Erzsébet Tatai

The Vicissitudes of the Modernist Work of Art and the Artist Myth

Is modernity our antiquity? If it is, is it so in the same sense as antiquity was to the Middle Ages—an age which chose Latin, the tongue of the ancients, to be the language of its modern religion (Saint Augustine, 5th century), and by doing so, making it catholicos i.e. “universal”? An age which used (often literally) the foundation stones of antiquity to raise its buildings when carving columns of Corinthian character, setting gems in gold or transcribing antique authors. Do we employ modernity in the same way as the Middle Ages employed antiquity (not including a few short periods)—an age which was so naturally constructed upon the ruins of the antique world, unreflectingly using its elements to create a perfectly different world?

Or is modernity our antiquity in the same way as the cultures of the antiquity were to the Renaissance and the following centuries? Antiquity was regarded—albeit to a different extent, with varying concepts, and ever-accumulating historical/archaeological knowledge—as a model by latter centuries. The ever-changing ideal of the antique era was purposefully and consciously set as the standard to be accomplished. This often meant keeping some distance, for if we are to believe Erwin Panofsky, this retrospection from a broader perspective is exactly what made classicizing possible.

Or do we regard modernity in the same way the moderns regarded antiquity and the classicisms: as a past to be forgotten and even disowned? As something which is no longer present, not even in traces (or is sown with salt, like Carthage)? Maybe it is seen as the modern separation which thematises its own separation. Perhaps we are doing like the moderns, locking the past, as warning after-image, into the present like an inclusion?

It may well be that modernity cannot be our antiquity simply because it is our present. If we consider the belief in freedom, in the development of science and technology (modernization), and in democracy as the cornerstone of modernity, then it seems that we have not yet left the modern age. Perhaps we have just rediscovered its values.

Regardless of the breaks, culture is continuous, if only on account of the traces. With the help of works of art and their analysis I shall make a case for the relationship between contemporary art and modernism being multivalent exactly because of the intensity with which the self-reflective mentality of the modern age persists. (Social modernity may not concur with modernisms in art, which it serves as a foundation, nevertheless, on account of their proximity and interrelationships, the two categories do tend to overlap from a certain perspective.)

The examples I have chosen to demonstrate our ambivalent relationship with modernism are typical of contemporary Hungarian art. The works I have picked explicitly reflect this relationship, yet at the same time they are unique in terms of their subject and content.

Tibor Gyenis’s photo entitled Aunt Ilonka dreamt of a composition of pure forms [1] shows a woman painting a Malevichian composition on the gable of a barn. The title evokes a number of cultural associations (where “dreams” refers to surrealism and “pure forms” to the ideas of abstract art which can be considered the apex of modernism). Unlike the many appropriating procedures known from Postmodernism, Gyenis confronts the appropriated image with reality by merging the image with a real, or at least conceivable, situation.

The emphasis of Gyenis’s work is not on the deconstruction of the personality of the modernist artist (like in the case of Sherrie Levine’s re-paintings), nor is it just on the deconstruction and reconstruction of art (like in the no less esoteric works of the Slovenian IRWIN group). Gyenis neutralizes the modernist icon by placing a dishonored and profanised permutation of it into an enclosure within the picture.

Gyenis is ironic, but not about Malevich or Aunt Ilonka. The source of comedy in his photo is the situation itself that he created. He illustrates the total alienation of modern art from the living world, escalating the contrast to the point of absurdity by placing the two opposite worlds alongside one another.

Aunt Ilonka has nothing to do with the suprematist elements, not even as much as her western counterparts have to do with Mondrianian planes (since capitalism has not yet developed in Hungary to the point where Mondrian’s motifs become common designs on T-shirts): Malevich has not become commercial here. Respect for his works, which are holy icons of our day, developed slowly under the stimulating pressure of opposition. There is no room for application in Malevich’s suprematist theory. In his opinion the supremacy of pure sensation promoted by (abstract) art stands above both representational and applied art. From this aspect Gyenis’s photo could be seen as a mockery of Malevich’s ideal, but in fact, by placing the Malevich motif into a narration he is turning mockery into playfulness. This does not diminish his criticism of the outdated modernist ideal; it merely dissolves it in humour by taking off the fierce or aggressive edge.

