“I Carried out the Program According to Plan.” Lajos Vayer and the Hungarian Exhibitions at the Venice Biennale (1968–1972)

Modernization attempts at the Venice Biennale—a general overview of the transitional period (1968‒1972/76)

Be it in the Hungarian or the international context, there have always been heated arguments both for and against the Venice Biennale, and the particular outcome of these debates have always been determined by the norms of the given era.

The wave of student protests that broke out in Paris in 1968 had a deep impact on the Venice Biennale: the protocol of the official vernissage was disturbed by students of the Academia di Belle Arti who protested against the commercialization of the Biennale, the instrumentalization of art by the political elite and the bourgeoisie, and the dominance of the art market. Numerous artists expressed their solidarity with the protesters, removing or covering their artworks in the national pavilions or the central exhibition.[1] The protest made it clear that the whole international art scene demanded new paths and new regulations in terms of aesthetics, content, and the art market. The protesters called for a reform of the Biennale’s statute (operational regulations) that has been in place since 1930.[2] The Biennale organizers promised a reform encompassing the appointment of a new leadership, headed  by an independent president (elected on a professional instead of a political basis), the invitation of more international artists to the central exhibition, the replacement of the entrenched academic framework with a fresher outlook, and the salon-like, retrospective displays with a focus on fewer artists and their most recent works, as well as the elimination of awards and the selling of the artwork[3]

The three subsequent Biennales were primarily dominated by the chaos and uncertainty of Italian politics and debates that took place on many different levels (public debates, professional forums, political battles, etc.). As the new regulations were not yet outlined by 1970, numerous artists boycotted the Biennale that year, refusing to participate until the statute was reformed.[4] That year’s visitor number of 115.500 was one of the lowest in the Biennale’s history: since 1985, only the exhibitions of 1940 and 1942 attracted less people.[5] The first reform to be implemented was the abolishment of awards, which were no longer handed out in 1970.[6] The elimination of the selling of artworks was much less straightforward. Although the central sales office did shut down in 1968, the actual trade with artworks continued within the Biennale’s framework, albeit in a much less open and centralized fashion.[7]

There was also an attempt to introduce clear, new directions to the Biennale’s exhibition policy. This endeavor was accompanied by the large-scale thematic exhibition Ricerca e progettazione proposte per una esposizione sperimentale [Seeking new paths and a proposal for an experimental exhibition], organized in the Biennale’s central pavilion in 1970.[8] The exhibition was curated by the Italian Umbro Apollinio and the German Dietrich Mahlow, two internationally acclaimed curators of the time. It featured structural-experimental and poetic works by artists such as Alexander Rodchenko, Kazimir Malevich, El Lissitzky, Vladimir Tatlin, and László Moholy-Nagy, as well as Franz Mon, Tomitaro Nachi, etc., thereby showcasing  some past and contemporary examples to the future, through which the organizers expressed their belief in art’s ability to generate dialogue and achieve social transformation. The general ethos that “the Biennale belongs to progress and the young generation” was shareddirectly or indirectlyby the exhibitions in other national pavilions as well. One such example was the German Pavilion, curated by Dieter Honisch, presenting works by Günther Uecker, Heinz Mack, Thomas Lenk, and Karl Georg Pfahler that dealt with issues of political space, society, and utopia.[9] In a similar vein, the Polish Pavilion exhibited the emblematic objects of Józef Szajna and Władysław Hasior, assembled from the era’s waste materials, depicting the deportation of Krakow’s Jewry to Auschwitz with a visual style often interpreted as an Eastern European version of Pop art.[10]

By 1968‒1970, some of the national pavilions broke away from the tradition of salon-style presentation, reducing the number of artists to one or two (maximum three or four), leaving behind retrospective exhibition structures and focusing more on new works specifically created for the Biennale. The 1972 and 1974 exhibitions further destabilized previously entrenched frameworks. In 1972, Mario Penelope, the Deputy Government Commissioner that year, was the first to raise the idea of an overarching theme for the whole Biennale, which could enhance cohesion between the national pavilions and the growing number of centrally organized collateral exhibitions realized at various external locations. The practice of defining a central theme was eventually implemented in 1976 with Germano Celant’s concept of Arte/Ambiente (Art/Environment).

After lengthy debates, the Biennale’s new statute came into force in 1973. That year, socialist politician Carlo Ripa di Meana was appointed as President, which meant that the replacement of political with professional control, as demanded in 1968, was not realized.[11] The statute’s finalization and di Meana’s appointment, however, took longer than expected, making it impossible to organize a “proper” Biennale in 1974. Because of the delayed decision-making process, invitations to participate could not be sent out in time, therefore the 1974 Biennale remained “unnumbered” and was held outside of the Giardini (the national pavilions stayed closed), with various smaller, alternative exhibitions and performances that reflected on the political events in Chile.[12] That same year, the newly appointed leadership immediately began preparations for the “new” Biennale in 1976.

The waves of 1968 had fully subsided by 1976 and new directions began to take shape. The pre-1968 organizational and operational structure was reinstalled in many respects, but numerous important innovations and reforms were also introduced, including a much more democratic decision-making body, updated rules of procedure, and an expanded network of exhibitions. The fact that these reforms did not go much deeper was not only up to the Biennale’s Italian organizers. In the summer of 1974, they invited the commissioners of each pavilion-owning nation to participate in a discussion about the Biennale’s future (Hungary was represented by Lajos Vayer).[13] Two of the most important issues were whether to keep the traditional format of exhibitions (i.e. continue the custom of “permanent” national exhibitions in the pavilions) and whether to replace the right of national commissioners to select participating artists with direct invitations from the Biennale’s leadership. Since the majority of representatives opposed both suggestions, in the upcoming years, modernizing the Biennale did not so much mean a reform of the national pavilion system, but rather the incorporation of new external venues that served as locations for further, invitation-based exhibitions.

The period of reflection and experimentation between 1968 and 1972/76 eventually paved the way for what came to be a genuinely new era and fundamental shift in the Biennale’s international history in the 1980s, marked by events such as launching the Aperto series conceived by art historians Achille Bonito Oliva and Harald Szeemann, incorporating the Arsenale as a new location, and inaugurating the Biennale of Architecture.

The official Hungarian cultural policy at the Venice Biennale between 1968 and 1972/76

After the democratic elections of 1945, the Hungarian Communist Party rapidly demolished the multi-party system and gradually eliminated its middle-class opposition. By 1948/49, a total Communist dictatorship was in place under Mátyás Rákosi (1892–1971), who remained in power until the outbreak of the 1956 revolution.[14] Consequently, following the Second World War, Hungary last participated at the Biennale in 1948,[15] followed by 10 years of absence.[16] In the 1950s, from the major players in Hungarian cultural policy, the Biennale’s most vocal critics were Berda Ernőné, Head of the Department of Fine Arts at the Ministry of Public Education and Nóra Aradi, her successor from 1958 onwards. In 1958, Aradi called the exhibition a “terrible swamp” that she considered to have “gone below every standard by showing abstract works and technical-material experiments that could not even be described as abstract.”[17] However, as a result of the post-1956 consolidation and shifts in domestic and foreign relations, Hungarian exhibitions at the Giardini were resumed in 1958. Hungary’s renewed participation was not only facilitated by the Soviet Union’s return to the Biennale in 1956,[18] but also by the strengthening of Italian-Hungarian relations after several years of heightened diplomatic activity from the Italian side. The repeated personal intervention of Mario Penelope, General Secretary of the Italian Artists’ Union (and later Deputy Government Commissioner of the Venice Biennale) was especially effective. In the beginning of 1958, Penelope spent 10 days in Budapest to discuss various issues and future plans regarding Italian-Hungarian cultural relations with officials of the Institute of Cultural Relations (KKI) and the Ministry of Cultural Affairs.[19] This was one of the occasions where Penelope emphasized the importance of Hungarian participation at the Biennale and suggested displaying the work of the internationally acclaimed artist, the “starving painter of proletarians” Gyula Derkovits  (1894–1934), whose oeuvre was supported and rehabilitated during the 1950s, in Venice. He assured the Hungarian officials that he would speak to Venice’s ex-communist mayor and lobby for the speedy acceptance of the Hungarian Pavilion’s renovation plans so that the construction works could begin immediately. For various reasons, Hungary’s political leaders postponed the decision to the last minute, and only agreed on the country’s return to Venice in February 1958.[20] The Deputy Minister and ideologue in the cultural policy of the János Kádár regime (1956–88) in Hungary, György Aczél’s (1917–1991) personal lobbying power was also needed to convince the Ministry of Finance to secure the funds necessary for renovating the pavilion.[21] The Hungarian administration partially fulfilled Penelope’s request by featuring a larger body of graphic works by Derkovits at the 1958 Biennale.

