Lajos Kassák’s exhibition in the Fényes Adolf Showroom in 1967 was to be the last exhibition during the lifetime of that emblematic figure of the historic avant-garde in Hungary. It also serves as a window into the emergence of self-financed exhibitions at that time. There were two mutually contradictory phenomena connected with Kassák and his art in the Sixties: resurgence and rejection. Mounting demands for Kassák’s art to be put on show were set against the banishment of such exhibitions to the periphery. Kassák fought hard for acceptance as a painter. The contradictions typified by this simultaneous resurgence and rejection beset all kinds of intellectual accomplishment in the Kádár era, and more accurately characterize the period than the — nowadays somewhat worn-out – concept of ‘prohibition.’
After 1956, the cultural authorities’ relations with artists and cultural intellectuals were decidedly cold. After reaching a low point in 1957, cultural relations began to improve in the 1960s through a process that may be most simply described as a gradual widening of dialogue or attempts at dialogue, with both the authorities and those involved in cultural life putting out feelers to each other at varying levels of intensity. They sought a broader set of partners, on one side in the hope of a more rewarding pursuit of culture, and on the other in hope of justification. This process continued to unfold until the events of 1968, after which it stagnated and began to deteriorate. Set against this simple schema, Kassák’s exhibition in 1967 took place as optimistic dialogue was reaching its peak. But even in that brightest phase of compromise-seeking between the system and the cultural sphere, there was to be no prestigious, publicly-funded life’s-work exhibition for Kassák; only a modest, ‘off-site’ self-financed show in the Fényes Adolf Showroom.
This period saw an extension of the ‘tolerated art’ category. The regime could not — or did not want to — maintain its division into friends and enemies. By the end of the period, the passively-tolerated category had completely displaced the active, judgemental thrust of cultural policy and with the emergence of the self-financing exhibition system it became firmly established.
Sándor műtermében. Irodalmi forgatókönyv: Zsigmondi, Boris , hg. von Tölgyesi , János , 1971. február 5. SzM–MNG Adattár, 23 439/1993/343 . 1 – 51 . Art in Action: LajosKassák’s Avant-Garde Journals from A Tett to Dokumentum (1915–1927) 2017 – Art
The study presents a case that can be taken as a model of the political conception of the publicity of art in post-1956 Hungary. It is related to Lajos Kassák, the emblematic figure of progressive Hungarian art from the 1910s, who was tolerated by the Kádárian regime as a writer but rejected as an artist. The paper explores the problems of presenting Hungarian art abroad from an angle of art policy. In February 1960 a noted gallery owner in Paris, Denise René wished to exhibit Lajos Kassák's works. According to regulations, the permits of the Ministry of Culture and the Hungarian National Bank had to be obtained for the transportation of the pictures abroad. The Bank permit covered both taking the pictures out of the country and selling them. The process of obtaining permission was administered by the Hungarian National Gallery, as no private person was allowed to exhibit abroad without an institutional background. Kassák being a universally respected personage of the Hungarian art scene, it appeared only natural for the most prestigious Hungarian art institution to back up the cause of his Paris exhibition. There were no doubts about the smooth management of the case since the Hungarian reviewer of Kassák's art in the exhibition catalogue was the general director of the National Gallery who was also the secretary general of the Association of Hungarian Artists. Everything appeared to be progressing as planned, but as time passed, it was less as less probable that Kassák would be given an exit visa, since Nóra Aradi, a hard-liner department head at the ministry suggested to her superiors that they should not support Kassák's personal trip to Paris of reasons of cultural policy. Since the pictures arrived in Paris, the exhibition could not be cancelled. Two things could be done: to keep Kassák at home, undertaking to face a minor international scandal, and to punish those responsible for it. Kassák did not get an exit visa and for “breeching of authority” all the ministry personnel involved as well as the directors of the Kossuth Press printing the catalogue and the National Bank were called to the book. Disciplinary action was initiated against Ödön Gábor Pogány, general director of the National Gallery. True, the director violated some legal rules, but his gravest mistake as a faithful cadre was not the ignorance of formalities but the failure to cooperate with his party and ministry superiors about a