At the same time Gyenis recalls when in 1920 Malevich and his students painted suprematist motifs all over the town of Vitebsk to commemorate The Great October Socialist Revolution [2]. To quote Eisenstein: “Kazimir Malevich’s brush passed along the town’s walls” [3]. Modernity is antiquity for Gyenis analogously to how Picasso reinterpreted Velazquez’s painting. Picasso, too, used a classical work of art history in a reflected way in order to construct his own personal style and at the same time proclaim that he is keeping his distance. Like Picasso, Gyenis preserves and deconstructs, then rebuilds an work of art of the past for himself. He, however, is not declaring his distance or emphasising the force of his own style. His reinterpretation is not the criticism of a single work of art (despite the fact that he is using a specific picture), but rather, the condemnation of the obsolete and lifeless way modernists utilize images.

While history [4] and art history turned with increasing interest to researching previously neglected personal documents (such as biographies, diaries and letters), artists also began exhibiting their visual diaries, which had always been intended to be exhibited. While the painting diaries of Beáta Széchy and Mária Chilf made in Rome (in 1986 and 1999) chiefly document personal experiences and works of art, they also serve as a tool to strengthen their role as an artist. This is accomplished by means of the internalisation of artistic models (by painting, studying works of art, and visiting famous monuments). This process helps the young artist develop into a socially accepted artist-personality [5].

The same type of development may also be observed in Kriszta Nagy’s seemingly deviant Diary Pictures (Napló-képek) from the mid Nineties. An extravagant personality (according to the romantic-modernist ideal) is not only permissible for an artist, but is actually required. Thus, Kriszta Nagy has constructed her artist-personality according to this social requirement [6].

With the ubiquity of narrative pictures (photos) and series on this subject the emphasis was increasingly directed towards constructedness itself. Anna Nagy exhibited a giant poster entitled curriculum vitae at a giant poster exhibition in 2004 in Budapest. The tangle of thread on the picture’s left side is connected by a single thread to the neatly rolled up spool on the right side alluding to the organized constructedness of the curriculum vitae.

Ágnes Eperjesi created her Family Album (Családi Album, 2004) with a method that she has been employing for years: she used the pictures and pictograms from the instructions for use on the packages of various products (household waste, in fact) to communicate her message. By adding inscriptions of commonplace sentences to the customary visual material she has made her Family Album a personal life story. The linearly positioned pictures, the sentences in the first person singular, and the first names together constitute a life story that could be considered unique. However, the commonplace-ridden narrative with the stereotype family and their stereotype story much rather direct our attention to the vagueness of the border between the personal and the social, and also sheds light on the social framework of our self-definition.

Pál Gerber’s slide-series, lasting 5 minutes and 4 seconds, of fifty-two pictures and their commentaries entitled The Artist’s Progress (A művész útja, 2005) also takes a critical stance against modern personality-construction and particularly the construction of the modern artist-personality. The force of the work lies in the unexpectedness of the image/text combinations, the various types of humour, and in the complex structure.

Although the work seems to be easily digestible [7] at first glimpse, it is actually rather elaborate. Gerber creates an intricate texture from the simple strands, which makes the slide-series varied, humorous, and enjoyable, and at the same time unveils the interacting elements that construct the artist’s “sublime” personality and heroic performance.

The pictures are just as everyday (or just seem to be due to their source, style, or familiarity) as the text, which narrates the walk of life in simple sentences. The pictures are diverse in all aspects (subject, genre, composition, era, etc.) and thus create a feeling of “totality” which is strengthened by the fact that the individual heterogeneous slides accommodate each other well due to the homogenizing effect of the slideshow.