In 1958, the Ministry of Cultural Affairs appointed art historian Lajos Vayer as the Government Commissioner for that year’s Venice Biennale. This commission turned out to be so enduring that Vayer remained in the position for the next 20 years, overseeing the organization of the Hungarian exhibitions in Venice until 1978. Lajos Vayer was a professor and Head of Department at the ELTE University Budapest, a Doctor of Art History, and a well-known researcher of the Renaissance with an internationally acclaimed scientific output, a mastery of the Italian language, and an extensive network of professional contacts in Italy. His achievements greatly increased the prestige of the Hungarian exhibitions in the eye of the authorities in Venice. Although Vayer’s primary research interest was not contemporary art and he had no real experience in organizing such exhibitions, he did know several artists personally and maintained a good relationship with them. Why did Professor Vayer agree to undertake this task for twenty years even though it had no real professional significance to him? Truth be told, he did use his position and the accompanying month-long trip to Italy every year to continue his own art historical research, and the Ministry of Cultural Affairs was happy to refund his so-called circolare, a railway ticket valid for one month.[22] The 5.000 Hungarian Forint honorarium (in addition to the per diems and the covering of all his expenditures during his stay in Venice) was considered a rather good wage at the time for assembling the exhibition material and lending it professional legitimacy, organizing the exhibition in Venice, building professional relations at the opening, holding guided exhibition tours, and writing the exhibition text.[23] At the same time, and Vayer should be given credit for this, reports on the Biennale also make it clear that he made a specific effort each year to maintain good relations with Italian experts and political leaders, and even though he was not a professional diplomat, he tried his best to invigorate Hungary’s cultural relations with Italy (and other countries).[24]

Vayer did not have much else to do beyond these professional tasks. In the 1960s and 1970s, everything worked rather smoothly. According to the official protocol, everything had to go through the Ministry’s Department of Fine Arts, as they had the right to decide about issues related to content, organization, communication, and to some extent, finance. It was the Ministry that delegated tasks to the Institute of Cultural Relations (KKI) and the Kunsthalle (Műcsarnok).[25] Very rarely, the Hungarian Academy in Rome and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs participated in fulfilling the representational tasks at the opening ceremony or in dealing with technical and official difficulties, but this was more the exception than the rule.[26] The general view was that at the time, the Ministry was not really interested in fine art, but focused a lot more on music and literature. On the one hand, this gave artists a bit more freedom, but on the other, it meant that many of the important decisions were always delayed and the budget for exhibitions was more limited. They only allocated the minimum amount necessary for the Biennale, causing delays and disruptions in the organization and payments every year. This lack of funding resulted in a critical situation, because it permitted only the most urgent renovations on the Hungarian Pavilion, even though the building was in really poor conditionas testified by numerous Italian structural analyses from the time.[27] The Ministry was only willing to allocate a somewhat bigger budget for artwork purchases: they bought numerous works from exhibiting artists before and after the Biennale,[28] either for the Ministry itself, or for a public museum in Budapest (primarily the Hungarian National Gallery) or elsewhere in the country.

In Vayer’s time, the artists who had the chance to exhibit in Venice were generally accepted by the regime, but were not Socialist Realists. Their selection was guided not so much by aesthetic considerations, but rather by principles grounded in cultural policy. Vayer was good at keeping a balance: during his commission, no hardliners made it to Venice, yet he was also careful not to take on anything too bold, being fully aware that his selection would have to be approved by a committee of KKI members and Ministry officials, as well as by the Deputy Minister. When compiling his selection of names and works for Venice, he was fully aware of being expected to primarily send a message to the Hungarian audience, and not the international art world: in the 1960s and 1970s, participation of Hungarian artists at the Biennale was granted by the authorities as recognition of an artist’s achievements, hence exhibiting in Venice usually also entailed official purchases. Often many years prior to the official invitation, the Ministry made a verbal promise to artists that their works would be shown in Venice. As the selection for the Biennale was mainly a gesture of approval within the Hungarian context, it was usually preceded or followed by the artist’s large-scale exhibition at the Kunsthalle Budapest (Ignác Kokas, 1969; Béla Kondor, 1970; Tibor Vilt, 1970), or, in two cases, at the Budapest History Museum’s Castle Museum, where the whole exhibition material from Venice was put on display for the Hungarian audience (Gyula HinczJózsef Somogyi, 1971; Endre Domanovszky, 1971).

Vayer’s career as Government Commissioner might seem homogenous at first, yet it can be divided into periods. During his first three Biennales (1958‒1962), he had less control over the selection process: although, on paper at least, Vayer was always consulted, the final decision was made by the Ministry’s official apparatus, under the leadership of Nóra Aradi. Subsequently, the director of the Hungarian National Gallery was instructed to collect every artwork by the selected artists that was in the museum’s possession (be it in the storage or on display) in separate rooms for the final selection process.[29] In other words, works to be exhibited at the Biennale were selected from the material gathered for this purpose in the Hungarian National Gallery (or the Kunsthalle). This core material from public collections was then sometimes augmented by the works Vayer selected when visiting artists’ studios or private collections. The selection was characterized by an art historical, salon-type approach (many artists with one work each, sometimes highlighting one “central artist”), mainly featuring works from the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s that were already in museum or ministry collections. They aimed to represent multiple generations and every genre (painting, sculpture, graphic arts) and also cater for potential requests from the Italian partners.

It was in 1964 that Vayer started taking more of an initiative: following his suggestion, only three artists (Jenő Barcsay, György Segesdi, Kálmán Csohány) were exhibited in Venice that year, each with a larger, more comprehensive body of work, thus leaving behind the tradition of salon exhibitions.[30] This was also the first time Vayer managed to achieve that exhibiting artists could travel to Venice for a few days around the opening.[31] The artists had little say in what works were taken to Venice and how they were exhibited. Vayer probably had the most freedom in assembling the exhibitions of 1964, 1966, and 1968. It was in these years that he made the most of what was possible within (perceived or real) boundaries, without ever stepping over them. Vayer was probably yearning for success and awards in Venice (at least while awards were still granted), but his reports make it clear that beyond verbal, diplomatic gestures and the often-mentioned “moral gains,” his exhibitions did not receive much professional praise. Therefore, he frequently emphasized that the point of going to Venice was not to gain awards, but to “uphold a good international reputation.”[32] In an official report from 1966, however, he did mention that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs should take the diplomatic steps necessary for appointing a Hungarian member to the jury that grants the awards in Venice, since Hungarian artists would then have more chance of winning one, as had previously been proven by the Polish and Czechoslovakian cases.[33]

Western European reviewers’ stance on the Hungarian exhibitions was at best distant and neutral (“Hungarian artists working in a traditional style”, “modern but not fashionable”), sometimes turning into ignorance or outright skepticism (“completely unsurprising,” “not really fitting,” “outdated”, etc.).[34] The fairly big number of artwork sales, however, shows that Hungarian artists were somewhat more popular with the international audience.[35]

The Hungarian media either made no mention of the Biennale, or proclaimed that it had split between “a fashion show of meaningless novelties” and “a display of genuinely modern works of art.”[36] The Hungarian exhibitions, however, were always reported to be very successful by the official press. The 1968 protests and modernization demands were explained away by the Hungarian press’ own, made-up narrative, claiming that “the organizers had learned their lessons from the scandals of the previous Biennale and decided to abolish the awards”, thereby also “relegating overly dominant international commercial considerations to the background.”[37]

Following these three somewhat more progressive exhibitions (1964‒66‒68), Hungarian cultural policy took a more conservative turn by 1970, once again exercising more control and favoring more rigid art forms. The Deputy Minister held a meeting on the subject that year, entitled “The Fine Arts and Museum Departments’ international exhibition activity and related issues.”[38] Participants had a critical view of the fact that while Hungarian participation at international exhibitions intensified, there was a lack of an appropriate institutional network, departmental units did not cooperate effectively, and there was no data and analysis on either the impact of these exhibitions or the international reaction to the achievements of Hungarian cultural policy. Even though in the 1968‒1972/76 period, the Biennale was all about reforms, modernization, more lax regulations, and the possibility of multivocality, Vayerwith reference to a shared socialist point of view and a Hungarian cultural policy that was once again becoming more conservativedisregarded these. In 1976, he still proclaimed that “regardless of what the Biennale’s general standpoint might turn out to be, it is the shared responsibility of all socialist countries to use this greatest of all international art exhibitions as a means to testify the achievements of our homelands’ cultural policy.”[39]

Despite his undiminished authority, there was a definite decline in Vayer’s influence over shaping the Hungarian exhibitions in Venice during the 1970s. It happened repeatedly that not all artists from his list of suggested Biennale-participants were approved by the “anonymous” and extremely hierarchical bureaucratic apparatus that was once again becoming increasingly active and pre-judgmental at the time. The uncertainty and meddling surrounding the Biennale, as well as Hungary’s setback into non-transparent and unnecessarily bureaucratic methods, forcefully official, stilted, and overcomplicated procedures probably all contributed to Professor Vayer’s waning enthusiasm for the Biennale and the “cause” of enlivening Italian‒Hungarian relations.[40] This was compounded by the so-called “Dissident Biennale” in 1977,[41] as a reaction to which Hungary, in solidarity with the Soviet Union, boycotted the regular Biennale of 1978.[42] These incidents compelled Vayer tovoluntarily and permanentlygive up his position as Government Commissioner.