delicate issue of art policy. In his catalogue text the director picked that strain in Lajos Kassák's complex art to praise highly to the west European public which was simply ignored by that-time Hungarian communist art policy as non-art. This preface was written by a person with whose knowledge and agreement the cultural leadership of that time wholly ignored Lajos Kassák as a visual artist. That he was fully aware of his “deed” is clearly proven by meaning his Kassák laudation for the French public alone, without publishing it in Hungarian. He was fully aware that Kassák was “exportable” to the West, but not “presentable” at home. He thus did far more than commit a simple disciplinary offence. His deed exposed a contradiction, suggesting to the cultural politicians that there were two kinds of art policy in Hungary – one for domestic use and one for abroad. This tendency had to be stifled, not only because it caused a great uproar among artists at home that non-figurative art was prohibited but Kassák's abstract works were allowed to travel abroad. (A few years later, however, this double-dealing came to fundamentally characterize the Hungarian cultural policy concerning visual arts.) The Kádárian regime found Kassák a contradictory person. Though his art did not satisfy the canon of the new regime, his international reputation and prestige in the art community earned him a “silent respect”. Because of his leftist, social democratic past he preserved his authority in the eye of the political elite many of whom including János Kádár knew him personally. His art in general and his commitment to abstraction, however, prevented him from becoming a favourite of the regime. The paradigmatic art of the period was socialist realism, though not in its original sense prevalent in the fifties. Essentially, abstract art was still branded as formalism and its practitioners were squeezed out of the art scene. That applies to Kassák, too. His exhibitions were banned even when he was honoured by the highest state award, the Kossuth prize, for his writings. So it appears that the regime wished to resolve the embarrassingly contradictory situation around Kassák by decorating him. Acontributory factor to the denial of Kassák's exit visa to the vernissage in Paris was the fact that the French capital was a hub of the Hungarian emigration. Among the organizers and visitors of the exhibition there were many who had left the country after the 1956 revolution and were sharply critical of Kádár's system. As can be seen, the years 1959–60 were a highly turbulent period in Hungarian politics. Retaliations were still going on for the revolution, Imre Nagy, premier of the revolutionary government was executed a year earlier. There was purging on the art scene as well: the association of artists was disbanded and then reorganized, and the institutions of the art life were adjusted to the ideas of the new era. The way of Kassák was treated part of the great “tidying up”: it was more important for the regime to appear consistent and ideologically pure than to bother about the domestic and foreign criticism.
Győző Vásárhelyi (Victor Vasarely) and Denise René staged two exhibitions of Lajos Kassák in the Galerie Denise René in Paris, in 1960 and 1963. The organizers included former members of the European School now living in Paris and Kassák's avant-garde artistic connections, including Jean Arp, Sonia Delaunay, Étienne Hajdú, Vera Molnár and her husband Ferenc, Imre Pán, Michel Seuphor, Tristan Tzara. The art historical significance of these exhibitions was that they kept abreast of the contemporary West European and American artistic tendencies: along a linear art historical logic, they created continuity between the abstraction of the first two decades of the 20th century and – with a great leap in time – the geometric abstraction, op art and kinetic trends of the 1950s and 1960s. The basis to do so was, on the one hand, Kassák's oeuvre spanning from 1920 to 1960s, and on the other, the joint presentation of Kassák and Vasarely, as representatives of two periods. Their joint exhibitions and publication illustrated the vitality and continuous presence of the traditions of the Bauhaus workshop and the École de Paris in Hungarian art through Kassák's “return to Paris”. The correspondence preparing the Paris exhibitions outlines the joint artistic strategy of Denise René, Vasarely and Kassák. The moral and political background to the strategy also included the novel international evaluation of abstract art. When speaking of the first Paris Biennale of 1959 the French cultural minister André Malraux declared that “grand painting is no longer figurative” (“La grande peinture n'est plus figurative”) and “only abstract art counts”, in Hungary the predominant cultural–political marketing rejected contemporary art, preventing abstract artists from showing their works freely at home or abroad. Nevertheless, Kassák