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The Kádár Era as Exhibition Concept
Hungarian contemporary art has made little effort to cope with the recent past, and the desire to remember has been even less apparent at exhibitions. The year 2009 broke the spell. Amerigo Tot - Parallel Constructions (curated by József Mélyi) and Other Voices, Other Rooms - Attempts at Reconstruction. 50 years of Balázs Béla Studio (curated by Lívia Páldi) have done exactly so. The former show has thrown light on how the cultural policy of socialist Hungary operated, how the regime made use of émigré artists on account of political and cultural rapprochement in the years of détente during the Cold War. The latter has shown the true, inside face of the same era.
Péter Nádas gives an accurate description of the moral of peaceful coexistence following the Cold War period in his essay Our Poor, Poor Sascha Anderson(1). The leaders of the two world orders "visited one another in their respective caves" to justify the humaneness of their regimes. "Pope Paul VI suspended his moral considerations when he received János Kádár. The queen of England invited the unsavoury Ceausescu couple to dinner..." (2) describes Péter Nádas this mutual dependence in which neither party was immaculate. Following the democratic transition, the former double agent Sascha Anderson is exposed and pilloried in a new moral system replete with unresolved issues, a system where the same could befall many others, too.
Nevertheless, I don’t think the curatorial concept of the Amerigo Tot exhibition has thrown red meat to anyone or named scapegoats to give anyone the feeling of moral superiority. I rather think that the exhibition was awkward, because it showed the problematic nature of "the truth", in which the categories of good and bad are far from as black and white as we like to think they are. The show exposed a complicated moral system of relations with Amerigo Tot in the middle, who would have been 100 years old in 2009.
"The memorial exhibition form has had its own traditions regarding genre: it has never really broken away from the 19th century roots of the cult of the artist," writes Katalin Sinkó.(3) The homage-type, cult-of-the-artist exhibitions have no room for criticism, no room for such aspects that would perhaps not put the person or the topic in the best light. When Ludwig Museum accepted the commission to arrange an exhibition on the 100th anniversary of Amerigo Tot’s birth, the anniversary evoked this tradition, and they were expected to present an absolutely reverent show closely entwined with the cult of the artist.
But neither the museum nor the curator felt like paying respects. They even approached the institution of homage-type exhibitions rather critically, thus openly declaring their attitude towards the past and the heroization of the artist. The museum did not reject the past, which was in this case a slice of the former official art policy, and refused to draw a line of demarcation between past and present. Nor did they decline the commission saying that Amerigo Tot was not interesting any more. Their attitude was practically similar to the way they had dug up Arno Breker’s sculptures - like skeletons from the closet.(4)
Amerigo Tot was almost instantly forgotten after his death; his heritage, including his drawings and photographs, was neither catalogued(5), nor archived in museums. This raises the question that if the entire art historian profession considered it unnecessary, why has it become so important all of a sudden? I should clarify this. Hungarian art history has yet to fulfil its obligation to provide comprehensive monographic studies about a number of oeuvres considered significant by the profession. The lack of these, however, is kept count of, and so we all know, for instance, that a fresh and thorough Lajos Vajda monograph would be in great demand. The oeuvre of Amerigo Tot does not belong in this category.
One of the strong critical remarks about the exhibition has been that the curator "pilloried" Tot in a way that he left no space for us to truly know him, and that there was a lack of comprehensive research and knowledge of the works. Who would not agree that it would in fact be more relevant and logical to deconstruct and criticise the edifice of an in-depth monograph in order to, for instance, organise a critical exhibition based on the results? Even so, it is illusory to expect that it be possible to move on towards ever so subtle analyses after a thorough research. Illusory it is, because precisely the opposite is done in Hungary: a monograph (not necessarily thorough) is published and that oeuvre is then ticked off. In fact, the need for fulfilling the obligation is just as pressing as for moving on.
So, the exhibition has given rise to aversion as it refrained from following the tradition of the cult of the artist and failed to "comprehensively" present the oeuvre. In the context of the museum, there have been complaints that the installation of traditional plastic and graphic artworks was devoid of "respect". However, the exhibition was not intended to deal with autonomous works of art per se. The sculptures were not exhibited so as to form an independent "microcosm" and allow the spectator to move from one sculpture to another and appreciate the forms, the balances, harmonies and rare materials. For this reason, according to certain theoreticians, the installation of the sculptures was humiliating and degrading. The presentation of the artworks suggested that we were in a sculptor’s workshop, and as such, it intended to capture the process of the production as opposed to its final result.
The concept of the exhibition was founded on the analysis of the context and the reconstruction of the life and activity of Amerigo Tot. His many-sidedness, his life, his divaricated interests, his vigour, his personality interferes with his "autonomous" works of art. The bustling life replete with adventure, world-famous friends and affairs, is everything but antipathetic. Just like a novel. But this romanticism is not in service of aggrandizement; rather, it makes Tot and the exhibition more personal, evoking people the spectator might know personally, parents or grandparents who lived through the war, and whose life is also "itself a novel", full of anecdotes.