1968: Vilt – Kondor – Kokas

Catalogue cover of the 34th Venice Biennale, 1968

Since 1958, Lajos Vayer wanted to move, gradually—as the rigidity of the Ministry’s official course started to soften—from the retrospective exhibitions of the older generation to the presentation of the latest works by the younger generation of artists. Over the course of the twenty years Vayer spent working on the Hungarian Pavilion exhibitions, his most up-to-date compilation is perhaps the 1968 collection, where, for the first time, there were “semi-abstract” works and a larger number of pieces that were made one or two years before the Biennale, or specifically for the Biennale, and not ten or twenty years before that. One the one hand, Vayer based his selection of sculptor Tibor Vilt (1905 –1983)—from the older generation—and painter and graphic artist Béla Kondor (1931–1972) and painter Ignác Kokas (1926–2009)—both from the younger generation—that besides one artist from the older generation, two younger artists would also have the opportunity to present their works. On the other hand, he wished to present all three genres on an equal footing. The three artists—irrespective of age and genre—were linked by a worrisome feeling of anxiety and a deep expression of present-day problems.[43]

Tibor Vilt: Centaur, 1960. Page in the main catalogue of the 34th Venice Biennale, 1968

            Vilt’s artistic career peaked in second half of the 1960s, which manifested itself in official state awards, public commissions, solo and group exhibitions, and Small Sculpture Biennial awards—even though there were plenty of his opponents in the various state committees, and his art was put up for debate. Vilt made two new monumental statues specifically for the Biennale (Pigeon House [Galambdúc]; Greetings to Venice [Üdvözlet Velencének]), and there were also five other large statues, countless sculptures, and reliefs on display. His statue Ponderer (Merengő) was commissioned by the Directorate of Museums of Fejér County in 1965, which was paid for by the Ministry only in 1968. At the Biennale, it was already labeled as the property of the county museums.[44] Vilt’s participation at the Venice Biennale in 1968 was substantiated by his manifold contacts with Italy, and that, in the 1960s, the basis of his sculptures was a distinctly new type of approach to space and mass; thus, theatricality and closed modeling intensified in his art. In relation to this, maybe it is no coincidence that Vilt, when he was asked in an interview which international artists made the biggest impression on him that year at the Biennale, he responded that it was at the Venezuelan Pavilion Marisol Escobar’s (female) figures, with plaster heads, drawn faces, and wig-like hair, “closed” in large-scale, undecorated wood blocks.[45] Marisol’s work did not only have a great impact on Vilt, but also served as a reference for his wife, sculptor Erzsébet Schaár, who probably could get a detailed idea of Escobar’s works based on Vilt’s account as well. In 1968, Vilt was in Italy during the opening of the Biennale, and spent three more months in Rome at the invitation of Hungarian born-Rome-based sculptor Amerigo Tot.[46]

Béla Kondor: Someone’s Self-Portrait XVII., 1967-68. Page in the main catalogue of the 34th Venice Biennale, 1968

Besides Vilt, the other participant at the Hungarian Pavilion was Béla Kondor, who created a new style in Hungarian graphic art in the 1960s and, as a result, won numerous awards at national and international graphic art biennials. In 1968, Lajos Vayer presented in Venice Kondor’s new monotypes series titled Poster (Plakát) and Someone’s Self-Portrait (Valaki önarcképe). In addition to his monotypes, some of his other etchings and two of his paintings made between 1965 and 1967 (Fall [Bukás], 1967; Phenomenon [Jelenség], 1968) were selected by Vayer, who saw the power of Kondor’s graphic art language in his overflowing line use and demystified representation of reality. After the Biennale, Kondor had a retrospective exhibition of his new works in 1970 at the Kunsthalle in Budapest.[47]

Ignác Kokas: The House of the Elders, 1967 Page in the main catalogue of the 34th Venice Biennale, 1968

            During the mid-1960s, Ignác Kokas formulated his own, unique artistic language, which was first observed at the Ministry by Géza Csorba. The task of Csorba at the Ministry between 1964 and 1980 was to build international relations of Hungarian artists and to organize Hungarian exhibitions abroad. It was through the course of one of the “two-million Forint acquisitions”[48] organized by the Art Fund of the Hungarian People’s Republic, with of the approval of the Ministry of Cultural Affairs, that Csorba noticed Kokas. As Csorba said: “Kokas was so outstanding among the average works, both in his concept and in his quality.”[49] Subsequently, Csorba regularly visited Kokas’s studio, and he called Vayer’s attention to the young artist. By 1968, the Art Fund had already purchased many of his works in the framework of the “two-million Forint acquisitions” (Decay [Enyészet] , 1965; Orpheus [Orfeusz], 1965; the series The House of the Elders [Az öregek háza], 1967; Son of the Sun [Nap fia], 1967, etc.); hence, his works that were already owned by the Ministry or other public collections, were presented at the Biennale along his latest studio works. In 1969, following the Biennale, a major exhibition of his latest works was presented at the Kunsthalle, which was Kokas’s first solo exhibition in Budapest.[50]

Kondor’s graphics and Vilt’s small sculptures were sold in Venice,[51] but the whole exhibition, the concept of Vayer, could not have reached success, as—unfortunately for Vayer—that year, exhibitions as such were hardly in the limelight, as for the most part, the focus was on the debates about the Biennale’s structure.

1970: Hincz ‒ Somogyi

József Somogyi: János Szántó Kovács, 1967. Page in the main catalogue of the 35th Venice Biennale, 1970

During the 1970 Biennale, which might have been somewhat stagnant, yet was simultaneously characterized by the excitement of seeking out new paths, Hungary made no effort whatsoever to align itself with these new directions. Truth be told, the low turnout of both visitors and exhibitors also suggested a general indifference towards the Biennale. Pierre Restany, one of the most renowned French philosophers and critics of the time, had a very negative opinion about the Venice Biennale despite all its reformist intentions: “The main concern of the Italian organizers behind the new, statute-less, special, and transitory XXXV Biennale was to maintain a façade while holding out for better days to come.”[52]

According to Vayer’s written proposal dated January 7, 1970, he intended to show works by the following four artists in Venice that year: sculptor József Somogyi (1916–1993), painter and graphic artist Gyula Hincz (1904–1986), painter Endre Bálint (1914–1986), and graphic artist Arnold Gross (1929–2015).[53] One of his arguments in their favor was that they had either never participated at the Biennale before, or were only featured with a single work or smaller pieces of graphic art. In the 1960s, Somogyi had innumerable successful monumental public commissions. He was rewarded for his achievements with the “outstanding artist” award and a chance to participate at the Biennale (1970), followed by an exhibition at the Budapest History Museum’s Castle Museum[54] and the award of the I International Small Sculpture Biennale in Budapest (1971). His two-meter-tall sculpture about the peasant hero, János Szántó Kovács was purchased right before the Biennale, so that it could be exhibited in Venice as a Ministry property.[55] There were similar arguments (state awards, grand prizes at graphic arts biennales, large-scale state commissions, etc.) in favor of Hincz’s inclusion, as his art began to move towards monumentalism in the 1960s and early 1970s. Besides his grandiose oil paintings, he also created a series of mosaics and tapestries to decorate the walls of various Hungarian universities.

In a memorandum signed by Endre Gádor, the Ministry first accepted Vayer’s proposal of the four artists, claiming that the list was compiled in consultation with the Ministry.[56] However, according to another memorandum from May 8, 1970, the final list of names and works had still not been approved, and the artists had not yet received their official invitations.[57] In the meantime, the Hungarian Pavilion was renovated that spring, which entailed some unexpected extra expenditures. It is therefore conceivable that these unexpected extra costs played a role in the Ministry’s decision that only two ‘monumental’ artists (Somogyi and Hincz) were to be exhibited in Venice that year.[58]

The works of Somogyi and Hincz were not very popular in Venice. International critics preferred Hincz’s smaller, more intimate graphic works to his monumental paintings, while Somogyi was simply regarded as too traditional.[59] Their works were deemed too strict in form and too romantic in content by the Italian press, although they acknowledged that no other artist was as deeply influenced by Picasso as Hincz was, who integrated this influence into his own classical artistic language in a unique way.[60] That year’s exhibition at the Hungarian Pavilion was regarded not so much as an aesthetic achievement, but rather as a “product” of cultural policy.