managed to realize two exhibitions in Paris, thanks to his above mentioned Paris connections and the former European School founders and members, notably Imre Pán, Étienne Hajdú, Pál Gegesi Kiss, as well as his old friend book publisher Lajos Lengyel and his own organizing skills. The partnership of Kassák and Vasarely was an adaptation of the artistic strategy of the age which was formulated also by Michel Ragon in his book The adventure of abstract art (L'aventure de l'art abstrait, 1956). In it he declared the continuity of the École de Paris on the basis of comprehensive documentation ranging from cubism, the Russian, Dutch, Czech and French geometric trends through the Bauhaus to Abstraction Création incorporating the Cercle et Carré, the Cobra group. Ragon concentrated on the convergence of the American and European abstraction, however, deriving the post-World War II situation from the Art Brut. As Michel Seuphor recalled, it was in the spring of 1960, after the ten-year monopoly of abstract expressionism, that the vigour of abstract geometric art became obvious as demonstrated by the exhibition Construction and Geometry in Painting staged in New York's Galerie Chalette. The “evolutionist” strategy gave rise to new possibilities in the art of the early 1960s and entailed the need to rewrite the history of art and to introduce a new curatorial attitude that was to affect the artmarket and had its impact on art itself.
Kassák's late creative period was influenced by this strategy in various senses. At the time of the preparations for the New York exhibition of 1959, Vasarely, aged 51, invited Kassák, then 72, the Hungarian pioneer of Dadaism, activism, neo-geometrism, constructivism based on architectural principles, to exhibit in Galerie Denise René in Paris. At the same time, Vasarely put his works on display upstairs in the gallery. The parallel showing of Kassák “the source” and Vasarely as “contemporary follower” was well timed: it came a month before the monumental New York exhibition which illustrated the same continuity between the Russian, German, Czech, French and Polish early avant-garde “ancestors” and the contemporary representative of geometric abstraction. In New York Kassák was not present. After their first joint exhibition in Paris, a common serigraph album was also published including Kassák's manifesto of 1922 and Vasarely's text of 1960. Victor Vasarely was the co-curator of Galerie Denise René, who also featured as a diplomat resuming the French-Hungarian relations with the Paris showings. His activities encompassed art, international cultural relations, and commerce. Lajos Kassák was prepared for the pending action and in a few months' period he got the exhibition ready, which seemed impossible to bring about from a Hungary keeping aloof of the arena of contemporary art in the spirit of the Cold War. Between August and December 1959 Kassák managed to get the permissions for his works to leave the country and to get them transported. He got Ödön Gábor Pogány, general director of the Hungarian National Gallery, to preface the Paris catalogue. His long-time friend, photographer and book-designer Lajos Lengyel, the director of the Kossuth Press, printed the brown and black catalogue of the Galerie Denise René exhibition. Kassák's support at home had its consequences. Pogány was summoned by the Central Control Committee of the Hungarian Socialist Workers' Party about the catalogue. He locked the material related to the Kassák catalogue among the confidential documents (Nr. 933). This file contains Kassák's original model for the catalogue, the linocut used for the cover and the bills of delivery, together with the summary note of Mrs Bökönyi, secretary of Pogány. The vernissage of Kassák's first exhibition in Paris was announced for 9–12 pm, 9 February 1960. The artist was not allowed to travel out of the country for the opening. Three years later, in 1963, Lajos Kassák and his wife were present at the opening of his next exhibition, as is revealed by Áron Tóbiás' interview, Lucien Hervé's photos and Pál Nagy's report. That was when Jean Cassou purchased the small Kassák picture for the Musée National de l'Art Moderne which is still there together with another Kassák picture that the artist presented as a gift. The two exhibitions meant for Lajos Kassák the last chance in both moral and material terms to break out from“the end of the world” towards Paris, in the name of the spatial and temporal continuity of avant-garde art. This is exactly why his admirers in Paris were attracted to the “constructivist Kassák” and not to the painter of lyrical abstractions as he was at that time. It namely logically followed from the “evolutionist” exhibiting strategy postulating continuity between the 1920s and the 1960s that continuity in style was also required. In Hungary, some historians charged Kassák with having a “fragmented” oeuvre.
