At first sight the idea of placing a painting that has been gathering dust in museum storage for more than fifty years and a novel that barely anyone has read for decades together in a contemporary art context seems bizarre. Such a project is strange in the current museological context of Hungary, even though the end of the 1950s, the period in which the works were created, may become topical once again because of similarities in the institutional limitation of intellectual freedom through political interference in power structures and in the reactions of intellectuals. The laying out of such parallels presents today’s audiences with a difficult task, even though appropriation, or the concept of détournement and variations on it, already have a history going back decades and are built into the toolkit of contemporary art. Ferenc Gróf, a Hungarian artist based in Paris, sought to take on this task in the Kiscell Museum of Budapest with the collaboration of the author of this text as a curator.
The point of departure for the exhibition was provided by an institutional decision: as the new director of the Kiscell Museum, Enikő Róka centerd her program on revisiting artworks that had been left to oblivion for the past decades in order to reinterpret them in a contemporary context. The piece that was chosen in the first place presents a topic that is the very focus of the collection, namely the history of Budapest: a depiction of the city, in a stereotypical panoramic tourist’s view from the top of Gellért Hill. It is a huge aluminium panel painting, comprised of 66 aluminium panels, each measuring 1 square meter and originally made for the rear facade of the Hungarian Pavilion at the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels.
Its painter, Aurél Bernáth, was not in the least a favored artist of the Hungarian official art politics of the time, which sought to find a solid ideological footing after the crushed Hungarian anti-Soviet Revolution of 1956. Although the era’s ideologists acknowledged Bernáth’s mastery of painting and the value of his mid-war Post-Impressionist works based on visual experience, Bernáth most probably only received this commission owing to the fact that Hungary’s participation in the World Fair was not organized by the Ministry of Culture and Education, the all-powerful body that controlled the Hungarian art scene of the time. This is how the year 1958 became the corner stone for the exhibition: a moment in Hungarian history that the post-regime-change generations see and interpret almost exclusively in relation to the 1956 Revolution, most often with an ossified, black-and-white value judgment. In order to render palpable the nuances lost in the shadows of the past, Ferenc Gróf juxtaposed Bernáth’s painting with a dystopian novel, Mr. G. A. in X, by Tibor Déry, who began writing it in the same year. The novel describes the experiences of a Budapest citizen in the imaginary city of X, where life proceeds according to a strange logic: while untended houses are left to crumble, new buildings are being erected in the close vicinity of their ruins. Traffic is unpredictable, elevators stop at random in hotels, and homicide on the street is accepted as normal by passers-by. Everyone is serene and longing for death. Déry wrote this novel in a notebook while lying in a prison hospital, as he had been sentenced to nine years in prison in 1957 for his contribution to the Revolution, without the slightest hope of ever being able to publish his book in Hungary.
The two practitioners, the renowned painter and one of the most widely read novelists of the era, had been close friends from the 1920s onwards and their lives had been interwoven with the history of Hungary in the early 20th century. They both came from upper-middle-class families; both were inspired by the Activist Avant-garde of Lajos Kassák; initially both earned high positions in the new political regime after World War II; and, as privileged and prominent artists, they also experienced the attraction and repulsion of political power. After 1956, however, they followed two highly divergent paths; the distance between their existential situations, also reflected in their works, was perhaps never as large as it was in 1958. While Déry recorded the state of confinement in his novel, Bernáth depicted Kádár-era Hungary in a huge panel painting for the eyes of the free world. While dust, heaps of ruins and an unendurable climate are rendered palpable in one work, the other was conceived to reflect the blue skies over Brussels in every season. Nevertheless, it is impossible to pass a definitive judgment on the above two positions even from the vantage point of today: with his power of resistance destroyed during interrogations in prison, Déry denied his role in the revolution, while Bernáth, serving as the Head of the Painting Department at the Hungarian Academy of Fine Arts, defended his students in the aftermath of the revolution. While Déry was released from prison after serving three years, and his novel was published in 1964 complete with a preface in which the author ruled out readings of the novel as a criticism of socialism, Bernáth’s painting was locked up in a storage room following the Expo. The friendship between the two artists remained unbroken.