The critique of a favoured artist of the Aczél-Kádár era - who was "brought home" from the emigration (while other artists were "persuaded" to leave at the same time), the leftist, adventurous Tot, always bearing the epithet "world famous" - triggered the disapproval of even those who would otherwise welcome the criticism of the past regime. Tot was a link between Hungary and the world, self-justification for the Socialist culture, a cog in the wheel of the divided world order.
The exhibition has placed Amerigo Tot in this complex moral system of relations. This has made it awkward for some and intriguing for others. A strange constellation has thus ensued: many of the profession, otherwise advocating different views and approaches, have now reached consensus in one thing: they have been outraged by the exhibition. This shows that there are still no clear, black-and-white schemes, and the still water of remembering the recent past can be stirred up even in relation to an artist considered important by a minority.
The exhibition has strongly been criticized also on account of the contemporary artists’ reflections. If the exhibition fails to show how great an artist Tot was, why would it make sense to reflect on a mediocre artist? Amerigo Tot was in fact a medium of projection for contemporary artists, who reflected not on the "great artist", but on the position, context and afterlife of the oeuvre, and in doing so, they were indirectly reflecting on the Kádár-era and its afterlife. The entire exhibition resembled a conceptual work. Rather than dealing with the work of art itself, it reflected on its life, its circumstances and context.
When Hans Haacke made his Manet Projekt’74 for a group exhibition at the Wallraff-Richartz Museum in Cologne, the subject of his analysis was not the aesthetic value of the Manet painting in the museum’s collection, but its life, its owners, through which he revealed a continuity among the various systems, the way art, art collection and the museum are integral parts of politics. The Amerigo Tot exhibition was conceptual in this sense: through the oeuvre it was able to throw light on a specific aspect of the Kádár era’s art policy.
The curator was inspired by the contemporary art practice; he even references the activity of Little Warsaw in the catalogue.(6) We might add: the works of Little Warsaw also create ripples like a stone thrown into still water. The exhibition was appreciated neither by those who normally welcome the criticism of the era, nor by those who had expected the apotheosis of the artist - Amerigo Tot presented as an autonomous artist, rising above the Kádár era. Such reactions, however, normally go along with a conceptual exhibition. Little Warsaw’s and the curator’s approaches are similar in yet another respect: Neither them, nor Mélyi has "object phobia" - as Edit András characterizes Little Warsaw’s use of objects.(7) Along with photographs, reproductions and documents, he brought real artworks into the exhibition space, and to this extent he diverges from "classical" contemporary art’s approach.
While Amerigo Tot was unequivocally categorized as "promoted" by the art policy of the Kádár era, the position of Balázs Béla Studio adds a subtler shade to the system of the "three P-s". The studio, which was financed by the state and yet operated without the obligation for public screening, seems to have remained outside the categories of Prohibited, Permitted and Promoted. "Velvet prison" - as Péter György cited Miklós Haraszti’s phrase, "counterculture supported by the state".(8) This phenomenon was nonexistent in other socialist countries. This is also a feature characteristic of the Kádár era, the other face of the "humane" regime: acknowledging and incorporating opposition and subculture within specific confines, as an outlet for tension and anger.
This exhibition was also a glance at the Kádár era - from another point of view. These experimental, short feature and documentary films voice such sharp social criticism that some of them have practically been hidden from the public until now. "Production without the obligation for public screening" is a euphemism, as many of the films shown at the BBS exhibition would never have made it to a public screening. So, on the premise that these films were allowed to be produced although they would never have made it through the censors, there was no need for censorship.
Something of a protest against what was not prohibited, the exhibition indicates what a mishmash the Kádár era’s categories were. Of course, the BBS filmmakers always endeavoured to push and expand the boundaries. Many of the films are like the never sent, or just closely distributed, secret letter, which was archived with care. It was also required of the exhibition organized on the 50th anniversary of Balázs Béla Studio to show this peculiar phenomenon along with the films.
József Mélyi - similarly to Little Warsaw’s approach - examined and created a context; Lívia Páldi explored the possibility of exhibiting an archive, a vast and extraordinary corpus, taking into account the given fact that it is impossible to exhibit the entire material. Making selections from the material, she set forth correlations and made "attempts at reconstruction", as she put it in the subtitle.
This curatorial concept created loci. The installation constructed of photographs evoking the spaces of the era, served to revive the atmosphere of the age, and was built around subcultures and networks to match the chosen theme. Contemporary artists reflected on the Kádár era here, as well, evoking its locales: Sándor Bodó documented restaurant facilities, Gabriella Csoszó bookshelves. According to the curatorial concept, the exhibition presented the members and players of a subcultural network. A multitude of relations can be discovered among the selected films, filmmakers and characters.