Continuity of the paths – the Magyar Műhely periodical The “evolutionist” conception, however, opened easy-totread paths for many. The occasion of Kassák's second Paris showing was a good opportunity for the Hungarian artists living in Paris, including the founders of the periodical Magyar Műhely (Hungarian Workshop) launched in 1962 (József Czudar, László Márton, Pál Nagy, Tibor Papp, János Parancs, Imre Szakál and Ervin Pátkai, later Gyula Sipos alias Pál Albert) to meet Kassák in person. The young intellectuals fleeing from various areas of Hungary after the 1956 revolution and usually identifying themselves with a “regional” attitude arrived in a Europe, in a Paris with radically active leftist intellectuals, which was, by the way, the metropolis of art. At the age of 18–20, they wanted to become “contemporaries”. Partly upon the inspiration of the Kassák exhibitions, the founders-editors of Magyar Műhely decided to reject the “exiled” attitude and run a periodical that would support the Hungarian avant-garde art that was banned or neglected at home by giving it a forumto appear. They decided tomap and support Hungarian avant-garde art as such. First they reached back to Kassák's art claiming that “revival is only possible within continuity”. As a tribute to the ancestor, they devoted an issue to him in 1965. Basically the whole editorial board agreed about Kassák's neglect in Hungary and his international artistic significance. “The first conclusion we can draw fromthe collected works exhibited at Galerie Denise René is the unbroken advance of Kassák. If in the twenties the editor of MA did perhaps more with his theoretical and organizing activity for the dissemination of constructivist art than with his pictures, in the past decades it was practically Kassák alone who translated the one-time principles into practice. The one-time principles whose essence was renewal. After a long and unsought silence, the companion of Picasso, Mondrian, Malevits and Moholy-Nagy is still speaking the same language as the cream of the international avant-garde looking for their salvation in creation instead of currying favour with the authorities or snobbish circles.” From a donation by Mrs Kassák, the editors of Magyar Műhely founded the Kassák Prize (1972) after the artist's death to reward talented young artists working in the spirit of the avant-garde. For years the prize was awarded to young artists in Hungary who thereby got interlaced in the fabric of the continuity of Hungarian avantgarde art. Adopting the strategy chosen by Kassák and Vasarely, the young editors of Magyar Műhely and its following started to write a new chapter in the history of the École de Paris.
On the occasion of the 125th anniversary of György Lukács's birth, the Georg Lukács Archives affiliated with the Institute for Philosophical Research of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences held a one-night show, Interventions, that was conceived and organized by artist Tamás Soós who invited Balázs Beöthy, Miklós Erhardt, the artist duo Little Warsaw and János Sugár to contribute to the event.
There is a considerable difference between Lukács's reception in Hungary and abroad (mainly in the Western world). In his native country Lukács has sunk into near oblivion, while elsewhere – also on the occasion of the jubilee – several conferences and publications support the reinterpretation of Lukács's legacy parallel with the renaissance of the Western new left. Gail Day's recent essay looks into Lukács's legacy in fine arts. She argues that Lukács's concept of realism is probably best represented by Allan Sekula's art whose “critical realism” is indeed connected to Lukács's late concept of art in many respects. She also introduces the notion of “militant citoyen” in her analysis of the Lukácsean legacy of engaged artists depicting social issues in an agitating manner (e.g. the Radek community or the chto Delat? group). The Hungarian reception of Lukács is far more ambivalent because of historical and political reasons. His impact on contemporary Hungarian art was not exclusively philosophical, his function as an ideologist and his relentless hostility to the avant-garde had occasionally more direct effects on the art production of his time. His antipathy to the avant-garde is not only visible after the communist turn of 1918 and the parallel “Weimarisation”: for Lukács modern art was essentially anti-art already in 1907 because it was not culture but fashion that determined its face – he claimed. Although he stood up for the new progressive art of the Eight group, in his writing The Ways Have Parted (1910) he still insisted on the conventional relationship between artist and public. For him, the warranty of “new constructivism” was an art emanating harmony, peace and tranquility, and in this respect he is closer to Kant and Hegel than to the avant-garde that he defended in the essay. His ideas on art were deeply influenced by his friend Leó Popper after whose untimely death Lukács lost contact with contemporary art. He was less interested in art and was tempted more and more to use painting only as a pretext to explicate his ideologies.
