related exhibition:
Measure of Man
Exhibition of works by former members of the Orfeo group (1969–1978)
10. January 2012. - 9. February

Balázs Fekete:

"Break Through the Fence, Trough the Walls!"
The Orfeo Group Memorial Exhibition through the eyes of a former disciple


Orfeo Group was formed in the late 1960s; its members were young “far-left” communist artists, to use the customary terminology of classical parliamentary democracies. Their role model was Ernesto Che Guevara, who had died as a hero in Bolivia. They stood up against exploitation, social injustice and inequality. They protested against the Vietnam War, the Military Junta’s terror in Chile, the incarceration of the communist Angela Davis, and so on. Their ideology was influenced by Mao’s revolution, the student revolts of 1968 in Paris, and the freedom fights of third world countries in general. They demanded the real, and not just formal, authority of the proletariat in Hungary. Their success and influence quite soon triggered the disapproval of the ruling power, which managed to incapacitate the budding artistic-political rebellion through harassment by its secret police and attacks by the centrally controlled press.

I became a fan and disciple of Orfeo: the puppetry group, Studio K theatre and Vizonto group (Aquarius Band), in 1973, when I was 16. I was attending a drawing course led by Judit Englert, who took us to Orfeo events. I remember taking a long trip the first time, it was winter and dark, and I had no idea where we were going (Újpest). First there was a show of the Studio K theatre group, the title of piece was Vurstli (Amusement Park), followed by the Orfeo puppetry group’s performance of Uncle Cipolla’s Puppet Theatre, and the evening was concluded by János Vas singing and playing guitar, in solo at that time. The central heating must have just been turned off in the House of Culture, because pipes and radiators were crackling away loudly. I then believed – along, I think, with others – that someone – probably the authority – wanted to sabotage the show. János Vas must have been annoyed by this racket, for he was already singing in a powerful, agitative tone, but it gradually became infused with fury, and to me this fury was obviously directed at the ruling power.

At this time, the former Orfeo groups had already been running under different names, but the most accurate definition of their activity and lifestyle is conveyed by the phrase Orfeo Movement. In my opinion, this movement had already been past its heyday, and was dissipating rapidly, almost from month to month under visible and invisible pressure from the Kádár regime. And still, even in this rapidly abating and dulling period - which lasted for years nevertheless – it was characterised by enormous internal strength and zeal.

I would like to stress that it was not primarily the artistic productions that had an effect on me, although they did, strongly. The real impulse was that these young artists had built community houses for themselves in Pilisborosjeno, where they lived like a commune. It really fascinated me that as artists and intellectuals they did not avoid physical labour, and they became my role models. It became axiomatic to me that art and life, from daily routine through one’s schedule and eating, should be organically and intensively unified and everything should be subordinated to creative work in the community. To live together, make art, share everything and enthuse over things together. Even today, owing to Orfeo, my conception of art and lifestyle is defined by this strong collective faith.

It was a dramatic experience to see the power and zeal of the movement wither away and be abated, as people moved out of the collectively built houses one after the other – back into their civil lives. Expulsions and breaches were a daily routine and the club in Zugló became vacated around me in three years.

This process of disillusionment is similar to the disillusionment of a rock fan who is constantly disappointed in his favourite band: the first, decisive album is followed by an inferior one, then an even worse one, and finally all that remains is the nostalgia, and disbelief at how this could happen.

The Orfeo movement was fundamentally based on performing arts despite the fact that it had been started by visual artists. Already back then, I was baffled by the distance between the powerful dynamism and mobilising force of the performances, and the silence of the “isolated” individual works of art. Mihály Kiss’ litography Hajnali járat (Bus at Dawn) aptly represents the Orfeo artists’ conception of labourers at that time. Reminiscent of Käthe Kollwitz’ graphics from the early 19th century, this picture might well have given rise to doubts in a lot of people regarding the true situation of the poor, in the very midst of the Kádár regime’s “proletarian authority”. I am fond of the sculptures of Jutka Englert, who was strongly influenced by the art of József Somogyi, author of Martinász (Smelter), who was then teaching at the Academy of Fine Arts, or Pityus Raffay’s works, as well as the social documentary photos and posters, but these have no organic relation to the performances of Studio K, the puppet theatre of Orfeo, or the songs of the Orfeo Band. As if the pieces of fine art born in the scope of Orfeo had existed in a completely different space and niche than the Orfeo performances. In retrospect, a simple reason for this lack of connection, this lapse, might have been the fact that these works were principally individual creations, and the performances were all collective endeavours.

I as a disciple consider the exhibited works of art and photographs secondary products from the aspect of evoking the character of the artist community, as they are incapable of evoking the essence of the movement, the atmosphere of the performances, the debates, the intensive cooperation and collaboration. They are also incapable of evoking those debate nights when we invited – of course, for free – lecturers, guests of high acclaim to the Gyorgy Bálint youth club in Zugló, for instance.

