Post-War Figurative Art

(1949-1989)

About

 

Hungarian art history usually divides the period after the Second World War regarding the development of Hungarian art in the following way. The first phase lasts from 1945 to 1949, when for a short, it seemed that progressive Hungarian art was finally taking off. The European School was founded in October 1945 with the aim of achieving synchronicity with Western arts, and to form a bridge between international and Hungarian cultural life. The group was full of hope for a new beginning. European School was characterised by plurality of styles, an existence above all styles; they wanted to represent Expressionism, Fauvism, Surrealism and Abstract Art at the same time. The art group in its name and spirit connected with the ’Ecole de Paris’; from the traditions of the capital of fine arts they inherited a universal approach, the tolerant respect for different values existing side by side, an anti-schismatic attitude. The best of modern Hungarian artists joined to the European School (Anna Margit, Jenő Barcsay, Endre Bálint, Béla Bán, Lajos Barta, Dezső Bokros Birman, József Egry, Erzsébet Forgács-Hann, Jenő Gadányi, Dezső Korniss, Tamás Lossonczy, Ferenc Martyn, Márffy Ödön, Ernő Schubert, Piroska Szántó, Júlia Vajda, Tibor Vilt). They organised exhibitions, held lectures, and published theoretical pamphlets to popularize the latest art trends; the exhibitions of Paul Klee and the Czech Surrealists were realised upon their initiative. Barely a year after the European School was founded, the representatives of non-figurative art left the group due to disagreements. They created the Group of Abstract Artists (Gyarmathy, Lossonczy, Béla Fekete Nagy, József Jakovits, Sameer Makarius, Gyula Marosán, Ferenc Martyn, Gellért Orosz, Magda Zemplényi) and organized their own platforms, exhibitions etc. Ernő Kállai was the theoretician of the group who arranged the exhibition New World Concept, held at the Gallery to the World's Four Quarters in February 1947, and simultaneously published an illustrated booklet The Hidden Face of Nature. This was the culmination of Kállai’s work on Bioromanticism (which derives from his realization of the similarity between biomorphic art and scientific photography). The press mostly considered the activities of the European School and the Group of Abstract Artists to be pessimistic and destructive. Their exhibitions served as a pretext for the great abstract-realist debate (1946-1948), in which all important thinkers of the era took part (e.g., Bernáth Aurél, Ernő Kállai, Lajos Kassák, Béla Hamvas, György Lukács, Lajos Szabó). The modernists had to face more and more attacks, in parallel with the communist political turn, all this led to the suppression of the two groups, and the cultural policy classified abstract trends among the prohibited directions in 1948. Those who did not want to change their artistic vision and paint socialist realist pictures chose internal emigration and continued to create their abstract and surrealist works almost secretly.

 

The next period, between 1949 and 1956, is called the period of socialist realism or the art of the fifties. The example to be followed was the art of the Soviet Union, which is why in 1949 a large-scale exhibition of the works of the most important Soviet artists was organised in The Budapest Hall of Art (Műcsarnok). Based on these, the proposed topics for visual artists were compiled so that they could line up as soon as possible to present the new Hungarian socialist realist art within the framework of the 1st Hungarian Fine Art Exhibition in 1950. The main themes were genre scenes taken from the lives of the people and workers (thematic paintings), historical events classified as progressive traditions (e.g. Dózsa's peasant uprising of 1514, the war of independence of 1948-1949) and portrait of important persons (e.g. Lenin, Stalin, Rákosi). Hungarian artists (also) had to adapt extremely quickly to the current situation. Some of the silenced progressive artists did not negotiate, they chose internal emigration, thereby endangering their own existence. Others chose the least painful and inconvenient way to survive and painted only neutral subjects (still lives, artist portraits, landscapes). A relatively large number of previously unknown or lesser known (self-taught, in many cases working-class or so-called ‘Sunday’) painters appeared, to whom the press of the time was happy to refer, and then their names were erased from the history of Hungarian art almost at once. In the end, alongside the (growing) socialist realist camp, only one tendency was able to survive in public. The post-Nagybánya style, which was represented by the members of the former Gresham circle. In fine arts, Mihály Munkácsy became the role model, compared to which the lyricism and loose painterliness and strict naturalism of the Greshams, who continued the traditions of Nagybánya, offered a different kind of alternative. 