1972: Domanovszky ‒ Kiss Nagy

Endre Domanovszky: Horses, 1971. Page in the main catalogue of the 36th Venice Biennale, 1972

Mario Penelope, who was then Deputy Government Commissioner of the Venice Biennale, visited Budapest in 1971, marking the beginning of the preparations for the Hungarian exhibition at the 1972 Biennale.[61] Penelope, who had cultivated a good relationship with Hungary’s cultural administration for decades, visited Budapest this time as member of the jury of the International Small Sculpture Biennale. He requested the Hungarian administration to make sure the country participates in the forums discussing the Biennale’s future, by appointing a special Deputy Government Commissioner if necessary. This was, however, emphatically declined by the Hungarian officials, claiming that they had no intention to be politically involved in conceptual debates at this level.[62]

As the Head of Department at KKI, Sándor Hemberger reports, based on the works he encountered during his stay in Budapest, Penelope recommended featuring graphic artist Gábor Pásztor (1933–2012), sculptors Tamás Vígh (1926–2010) and András Kiss Nagy (1930–1997), and painter Endre Domanovszky (1907–1974) to be featured at the upcoming Biennale. Hemberger urged the Ministry to come to a final decision about the list of artists and works to be featured, so that his department can begin the necessary preparations. In a somewhat didactic draft letter,[63] the Head of the Department of Fine Arts at the Ministry of Cultural Affairs, Endre Gádor, declared that the artists exhibiting in Venice that year had been notified four years earlier and had been preparing for the exhibition ever since. He added that Domanovszky would be exhibiting the same works as he did in 1971 [at the Budapest History Museum’s Castle Museum ‒ author’s note], while Kiss Nagy would transfer his exhibition material from his studio directly to Venice [with the exception of 3 pieces that the Ministry had purchased in the meantime ‒ author’s note]. He concluded that since these two artists were also recommended by Penelope, this was common ground between the Italian and Hungarian leadership, and, in view of the longer-term strategy on featuring further artists, the Ministry had no intention to send more than two artists to Venice that year. This decision, however, was probably also financially motivated (exhibiting fewer artists obviously meant less expenses): the KKI’s memoranda from that the years around 1968‒‘70‒‘72, report on constant financial struggles and insurmountable difficulties.[64]

András Kiss Nagy: Exodus IV., 1968. Page in the main catalogue of the 36th Venice Biennale, 1972

In his letter based on Gádor’s draft and addressed to the Director of the KKI, Deputy Minister Jenő Simó also explained that the Hungarian administration considered it the most important to have an autonomous display of Hungarian art in Venice, and therefore did not wish to accommodate to the Biennale’s often “very fictitious” circumstances, but rather place the emphasis on “the works themselves.”[65] Although Ministry documents claim that Lajos Vayer participated in the compilation of that year’s Biennale material, we have some reason to doubt whether that was actually the case. Vayer undoubtedly knew about the plans, but it seems like he was no longer in a position to make the final decision. In a short and platitudinous introduction to the catalogue, the only message Vayer seemed to convey was that Domanovszky’s large-scale tapestry designs and paintings, as well as Kiss Nagy’s small sculptures and medals communicated a sense of “humanity.”[66]

            In 1972, a separate, collateral international exhibition was organized, titled Grafica d’Oggi [The Current State of Graphic Arts], by the Venice Biennale in the rooms of Ca’ Pesaro. Hungary was also invited to participate: Penelope suggested the works of Gábor Pásztor, which was accepted by the Hungarian cultural authorities, and, besides Pásztor, the Ministry also sent the graphics of Adam Würtz to the exhibition.[67] Apart from them, László Lakner was also a participating artist at the graphic art exhibition, who sent his works to Venice individually, not as part of the works officially selected by the Ministry.[68] The Hungarian State sent Imre Varga’s La charogne to the contemporary statue exhibition organized at the Palazzo Ducale.[69] In terms of sales, the Hungarian section had a successful year (both at the national pavilion and the collateral international exhibitions), as it sold works for more than 3 million lira in 1972.[70]

László Lakner: My George Lukács Book, 1970 exhibited at Grafica d’Oggi [The Current State of Graphic Arts] colateral event in Venice, 1972. Page from the catalogue.

The Hungarian Pavilion provoked some of the most controversial opinions in the Italian press that year, including claims like “the exhibition revives a kind of art that still believes in the possibility of representation,” where sculpture “wavers between the myth of the statue and a desire to return to a bourgeois sense of coziness.”[71] As for Domanovszky, most reviewers agreed that no matter how formally good his art may be, “he represents a kind of culture that is simply outdated.”[72] Kiss Nagy’s sculptures, especially the small-scale bronzes, received somewhat more positive reviews, seen as having the capacity to “incite some interest with their aesthetic and artisanal qualities.”[73] Some saw his works as post-Cubistic in origin, some discovered the impact of Henry Moore on his “enclosed and dense sculptures,” but others chose to use the word “retrograde” to describe his art.[74] As in 1970, most commentators also observed that the Hungarian exhibition primarily embodied the expectations of Hungarian cultural policy: “They illustrate and document the current situation of Hungarian art: its possible directions, achievements, and social expectations.”[75] In August 1972, György Kalmár, then director of the Hungarian Academy in Rome, negotiated with the Cultural Committee of the Italian Communist Party, Soviet Cultural Adviser Timofeyev, and Mario Penelope on issues related to the Venice Biennale and the Sorrento-Naples Hungarian Film Festival.[76] At this meeting, Penelope indicated that the Biennale leadership wanted the GDR to participate in future exhibitions, as, since 1945, only the GDR represented the formerly unified German Pavilion. Penelope said he would be happy to attend the opening of the National Small Sculpture Biennial in Budapest in autumn 1972 if he were to be invited. According to Penelope’s plan, he would travel from Budapest to Berlin to discuss the GDR’s participation at the Biennale the following year. The invitation was approved by the Ministry, and Penelope come to Budapest for another diplomatic journey.

The tradition of showcasing the oeuvres of 2 or 3 artists in Venice, delivered “on an assembly line” by the Hungarian cultural authorities during the 1970s, was to be continued by the painter Ferenc Martyn (1899–1986), sculptor Jenő Kerényi (1908–1975) and painter and graphic artist Ferenc Czinke (1926–2000) artist trio in 1974, according to memoranda from the Ministry.[77] However, no actual list of works was assembled, as in the meantime, the Biennale’s Italian management made it clear that they would not organize a “regular” Biennale in the national pavilions that year. Kerényi thus never had the chance to exhibit in Venice, as he passed away in 1975. The Venice Biennale’s first central theme (Arte/Ambiente), as well as its new concept and statute were announced in 1976, and the Hungarian cultural administration tried to relate to these new developments in some way. That year, the Hungarian Pavilion presented a group exhibition, organized around the theme of specific Hungarian towns Salgótarján/Szentendre (representative of larger socialist towns/traditional rural settlements). As the last exhibition organized by Lajos Vayer, this also marked the end of a 20-year period.

Between 1958 and 1978, Lajos Vayer, an art historian, Head of Department, professor at ELTE University in Budapest, served as commissioner of the Hungarian exhibitions at the Venice Biennale. In Vayer’s time, the artists who had the chance to exhibit in Venice were generally accepted by the regime, but were not Socialist Realists. Their selection was guided not so much by aesthetic considerations, but rather by principles grounded in cultural policy. Vayer was good at keeping a balance: during his commission, no hardliners made it to Venice, yet he was also careful not to take on anything too bold. When compiling his selection of names and works for Venice, he was fully aware of being expected to primarily send a message to the Hungarian audience, and not the international art world: in the 1960s and 1970s, participation of Hungarian artists at the Biennale was granted by the authorities as recognition of an artist’s achievements, hence exhibiting in Venice usually also entailed official purchases. In this era, the exhibitions of the Hungarian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, were preceded or followed by a large-scale solo exhibition at Kunsthalle Budapest or at the Budapest History Museum, often with the same collection as in Venice. The general view was that at the time, the Ministry was not really interested in fine art, but focused a lot more on music and literature. On the one hand, this gave artists a bit more freedom, but on the other, it meant that many of the important decisions were always delayed and the budget for exhibitions was more limited. Art historian Katalin Néray (1941–2007), then director of Kunsthalle, Budapest, was the first to be able to soften the sometimes especially rigid, sometimes not so tight intellectual frameworks that was in place until the mid-1980s. Several successive exhibitions with high professional qualities, a competitive program in an international environment, professional installation, and professional autonomy are the merits of Néray—and art historian Lóránd Hegyi who worked closely with her in Venice between 1986 and 1990.

Néray was the first to reform the Hungarian participation at the Venice Biennale, which before her, as described above in details, was handled by the Ministry more as a compulsory task, with almost zero investment of energy and intellectual capacity. As a result of Néray’s work, the Hungarian Pavilion received larger international attention and it likewise started the fundamental reform of this system in Hungary. Among other things, she set the ground for exhibitions in Venice —which has been more or less the practice of all the curators of the Hungarian Pavilion ever since —that they should comprise site-specific works (complex projects, installations), not museum (retrospective) exhibitions, by maximum two or three artists. Ideally, they are solo shows, and if it is possible, works that were made one or two years before the Biennale should not be presented, not even as subparts.

