Deep Sea Fish

Modernity as antiquity in contemporary Hungarian art

„…people’s imaginations are full of modernity’s visions and forms
(…) we are both outside and inside modernity”
Roger M. Buergel: Leitmotifs, December 2005


The forms of modernity in art are modernist forms. The paradigm of modernist forms in art is modernism. But can modernity play the role of antiquity for those, who are more on the inside, then on the outside of modernism?

The process of rehabilitation and re-evaluation of art that started in the seventies, and gained momentum even before the regime-change, effectively shifted the art-historical canon in the direction of modernism. This shift cut the continuity of the position of progression – that part of Hungarian art, which was watching out for international trends, trying to enter into dialogue with them – that was consequently in minority, being marginalized from the turn of 19 th and 20 th centuries, pushed into opposition against official art, onto the fields of “second publicity”. So, a counter-process has started through which modernism became the mainstream.

Then the pendulum has swung; an artistic compensation began from the end of the eighties, in which stories written or rewritten from a modernist viewpoint occupied dominant positions, and this did not only affect classical modernism, but included the neo-avant-garde of the sixties and the seventies. Undoubtedly, it was high time for rehabilitation, as there was a painful lack of a historical narrative based on the professional consent of modernist generations. The existing narrative was not composed into one comprehensive theoretical accomplishment, but made its way to everyday practice and thinking about art through “capillary vessels”, and came through as an unspoken agreement among the professional elite as to what is progression, and which achievements – persons, works, trends should be built into this unwritten canon. This naturally had its personal consequences: professionals forming or at least accepting the hegemony of modernist paradigm occupied (or kept) important positions at offices where power was practiced and decisions were made – scientific and educational institutions, great state-museums and galleries, professional magazines.

However, the process of modernism becoming a local paradigm in Hungary was belated – or at least protracted: it took fifteen years. Moreover, pieces of art recognized as post-modernist in the eighties – like “new sensibility” (the Hungarian equivalent of “new painting”) and pseudo constructivist architecture or installation-art also articulated themselves within the framework of modernist paradigm on the Hungarian art scene, which is our own specific. Accompanied by a group of younger-generation artists, the same artists and theoreticians who were the representatives and theoretical narrators of the neo avant-garde, up dated themselves, that is, “developed further” in theory and practice, but the organization of their groups, their “vanguard” style kept its exclusivity. But now, and this is the point, not in their original counter-cultural positions, but on the head of official state institutions, backed up by their support.

Meanwhile at the international art-scene, an opposite movement began: the deconstruction of modernism and avant-garde. The representatives of the newly constructed local modernist paradigm (plus decision-makers, and institutions using their arguments as ammunition) lined up against “fashions”, new issues and theories (and their consequences) deemed rootless in our soil or discredited otherwise. New critical theories rearranging the dominant Anglo-Saxon intellectual field, and the new art-history capable of integrating them, visual culture, picture theory, feminist discourse are only sporadically present on the Hungarian art-scene, where, from the middle of the nineties on – as a consequence of generation-change and shift of approach among the artists – a new contemporary art capable of entering into communication with international discourses has come to life. Theory and artistic practice after modernism have a hard time grasping each other: a majority of artists do not understand, or – being educated in the field of modernist theory – reject a new contextualization of their works. This inability to understand, the “slipping apart of practice and theory” (Edit András) is only a symptom indicating that Hungarian art scene is preoccupied with its own local problems, is insensitive to current global discourse, being socially conscious, and engaged, and only accidentally contributes to the global artistic discourse.

Hungarian contemporary art’s extremely weak, hardly measurable international presence (it is absent from the most important trend-setting exhibitions and biennales, where the decision is in curators’ hands, its only present at places it has a nominal right to show itself – like Venice Biennial) is due partly to the theoretical and power-related difficulties mentioned above, and partly to the decade-long neglect crippling those institutions that were especially grounded for this purpose. (This year, the Ministry of Culture intended to tackle the problem with an underfinanced, two-person managing-office, which immediately received heavy criticism)

This increasingly sinister situation has started to effect artistic production itself. Pure “survival” and internal fights take more and more energy; strategies that ignore international discourse or even reject its relevance, are getting more and more popular.

The ethos of defiant resistance is reborn, as Miklós Erdély put it, “the heroism of backwardness”, and the result of the country’s “intellectual marginality”. “Deep-sea fish have no eyes” – goes the saying. Present-day Hungarian art dives deeper and deeper into its local preoccupations, and gradually loses its “sight”, its orientation, and becomes dominated by products that do not react to the global discourse of contemporary art. As my colleague, Tibor Várnagy, the head of Liget Gallery, Budapest phrased it: to the ever evolving questions asked by the international art scene, Hungarian art echoed the same answers for one and a half decades – due to its structure tailored to preserve authority and privilege. The short “graceful period” of the middle of the nineties – when Hungarian neo-conceptualist art moved in accordance with global trends – has passed. But due to the lack of an institutional background, mentioned before, this period could not produce any long-term effects – disregarding a few unique exceptions, like the international appearance of those artists featured in our Venice Pavilion – Róza El-Hassan, Emese Benczúr, Antal Lakner, Attila Csörgő, and Hajnal Németh.