 

Hungarian art historians’ opinion is divided on how long the next period, the sixties, lasted. They roughly agree on the start around 1958, but according to some, it ended in 1966-1967, while for others it was 1970 or 1975. After the October Revolution of 1956 and the removal of Imre Nagy, the new political leadership needed time to survive the initial shock and confusion, to defeat internal fights and then to organise its ranks. During this short time, three exhibitions were organised, which indicate that there was hope for a more open Hungarian fine arts: in 1957, the former members of European School were given the opportunity to present their artworks in Esztergom; then The Constructive Endeavours Exhibition and the Spring Exhibition were organised in the capital (the latter displayed surrealist and abstract artists for the first time in seven years). In the end, although the modernization (and the re-canonization) was given the green light, it all happened slowly, and again to the detriment of avant-garde (and abstract) art, which was condemned as anti-human, anti-real, incomprehensible, completely opposed to socialist realism. Proper socialist realism could be defined in opposition to its enemies, and this pragmatic strategy provided to cultural policy some intellectual space, but it also made the aesthetic borders of realism quite elastic. The cultural policy also brought into practice the so-called ‘three T’-system (supported, prohibited, forbade). The art history and exhibition practices following the regime change relied very heavily on this triple logic and—in a rather simplistic way—placed avant-garde artists in the forbidden, or at the very least into the tolerated category. As the most important symbolic capital to be played in the field of art at this time was to demonstrate the pure or opposition position in the former system in addition to proving belonging to the mainstream of Western art, this narrative was welcomed and shared by former avant-garde artists themselves.However, the 3T categories were never completely stable and they did not essentially apply to persons, but usually to works.

 

The ‘average crop’ of the era remained figurative, realist or post-impressionist, but compared to the earlier orthodox socialist realism, the new style absorbed the modernization program and the domestic traditions of revolutionary art (Instead of Munkácsy, Derkovits’s art became the direction to follow). This created a ‘semi-abstract’, ‘semi-constructivist’ hybrid (official) style, yet undeniably left-wing art, which is commonly referred to as ‘socialist modernism’ or ‘SocModern’. This also meant that, beginning in the mid-1960s, the Hungarian modernism represented by the European School could embark on its path towards acceptance into the canon of Hungarian art. However, the real change was not brought by the debates or the expansion of realism, but by those artists, who, in the spirit of freer artistic action, not only wanted to process and accept the past, but also scrutinised the present, and for this they looked for modern, new ways of expression. The second half of the 1960s was another turning point in Hungarian art, when the function of art changed, and a radical reinterpretation of its concept and boundaries took place. The older generation accelerated the younger generation's self-discovery, not so much by passing on style or technical skills, but rather by their commitment and ethical behaviour serving as an example for them. But the influence is also true in the opposite direction, since the vigoro, openness, and the experience of discovery of the youth had a stimulating effect on the ‘masters. In 1966, the great breakthrough of the avant-garde and its public appearance took place (e.g. the Studio exhibition; the first Hungarian happening). The two Iparterv (1968.1969) exhibitions are key events of Hungarian art history of the 1960s. The shows summarised several trends that had already begun in the first years of the decade. 

 

The attitudinal and stylistic interweaving of the art of the 1960s and 1970s is obvious. The art of the seventies began in the second half of the sixties. It was then that the generation of artists who took on the traditions of the Hungarian avant-garde and informed themselves about the current aspirations of contemporary universal art appeared on the scene. The artworks are still characterized by the avant-garde attitude of searching for new things and rejecting traditions and history. The germs of conceptual art appear surprisingly soon, almost at the same time as pop art. The process begins in which the work of art is no longer strictly objective but identifies with the series of thoughts or actions itself, of which the objects are only props or documents. Concept art as well as minimal art, constructivism and photography were not very favourable to painting. Almost all Hungarian avant-garde artists produced conceptual works during the seventies. Another typical contemporary trend of photorealism was the so-called secondary realism, which undertook to provide a deceptively faithful copy of an object (Lakner, Baranyay). This object can be a piece of wall, burnt paper or a net made of strings, an index card, or an identity card when the object of art is art itself.

 

In the 1980s (~1979-1988), aesthetic pluralism intensified, and very different, autonomous worlds of form appeared. Alternative art, the underground, became more and more prominent. In the visual arts, the new painting could soon be felt in our country, the critics at that time called it the trans-avant-garde or the New Sensibility. The concept itself is based on a denial, the essence of which is that it breaks with the neo-avant-garde approach. New Sensibility gave individualist answers to problems which were previously interpreted by neo-avant-garde as social and structural. The individualization of artistic problems was naturally accompanied by a return to painting and to visual ways of expression because such artworks are usually believed to bear the mark of the individual. Thus, New Sensibility rejected not only neo-avant-garde’s ideology but also its visuality. The art of the New Sensibility is emphatically subjective, historicizing, stylizing, eclectic, and highly sensitive to history and cultural history. It replaced the minimalism, purism, and narrowness of the previous period with strong colours and upset, fragmented image surfaces. Painting became fashionable again, figures returned. This new approach also affected the younger and the older (avant-garde) artists. Lóránd Hegyi - the namesake of the trend, the founder of its discourse in Hungary, and a defining art historian - organized several exhibitions during the decade under the auspices of the new sensibility (e.g., Freshly Painted, 1984; Eklektika '85). However, the fine art of this period is not limited to this one style. The art of the 1980s is extremely heterogeneous and cannot be characterized by one or two trends.

