji’s plans for a „light obelisk“ to built for the millennium, a laser tower presenting the cultural and historical past of the country, have recently been reported by a national daily paper.
Successive form devices, genres and methods of pictorial presentation do not, as we have seen, cancel each other retroactively, either within a single artist’s career, or between different artists. Gaza Németh (b. 1944) is another artist who began his career as a member of the hapless young generation of the 1960’s. Works by widely acclaimed contemporaries at the height of their careers, officially banned ideas, a succession of movements held out hope for an „intellectual interpretability of the World“ for an artist, who was mostly working independently of any group with a clear-cut identity. His paintings between 1975 and 1985, „perhaps the most original pieces in his oeuvre so far“, explored the problem of „intellectual interpretability“ or, in other words, of the polysemous (open) painterly symbol. The abstracted, crumpled, wrinkled and slashed biological formations articulated with lines and fur-like surfaces, shape the way in which the motifs are devised, the introduction of fragmentary forms, the distortion of form configurations. More importantly, perhaps, they also influence the way in which intellectual interpretability is achieved, fluctuating between notions which are sometimes disgusting, and sometimes suggestively mythical. The recent stage of his career (from 1983 onwards) has been greatly furthered by his successful exhibitions in the United States, his contacts there and the time he spent there.
I began the survey of an imaginary book series (by no means finished yet) by referring to an artist who creates his motifs and themes in the spirit of the pictorial idea (still a valid one), which underpins traditional European art. The artists dealt with in the volumes which have appeared thus far, were not the first to subvert this pictorial idea, or to break the motif into fragments, to replace it with (often industrial) objects. In his own way each artist has refused to renounce the possibility of an interpretation which would form a connection with the „reality“ of real objects and artifacts in their environment. Oszkár Papp’s work, in fact, shows us the potential for an analysis of form, which takes natural motifs as its starting impetus, but ends up leaving traditional techniques far behind.
The name of István Birches (b. 1947), a resident of Dunaújváros, has recently come to be associated with an attempt to integrate memories of a personal past into plastic-seeming entireties via a set of object fragments. „I am excited by the ability of objects to survive“, he confesses, and as a result of his project, which contains allusions to the layers of time, the object fragments are tamed into self-referential „compositions“. In the large-scale pieces of an earlier period, carved from artificial stone, he was concerned to filter out and sublimate remnants of the archaeological past of the landscape aroune his home. These days he is trying to build up an aura around fragmentary objects from his personal and family past. Birches likes to make reference to noble Hungarian precursors, although examples of precisely this can be found in history of universal art as well. And yet, before the turn of the century and of the appropriate means to invoke the personal past is object fragments rather than the painterly devices conveying the classical pictorial idea? And supposing we throw our lot in with the novelty school, can we then renounce the valid claim made by the new materials and scientific methods that are embedded in out present?
These are the questions that the materials of the Körmendy-Csák Collection are attempting to answer. Opinions which we form in the present about the art of the recent past are bound to differ. And yet, it is certainly true that this collection contains material that cannot be ignored – and this includes works by artists to whom the current collections do not do sufficient justice (Peter Donáth, Thiamin Gyarmathy, Lajos Sváby, to name but three). What is certain that, in order to make a fair assessment of the artistic output of our era, those who adhere to the all-too-widely-held narrow view of the function of art have to jettison a number of preconceptions.
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Angyalföldi Szabó Zoltán