The latest retro-discourse about modernism has caught the Hungarian art scene off guard. The question “Is modernity our antiquity?” launched a real comedy of misunderstandings. The “rediscovery” of modernism–retro-kinetism and op-art together with their Hungarian-born stars, like Vasarely and Schöffer, account for the elemental part of the process, but went largely unnoticed in Hungary served as a self-justification, as the just reward for their “proud fidelity” (Miklós Erdély) for those of the Hungarian art scene who remained loyal to the academized, modernist, ex-avant-garde paradigm. They feel all criticism has invalidated itself, and all the different – now they seem inevitably short-lived – deconstruction theories have “fallen”. The local representatives of modernism think they can step into the same river one more time. While it’s the essence of things that gets lost: contemporary art has nowadays accepted into its discourse a deconstructed, illusion-free modernism, seen as a social product in its own historicity, a deheroized modernism, if you will. It’s exactly this lost “innocence” that gives a chance to shed light on elements of modernism that can prove to be a living force, a fountain of intellectual energy, or a successful artistic strategy. “Contemporary renaissance” that helped revive its own antiquity, namely, modernism, faces typically contemporary dangers: media-idiocy and its stars overwhelming the art scene developed into show business, fixation on market and the myth of idealized art-collection, the profit-hungriness of services built on “visitor-friendly” techniques, that generate crowds, and the populism of ideologies referring to unambiguousness.

Their dynamism and their subversive potentials seem to be the most easily “rearmed” from the ammunition of modernism and neo-avant-garde. Also the personality of the artist defending its integrity, while reserving a critical approach to his or her surroundings, and his social program, and social responsibility can still serve as valid examples. But the transcendence of the artistic ego, the notion of originality, and a mystified abstract sense of quality, formalist criticism and theory, and the illusion of the “only” true narrative seem to be past redemption.

But it would be a misconception to think Hungarian discourse tackles these issues. No, past few years’ debates (on the pages of Műértő for example, a monthly art newspaper published in Budapest, edited by the author of the present paper, among others) raged about a unique local trend, the problem of figurative painting. While it is necessary to analyze local trends on a local forum, it is not very productive, if it takes all the energy present, and totally replaces the global discourse.

I just identified it as a “unique, local trend”, because this Hungarian phenomenon has very little to do with the boom of painting experienced on the scene – like the success of post-GDR painters, the painting of the Leipzig School, the rediscovery of Martin Kippenberger, the exhibition-series of Saatchi Gallery. However – as opposed to op-art and retro-kinetism – the news of this “renaissance” has reached our culture. The narrative-figurative painting of the key-figures of the worldwide trend (and all the other painters working behind them as a strong hinterland) finds its place in a system of references built upon the medialized relation of reality and image, the contrast of histories made of personal life-story and of socio-politically formed history, memories and ideas emerging from personal or collective unconscious and identities rendered transparent. In the beginning, our local trend unfolded as an alternative to neo-conceptualism, alloying its liberal, trans-genre “pleasure-painting” with a suffocating, surreal atmosphere or frivolous, self-ironic voice, preserving (or rather salvaging conceptualism) its reflective character. While employing a traditional type of medium, it stayed in the context of contemporary art. In the practice of Hungarian figurative painting, this media-conscious approach is still present.

The rift happened, when – around the millennium – some players on the field started to nudge painting back from its medium-state onto the pedestal of an art-form, and – in the spirit of old hierarchies – begun to define itself as “painting” again. In the next step, painting – advocated by commercial galleries incapable of the delicate distinction formulated above – manifested as a negative answer to the challenge of electronic and digital image and media-art (the experimental-avant-garde character of which is guarded by modernist masters active in our higher-education), and the “dictates” of international contemporary art, identified – mistakenly – with the former. In addition to all this lately, a certain neo-conservative ideology referring to the “tradition of painting” started to emerge, with an idealized image of tradition featuring “eternal values”, the myth of the painter confined in his studio, studying tradition to perfect his professional skills, and a strong respect for authority. This endless process, ignoring “fashions” leads to a painterly program percepted as immanent, in which humility (as felt toward the old masters), and pride (of those who walk the same road) coexist. If we accept the painter and theoretician, Gábor Karátson’s words stating that “tradition of painting means unsolved problems inherited from the paintings of preceding ages”, we give way to serious doubts, as to what kind of added value can emerge from a neo-conservative painting that recognizes only “eternal values” (abstract qualities) in the art of the old masters, and manages to ignore all the relevant and burning questions forming and superseding the paradigm of their time.

So, this comedy or rather tragicomedy of misunderstandings – the fruitless misunderstanding of the structure and modus operandi of contemporary art, and the phenomenon of international painting-boom – is continued with the episode of figurative traditionalism backed up by a neo-conservative ideology.

An exhibition was organized in the spring in Fővárosi Képtár, Budapest from the collection of László Levendel, a late lung specialist professor. Doctor Levendel’s patients and friends comprised of the members of Hungarian avant-garde artist circles; his collection includes progressive art from the thirties to the sixties, the work of modernist artists, “prohibited” or “tolerated” by the Kádár-regime. Taking Hungarian situation into account, it is quite understandable, that when the painter Albert Kováts reviewed the exhibition, he came to the conclusion, that paintings of this spirit are “… re-emerging after a long period of non-existence, reaching back to the classic hinterland of Hungarian Art, possessing the reassuring aura of being forever current.”

Translated by Daniel Bart