 

 

► Schools and trends:

 

The Vásárhely school is considered one of the blind spots in Hungarian art history. In the first third of the 20th century, Hódmezővásárhely was one of the centres of the Alföld School. The aim was to revive this tradition when they started organising the artists' colony in the early fifties (Gyula Almási, István D. Kurucz, Iván Szabó). The 1st Vásárhely Autumn Exhibition was organised in 1954. Thanks to the work of local painters (e.g. István D. Kurucz, György Kohán), young artists who moved to Vásárhely (Ferenc Berényi, Csaba Fejér, József Németh, Ferenc Szalay, János Szurcsik, József Vecsési), as well as artists who frequently visit here, there was an intense artistic life unfolded. They considered the art of János Tornyai, József Koszta and István Nagy as examples to follow, but they drew a lot from the lapidary fresco style of the Italian quattrocento, the restrained solemnity of icon painting, the decorativism of Gauguin or the constructivism of Barcsay. In their figurative works, the artists of Vásárhely tried to depict the relationship between the peasant world and the plain landscape, man and nature, man, and work, but they were not socialist realists, rather they were looking for new ways of realism (and reality).

 

In the sixties, the so-called neo-primitivism or naive realism (Viola Berki, János Orosz, István Pekáry, Tamás Galambos, Gross Arnold, Líviusz Gyulai) was a kind of (figurative) art that was inspired by the representation of folk art and classical art. The works are characterised by a rich, narrative theme, the delicacy of the elaboration, the abandonment of decorativeness and perspective, although there may be great differences between the styles of individuals.

 

After the war, the overall image of the art school of Szentendre was shaped by the following artists: Anna Margit, János Arató, Endre Bálint, László Balogh, Béla Bán, Gyula Czimra, Béla Czóbel, Pál Deim, Rudolf Dénes Diener, Géza Fónyi, Jenő Gadányi, Lola Gállfy, Göllner Miklós, Margit Gráber, István Ilosvai Varga, Gyula Kandó, János Kmetty, Dezső Korniss, László Kósza Sipos, Pál Miháltz, Mária Modok, János Pirk, Piroska Szántó, Júlia Vajda, Erzsébet Vaszkó. The painters working in Szentendre were inspired not only by the image of the city and the surrounding landscape, but also by the local visual and folk-art traditions. Two distinct trends emerged: on the one hand, constructive surrealist painting, taking on the legacy of the art of Lajos Vajda (former members of the European School). The other direction is post-Nagybánya, nature-based painting, characterized by the defining personalities of the Gresham circle (Czóbel, Kmetty). However, there were no sharp boundaries between the two styles. The Szentendre motifs known from the works of Vajda and Korniss appear as themes in the painterly language of many artists: house walls, alleys, attic windows, provincial baroque stone frames, corpuses, tin crosses, guild badges (Endre Bálint, Albert Kováts, Pál Deim, Júlia Vajda). Endre Bálint's ‘nostalgic surrealism’ developed in the 1960s, and it was also around this time that Ilka Gedő resumed painting after a ten-year break, whose art is closely related to bioromanticism and visionary surrealism. A radical renewal was brought to Szentendre by the committed and declared amateur members of Vajda Lajos Studio, founded in 1972. Among them, László fe Lugossy, István ef Zámbó, András Wahorn who worked in a surrealist, Dadaist, and pop-art style and János Aknay, who started from constructive forms, should be highlighted. They formed a special group within the Hungarian neo-avant-garde with their non-conformism, eccentric appearance, and neo-Dadaist scandals.