The pictures seem familiar mainly because, thanks to their diversity, everyone finds something that they have seen before and more importantly, because their sources (magazines, films) or their type (private photo, amateur photo, painting) is recognizable. Characteristically, Gerber collected most of his pictures from the periphery of high culture, and those that do come from high art are not picked from the most celebrated works. This paradoxically gives the feeling that the pictures could originate from our own environment. One half of the slides are trouvé pictures [8], the other half are Gerber’s own photos [9] which strongly reject the canons of photography [10].

The arrangement of the texts, which linking the pictures to constitute the narrative, has special importance because there are 6+1 discursive levels [11] in terms of content and function. These texts of various functions are seemingly randomly placed, thus they appear to be woven through the linear structure.

Gerber recomposes the panels that constitute artist-image stereotypes created in the 19th century in a way that they deconstruct themselves. They are to tell the sequence of the events signalling the significant stages (1. THE ARTIST ARRIVES, 21. THE ARTIST BEGINS THE JOURNEY), or to describe the hardships on the way (22. … HE IS STRONGLY INFLUENCED), give account of the artist’s work, his methods (4. WITH ALL-EMBRACING ATTENTION HE BENDS DOWN TO THE MICRO… 5. AND LOOKS UP TO THE MACRO PHENOMENA), or describe the forms of activities necessary to create the “artist’s” type (40. HE LOOKS UP AT THE SKY 41. HE BRINGS OUT HIS TOOLS).

Those seemingly haphazard features that the ideal type does not necessarily need to have add to the authenticity of the narrative yet are just as stereotypical, as those listed above (31. HE IS ENJOYING THE SUNSHINE, 33. HE SOCIALIZES). Gerber employs these the same way as he employs the panels that are meant to characterize the heroism, grandness and universality of the whole myth (THE ARTIST ARRIVES 2. AT COMPLETENESS 3. AT THIS UNIVERSE).

Gerber’s sentences are placed among the topoi of 19th-century development novels, but differ from them in content. With these sentences he seemingly constructs a modernist artist-image (34. OR DOESN’T GIVE A SHIT ABOUT THE SOCIETY OF CHAOS). By doing this, however, he distorts the rhetoric locutions of contemporary discourses, just as he does those of the 19th century (for example identity, the society of spectacle, the questions of strategy and institutions).

The slideshow prescribes a linear reading, thus the text gives narrative meaning to the series of images (especially because the writing going from left to right is on the left side of the slide). At the same time, since the text always appears accompanied by a picture, the “original” narrative meaning is enriched in content, specified, or in some cases disrupted.

The originally ambiguous pictures thus become more specified. Image and text operate together, and because each pair is connected in a different way (their relationship can be illustrative, more often competitive, or contradictory in a rather unconventional manner) the viewer is constantly thrown off track.

With the same momentum that he assigns texts to his pictures to create a fictional life story of an artist, Gerber simultaneously deconstructs the image it represents. By carefully selecting text to image, he reveals the commonplaces that have grown to be so ludicrous. Sometimes the source of humour is the sequence of the pictures [12], but the major source is the structure of the work in its entirety: the first and the last “scene” where THE ARTIST ARRIVES and WHERE (in the institution) HE EXHIBITS HIMSELF WHILE DREAMING AWAKE are both illustrated by statue portraits. This arrangement, despite the differences between the statues, connotes of a symbolic return which could be potentially mythically cosmic or banally depressing, but is in fact much rather sadly ridiculous due to the pettiness of the struggle (in the course of which the artist expressis verbis reaches the “institution” as a final destination) [13].

The pair of scenes in the middle of the series represents the artist’s colossal struggle and temporary downfall: HE MAKES GREAT PLANS, BUT THE EVENTS CROSS HIS EXPECTATIONS. Gerber positions these statements on the axis of symmetry within the series to accentuate them, and caps them with yet more commonplace imagery. By overemphasizing the heroism of this turning point, he ridicules it. The first of these two images is a theatrical scene where the photographer has captured a fierce motion. The second is no less expressive showing an unstrung woman in a dressing gown standing with her arms open in an empty ruinous space. This seems to be alluding to the artist’s private life in a rather grotesque and polarized manner [14].