In relation to the Hungarian participation in Venice, one can conclude that from its beginning in 1895 up until today, the voices of dissatisfaction and a feeling of lack have been in the foreground. This goes back to the fact that the meaning, purpose, and function of the Hungarian participation in the Venice Biennale has never been really thought through, discussed, and clearly articulated—nor from the point of view of its professional or artistic merit,  nor of its cultural and international diplomatic potential. Moreover, this is not a static issue, as the objectives of the Biennale as a whole have transformed several times over the past 124 years (national representation, a large-scale exhibition of already canonized European art, a salon, a competition of nations, an art fair, a showcase of the latest art works, etc.), and accordingly, the national pavilion system is constantly expanded with various alternative solutions as well (Central Pavilion, Arsenale, external venues, and collateral events). In a similar vein, each country (should) reconsider(s) their participation, according to the particular contemporary circumstances.


[1] Nicolas Schöffer, exhibiting artist at the French Pavilion that year, simply pinned a note stating chiuso (closed) to the pavilion’s door. The Swedish Pavilion also remained closed, with the statement “la Biennale è morta” (the Biennale is dead) on its entrance. For more details, see: Chiara di Stefano: The 1968 Biennale. Boycotting the exhibition. An account of three extraordinary days. In: Clarissa Ricci (ed.): Starting from Venice. Studies on the Biennale. Et al., Milano, 2010. 130–133.

[2] Italian Fascist politics took over the Biennale in 1930. Together with the Biennale’s organizing committee appointed in 1928, they laid down its new operational regulations, which were still in effect in 1968. On the political turns of the Biennale’s pre-1948 history, see: Jan Andreas May: La Biennale di Venezia. Kontinuität und Wandel in der venezianischen Ausstellungspolitik 1895–1948. Akademie Verlag, Berlin, 2009.

[3] Lawrence Alloway: The Biennale in 1968. In: Lawrence Alloway: The Venice Biennale 1895–1968. From Salon to Goldfish Bowl. Faber, London, 1968. 12–29.

[4] As a point of comparison: in 1968, the Biennale had 34 participating countries, but by 1970, this number decreased to 28. See: Enzo Di Martino: The History of the Venice Biennale 1895–2005. Visual arts, Architecture, Cinema, Dance, Music, Theatre. Papiro Arte, Venice–Torino, 2005. 126–129.

[5] The Biennale had 87.391 visitors in 1940 and 76.679 in 1942. See: Di Martino 2005. 118‒119.

[6] Despite the protests, the Biennale’s awards were still handed out in 1968. That year, Bridget Riley (British Pavilion) received the award for painting, Nicolas Schöffer (French Pavilion) received the one for sculpture, and Horst Janssen (German Pavilion) was granted the one for graphic arts. No further awards were granted at the Biennale until 1986, when the Golden Lion was introduced. See: Di Martino 2005. 132‒133.

[7] As for the yearly artwork sales in each national pavilion, see the sales lists preserved in the so-called Ufficio vendite documents of the Archivio Storico delle Arti Contemporanee (ASAC) in Venice.

[8] See the exhibition catalogue: Ricerca e progettazione proposte per una esposizione sperimentale. 35. Esposizione Internazionale d’Arte di Venezia. Exhibition catalogue, Esposizione Internazionale d’Arte di Venezia, Venezia, 1970.

[9] For the history of the German Pavilion, see Ursula Zeller (Hrsg.): Die deutschen Beiträge zur Biennale Venedig 1895–2007. Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen– Dumont, Stuttgart – Köln, 2007.

[10] For the history of the Polish Pavilion, see Joanna Sosnowska: Polacy na Biennale Sztuki w Wenecji, 18951999. Instytut Sztuki Polskiej Akademii Nauk, Warszawa, 1999.

[11] Jasper Sharp: Ein Löwe lernt zu brüllen. Die Biennale von Venedig – Ein kurzer Abriss ihrer Geschichte. In: Jasper Sharp (Hrsg.): Österreich und die Biennale Venedig 1895–2013. Verlag für moderne Kunst, Nürnberg, 2013. 27.

[12] See: inter alia: Per una cultura democratica e antifascista. Libertà per il Chile. [exhibitions at various locations in the city], Venezia, October 5‒November 17, 1974; Libertà al Cile. Chioggia Mira, Venezia, October 6‒15, 1974; Testimonianze contro il fascismo. [performance], Palazzo Ducale, Venezia, October 5, 1974, 10 PM.

[13] For the details of this discussion, see Lajos Vayer’s report to Géza Csorba on the conference at the Venice Biennale. Budapest, August 8, 1974. Hungarian National Archives – National Archives of Hungary XXX-I-7-n (Ministry of Cultural Affairs , Autonomous Department of Fine Art, 1974) box 1, item 2, 118351/1974

[14] The official form of state was in Hungary between 1949 and 1956: Hungarian People’s Republic, a Soviet-style one-party system. For an English-language summary of contemporary Hungarian macropolitics, see: Tibor Valuch – György Gyarmati: Hungary Under Soviet Domination 1944-1989. Columbia University Press, New York, 2010.

[15] Following the interim years during WWII, the Hungarian Pavilion was in such bad condition that in 1948, the usual yearly upkeep was no longer sufficient to make the building fit for hosting the exhibition. However, the Ministry of Culture had no budget for large-scale maintenance and renovation, therefore the Hungarian exhibition was organized in the pavilion of Romania, who did not participate that year. For the details, i.e. the history of the Hungarian participation at the Venice Biennale between 1895 and 1948, see: Kinga Bódi: Hungarian Participation at the Venice Fine Arts Biennale, 1895‒1948. [Doctoral dissertation], ELTE Faculty of Humanities, Budapest, 2014. URL: https://edit.elte.hu/xmlui/handle/10831/30842 (last accessed: September 29, 2018)

[16] 1948 was followed by a 10-year-long intermezzo in the history of Hungary’s participation at the Venice Biennale. The vast number of documents from the era, however, make it clear that the Biennale’s organizers did send official invitations to Hungary between 1948 and 1958, alongside a series of warnings to perform the necessary maintenance work on the Hungarian Pavilion. Until 1956, there was no clear policy regarding the Biennale. Some years, in line with the standpoint of the Soviet Union and other ‘friendly nations’, it was simply decided that Hungary would stay away from the event, while in other yearssuch as in 1952 and 1954the Department of Fine Arts supported the idea of participation and a list was compiled with names of proposed artists and artworks, yet in the last minute (a month before the opening), preparations were halted by a command from ‘higher authorities’ without any apparent reason or with a reference to the lack of sufficient funds. The archival material also documents a case where Hungary first confirmed its participation in writing to the Biennale’s leadership  (February 19, 1952), then cancelled it a month later (March 22, 1952) on ‘technical grounds’. See the relevant documents in the Hungarian National Archives – National Archives of Hungary’s post-1945 fonds on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (XIX-J-1), the Institute of Cultural Relations (XIX-A-33), the Ministry of Public Education (XIX-I-3), the Ministry of Cultural Affairs (XIX-I-4), and the Kunsthalle (XXVI-I-10).

[17] Nóra Aradi: The XXIX Venice Biennale. Magyar Nemzet July 6, 1958, [s. p.]

[18] The Soviet Union returned to Venice in 1956 after 22 years of absence. As for the history of the Russian Pavilion, see: Nikolai Molok (ed.): Russian Artists at the Venice Biennale 1895–2013. Stella Art Foundation, Moscow, 2013.