 

Surnaturalism (or magical realism as it is also called) can be considered as a new and specifically Hungarian tendency of post-war figurative painting, which appeared at the end of the fifties. The (originally pejorative) term was used for the first time in 1964 and became popular after Géza Perneczky's 1966 study. The leading figure of the movement was Tibor Csernus, who during his study trip to Paris in 1957-1958 became acquainted with surrealism and with Max Ernst's experimental surface shaping procedures (e.g., frottage, grattage) through Simon Hantaï, who had been living there since 1949. Upon returning home, his painting was transformed because of this. Starting from Bernáthian post-impressionism, and based on the typically socialist realist themes, he attempted to overcome and destroy the former two trends with the help of the surrealist painting technique. The novelty of Csernus's large-scale painting St. Tropez (1959) had a revelatory effect on the young artists (mostly students of Aurél Bernáth) who were similarly thirsty for new ways of expression. After that, they also began to create their own surnaturalist paintings which are characterised by: intensive brushworks, thick painted surfaces and surrealistic effects, naturalistically painted details, extremely crowded compositions. In retrospect, this visual method was perfectly suitable to express the soft dictatorship of the post-1956 era in an authentic, critical, and ironic way. László Lakner, Ákos Szabó, László Gyémánt, Iván Masznyik, László Méhes, Sándor Altorjay, Ferenc Kóka and György Korga became the central figures of the new figuration of the 1960s. They wanted to deconstruct socialist realism by creating East European alternatives to Western figural trends. What is exceptional in this is that the artists did not break with realist painting and, as a result, they occupied a peculiar position between the frontlines of the official cultural policy’s preferred realist language and the creative strategies (such as abstraction and happenings) condemned in that period. They represented a ‘third way’, to depict the Hungarian social reality without idealisation. From the mid-sixties, several of the group's members incorporated pop-art pictorial fragments into their works, and then each moved further in the direction of pop-art or photorealism. They did not have a joint exhibition, but at the 1966 presentation of the famous Studio, their works could be seen together.

 

In 1964, quite a few young Hungarian artists were given the opportunity to go on a study trip to Western Europe. This was the year when pop art conquered Europe as well. Robert Rauschenberg won the Grand Prize of the Venice Biennale, and his work went on ‘tour’ around the world, and this was also the time of the first international travelling exhibitions of American pop art. At the same time, in Central and Eastern Europe, pop art did not focus on the consumer society, as it did not exist here, but rather rethought its relationship to mediatized images in the political and social context of the given country. Hungarian pop-art works were influenced not only by American examples, but also by the new realist trends emerging in Western Europe, which often dealt with political and social issues (e.g., the French Figuration Narrative; the West German Capitalistic Realism). The starting point of Hungarian pop-art artworks - like the surnaturalists - were the destruction of the schemes of socialist realism. In their works, Lakner, Gyémánt and Gyula Konkoly moved closer to a montage-like composition of the image based on a juxtaposition of photographically painted elements, characteristic of pop art as well. Often, instead of applying photos of well-known art historical references and people (e.g., Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Marilyn Monroe, Muhammad Ali, brand names) to the painting by a mechanical reproduction process, they achieved the tromple l'œl effect by painting with their bare hands. Hungarian artists raised questions about the epistemological challenges related to a pervasiveness of media images and found the answer in a medium-conscious realist form of painting. It is true of Hungarian pop art, as it is of most Hungarian neo-avant-garde trends, that it was extremely heterogeneous in terms of stylistic features and group composition - in other words, one can speak of pop works rather than pop artists. Some came to the movement from the figurative side, some from the abstraction side, but in the second half of the 1960s it affected almost everyone from the first generation of the neo-avant-garde in some way. Frequent topics: questions of art, motifs of urban life and rural life, human body and clothing, space exploration, cold war. In Hungary, pop-art works could be seen publicly for the first time at the I. Iparterv (1968) exhibition, which also marked the end of the first phase of the movement. Although György Kemény was not an exhibitor at the two Iparterv exhibitions, he was the person of this circle whose activity was the closest to American pop art, with which he became acquainted during his trip to Paris in 1963. He was one of the leading graphic designers of Hungary in the1960s. Among numerous important posters and books, he also designed the catalogue of the first Iparterv exhibition and the poster of the second. The frivolous female nude on the poster evokes the aesthetics of pop art and could be compared with Tom Wesselmann’s works. The second wave of the trend appeared in the late seventies and eighties. Significant are the works of Sándor Pinczehelyi, on which typical political symbols (sickle, hammer, star) appeared, and then the Coca-Cola box known from American pop art.

