John P. Jacob:
THE ENIGMA OF MEANING:
TRANSFORMING REALITY IN HUNGARIAN PHOTOGRAPHY
All the manifold tendencies in art have as their ultimate aims to represent our new life true to reality-discarding superficial brilliance-in works inspired by great ideas and of high moral standard. In this, the State too, plays no small part. Not only by frequently bestowing orders of great importance on our artists and thereby encouraging emulation between them but also by constantly helping them to at-tain an awareness of the essence of socialism. The imagination of ar-tists inspired by their tasks is thus disciplined and ennobled so that it can bear fruits of value. (1)
Faith in the evidential value of the photograph is
the foun-dation upon which the many forms of photographic practice have
been built. Not until the advent of electronic manipula-tion of photographic
imagery in popular culture of the 1970s, in fact, had the American public
seriously considered the reliability of photographic representation. In
the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, however, the evidential value of the
photographic image is a construction which many contem-porary artists flatly
reject. If we are to comprehend their work, we must begin by foregoing
our faith in the photo-graph. We must acknowledge with them the thin skin
of ideology that holds our perception of reality, of our culture and our
In the Soviet Union, photography has often been used to depict the potential dis-integration or separation of reality from its photographic representation. This potential was ex-plored in the Revolutionary era by artists such as Alexandr Rodchenko. Rodchenko ascribed ideological significance to the angle of the camera, believing it to possess powerful nar-rative and symbolic associations with bourgeois tradition. He identified the ideological function of art and, by harnessing it, sought to define revolutionary perspective. “The revolu-tion does not consist in photographing workers' leaders in-stead of generals while using the same photographic techni-ques as under the old regime, or under the influence of Western art,” he wrote. “A worker photographed like Christ, a woman worker photographed like the Virgin Mary, is no revolution... We must find a new aesthetic...to represent the facts of socialism in terms of photography.” (2)
By 1930, in the leading article of the first issue of “USSR in Construction,” ideologues were demanding that “photography must serve the country not in a haphazard, un-systematic way, but constantly and according to a plan.” (3) Thereafter, Soviet photographers joined increasingly with the press. “[Soviet] photography passed through years of seek-ing and struggling, of chaos, misunderstanding and mistakes before finally maturing as the powerful medium of photo-journalism, which continues to perform the functions defined for it from the outset: to inform, disseminate and educate.” (4)
In the 1930s many of the practitioners of the experimental New Vision found themselves and their work subject to increasing critical scrutiny. As the experimental period came to a close in the Soviet Union, the photograph, like all other forms of visual expression, came under State control. Like many other artists, Rodchenko was condemned for his “formalism.” In 1931 Rodchenko was charged with “attempting to put proletarian art on the path of Western advertisement art, formalism and aesthetic.” (5) In the end, anti-formalist critics crushed artistic experimentation by declaring its failure to satisfy the ideological requirements of revolutionary society. Thereafter, cultural uniformity under the control of the State was ruthlessly enforced.
In 1934 at the First All Union Congress of Soviet Writers, Socialist Realism was ratified as “the only artistic style acceptable to a Socialist society.” (6) This declaration rendered all forms of artistic experimentation, formalist tendencies, or Western influence in any field of creative expression essentially anti-Socialist and therefore illegal. Following the ratification of Socialist Realism, photo-journalism became (and to-day remains) the dominant trend in Soviet and Eastern European photography.
Despite imposed limitations, it has fallen to the artists of these nations to speak as the “voice-of-the-people.” Traditionally, this position has been held by poets, whose gift could be discreetly transported and freely shared. Following the thaw of the late 1950s in the Khrushchev era, restrictions on visual artists were significantly relaxed. Communication between East and West improved, and international travel became a possibility. During this period especially, visual ar-tists began to break with the doctrine of Socialist Realism and to adopt critical positions in their work. This break from Realism was seen by many as an attempt to return to realism. Such a return could be effected only by the complete dismantl-ing of Socialist Realist aesthetics and of the structures that support them. A dismantling of this magnitude, however (necessarily taking into account all forms of ideological production, including the printed and electronic media), remains impossible.
Today the aesthetic of Socialist Realism is rejected for its failure to acknowledge the rich cultural traditions shared by the nations of Central Europe. In dismissing the enforced Soviet aesthetic, artists are rejecting “Eastern Europeanness” in favor of a pre-Warsaw Pact, nationalist self-identification (nationalism is itself a primary taboo, indicating in a work of art its maker's relation to Sovietization).
