In the first half of the fifties almost every year there was a spring exhibition in Budapest. It was usually open to those who had no chance to show their works in the great state exhibitions in the previous years and thus the Ministry of Popular Education had not purchase any from them. There was a strict jury to select from the submitted works and to recommend what to exhibit and what to buy.
The Spring Exhibition opened on 20 April 1957 in all rooms of the Kunsthalle was different. The exhibits were not selected by a state-delegated jury but by four juries delegated by the artists themselves and everyone was free to submit their painting, sculpture, print to any of the four. The selection was also widely different from the ‘socialist realist’ works of the earlier spring exhibitions, representing a rich assortment of styles from naturalist to abstract and surrealist. The Greek sculptor Agamemnon Macris, who immigrated to Hungary and was immediately accepted and acknowledged by the art community, was entrusted with the organization of the exhibition; he arranged the selection by stylistic trends, each given a room of its own.
The Spring Exhibition was received by a meticulously organized volley of criticism. It was reviled by the dailies and – under the pretext of a debate – the newly launched literary weekly, Élet és Irodalom [Life and Literature] carried a series of disparaging articles. It was their coordinated opinion that under the motto “let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools compete” the Spring Exhibition was a misinterpreted copy of the ongoing Chinese cultural campaign and, in short, it was petty bourgeois anarchy incarnate. The experience of a free choice of style, unrestricted self-presentation and the intensive attack of abuse left a deep imprint on the memory of the artists. The same applies to art historical writing.
The author is a researcher of the history of the Fine Arts (from 1968 Arts) Fund. In the four decades of socialism this institution was in charge of organizing the subsistence of artists: the companies under its aegis did everything from casting sculptures to art trade, from grounding canvas to printing picture-postcards, and from the income the fund gave the artists old-age pension, medical care, sick pay and occasional allowances, and even interest-free loans. Several documents have been found scattered among the files of the Federation of Hungarian Artists and the Ministry of Culture found in the National Archives, which refer to the 1957 Exhibition. Excerpts are given from them in the Appendix. The picture that they help reproduce provides explanation to the nervousness with which the political leadership that rose to power with the support of the intervening Soviet troops after the 1956 revolution responded to the Spring Exhibition.
The documents reveal: the Spring Exhibition was not only an attempt to restore the artists’ intellectual autonomy, but also – and most importantly – to regain their financial independence. The four juries were also the cores of four possible artists’ groups, and the members of the Artists’ Federation and the Arts Fund would have been rallied in the “salons” they represented. Each of these salons would have owned a company which they hoped to set up on the material and personal resources of the art trading company of the Fund called Képcsarnok, and of the creative communities active with permission since the autumn of 1953.
Splitting up Képcsarnok into smaller companies was originally proposed by the Arts Fund director and the leaders of the art division of the Ministry of Education in summer 1956 and not by the Federation. It was hoped that when a single company was replaced by several, and each management included a few prominent artists, then the grumbling painters and graphic artists protesting against the hegemony of the only art trading company’s only jury and the only top leader of the jury could be pacified. The director’s plan was discussed by the artists several times in summer and autumn, but then the revolution broke out on the 23rd, veering the story into a new direction.
The Executive Committee formed from the Revolutionary Committee of the Federation of Artists and the ministerial commissioner Agamemnon Macris who headed the Federation put the plan in the focus of the reform of the Federation they jointly worked out. The four economic units called “salons” converted from the planned four small companies would have been held together by a new independent Artists’ Federation Association shedding the patronage of the state. The membership of the “salons”, with their leadership of prominent artists and juries answerable to them, and with the Arts Fund to be put under their control, wished to take their own destiny in hand, eliminating the so-far dictating bureaucratic apparatus: the party centre and the ministry. The Spring Exhibition would have been the debut of this reorganized Association and the enterprises that would have ensured its financial autonomy.
No doubt about it, this could not be put up with either by the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party or the government officials. The Kádárian leadership driven by the logic of the violent recapture of power refused to yield the safest means of control: the material resources and supervision of the access to them. Consequently, it deployed all possible means to checkmate the artists’ plan. In the forums of publicity the pluralism of the Spring Exhibition was vehemently attacked, while the office took “administrative” measures to thwart the working of the Association trying to reorganize itself in a new spirit and on new grounds. It was therefore in vain for Macris to visit György Aczél, the newly appointed deputy cultural minister to tell him his assessment of the situation and to advise on it, for no one listened to him. The working of the Association was suspected, the reform plans discarded and they tried to erase even the memory of the Spring Exhibition.