 

In 1969, in the second Iparterv exhibition organised by Péter Sinkovits, László Méhes exhibited Everyday (1969), recorded in the specialist literature as the first Hungarian photorealist painting, which depicted Hungarian everyday reality in revelatory mode with a dispassionate, descriptive attitude, doing away with all idealisations. Méhes painted and imitated the characteristics of the photographic image, along with its possible defects (e.g., the burned spots of the newspaper or the women's white blouse; a seemingly accidental image cut-out). These warn about the falsity of the (believed to be) representation of reality and the existential manipulation of art. During this time, Lakner was painting exceptionally matter of fact, yet sensually painterly monumental works resembling photo enlargements: Bones (1968); the Mouth (1969) series, in which pieces precisely followed a selected magazine photo yet were expressively formed. The spirit of his works was close to Malcolm Morley's document enlargements or Gerhard Richter's documentarian paintings exploring the delicate issues of the recent past. The first phase of Hungarian photorealism lasted roughly until 1975, which relates to Lakner and Méhes moving abroad, as well as the appearance of the new generation. Ákos Birkás, László Fehér, Imre Kocsis, Zuzu Méhes Lóránt, István Nyári, Sándor Bernáth/y already used the photographic or hyperrealist mode of expression clearly, but the critical, moralising voice, highlighting the manipulative nature of the press and photography, the ordinary city (underpass, subway, apartment buildings, shop windows) as a recurring theme remaining in their works. Lóránt Zuzu Méhes painted a photorealist series at a very young age in 1972-73 (Zsiga, 1972; Dad, 1973) which was not exhibited at the time of its creation. He painted, for example, his identity card (Identity Card,1972): conceptually approached object enlargement, like László Lakner’s document-paintings. The motif of the photo of the identity card also appears in László Fehér’s early photorealist series, grotesquely smiling Socialist Brigade figures painted after a newspaper cut-out, their names covered by a black stripe (Detail from the Brigade Diary, 1975). Certain works by Márton Barabás, Gábor Zrínyifalvi, Péter Nagy, Ádám Kéri, András Baranyay, as well as the work of László Gyémánt, György Marosvári, Péter Sarkadi, and later László Varkoly, can also be associated with hyperrealism. In addition to painting, the presence of hyperrealistic graphics is also significant. At the end of the 60s, the genre began with the self-ironic drawings of János Major and the conceptual works of László Méhes and László Lakner, and then in the 80s, Gusztáv Kiss, József László Molnár, István Filenz, Sándor Filep and Zoltán Szilágyi created series of hyperrealistic drawings. 

 

New Sensibility

 

 

Artworks in this theme

Wolf of Prokletije (1968)

György Kemény

Fidelity (1980)

Tamás Péli

Figures (1980)

El Kazovszkij

Coffee beans (1972)

László Lakner

A View from the bridge (1959)

Árpád Darvas

Arena (1970)

El Kazovszkij

Worker (1976)

Győző Somogyi

Kicsi 2 (1940)

Magda Frank

Figure (1944)

Magda Frank

Still life with book (1961)

Béla Gruber

Winter landscape (1965)

Viola Berki

Bloody Thursday (1960)

Dóra Maurer

Still life (1945)

Imre Ladányi

Black still life (1976)

György Román

related artists

László Lakner

(1936 - )

see artist page

György Kemény

(1936 - )

see artist page

Miklós Somos

(1933 - 2003)

see artist page

Imre Ladányi

(1902 - 1986)

see artist page

Gyula Marosán

(1915 - 2003)

see artist page

El Kazovszkij

(1948 - 2008)

see artist page

Lenke (Madeleine) Szemere

(1906 - 1993)

see artist page

Árpád Darvas

(1927 - 2015)

see artist page

Ferenc Helbing

(1870 - 1958)

see artist page

Győző Somogyi

(1942)

see artist page

Béla Gruber

(1936 - 1963)

see artist page

Zoltán Klie

(1897 - 1992)

see artist page

Tamás Lossonczy

(1901 - 2009)

see artist page

Pál Bor

(1889 - 1982)

see artist page

István Dési Huber

(1895 - 1944)

see artist page

Mariska Undi

(1877 - 1959)

see artist page

János Tábor (Taupert)

(1890 - 1956)

see artist page

Viola Berki

(1932 - 2001)

see artist page

Sándor Bortnyik

(1893 - 1976)

see artist page

Méla Hanna

(1892 – 1972)

see artist page

Piroska Futásfalvi Márton

(1899 - 1996)

see artist page

Anna Bartoniek

(1896 -1978)

see artist page

Alice Endresz

(1899 - 1953)

see artist page

Erzsébet Lóránt

(1898 - 1963)

see artist page

Alice Bélaváry

(1901 - 1972)

see artist page

Pál Miháltz

(1899 - 1988)

see artist page

György Román

(1903 - 1981)

see artist page

Andor Endre Fenyő

(1904 - 1971)

see artist page

György Hegyi

(1922 - 2001)

see artist page