[19] Report on the visit of Mario Penelope, General Secretary of the Italian Artists’ Union. “Top secret”. Sent by Elemér Kerékgyártó, Head of Department at the KKI, to Deputy Minister György Aczél. Budapest, January 24, 1958. Hungarian National Archives – National Archives of Hungary XIX-I-4-rrr (Ministry of Cultural Affairs György Aczél “Top secret” documents), box 1, 90/1958/A

[20] László Molnár’s (Secretary, Ministry of Cultural Affairs, Department of Fine Arts) letter to Elemér Kerékgyártó (Head of Department at the KKI). Budapest, February 24, 1958. Hungarian National Archives – National Archives of Hungary, XIX-I-4-m (Ministry of Cultural Affairs, Department of Fine Arts) 3d 112196/1958

[21] György Aczél Deputy Minister’s letter to Comrade István Antos Minister of Finance. Budapest, July 25, 1957. Hungarian National Archives – National Archives of Hungary XIX-I-4-aaa (György Aczél Deputy Minister of Cultural Affairs’ documents) box 48, folder 50 251/957; László Lübeck’s (Foreign Currency Group) letter to György Aczél. Budapest, April 9, 1958. Hungarian National Archives – National Archives of Hungary, XIX-I-4-aaa (György Aczél Deputy Minister of Cultural Affairs’ documents) box 58, folder 92, 205/A/1958

[22] “In the framework of his two commissions, Vayer has used his Italian trip as a means to carry on with the research related to his teaching, therefore the Ministry of Cultural Affairs decided to buy him the so-called circolare (railway ticket valid for a month).” The Ministry of Cultural Affairs’ letter to the Institute of Cultural Relations. Budapest, May 16, 1962. Hungarian National Archives – National Archives of Hungary XIX-I-4-m (Ministry of Cultural Affairs Department of Fine Arts 1962), box 24, item 1, Lajos Vayer 72966/1962

[23] “I hereby ask for your permission, in line with the practice of previous years, to allocate 5.000 /five thousand/ Hungarian Forints to Dr. Comrade Lajos Vayer, Government Commissioner for the Venice Biennale, for organizing the exhibition and fulfilling his tasks as commissioner […].” See: Letter by Endre Gádor, Head of Department at the Ministry of Cultural Affairs. to Dr. Jenő Simó Deputy Minister. Budapest, April 24, 1976. Hungarian National Archives – National Archives of Hungary XIX-I-4-m (Ministry of Cultural Affairs Department of Fine Arts 1972), box 95, 117730/1972

[24] Vayer’s Biennale reports from the 1960s were quite detailed, featuring descriptions of various professional encounters and suggestions on how to increase the intensity of Italian-Hungarian cultural relations. In 1964, for example, he wrote in great detail about how the discourse at the Biennale was no longer centered on the figurative/non-figurative dilemma, but much rather on the emergence and proliferation of Pop art. He recommended the invitation of some Italian experts (museum directors, professors) to Budapest to hold lectures on the international modern art. According to his report, he conducted “increasingly friendly” personal consultations that same year with the Biennale’s president, general secretary, head of scientific affairs, the director of the Galleria Moderna in Rome, the director general of the exhibition venues in Venice (Belle Arti del Commune di Venezia), as well as commissioners of the national pavilions. He considered this personal network and the “increasingly friendly relationships” to be “useful beyond the scope of the Biennale, for Hungary’s cultural relations in general.” See: excerpt from a travel report by Dr. Lajos Vayer, professor and Head of Department, on the preparation and organization of the Hungarian exhibition at the XXXII Venice Biennale. Budapest, July 10, 1964. Kunsthalle Library and Archive, inv. B85.582 (XXXII Venice Biennale 1964)

[25] The delegation of tasks was slightly different each year, but the procedure was roughly the following: the KKI’s employees were in touch with the Italian colleagues, conducted international correspondence, organized deliveries, carried out all the travel planning and administration, and fulfilled all the diplomatic and propaganda tasks. The Kunsthalle was responsible for collecting the artworks, having them professionally photographed, packaging them, setting their official prices, dealing with customs formalities, installing the exhibition in Venice, as well as translating, editing, and printing the exhibition catalogue. Neither the KKI, nor the Kunsthalle had the right to make decisions about the Biennale, but on paper, the Biennale’s expenses were calculated as part of the KKI’s yearly budget. See: Summary by Sándor Haemberger, Head of Department at the Institute of Cultural Relations, of a discussion on “Participation at the XXXII Venice Biennale”, held on February 21, 1964. Budapest, February 24, 1964. Hungarian National Archives – National Archives of Hungary XIX-I-4-m ( Ministry of Cultural Affairs Department of Fine Arts 1964), box 38, item 2. Exhibition 100365/1964

[26] This is demonstrated by a 1964 travel report by Péter Varga, Deputy Head of Department at the KKI: “[…] neither in the preparation phase, nor during the opening, did the Hungarian delegation and the Hungarian Academy in Rome show any interest in the exhibition. Their complete indifference is also shown by the fact that Hungary sent no representative to the opening ceremony, where the delegations of almost all participating nations were present. During our stay in Venice, professor Vayer was completely left to his own devices, and it was only his great professional routine and his wife’s indefatigable work and expertise that helped him prevent some serious disruptions during an organizational process that was not without its hidden pitfalls.” See: Travel report by Péter Varga, Deputy Head of Department at the KKI. Budapest, June 30, 1964. Kunsthalle Library and Archive, inv. B85.582 (XXXII Venice Biennale, 1964). It is possible that Varga’s critical words played a part in convincing the Hungarian ambassador in Rome to attend the opening of the Hungarian Pavilion at the next Venice Biennale (1966) for the first time in its history, alongside a sizeable delegation to assist Lajos Vayer with the representational tasks. See Lajos Vayer’s report to the KIK on the organizational work behind the Hungarian Pavilion at the 1966 Venice Biennale. Budapest, July 20, 1966. Kunsthalle Library and Archive, inv. X1966 Venice Biennale (box 85)

[27] See: inter alia: The KKI’s communication with the Ministry: the KKI forwards a letter from Venetian architect Luciani, alongside a copy of a quote by contractors Pierantonio Pianon and Gino Zanon about the structural condition and recommended renovation of the Hungarian Pavilion with a budget of 2.250.000 Liras. Budapest, April 15, 1970. Hungarian National Archives – National Archives of Hungary XIX-I-4-m (Ministry of Cultural Affairs Department of Fine Arts 1970) box 81, item 2. Exhibition 90716/1970. The same problems still persisted two years later. See: “With a degree of professional seriousness, I would like to call your attention to the fact that the current state of your pavilion could not be any worse, and the renovations I recommend in the attached budget are only sufficient for getting the building in shape for the current exhibition. However, I see it as an absolute necessity that in the period leading up to the next Biennale, some serious renovation is done that could finally eliminate the need for a biannual renovation budget.” A letter by Venetian engineer Cristiano Gasparetto to Endre Gádor, Head of Department at the Ministry of Cultural Affairs. Venice, May 3, 1972. Hungarian National Archives – National Archives of Hungary XIX-I-4-m (Ministry of Cultural Affairs Department of Fine Arts 1972), box 99, item 17. Exhibition 117947/1972.

[28] In March 1972, for example, the Ministry purchased András Kiss Nagy’s sculpture Commemoration I. for 40.000 Hungarian Forints. See: an internal memorandum to Mrs. Vayer, written by Endre Gádor, Head of Department at the Ministry of Cultural Affairs. Budapest, March 28, 1972, Hungarian National Archives – National Archives of Hungary XIX-I-4-m (Ministry of Cultural Affairs Department of Fine Arts 1972), box 97, item 2. Exhibition 117558/1972. Before the opening of the Biennale that year, the Ministry purchased another two artworks from Kiss Nagy (Peasant Madonna II., 1970; Spring II., 1971).

[29] See, for example, this excerpt from 1962: the Ministry requests the Hungarian National Gallery’s director to “provide two rooms for collecting the Biennale-material between March 20 and April 30, 1962. Furthermore, works by János Kmetty, István D. Kurucz, and Aurél Bernáth that are owned by the museum (in storage or on display) are to be gathered in these rooms for further selection.” Antal Szentesi’s (Ministry of Cultural Affairs., Deputy Head of Department) letter to Gábor Ö. Pogány, General Director of the Hungarian National Gallery. Budapest, March 22, 1962. Hungarian National Archives – National Archives of Hungary, XIX-I-4-m (Ministry of Cultural Affairs Department of Fine Arts 1962), box 28, item 2. MNG 72569/1962

[30] On February 21, 1964, Lajos Vayer put forward his suggestion for the participating artists and the exhibition’s concept, which was accepted by the committee. That year, the Biennale-committee comprised of the following members: József Czéh, Director of the Kunsthalle; Endre Gádor, Head of the Department of Fine Arts at the Ministry of Cultural Affairs; Géza Csorba, rapporteur general at the Ministry of Cultural Affairs; Sándor Hemberger, Head of Department at the Institute of Cultural Relations; Péter Varga, Deputy Head of Department at the Institute of Cultural Relations. See: Summary by Sándor Hemberger, Head of Department at the Institute of Cultural Relations, of the February 21 discussion entitled “Participation at the XXXII Venice Biennale”. Budapest, February 26, 1964. Hungarian National Archives – National Archives of Hungary, XIX-I-4-m (Ministry of Cultural Affairs Department of Fine Arts 1964), box 38, item 2. Exhibition 100365/1964

[31] “I consider it hugely significant that all three of us exhibiting artists could be personally present at the Biennale’s opening this year, thus having been granted the opportunity and time to thoroughly explore the exhibition. Seeing works in real life that I had previously only seen as reproductions gave a completely different impression and made me reassess some of my previous judgments. Furthermore, meeting artists and critics was very helpful in clarifying some of my questions regarding the development and impact of Western art.” Sculptor György Segesdi’s travel report. Budapest, July 7, 1964. Kunsthalle Library and Archive, inv. B85.582 (XXXII Venice Biennale 1964)

[32] Lajos Vayer’s report to the Institute of Cultural Relations on organizing the Hungarian Pavilion at the 1966 Venice Biennale. Budapest, July 20, 1966. Kunsthalle Library and Archives, inv. X1966 Venice Biennale (box 85)

[33] Ibid.