In 1918 Lukács joined the Hungarian Party of communists. During the Republic of councils as a deputy leader of the commissariat of Public Education he was in charge of the art directories led by progressive artists of the period. Although he defended Lajos Kassák and the periodical MA he edited against Béla Kun and his comrades' attacks, but his harsh criticism published during the artist and his circle's emigration in Vienna, determined the reception of Kassák for many decades. During his emigration in Moscow, Lukács made attempts to elaborate a system of Marxist esthetics with Mikhail Lifshitz and he got into debates with Ernst Bloch, Bertolt Brecht and others, whether German expressionism should wholly or at least partly be considered as part of cultural heritage. He connected expressionism politically to social democracy and ideologically to fascism (and its precedents). In terms of form, he prescribed classical legacy, rejecting the formal realm both of the avant-garde which he saw as decay and chaos, and the dry naturalism of Stalinist esthetics. With an unexpected turn, Lukács shifted the topic of the polemic from expressionism to realism. During the decades-long debates he was arguing with philosophers like Walter Benjamin and Theodor W. Adorno, who rejected the dogmatic character of Lukács's esthetic and political views.
After World War II, Lukács moved back to Hungary. Though he was not directly involved in politics and held no state or party position, the communist leadership entrusted him with an important task as they needed internationally acknowledged prestigious experts who could help spreading Marxist ideology among the intellectuals. He was not the official ideologist of the party but his critical writings of this period still greatly influenced cultural trends of the next decades. In his Hungarian theories of abstract art (1947) Lukács applied his theses of the expressionism debate to the book of Béla Hamvas and Katalin Kemény, as well as Ernő Kállai. Lukács argues that abstraction “opposes to the centuries-old practice of European art” and hence it is not a “normal” shift of style. The Hamvas–Kemény book as well as Ernő Kállai's The Hidden Face of Nature were the most important theoretical writings of abstract and surrealist artists after World War II. Hamvas's book Revolution in Art, co-authored with Katalin Kemény, followed the unfolding of Hungarian art from Károly Ferenczy to the European School. Lukács's article therefore contributed not only to the silencing of Hamvas but eventually also actively contributed to creating a hostile and unbearable situation for the European School and the Group of Abstract Artists. “Silenced into a legend”, Hamvas became an important point of reference for the so-called Zugló circle and the young Hungarian avant-garde artists.
Lukács passed down his inexorable anti-avant-garde views to his disciples, too, who could only discover the art of their age moving away from the aged master. However, only few of them had actual contact with neo-avant-garde artists. At the end of the sixties, with the contradictions of his life and work, Lukács was the defender of the (conservative) middle-class culture versus socialist realism and at the same time the main ideologist of socialist realism; with his revolutionary and hereditary interpretation of Marx, he paved the way for democracy while at the same time he was a doctrinaire communist; he was a philosopher of international reputation and a has-been scholar, the apologist of “mandarin culture”, the minion and persecutee of the system. Nevertheless, Lukács was present in the mentality of avant-garde art because despite his ideological dogmatism he represented a bourgeois esthetic culture (often downright in opposition to the regime) which had a kind of ethos compared to the bureaucratic indolence of power.
