In the course of my research in archives – in search of documents about the history of the Art Foundation of the People’s Republic (from 1968 Art Fund) – while leafing through the sea of files in the National Archives of Hungary (MNL OL) year after year, I came across so-far unknown documents on the life and fate of Béla Kondor which had been overlooked by the special literature so far.
Some reflected the character of the period from summer of 1956 to spring 1957, more precisely to the opening of the Spring Exhibition. In that spring, after relieving Rákosi of his office, the HWP (Hungarian Workers’ Party, Hun. MDP) cared less for “providing guidance for the arts”, as they were preoccupied with other, more troublesome problems. In the winter/spring after the revolution started on 23 October and crushed on 4 November the echelon of the HSWP (Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party, Hun. MSzMP) had not decided yet whether to strike a league with extreme leftist artistic groups or to pay heed to Memos Makris (Hun. Makrisz Agamemnon), the ministerial commissioner designing the reform of the artists’ association and organizing the Spring Exhibition and to leave the artists – so-far forced into the strait-jacket of socialist realism – alone. I found some documents which shed bright light on the narrow-mindedness of the dogmatic artistic policy trying to bend the artists toward its goals now with the whip, now with milk cake.
I start the series of recovered documents with a ministerial file dated summer 1956 on the decision to purchase Kondor’s diploma work (the Dózsa cycle). The next piece of good news is a record of the committee meeting in February 1957 awarding Kondor a Derkovits scholarship. This is followed by ministerial letters – mirrors of the new artistic policy – by a changed, truly partyist scholarship committee which apparently revel in lecturing talented Kondor who was not willing to give up his sovereignty, so his works were often refused to be bought on state funds for museums.
In addition to whip-lashing documents, I also present a few which offered some milk cake: a letter inviting him to a book illustrating competition called by the Petőfi Literary Museum and one commissioning him to make the sheets on the Heves county part of a “liberation album”.
Next, I put forth a group of illumining documents – long known but never published in details: the files revealing the story of the large panels designed for the walls of the “Uranium city” kindergarten in Pécs and those revealing the preparations for the exhibition in Fényes Adolf gallery in 1960 and the causes of the concurrent tensions – including texts on decisions to hinder the publication of Lajos Németh’s catalogue introduction.
The last group includes futile efforts by architects to get Kondor commissions for murals. They give information on three possible works. Another for Pécs again (this time with Tibor Csernus), for works for a “men’s hostel” and on the failure of the possibility. The other is about works for Kecskemét’s Aranyhomok Hotel, another failure. The third is about a glass window competition for a new modern hotel to be built in Salgótarján, to which Kondor was also invited, but the jury did not find his work satisfactory in spite of the fact that the officials representing the city’s “party and council” organs, and the powerful head of the county and town, the president of the county committee of the HSWP all were in favour of commissioning him.
Mind you, the architects’ efforts to provide the handful of modern artists with orders for “abstract” works caused headache for the masterminds of controlled art policy, too. On the one hand, they also tried to get rid of the rigidity of the ideologically dogmatic period in line with “who is not against us, is with us”, the motto spreading with political détente, and to give room to these genres qualified as “decoration”. On the other hand, they did not want to give up the figurative works of socialist contents, which the architects wanted to keep away from their modern buildings. A compromise was born: Cultural Affairs and the Art Fund remained supporters of figurative works, and the “decorative” modern murals, mosaics and sculptures were allowed inside the buildings at the cost of the builders.
Apart from architects, naturally there were other spokesmen in favour of Kondor (and Csernus and the rest of the shelved artists). In an essay in Új Irás in summer 1961 Lajos Németh simply branded it a waste to deprive Kondor of all channels except book illustration, while anonymous colleagues of the National Gallery guided an American curator to him who organized an exhibition of Kondor’s graphic works he had packed into his suitcase in the Museum of Modern Art in Miami.
From the early 1963 – as the rest of the explored documents reveal – better times began in Hungarian internal and cultural politics, hence in Béla Kondor’s life, too. The beginning is marked by a – still “exclusive” – exhibition he could hold in the Young Artists’ Studio in January, followed by a long propitiatory article urging for publicity for Kondor by a young journalist of Magyar Nemzet, Attila Kristóf. Then, in December Kondor became the Grand Prix winner of the second Graphic Biennial of Miskolc.
From then on, the documents are no longer about incomprehensible prohibitions or at time self-satisfying wickedness, but about exhibitions (the first in King Stephen Museum, Székesfehérvár), prizes (including the Munkácsy Prize in April 1965), purchases, the marvellous panel for the Grand Hotel on Margaret Island, the preparations for the Venice Biennale of 1968, the exhibition in Art Hall/Műcsarnok in 1970 and its success, and Kondor’s second Munkácsy Prize.
Finally, I chanced upon a group of startling and sofar wholly unknown notes which reveals that Béla Kondor was being among the nominees for the 1973 Kossuth Prize. News of his death on 12 December 1972, documents about the museum deposition of his posthumous works and the above group of files close the account of his life.
I wrote a detailed study to accompany the documents. My intention was not to explain them – as they speak for themselves – but to insert them in the life-story of Kondor, trying to find out which and how, to what extent contributed to the veering of his life-course and to possibilities of publicity for his works. I obviously included several further facts, partly in the main body of the text, and partly in footnotes. Without presenting them here, let me just pick one or two.
Events around the 1960 exhibition kindled the attention not only of the deputy minister of culture György Aczél, but also of the Ministry of the Interior: as Anikó B. Nagy dug out, they asked for an agent’s report on who Kondor was, what role he was playing among young writers, architects, artists, the circle around Vigilia and the intellectuals in general. Also: what role did human cowardice play in banning the panels for the Pécs kindergarten, and how wicked it was – with regulations cited – to ask back the advance money from an artist already hardly making a living with the termination of the Der ko vits scholarship. Again: what turn did modern Hungarian architecture undergo in the early sixties to dare and challenge the still prevalent culture political red tape? It was also a special experience to track down and describe the preparations for the Hungarian exhibition of the Venice Biennial of 1968 and to see how much caution and manoeuvring was needed even in those milder years to get permission for Béla Kondor (in the company of Tibor Vilt and Ignác Kokas) to feature in the pavilion. Finally, it was informative to follow the routes of Kondor’s estate as state acquisitions and museum deposits after his death which foiled his Kossuth Prize.