The sarcastic comments become ironic when accompanied by the images. For example, on slides 15 and 16: 15. ACCORDING TO HIS LIFE STRATEGY HE EITHER HOLDS HIS GROUND 16. OR MAKES HIS ESCAPE RIDING THE WAVES. Although there is nothing new in the either-or, (heroic men have always been confronted by hard decisions in the course of history), but the rhetoric operating with life-strategy is new. Gerber pairs up the images of Superman and Gulliver encountering the giant toad at sea with these texts. Thus he shatters Kierkegaard’s proposal, and conflicts reaching back to ancient times with Hercules brooding at the fork in the road [15].

Gerber specifically questions the role/personality of the artist. The Artist appears twenty-seven times, yet his character is unidentifiable. (Although he appears alone twenty-three times and the viewer knows it is him, he is always represented by someone else [16]Thus the artist, the protagonist, has no face [17]). However most of the roles are caricatures; what‘s more Gerber puts physical workers in the place of the artist [18].

Gerber satirizers art artistic work with a model of two potatoes, with a match stick in each, tied together with a piece of string symbolizing the connections of THE PAST AND THE FUTURE (43). He does not spare himself either: Gerber illustrates the artist’s zealousness to get into the exhibiting institution with a picture of himself as a youth [19]. He does not only merge physical and intellectual meaning, he ironically copies the concrete and transitive meanings onto each other [20].

The Artist’s Progress represents the multilayered relationship with history and art history. Gerber levels off by hoarding up everything from Rembrandt’s works to his current day photographs and unifies them in a single narrative, while at the same time playing with the various periods. He also reflects upon the socialist past of Hungary for instance when his protagonist RECEIVES AN AWARD. The image illustrating this text depicts a plaque received in a tailoring competition. The artistic process is represented by slides educating proletarians.

In The Artist’s Progress Pál Gerber creates a parody of the development novel (Bildungsroman and Künstlerroman) popular in the 19th century. By combining various topoi Gerber undermines in a rather entertaining manner the notion of the artist’s “evolution,” which was so naturally accepted. He demonstrates how the “artist’s walk of life” is constructed and how social consensus creates (together with the artist) the great personal myth. Gerber illustrates his ambivalent relationship with modernism and modernity by “constructing” the personality of the artist.

It has become increasingly important in the past decades to redefine the artist’s walk of life. The works mentioned above add to the many-sided discourse that is currently going on about the life in art, personal life, and identity. With the end of the great narrative (grand récit), this discourse has become increasingly refined and diversified. The universal history of modernity is drawn up by the “great” and “important” political events and the individual is often merely the executor of the social imperative, while the structure of universal art was raised by the works of the “artist geniuses”.

However, starting with the „death of the author“, this great contradiction, this two-sided world reduced to only night and day (the forked tongue of modern culture - as Bruno Latour recently remarked [21]) seems to have fragmented and become more colourful. With the various historical narratives, various identities have become justified. The artist is no longer the sole depositary of the art institution, but her/his personality is more differentiated and is motivated by more identities, which serve as the foundation for the new narratives that are constantly being born in the place of the great fragmented one.



1 1999, 50 x 60 cm, Ellend, former cooperative farm, 4 p.m., 20 July 1999. Peorsons: Aunt Ilonka (born: 1926) and my grandfather. Used picture: Kazimir Malevich Composition of pure forms, 1926) Gyenis Tibor munkái / works of Tibor Gyenis 1995-2001. Editor.: Lídia Nádori, 2001, Baranyai Alkotótelepek Kht. p. 39.