In the Church Space of the Kiscell Museum, a former church building converted into an exhibition space, the parallels and contrasts between the two artworks are placed at the center of artistic investigation. During the past ten years, Ferenc Gróf, as a member of the artist group Société Réaliste (in collaboration with Jean-Baptiste Naudy), has created a system of tools from linguistic and typographic elements, statistics and cartographical signs, to explore social processes and visualize the interrelationship of past and present. He has retained this approach and attitude even though the group eventually broke up. What lends uniqueness to the present elaboration is first of all the “inter-reading” of two artworks, one belonging to the visual arts and the other to literary art. Gróf singled out almost forgotten elements, one from a museum collection and another one from literary history, to make the viewer revisit and reread the past through their superimposed semantic layers in his installation. A subjective selection of texts, excerpts from the novel Mr. G. A. in X appear in the exhibition space, along with individual panels of Aurél Bernáth’s painting, rearranged according to an algorithm that overwrites the artwork’s original logic. While the panel painting, which was originally meant for outdoor presentation, is placed in an interior space (with the versos numbered by Bernáth given equal accent to the scenes depicted on their recto), the closed book, which is practically impossible to present at an exhibition, is made open in the form of excerpts. The original narrative of the painting is disrupted, since the parts of the panel have been mixed; individual elements become nearly abstract, thus rendering the meeting of tradition and modernity in individual motifs more easily perceivable. In return, the excerpts from Déry’s book, installed on iron sheets alongside the walls, are made part of an almost palpable relation to reality—viewers are able to correlate the 66 selected dialogues and descriptions with individual elements of the painting in their imagination.
Ferenc Gróf’s work involves selecting, processing and re-contextualizing two artworks dating from 1958. All the additional elements in the exhibition, such as a sculpture made of concrete by Gróf depicting a sundial without a gnomon in reference to a leitmotif in Déry’s novel, are parts of a single contemporary art concept; the newly made pieces and the old artworks selected from the museum’s collection constitute a single, disentanglable unity. Documentation is also part of the artwork, comprising selected footage from newsreels as well as sound recordings, which primarily focus on the history of the Brussels World Fair and its architectural and artistic environment, giving nuance to the image of the era and the context of the artworks. 1958–a year that we most often remember as the time of a tragic event in Hungarian history: the execution of Imre Nagy, the leader of Hungary through popular demand during the Revolution in 1956, and his fellow martyrs—was also the year when Hungary opened toward the West for the first time following the Revolution: political power attempted to legitimize the new, pro-Soviet Kádár regime internationally through the country’s representation at international events. While historical surveys are prone to simplification, the artworks reflect the discrepancies of the era. The point of departure for Ferenc Gróf in his analysis was that it is impossible to conceive a single, exclusive picture of the past and a single, absolute historical narrative; the past only exists in the form of subsequent constructions. The latter concept is accentuated by the exhibition’s closing element: the visitors’ book of Aurél Bernáth’s retrospective exhibition presented in 1972, which includes signatures by Tibor Déry and Aurél Bernáth, along with a praising comment by János Kádár, the leader of Hungarian politics after 1956, who presided over the retaliations and the subsequent period of consolidation. Borrowing Walter Kempowski’s metaphor, this exhibition-cum-artwork is actually an echo-sounder: the artist (with the museum director and the curator’s assistance) aims his apparatus at distant points in the past to perceive and analyze the echoes reflected back to the present.
(Translated by Andrea Szekeres)
About the author
József Mélyi is an art historian, art critic, curator and assistant professor at the Department of Art Theory of the Hungarian University of Fine Arts. Since the mid-1990s, he has published art reviews and criticism in Hungarian periodicals. His field of research is contemporary art, primarily art in public spaces and the institutional framework of contemporary art. His curated exhibitions include Kempelen – Man in the Machine Műcsarnok/Kunsthalle Budapest and ZKM, Karlsruhe, 2007; Amerigo Tot – Parallel Constructions, Ludwig Museum – Museum of Contemporary Art, Budapest, 2009; Blow-ups – 1963. The Age of Jancsó’s Cantata, New Budapest Gallery, 2016.