And, unfortunately, some things also happened there that today even I am ashamed of. For instance, we invited photographer Tamás Féner, who had just finished a documentary series in some mine. We, with our youthful enthusiasm and obsession, practically rebuked him for the way he represented labourers and the world of labour. The average age of club members was 25, Tamás Féner, already a nationally acclaimed photographer, was around 40... On another occasion we were visited by László Gyurkó. In those times I was still a devout communist and quite frequently and adeptly spoke up during the debates. Gyurkó was obviously and quite conspicuously accompanied by two plainclothes policemen, and one of them asked me at the end of the evening whether we all had similar ideas, and I was stupid enough to respond with a triumphant yes!

The atmosphere of such debate afternoons is well illustrated by Jancsó’s film, Fényes szelek (Sparkling Winds), or Dezso Magyar’s Agitátorok (Agitators).

It may sound funny today, that later, when I was first summoned for interrogation at the state security subdivision, and I was furiously lamenting about this to the Orfeo guys, Laca (Miklós Székely B.) said laughing that this was the beginning of the journey to becoming an artist. :) Harassment by the state security police was daily routine. It made the life of many of us miserable. Some art academy students were expelled; others, like me, were rejected under very mysterious circumstances during the entrance exams. I could probably never prove that university and college admissions were controlled by the secret police. Much later, in 1990, I was tremendously relieved: the state security authority could not make me an informer!!!

The fact that the founder, István Malgot, has neither been represented at the exhibition, nor was present at the vernissage, puts the entire collection into a pair of glaring quotation marks. The self-exclusion of the founder suggests either that István Malgot’s art can exist without the Orfeo or that the Orfeo can exist without István Malgot. The system of expulsions, quittings and breaches so typical of the group should have been represented in some way at the exhibition. Viewing, >, reading, >. > Péter Forgács’ work, which evokes Malgot, we can sense some of these fervent internal conflicts.

I don’t remember seeing an exhibition organised so inadequately as this, even though with apparent devotion. Probably all submitted works were put on display benevolently, without any selection, hence the crammed, non-transparent feel. Nevertheless, I think that this show could be a lot better compartmentalized and more transparent along some simple organising principle. For instance, the documents should have been separated from the artworks instead of being crammed among them. Also, I think the majority of drawing studies, sketches, caricatures and photographs are only interesting to their authors and a narrow circle of friends, just as photos of a family event can be quite tiresome to strangers. Sculptures should not have been displayed in such herd-like fashion, with the risk of being knocked down, etc. This exhibition space is simply too small for the worthy presentation of so many artworks! Large guiding texts and commentaries are missing from the wall, the pieces are framed in a slipshod and petty manner, and all this has nothing to do with the “proletarian” mood. Also, I miss some essential Orfeo artworks, such as Szabolcs Szoke’s large oil paintings from the time, or the social documentary photos of Mihály Kiss, etc.

I also think it was a very bad idea to display recent works of Orfeo artists along with their works of the time. I think contemporary works have no place at an exhibition that goes back forty years; all they do is create confusion. It requires serious preparatory work and a lot greater wall space to delineate and illustratively present so many career paths, for want of which the exhibiting artists can rightly feel deceived and the visitors uncertain, confused.

And if anyone says that this exhibition concords with the atmosphere of Orfeo in those times, I have to say, it is not true! Orfeo performances were captivating, very spectacular, absolutely stirring, well thought-out and produced with utmost precision. I am mentioning performances on purpose, as – perhaps not incidentally – I do not remember any Orfeo exhibitions from the period I am familiar with (after 1973). However, the force of the performances raised the attention of János Kádár, and rightly so. There was a reason he was terrified by the success of Orfeo, and said: "I do not want any more Orfeo cases!"

The clubs and workshops related to Orfeo featured a high level, cathartic dissemination of knowledge. Huba Bálványos, one of the founders of Orfeo, was a legendary artist-teacher. Even forty years later, his helpfulness and pedagogical “talent” was mentioned very kindly by, for instance, Krisztina Baksa Soós, who otherwise had nothing to do with Orfeo. Few teachers receive the honour of having a retrospective show organised for their birthday by their disciples, and Huba did merit this honour.

Of course, there were very tacky things, too. I remember a meeting of workers and artists organised by Huba, where “artists” were represented by the members of the fine arts workshop led by him. The workers who came called me comrade artist, and were all but begging me to sign their brigade book, because this was the only way they could prove they had taken part in the cultural event. I was about 18 years old then!

Compared to the “Orfeo atmosphere” of the time, this exhibition – despite all good will of the curators and organisers – is at the level of a local talent show or karaoke production. It would not raise the attention of either Kádár, or a youth of similar age today. Perhaps in the opening speech of a better exhibition, Péter Forgács would have spoken differently about his bad feelings and painful memories.

Despite all its shortcomings, I consider the exhibition very important, humane, controversially romantic, and the purpose of the exhibition beautiful. I hope there will still be an opportunity and energy for a truly worthy Orfeo event. Until then, I can recommend the CD of the Orfeo Band to those who are interested in this topic, as well as the accurate and methodical, although slightly long documentary that tells the story of Orfeo in a manner that is easy to comprehend for later generations.


Translated by Daniel Sipos


9. February 2012.