2 The episode that seems to be the irony of fate can be justified from two sides: the impulsive force may have been some sort of social pressure which required the artist to be active, or Malevich’s revolutionary avant-garde expansionism. It is not as if Malevich was prone to “application”, a project like this one probably emphasized for him the “intellectual power” of art that pervades everything, and thus, society as well.

3 Quoted by Stephan V. Wiese in his foreword, In Kazimir Malevics [Malevich]: A tárgynélküli világ [The Non-Objective World]. Budapest, 1986, Corvina, IX.

4 Gábor, Gyáni: Emlékezés és oral history [Remembrance and Oral History]. BUKSZ, Autumn 1998, pp. 297–303. Re-published: Gábor, Gyáni: Emlékezés, emlékezet és a történelem elbeszélése [Remebrance, Memory and the Narration of History]. Budapest, 2000, Napvilág Kiadó, pp. 128–144.

5 Bicskei, Éva: Napló, vizuális autobiográfia, Künstlerroman [Diary, Visual Autobiography, Künstlerroman]. In her article entitled “Személyiség és személyesség Székely Bertalan ‘Ifjúkori naplójában’” [Personality and the Personal in Bertalan Székely’s ‘Diary as a Young Man’] (Aetas, 2002/2-3, pp. 84–111) she makes a convincing case for the Künstlerroman, the (auto)biography and the diary “construct[ing] the identity of a personality and represent[ing] it in society” (p. 88). With excerpts from Székely’s diary she illustrates the popularity of the Künstlerroman and the visual artists’ biographies in the 19th century. The 20th century is just as rich in such examples; Herman Hesse’s novel Narcissus and Goldmund (Bantam, 1971), to mention but one.

6 The fact that the artists in question are women further complicates the situation. Firstly because they are now fighting (by constructing the artist identity) to reach what their male counterparts already had by the 19th century. Secondly, because they are struggling to have their artistic activities accepted. Some, like Krisztina Nagy, are working to prove that they too are entitled to integrate into the deviant behavioural model. Another important aspect is that they treat questions of private life in a more free and easygoing manner partly because they are not bound as artists by the responsibility of being taken seriously, and also due to the fact that since the private life is still mainly the domain of women, they were able to enter the public sphere dominated by men by seemingly upholding this image. While making the private public, with the same momentum they are deconstructing the canon of the “universal” and “public affairs.”

7 That is, that the artist is a special inspired person who creates, by means of tiresome work, throughout his life.

8 Purchased in an antique shop (2), educational slides for proletarians from the Fifties (42, 51), black and white artistic photographs (4,11,28,36), illustrations by K. Savely D. for Gulliver’s Travels (14, 16), the cover for the book A Kultúra világa [The World of Culture] depicting Rodin’s The Thinker from 1963 (48), postcards (19, 45), film stills (7, 15, 22, 44), theater scenes (25, 26), magazine illustrations (35) from the magazine Lakáskultúra [Home Design] (20), press photo (27), artwork reproductions (6, 12, 17, 18, 31).

9 Landscape (10: Po River estuary, 30: The Alps), town scene (3, 9, 24, 37) people (13: in Munich, 34: in Paris) park (21: in Bonn, 23: in Glasgow, 29: in Berlin) sky-scape (5, 42, 49), Gerber’s family, friends, colleagues (8, 33, 38, 39), objects (41: tool-kit, 32: award for tailoring competition from the Fifties), exhibition interior (46, 47: 2003 Venice Biennale).

10 (50) Among those is only one self-portrait (50) from 1977, before being called up (Pál Gerber’s verbal comment) and one work of art of his own.