In the present political and cultural situation, Hungary is considered the most stable and consistently liberal of the Soviet bloc nations. Political progress has been made slowly in Hungary since the Revolution of 1956. To achieve the goal of socialist democracy, the Hungarian Socialist Workers' Party (HSWP) has gradually recognized a plurality of voices within the fields of culture and politics, providing the working classes (including cultural workers) with a role in the exercise of power. By listening to dissenting voices, and by incorporating their ideas into the party program, the HSWP has proposed to regain legitimate authority in the eyes of the working people. As János Kádár declared in 1980, “our most important method is persuasion, and not ordering people about.” (7)
Today, artists in Hungary are considered full members of the socialist State and participate in the construction of socialist democracy. The artist need not be a member of the party, only a responsible citizen whose work performs a relevant task, as determined by the various ministries, within the socialist structure. The Hungarian artist is offered a role in the exercise of power by creating work that will help the State to grow; the artist becomes a “cultural director” in a system of directed culture. In compensation, he or she is rewarded with the resources to continue such work.
It has been said that the arts in Hungary have “opened up,” that they have transcended the boundaries imposed by Socialist Realism. Yet, until very recently, the arts have opened to diversity largely to the extent that they show their appreciation of socialism. “The characteristic features of the past thirty years are a readiness to accept things, the presumption of good intentions and understanding,” declared István Katona, a former leading member of the Central Committee of the HSWP, “as long as no one takes action against the socialist system and its political foundations.” (8) According to György Aczél, a member of the Hungarian Politburo and head of the Institute of Social Sciences of the HSWP, “there is no opposition that has to be reckoned with in Hungary... there is no censorship in our country.” (9) The HSWP has traditionally regarded oppositional criticism as coming from “maladjusted, untalented, mentally troubled and/or disappointed people who never blame themselves but always society,'' (10) and whose opinions are not worthy of attention. If what they have to say has any connection with reality, it is strictly by chance.
Hungarian audiences have long been protected from any influence that might be considered harmful through State control of all cultural institutions. Despite the relaxing of restrictions in recent years, experimental artists are still regarded with suspicion in Hungary and throughout Eastern Europe. Until approved by party cultural officials, experimental work is regarded as having more in common with Western than with home interests. Vanguard Hungarian artists are rarely prevented from working; they support themselves with nonartistic jobs, the materials they require are generally available, and they are free to pursue their artistic interests in their homes. Nevertheless, few exhibition or publication opportunities exist for them in their own nation. They cannot complain that their work is censored, only that it is not seen. The artist who chooses to work outside the system of State direction is thus denied the possibility of performing a social function.
Until very recently, all experimental artists in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union constituted a parallel culture, an unofficial culture that never intersected with official, or Statesanctioned, culture. (11) In the past, developments in parallel culture within these nations have tended to occur in relative isolation; artists in Poland, for instance, often knew as little as Western Europeans and Americans did about artists working in Hungary. Whereas Western perception has tended to regard Eastern Europe as unified and monolithic, in fact, these nations are profoundly divided.
Even in the most difficult years, Hungary has long been regarded as a gateway between Eastern and Western Europe. Much more than several of its neighbors, Hungary has had access to information about developments in the West. Even when Western styles were condemned and when artists who incorporated Western ideas into their work were unable to exhibit or to publish, developments in foreign culture were part of the Hungarian cultural dialogue. In contrast to the situation in the West, however, a marketplace has never ex-isted for Hungarian art.
Only one “independent” gallery exists for exhibitions of Hungary's young experimental artists. The Liget Galéria in Budapest has been open for six years under the directorship of Tibor Várnagy. Funding for the Liget comes from the leaders of the district of Budapest in which it is located. They receive funds directly from the State to use as they deem appropriate. The situation is somewhat unusual in that funding for culture is usually provided by the Hungarian Ministry of Culture. As the economic situation in Hungary has decayed, however, funding has disappeared for all but Hungary's largest cultural institutions, with the result that independent galleries have been forced to close their doors. Only the Liget, its source of revenue undiminished, has survived.
Under Várnagy's leadership, the agenda of the Liget
has proven somewhat enigmatic. Together with Marek
Grygiel, director of Warsaw's Mala Galeria, and Dr.