The article examines how energetically and biomechanically-based aesthetics, reception theories, and political ideas could inform, or inspire, leftist visual and poetic representation and choice of style in Hungarian modernism during the 1918–19 political upheavals, as a response to modern technology's effects. In connection to these views, the article also reconsiders the political ambiguities of Bortnyik's art in relation to Hungarian anarchism.
It is a highly peculiar phenomenon in Hungarian — and perhaps in East and Central European — literature of the early 20th century that Avant-Garde tendencies started to gain some (weak) position parallel with the first wave of Modernism, and when they received — understandably — a rather hostile reaction on the part of Conservative (nationalistic, traditional, anti-Western) literary circles, their reception on the part of the evolving Modernist literature was not much more friendly either. Strangely enough, besides some signals of solidarity and sympathy, the criticisms of Modernism turned against Avant-Garde were in harmony with those formulated by the Conservative circles. However, as the Latin saying goes, “duo cum faciunt idem, non est idem” (that is, when two do the same thing, it is not the same thing) — despite the apparent interference of Modernist and Conservative criticisms aimed against Avant-Garde tendencies, the position of the actors in question was radically different. In what follows, I give a short account of the Avant-Gardists’ debate with their Modernist contemporaries and an even shorter account of their debate with their Conservative adversaries.
Im Jahre 1909 brachen der Wiener Aktivist Rober Müller (1887-1924) und der Budapester Aktivist Lajos Kassák (1887-1967) zu einer jeweils exotischen Reise auf: Müller bereiste die Vereinigten Staaten, Mexiko, sowie einige Länder Mittel- und Südamerikas, Kassák pilgerte nach Paris; er brauchte für seinen Fußmarsch etwa drei Monate. Es war nicht der Geist der Moderne oder der Avantgarde, die er dort suchte - „ich sah Paris und ich sah nichts“, schrieb er später -, es ging ihm, wie auch Müller im Urwald, um die eigene Wiedergeburt als „neuer Mensch“, als Literat mit großer Öffentlichkeitswirkung. Die Berichte beider Ich-Reisen wurden in Wien verlegt, Müllers erschien 1915, Kassáks 1922 (dt. 1923). Müller und Kassák lebten 1920-1924 in derselben Stadt und hatten sicher Kenntis über die Arbeit des jeweils anderen. Dass sie einander nie auch nur mit einem Wort erwähnt haben, liegt daran, dass (vereinfacht gesagt) Kassáks Konzeption der Massenwirksamkeit eine linke war, während die von Müller eher aus Begriffen der rechten Ideologien bestand.
Anknüpfend an die Feldtheorie geht es in dieser Studie darum, zu zeigen, daß Sinn und Bedeutung eines Kunstwerkes oder einer einzelnen Stellungnahme - wie zum Beispiel „ich bin Lajos Kassák“ - über ihre möglichen werkimmanenten und intertextuellen Konnotationen hinaus in einem beträchtlichen Maß von der Position seines Autors in dem Feld, in dem er tätig ist, abhängt. Untersuchungen von kulturellen Werken hätten demnach in erster Linie nicht das Verhältnis zwischen dem Werk und den biographischen Ereignissen im Leben des Autors, sondern - sofern sie den Sinn des Werkes nicht in den „Ideenhimmel“ versetzen wollen - den Zusammenhang zwischen dem Raum (oder der Welt) des Werkes (immanente Ansätze) und dem Raum des Autors (seine in der Entstehungszeit des zu interpretierenden Werkes eingenommene Position im literarischen Feld) zu untersuchen.
During their tragically short artistic careers Sándor Galimberti (1883–1915) and his wife Valéria Dénes (1877–1915) roused the interest of the critics three times. After a stay in Paris for several years, they staged their first exhibition of their collected works in Budapest in January 1914, which elicited vivid, mostly appreciative reviews. The critics claimed they were representing the most up-to-date Paris trends in Hungary. Hardly a year later, several obituaries made their careers and artistic works known after their tragic death. In 1918 the group of activists organized by Lajos Kassák presented the work of the couple acknowledged as their forerunners in the exhibiting room of MA, which also drew wide and positive press coverage.