IV. Typical features of the artist (seemingly complex, romantic and idealist): 18. HE WANTS TO BE A CHILD AGAIN 19. AND SAIL AWAY 20. FROM THE DESERT, 39. HE STOPS AS IF HE WERE THINKING, 40. HE LOOKS UP AT THE SKY 41. BRINGS OUT HIS TOOLS.
V. So-called unique features: 7. HE SOMETIMES GETS AGITATED, 8. BUT KEEPS HIS SENSE OF HUMOUR, 23. HE IS AFRAID THAT HE IS LOST, 31. HE IS ENJOYING THE SUNSHINE, 33. HE SOCIALIZES, 38. HE GETS TANGLED IN SIMPLE STORIES. VI. The placement of the story in order to suggest the universality and grandeur of the artist’s life: (the artist arrives) 2. AT COMPLETENESS 3. AT THIS UNIVERSE.
VII. 20th century stereotypes: 15. ACCORDING TO HIS LIFE STRATEGY HE EITHER HOLDS HIS GROUND, 16. OR MAKES HIS ESCAPE RIDING THE WAVES, 34. OR DOESN’T GIVE A SHIT ABOUT THE SOCIETY OF CHAOS, 37. WHILE HE IS SEARCHING FOR OTHERS AND HIMSELF (…IN ORDER TO…) 51. DRAG HIMSELF INTO THE INSTITUTION 52. HE EXHIBITS HIMSELF WHILE DREAMING AWAKE. Naturally there are parts that represent multiple levels (51.,52.) and there are those texts that cannot stand alone by themselves because they make a syntactic unit together with the preceding and succeeding texts (18-20, 46-48). This emphasizes the complexity of Gerber’s work.

12 For example Rembrandt’s painting (Andromeda Chained to the Rock – 6), the picture (7) of a man kicking furniture (taken from a film), followed by the photo (8) of the cloudy sky.

13 It is not commonly known or obvious that the first picture is Gerber’s photo of a tomb statue in the Kerepesi Cemetery (as disclosed by the artist), and the last one is a plaster cast of the death mask of Henry VII. Thus death embraces the artist’s walk of life, obviously a commonplace, but even the more ironic.

14 The photo, however, depicts Grozny after bombing, thus the originally frightening picture could be turned into a grotesque scene by placing it into a different context. (As in many other cases, the “original” meaning of the image disappears to pick up possibly the opposite meaning.)

15 Text 34. (OR DOESN’T GIVE A SHIT ABOUT THE SOCIETY OF CHAOS) is an allusion of The Society of Spectacle from which the homeless person lying on the bench on the associated image is excluded, may that be the result of his own decision. On the third picture, the UNIVERSE (where the artist has arrived) is represented by an abandoned playground wheel which, with its pathetic fallible appearance could be anywhere (Gerber photographed it in Finland). The spherical form and the seats (representing planets) around it seem like a complete little universe that was dropped there by chance.

16 Sometimes a tomb statue (1), sometimes a construction worker (42,51), sometimes an actor (7, 15, 25, 26), a woman (45), another artist (4, 39 an Austrian artist from the 19th century and Balázs Kicsiny).

17 Gerber himself appears twice, but stays anonymous as all the others (slide 50 and 8, with his son and with the family of György Kungl).

18 He could of course emancipate the two types of work, but that is not his objective this time (Gerber, naturally, is not aristocratic). Instead, he brings to the surface how centuries of pompous ideas have taken the artist so far away by placing a worker with a shovel alongside the text HE WANTS TO BUILD A WORLD (42) and another worker hauling bricks next to the text HE DRAGS HIMSELF INTO THE INSTITUTION (51) (both are educational slide series for workers found in the Sós antiquity shop.)


20 He also does this when he criticizes construction from modules: THE DESERT (20) is illustrated by the photo of a room from a 1970s magazine, a place where the artist longs to get away from. (18, 19, 20: WANTS TO BE A CHILD AGAIN AND SAIL AWAY FROM THE DESERT). The piling of commonplaces is just as humorous: sailing away is illustrated by a boat on a postcard, while refuge is symbolized by a rest house.

21 Christian SW. G. Katti: Mediating Political „Things“, and the Forked Tungue of Modern Culture: A Conversation with Bruno Latour. Art Journal, Spring 2006, Vol. 65. No I. 95-115.

26. September 2006.