[34] See press cuttings from the 1968, 1970, and 1972 Biennales. Kunsthalle Library and Archive, inv. X1986 Venice Biennale (box 105); X1970 Venice Biennale (box 122A); X1972 Venice Biennale (box 141), and B85.584 (Venice Biennale 1972)

[35] See the list of Hungarian artworks sold in Venice in 1968, 1970, and 1972: ASAC Ufficio vendite. Registi Nos. 68‒69‒72.

[36] Gyula Rózsa’s comment in Petőfi Radio, August 10, 1968. [Typescript of a radio show]. Kunsthalle Library and Archive, inv. X1986 Venice Biennale (box 105)

[37] As proclaimed in the TV show Composition 70 on Hungarian National Television, February 7, 1970. Editor: János Tölgyessy. [Typescript of a TV show]. Kunsthalle Library and Archive, inv. X1970 Venice Biennale (box 122A)

[38] For the minutes of this meeting, see: Hungarian National Archives – National Archives of Hungary XIX-I-4-eee, The Deputy Minister’s sessions (box 23, point 21, October 5, 1970)

[39] Lajos Vayer’s report on the exhibitions of the 1976 Venice Biennale d’Art, with a special focus on the Hungarian Pavilion, August 3, 1976. Kunsthalle Library and Archive, inv. X19768 Venice Biennale (box 177)

[40] This is well illustrated by a 1972 note in which Vayer is reminded to adhere to the official procedure: “Dr. Lajos Vayer Government Commissioner has been provided 250.000 Liras to cover the technical costs of organizing the exhibition. However, his financial statement lacked the invoices for 12 items, and was therefore not accepted by the Hungarian National Bank. Hence we request you to call upon the Commissioner to provide a statement on the justifiable use of the above sum of money.” Péter Varga Deputy Head of Department’s (KIK) letter to Comrade Endre Gádor Head of Department (Ministry of Cultural Affairs). Budapest, September 6, 1972. Hungarian National Archives – National Archives of Hungary XIX-I-4-m (Ministry of CulturalAffairs,  Department of Fine Arts 1972), box 96, item 10, 118583/1972

[41] For an English-language summary on the topic “Dissident Biennale” and countries behind the Iron Curtain, see: Edit Sasvári: Eastern Europe Under Western Eyes. The “Dissident Biennale, “Venice, 1977. In Comparativ – Zeitschrift für Globalgeschichte und vergleichende Gesellschaftsforschung 24 (2014) Heft 4, 12–22.

[42] “Top secret” report by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on “The Soviet Union’s actions regarding the Venice Biennale.” Budapest, March 8, 1977, Hungarian National Archives – National Archives of Hungary XIX-A-33-a (KKI General documents 1957‒1980) 497d 6002/1978

[43] XXXIV. Biennale Venezia. 1968 Ungheria. Tibor Vilt, Béla Kondor, Ignác Kokas. exh. cat. (Budapest, Műcsarnok/Kunsthalle, 1968). Catalogue text by Lajos Vayer. The exhibition: Hungarian Pavilion, Giardini Pubblici, Venice, June 23. – October 20, 1968.

[44]The letter from the Ministry of Cultural Affairs to the Directorate of the Museums of Fejér County (received by Péter Kovács), Budapest, September 20, Hungarian National Archives – National Archives of Hungary XIX-I-4-m (Ministry of Cultural Affairs, Department of Fine Art, 1968) box 63, item 1, Tibor Vilt 91721/1968.

[45] Izabella Nagy spoke with sculptor Vilt Tibor at the Hungarian public, state radio Petőfi Radio on October 3, 1968. [Transcribed radio program]. Kunsthalle Library and Archive, inv. X1968 Venice Biennial (Box 105).

[46] Letter from Tibor Vilt to the Ministry of Cultural Affairs. Budapest, April 24, 1968 Hungarian National Archives – National Archives of Hungary XIX-I-4-m (Ministry of Cultural Affairs, Department of Fine Art, 1968) box 63,  item 1, Tibor Vilt 90857/1968.

[47] Exhibition of painter Béla Kondor. exh, cat., Műcsarnok/Kunsthalle, Budapest, 1970. The catalogue was written and the exhibition was organized by János Frank. Kunsthalle, Budapest, March 7 – April 5, 1970.

[48] For details on “two-million Forint acquisitions,” see, in Hungarian, Adrienn Kácsor, “‘Kétmilliós’ vásárlások: képzőművészet és politika a Kádár-korszakban” (“Two Million” Acquisitions: Fine Arts and Politics in the Kádár era) Médiakutató 10.3 2009: 117–128. URL: http://epa.oszk.hu/03000/03056/00036/EPA03056_mediakutato_2009_osz_08.html (Last accesssed: September 29, 2018); György Horváth, “Fejezetek a Képzőművészeti Alap történetéből: a Tavaszi Tárlat és a három ‘T’ a dokumentumok tükrében. I. remény, reformkísérlet, avagy mi baj volt a Tavaszi Tárlattal?; II. rövid séta a ‘három T’ és az ‘önköltséges kiállítások’ körül [Chapters from the History of the Fine Arts Fund: The Spring Exhibition and the Three “T” in the Reflection of the Documents. I. Hope, Reform Experiment, or What was wrong with the Spring Exhibition? II. A short walk around the “Three Ts” and “Self-Financed Exhibitions”]. Művészettörténeti Értesítő 64.2 (2015): 327–386 and 65.2. (2016): 345–371.

[49] Kinga Bódi: “Úszó tárlatok. Beszélgetések az egykor Velencei Biennálén részt vevő magyar képzőművészekkel, kurátorokkal, nemzeti biztosokkal. 1. rész – Kérdések Csorba Géza művészettörténészhez” [Floating exhibitions. Conversations with Hungarian artists, curators, and national commissioners at the Venice Biennale. Part 1 – Questions to art historian Géza Csorba] Balkon 4  (2013): 8.

[50]Exhibition of painter Ignác Kokas, exh. cat, Műcsarnok/Kunsthalle, Budapest, 1969. The catalogue was written by Géza Csorba. The exhibition was organized by János Frank. Kunsthalle, Budapest, April 12, 1969 – May 4 After the exhibition in Budapest, the works were presented at the Miskolc Gallery and the Balaton Museum in Keszthely.

[51] Kondor’s graphics were purchased by private individuals form from Milan, and individuals from Alessandria, Milan, Amsterdam, Munich and the United States bought Vilt’s sculptures. From these, Vilt’s Vise I. [Satu I.] bronze statue was sold for the highest price, for 375,000 lira. See: ASAC Ufficio Brothers. Regist No. 68.

[52] Pierre Restany: VeniceBiennale. [Typewritten manuscript in Hungarian, without an indication of the original place of publication]. Kunsthalle Library and Archive, inv. X1970 Venice Biennale (box 122A)

[53] Lajos Vayer’s letter to Comrade Endre Gádor Head of Department (Ministry of Cultural Affairs Department of Fine Arts). Budapest, January 7, 1970. Hungarian National Archives – National Archives of Hungary XIX-I-4-m (Ministry of Cultural Affairs Department of Fine Arts 1970), box 81, item 2. Exhibition 90045/1970

[54] This exhibition showed the same works as the ones exhibited at the Biennale. See: An exhibition by painter Gyula Hincz and sculptor József Somogyi, 1971. Hungarians at the XXXV Venice Biennale. Budapest History Museum, Buda Castle, January 30‒February 28, 1971. Organized by János Frank.

[55] Honorarium: 61.450 Hungarian Forints, casting costs: 68.550 Hungarian Forints. See: A letter by Endre Gádor Head of Department to Jenő Simó Deputy Minister. Budapest, June 5, 1970. Hungarian National Archives – National Archives of Hungary XIX-I-4-m Ministry of Cultural Affairs Department of Fine Arts 1970), box 82, item 2. Cultural Fund 91046/1970

[56] Endre Gádor’s letter to Comrade Molnár. Budapest January 14, 1970.  (Ministry of Cultural Affairs Department of Fine Arts 1970), box 81, item 2. Exhibition 90045/1970

[57] Memorandum from the Ministry of Cultural Affairs [without a name or signature]. Budapest, May 8, 1970. Hungarian National Archives – National Archives of Hungary XIX-I-4-m (Ministry of Cultural Affairs Department of Fine Arts 1970), box 78, item 1. Lajos Vayer 90868/1970

[58] XXXV. Biennale Venezia, 1970 Ungheria. Hincz Gyula, Somogyi József. Exhibition catalogue [Kunsthalle], Budapest, 1968. The catalogue’s text was written by Lajos Vayer. Exhibition at the Hungarian Pavilion, Giardini Pubblici, Venice, June 24‒October 25, 1968.

