By Anna Tilroe
Budapest is shining again under an Indian Summer Sun. But the splendor has tarnished since our conversation yesterday with Barnabas Benscik, former director of the Ludwig Museum, and Csaba Nemes, artist and activist. Sitting in Nemes’ apartment annex studio, Lissa and I heard their shocking stories about the nationalistic populist government that is using all its power to eliminate every critical voice and ‘adjust’ all public domains to what it calls its ‘unorthodox’ policy. Which seems to be another word for ‘give the people some crumbs while you take all you can get’. Not even the banks are safe, as prime minister Viktor Orban is planning to nationalize them all, mocking all European Union’s rules. As for the arts, the government has changed the Constitution overnight by stipulating that from now on only the Hungarian Academy of Art, whose 250 elderly members have been appointed by the government, will determine who is ‘a real Hungarian artist’, making ‘real Hungarian art’. Result: the president of the HAA publicly blamed world famous writer György Konrád for being too internationally focused and by consequence ‘not Hungarian enough’. By the way, Konrád is jewish, and anti-semitism is a painful issue in Hungary these days.
So politics is coming in real hard in our trip. And we will hear a lot more about it this day. But first an early breakfast in our hotel Gerlóczy, with its old fashioned grandeur, its spacious ‘rooms de luxe’ and its mini bars with free champagne, cola and cookies. Then to Kisterem Gallery where a.o. Tamás Kaszás (NL exhibitions in W139 and KAAP 2010) comments his interesting work. Then quickly to Erika Deak Gallery where some of us can no longer resist the sharp edged, political works on paper of Slovakian artist Svatopluk Mikyta (being introduced to his work already in the Krokus Gallery in Bratislava). Wonder if the customs will believe that ‘we found them at the flee market’! Svatopluk is among those artists who relate to the aesthetics of East European modernism, revitalizing it with a surprisingly new, often sharp edged turn. Not for the first time during this trip I realize how little we know about East European modernism and the book I am reading, ‘Contemporary Art Theory’ by Igor Zabel, tells me in a very clear way why. ‘Western art’, he writes, ‘has presented itself as the “natural” development of genuine art as opposed to the politically suppressed art of socialist realism and its derived forms, which was not regarded as genuine art, but simply as political propaganda. In the light of this understanding, Eastern artists have been seen as a kind of underdeveloped and suppressed Western artists, and it was supposed that they would immediately join the general developments in the West if they were free to do so.’ What proves once more that art has often been used as a political instrument. As it still is these days. Remarkably though: a growing interest from the West in the East, and by consequence a growing awareness in the region of its national art historical and artistic past. In all the countries we have visited, we have seen exhibitions of national art of the 60’s and 70’s, and very often I was astonished and delighted by the authenticity with which artists in each country have related to the spirit and artistic movements of the time. For Orsolya Hegedüs, the director of the acb Gallery it is clear: the context of local history is important for awakening the interest of Hungarian collectors as well as the Western art world. And all these historic exhibitions help to dig up what was buried as forbidden art during communist time. But times are changing again. As the Hungarian government loathes critical political art, it is banished from the official institutes and entrenched in commercial galleries. Let’s hope that the Hungarian government will not nationalize them too.
Barnabas Benscik arrives at his motor bike to accompany us to Hungarian National Gallery in the historical Castle District. For years Benscik was director of the local Ludwig Museum till he was fired this year for being too critical of the governmental culture politics. With a bitter laugh he explains that the National Museum, situated in a side building of the former Royal Palace, is nominated to become the new residency of the Prime Minister, while all the surrounding buildings, parks and fountains will have ‘representational functions’ for the government. I look at all the tourists and booths with folkloristic souvenirs, and I try to image that in some years they will be replaced by presidential guards and police.
In the Hungarian National Gallery art historian Mónika Kumin guides us through the exhibition. The show gives a very informative overview of Hungarian art in the 20th century, and at the same time of the different political regimes. As abstract art was forbidden during the Stalinist period, artists and their collectors had to hide their artworks. I can’t keep my eyes from a bright, funny painting by Anna Margit, made in 1948. How is it possible that someone who had survived the concentration camps was able to make such a joyful work, not knowing that soon she would have to hide it? A bit further a huge, intriguing abstract painting, made in 1961 by Lossonczy Tamás. The title, ‘Purifying Storm’, relates tothe 1956 Revolution, a forbidden subject. Also forbidden in these days: to talk about the Holocaust. So the big figurative painting Altorjai Sándor made in 1967 about his Jewish identity certainly was a very courageous provocation. Two big rooms now, almost dark. The lamps are broken and there is no money to replace them! Is this the beginning of a sabotage of the museum? We climb the stairs to the dome of the building and gaze with mixed feelings at a radiant Budapest.
We hurry now to Tranzit, an independent art space with intense connections in Austria, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Here several activist movements present themselves and their social and cultural programs. Appalled we listen to the story of the Gallery 8 – Roma Contemporary Art Space and their struggle against a political program that aims at chasing the Roma population away from the neighbourhood and the city where they live since many years. We all are deeply impressed by the vivid engagement and fervour with which all these activist groups take stand in the cultural war that is going on in Hungary.
The discussion continues that night in the residency of the Dutch embassy, up in the hills, where we meet again the Tranzit people, activist artists and the gallerists we have visited these last 2 days. In a moving speech the ambassador pleads for a continuous dialogue with the adversaries as, in his eyes, entrenchment in your own right leads to nothing. Maybe he is right, but as a diplomat he surely knows too that reaching one’s hand at the adversary may be interpreted as a triumph for the latter. Who dares to take that risk?
Late at night we return to the hotel to leave all the books and papers we have gathered this day behind and replace them by the champagne from the mini bar. Bottle in hand and arms around each other we walk to a street nearby that turns out to be the longest chain of bars and disco’s that Denis has ever seen (and by now we know he is an expert). While we dance on the music till late, we all are very much aware that this is our last night together and that we all have experienced a trip that has changed our view on art and European politics radically. A fortnight trip as one uninterrupted discussion and reflection, with friends that shortly before were strangers. As it should be.
Hungarian National Gallery
Great introduction to the exhibition Shifts. Hungarian Art After 1945. Rearranged permanent exhibition by László Százados and Mónika Kumin.
Meetings at Tranzit
Dóra Hegyi – tranzit.hu
Emese Süvecz – activist, tranzit.hu
Hajnalka Somogyi – curator, editor http://artmagazin.hu/
Áron Fenyvesi – Trafó Gallery, http://www.trafo.hu/hu-HU
Bori Szalai – Trafó Gallery, http://www.trafo.hu/hu-HU
János Szoboszlai – Academy of Fine Art, Curatorial course
Dávid Karas – Studio of Young Artists, http://studio.c3.hu/studio_english/general/spaces.html
Júlia Laki – Studio of Young Artists, http://studio.c3.hu/studio_english/general/spaces.html
Tímea Junghaus – founder of Gallery8 – Roma art gallery http://gallery8.org/
CsabaViltin Gallery, Krisztina Dián gallery director, http://www.viltin.hu/
Deák Erika Gallery, Deák Erika, http://deakgaleria.hu/index.php
Knoll Gallery, Erzsébet Pilinger, http://www.knollgalerie.at/