The films selected by the curator for screening in the installation space were primarily ones that are somehow related to art, or are experimental films of visual artists. Priorities had shifted considerably during the 50 years of BBS’s activity, and this gave rise to complaints about the exhibition on the part of filmmakers: it failed to present the entire activity of BBS, and, for instance, documentaries received less attention. The collateral screenings edited by Sebestyén Kodolányi in the cinema space endeavoured to restore this balance.
The aspects of contemporary art were best represented in the selection of films in the central hall of Mucsarnok/Kunsthalle. This was the most intriguing space of the show, presenting films about women, gypsies, alternative theatres and communes. János Major’s graphic, just behind the booth screening Miklós Erdély’s Version (1979)(9) brought anti-Semitism, one of the taboos of the age into play.
Unveiling (Györgyi Szalai - László Vitézy, 1979), screened in the booth next to Version, features a juxtaposition of counterculture and official cultural policy. The staff of the Flame Machine Works in Dombóvár commissioned a local sculptor to make a statue in exchange for social work. The object was, however, removed by authorities on account of aesthetic aspects, and replaced by another one, juried by the Art Committee.
The film reveals with astonishing clarity how the system retaliated uncontrolled civil activity and (not even so) free will. This highly educational story about aesthetics recalls an earlier dispute surrounding József Somogyi’s sculpture of János Szántó Kovács, which, in fact, is mentioned by a figure in the film. The act of selecting the film involved the present: Little Warsaw’s Instauration of Szántó Kovács, the project and its history had obviously made the curator more acutely sensitive of the issue.(10) The problem of the so-called aesthetic aspects recurs when those criticizing the Amerigo Tot exhibition are concerned that the works themselves are subdued and the curator treats them disrespectfully. Bringing the aesthetic aspect to the forefront, however, would result precisely in silencing the "rest".
Once again, the question arises: to what extent was the activity of BBS filmmakers autonomous? For the critique of the dominant ideology, the "island of freedom" was still only functioning within the confines of the regime. Presenting subcultural networks, the show has made it possible to reconstruct a kind of genealogy of transition, the mutual dependency of official sphere and subculture. The functioning, and especially the afterlife of this subculture is a delicate subject due precisely to the mutual dependency, since it erodes the myth of heroic opposition. Péter György proposed in his opening speech that "...the narrow elite public of BBS corresponded with the logic of subcultural networks - i.e., the workshop at the end of Pasaréti Road absurdly fostered a state-supported counterculture, which is not a self-evident constellation even today."(11) The so far lacking critical analysis of this subculture might in fact have begun with this exhibition. Anna Koós’s inadvertent subtle remark in the documentary about the Apartment Theatre (Péter Dobai, 1975), namely that the doors of the apartment were not quite that open, seems like a good start.
BBS is still significant today: it is owing to its filmmakers that we can now literally face the past. It is they who provide an opportunity for reinterpreting minute gestures, insignificant details, of which perhaps only film is capable. One of the difficulties posed by an anniversary exhibition is that having seen the extraordinary films and documentary material, we are still aware that BBS is part of the same peculiar and complex situation which was the starting point for this text. It is difficult to avert the dangers of nostalgia and heroizing the past era, especially within the frame of an exhibition. Nevertheless, the study of the recent past has begun in exhibition rooms as well, and hopefully nothing will stand in its way any more.
Translated by Daniel Sipos
(1) Péter Nádas: Our Poor, Poor Sascha Anderson. In: Péter Nádas: Fire and Knowledge. Fiction and Essays. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007.
(2) ibid.: p. 302; p. 297. [in Hungarian]
(3) Katalin Sinkó: Nemzeti Képtár. A Magyar Nemzeti Galéria Évkönyve, 2008. [National Picture Gallery. Yearbook of the Hungarian National Gallery 2008] Vol. XXVI, No. 11. Budapest, 2009. p. 122. [in Hungarian]
(5) This was done by the curator during the preparation of the show, in collaboration with Péter Nemes, who, propelled by his own interest, fanatically excavated and pursued everything that might have once had anything to do with Amerigo Tot. Meanwhile, Péter Nemes’s monograph on Amerigo Tot has been published.
(6) József Mélyi: Amerigo Tot - Parallel Constructions. Ludwig Museum - Museum of Contemporary Art, 2009. Catalogue. Also c.f. József Mélyi: A Szántó Kovács-ügy. [The Szántó Kovács Case] Élet és Irodalom, 2005. No. 3. p. 19. [in Hungarian]
(7) Edit András: Tiltott határátlépések. A Kis Varsó és hazai fogadtatása. [Illegal border crossings. Little Warsaw and its reception in Hungary.] In: Edit András: Kulturális átöltözés. Művészet a szocializmus romjain. [Cultural cross-dressing. Art on the ruins of Socialism.] Argumentum, Budapest, 2009. p. 233. [in Hungarian]
(8) Péter György’s opening speech
(9) a re-enactment of the (in)famous 19th century Tiszaeszlár blood libel against the Jews
(10) For a more thorough analysis c.f. András Edit ibid. p. 227-246.
(11) Péter György’s opening speech
11. February 2010.
C3 Center for Culture and Communication