[59] Georges Boudaille: The Venice Biennale, or change in consistency. Lettre Francaises. July 1‒7, 1970 [Typewritten manuscript in Hungarian]. Kunsthalle Library and Archive, inv. X1970 Venice Biennale (box 122A)

[60] R. G. Dumiani: The Biennale of Foreigners. Valigia Diplomatica 1970 [no day or month given]. [Typewritten manuscript in Hungarian]. Kunsthalle Library and Archive, inv. X1970 Venice Biennale (box 122A)

[61] We know the details of Penelope’s visit from a memorandum by Sándor Hemberger. See: Sándor Hemberger’s memorandum addressed to Comrade Demeter. Budapest, December 18, 1971. Hungarian National Archives – National Archives of Hungary XIX-I-4-m (Ministry of Cultural Affairs Department of Fine Arts 1972), box 95, item 10. 117064/1972

[62] Jenő Simó Deputy Minister’s letter to Comrade Endre Rosta, President of the KKI. Budapest, January 20, 1970. Hungarian National Archives – National Archives of Hungary XIX-I-4-m (Ministry of Cultural Affairs Department of Fine Arts 1972), box 95, item 10. 117064/1972

[63] Endre Gádor’s memorandum and draft letter to Jenő Simó Deputy Minister. Budapest, January 5, 1972. Hungarian National Archives – National Archives of Hungary XIX-I-4-m (Ministry of Cultural Affairs Department of Fine Arts 1972), box 95, item 10. 117064/1972

[64] A memorandum by Rezső Bukovszky, the KKI’s Financial Director, to Ágnes Gonda on expenditures related to the Venice Biennale (Ministry of Cultural Affairs Department of Fine Arts). Budapest, February 11, 1972.; and Endre Gádor’s notes to Jenő Simó Deputy Minister on the issues around the XXXVI Venice Biennale. Budapest, February 2, 1972. Hungarian National Archives – National Archives of Hungary XIX-I-4-m (Ministry of Cultural Affairs Department of Fine Arts 1972), box 99, item 17. 117617/1972

[65] Jenő Simó Deputy Minister’s letter to Comrade Endre Rosta, President of the KKI. Budapest, January 20, 1970. Hungarian National Archives – National Archives of Hungary XIX-I-4-m (Ministry of Cultural Affairs Department of Fine Arts 1972), box 95, item 10. 117064/1972

[66] XXXVI Biennale Venezia, Ungheria, 1972. Endre Domanovszky, András Nagy Kiss. Exhibition catalogue [Kunsthalle], Budapest, 1972. The catalogue’s text was written by Lajos Vayer. The exhibition: Hungarian Pavilion, Giardini Pubblici, Venice, June 1‒October 1, 1972.

[67] In the first note on the topic, the name of Béla Kondor also appeared among the planned participating artsts. See: Department of Fine Arts of the Ministry of Cultural Affairs informs Tibor Ormos, Director of Institutions of Exhibitions (Kunsthalle) about Hungarian participants of the exhibitions accompanying the Venice Biennale that the Year. Budapest, 17 March, 1972 Hungarian National Archives – National Archives of Hungary XIX-I-4-m (Ministry of Cultural Affairs, Department of Fine Arts, 1972), box 95, item 15 117479/1972. However, a month later, in a decision authorizing the transport of works to Italy, published by the Lectorate of Fine Arts and Applied Arts in April 1972, Kondor’s works were no longer included, thus, for some reason, the Ministry finally decided not to exhibit Kondor’s works. It may be that there was a lack of space, as, according to the information provided by the Hungarian Academy in Rome, an artist had a maximum exhibition space of ​​110 x 150 cm. In the graphic art works, sent by the Ministry, there were three small colored lithographs (Composition I-III.) and three small etchings (Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet illustrations). See: decision of the Lecturer of Fine Arts and Applied Arts. Budapest, April 17, 1972, Kunsthalle Library and Archives, inv, X1972 Venice Biennale (Box 141).

[68] László Lakner, in the framework of a German art scholarship, spent four months in the Museum Folkwang’s guest house in Essen in 1972. It can be assumed that he could transport his works individually from there (and not from Hungary) to Venice. Lakner sent a screen print of My George Lukács Book to the exhibition. Lakner produced his first book object in 1970, in which he tied yarn around George Lukács’s The Specificity of the Aesthetic, written originally in German (Eigenart des Ästhetischen), and hung it on the wall. A piece from the print screen series of 50 copies he made of this object was shown in Venice in 1972. See the note by Ágnes Gonda for Comrade Endre Gádor, Head of Deparment. Budapest, November 9, 1972 Hungarian National Archives – National Archives of Hungary XIX-I-4-m (Ministry of Cultural Affairs, Department of Fine Arts 1972), box 96, item 10 118997/1972

[69] Decision of the Lectorate of Fine Arts and Applied Arts. Budapest, April 17, 1972 Kunstalle Library and Archive, inv. X1972 Venice Biennial (box 141).

[70] In 1972, Hungarians sold in Venice 4 pieces of Domanovszky’s works, 23 pieces by Kiss Nagy, and 5 Lakner pieces. See the ASAC Ufficio Brothers. Regist No. 72.

[71] Arturo Bovi: Foreigners in Venice. Il Messaggero, October 8, 1972. [Typewritten manuscript in Hungarian]. Kunsthalle Library and Archive, inv. B85.584 (Venice Biennale 1972)

[72] [without a name]: Foreign Pavilions at the Venice Biennale. Eastern European Art between the Old and the New. Avanti July 30, 1972. [Typewritten manuscript in Hungarian]. Kunsthalle Library and Archive, inv. B85.584 (Venice Biennale 1972)

[73] Ibid.

[74] Franco Batacchi: Hungary ‒ Venice. La Gazzetta delle arti June 1972; Artwork and Behavior at the Venice Biennale. L’Osservatore romano June 1972; [n. n]: Foreign Pavilions at the Venice Biennale. Eastern-European Art between the Old and the New. Avanti July 30, 1972. [Typewritten manuscripts in Hungarian]. Kunsthalle Library and Archive, inv. B85.584 (Venice Biennale 1972)

[75] [without a name]: Venezia. Hungary. La Gazzetta delle arti June 1972; [without a name]: Two Hungarian Artists at the 36th Venice Biennale. Panorama delle arti June 1972. [Typewritten manuscripts in Hungarian]. Kunsthalle Library and Archive, inv. B85.584 (Venice Biennale 1972)

[76] Report by György Kalmár to the Institute of Cultural Relations. Rome, August 23, 1972 Hungarian National Archives – National Archives of Hungary XIX-I-4-kkk (Ministry of Cultural Affairs Jenő Simó) box 4 765 / S / 1971.

[77] Géza Csorba’s letter from the Ministry of Cultural Affairs to Katalin Néray, mandated Head of Department at the Institute of Cultural Relations. Budapest, January 14, 1974. Hungarian National Archives – National Archives of Hungary XIX-I-7-n (Autonomous Department of Fine Arts 1974), box 4, item 10. 117067/1974.

Kinga Bódi PhD is an art historian and curator based in Budapest.  2000-2007 she studied art history, library and information science and Hungarian literature at the Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest and at the Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznań. 2006-2008 she worked at the Ludwig Museum – Museum of Contemporary Art, Budapest. 2009-2010 as an assistant of the Head of the Department of Prints and Drawings at the Museum of Fine Arts Budapest she took part in a Getty Research Program at the Museum of Fine Arts Budapest.

 2010-2013 she was Doctoral Fellow at the Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest – Institute of Art History and at the Schweizerisches Institut für Kunstwissenschaft  (SIK-ISEA) in Zurich within the bounds of the Focus Project Kunstbetrieb − Venedig Biennale. Her dissertation project discussed the cultural representation of Hungary at the Venice Biennale. Since 2013 she is curator at the Department of Prints and Drawings at the Museum of Fine Arts Budapest.

 2015 she was given the Opus Mirabile Award by the Institute of Art History of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. She has curated several exhibitions on the topic of Hungarian and international postwar art such as Baselitz. Preview with Review (2017); Writings Captured In Image. Drawings and prints after 1945 from the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts Budapest and the Hungarian National Gallery (2016);Memory Lake. Memories and Reflections on Lake Balaton by Contemporary Hungarian Visual Artists and Poets (2015); Immendorff. Long Live Painting! (2014); St. Gallen Adventures. Hartung, Tàpies, Uecker and the Erker Phenomenon (2012); Uecker. Material Becomes Picture(2012). In her research and scholarly articles she focuses on exhibition and collection history, prints and drawings from the postwar period, cultural relations in Central and Eastern Europe during the Cold War, role of archives and historical time in contemporary art, as well as connection between text and images.


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