Gerlinde Schrammel, director of the Fotogalerie Wien, Várnagy has arranged
for exchanges of exhibitions between Hungary, Poland, and Austria. Since
1986 the Liget has hosted exhibitions by such diverse international artists
as Milan Knízák (Czechoslovakia), Kirsten Thomas Delholm (Denmark), and
Hermann Nitsch (Austria). Programs have ranged from exhibitions to performance
art and video, to poetry readings and concerts. Within the confines of
the Liget, Várnagy has constructed an astonishing dialogue between artists
of many cultures; each exhibition appears to build upon the one that preceded
Without the demand for novelty that a marketplace tends to create, Hungarian artists have been more or less free to develop their ideas privately, incorporating elements from their own culture as well as from others. The enforced privacy of their production grants them the freedom to work and re-work an idea over prolonged periods, which is quite unusual to those familiar with the relentless trendsetting of Western, particularly American, art. Increasing opportunities for Hungarians to participate in an international artworld is simultaneously a welcome and intimidating new element in the lives of many artists. It is a situation that the Liget Galéria has helped artists to cope with, encouraging them to main-tain the Hungarianness of their work by providing them with an athome space in which to develop, and by offering examples of related experiments from beyond the Hungarian borders.
The artists in the present exhibition are related far more by the Hungarianness of their works than by their relationship to the Liget. As a whole, their work is indicative of a Hungarian photographic tradition largely unknown in Hungary before the 1960s, informed by the images and ideas of Hungarian émigrés, such as André Kertész and László Moholy-Nagy. From Kertész these artists have learned the tradition of the Subjective photograph, which developed extensively in the post-World-War-II photography of Western Europe and the United States, but was forbidden in the East. From Moholy-Nagy, they have learned how to transcend the simple making of pictures in order to develop suggestive visual forms, and how to explore the potential of their materials, a significant skill in times when equipment and/or materials are scarce. From both Kertész and Moholy-Nagy, as well as from the likes of Brassai, Kepes, and Munkácsy, Hungarian artists have gained the pride of knowing that many signifi-cant developments of twentieth-century photography have been determined by Hungarian artists.
As deeply rooted in a buried Hungarian culture as these works are, they are simultaneously informed by Socialist Realism, both in their use and rejection of its restrictions. The photographers in this exhibition do not accept the value of the photograph as evidence. In their images reality is either absent or is presented as absurd. The truth that they offer is unyielding. Deeply personal to the point of obscurity, these images refuse to be defined by the terms of an officially sanctioned reality.
The relationship of these photographs to Western Conceptualism is also abstruse. In 1976 László Beke charted this rela-tionship, listing “radically new principles” in photographic production as having been anticipated by Hungarian artists of the 1960s:
What have these new principles been? The following issues came in-to the light: The relationship of reality and artistic reality, the setting and expanding of the borders of art, the nature of the epistemological and social function of art. To what degree can the “picture” of reality be identified with reality... Is art entitled to deal with subjects “strange to its genre” like e.g. time? (The representation of processes, the depiction of momentary events.) Can a “picture” intervene in reali-ty itself?... Starting from the undoubtable social role of mass com-munication media: can art make use of these media? If so, what are these media in fact? How does art itself behave as a medium? (12)
Conceptualism offered Hungarian artists the development of highly private forms of visual language, obscure to the cen-sors yet highly readable to their intended audience. Thus a form of Conceptualism dealing explicitly with the relationship of the artist to institutions of power, a distinct precursor to American post-modern photography, has flourished in the work of Eastern European photographers. Similar in appearance to much Western photographic Conceptualism,
this work often incorporates elements from performance art. However it possesses little of the humor of American artists such as Hollis Frampton, whose photographic works poked fun at the assumed veracity of scientific uses of the medium. Rather, Hungarian Conceptualism' is more closely related to European Action art, such as the work of Hermann Nitsch, Joseph Beuys, and Milan Knízák.
Tibor Hajas: Tumo I, 1979
Action art has continued as a viable form of expression in Eastern Europe.
The collaborative photographs of Tibor Hajas
and János Vetö made during the 1970s, for example, offer a profoundly disturbing
response to the restrictions of official culture. The first of nine photographs
in the series “Tumo I” presents a close-up of Hajas, his face burned
and wrapped in gauze, inserting a syringe into his eye. In other images
his wrists and genitals appear to be electrically wired, and long needles
are inserted into his nose. The backdrop of the photograph, from which
Hajas has disappeared in the final frame, presents a mass of Constructivist-like
forms, abstracted from their historical context. The corrupted forms, like
the mutilated body, have become useless signifiers. In similar works Hajas
is shown tied and suspended, standing with his genitals exposed over flames,
and masturbating while explosives ignite nearby.
Language has historically formed the foundation of Hungarian selfdefinition, and until the nineteenth century Hungarian culture was largely language-based. Unique to the artists in this exhibition, however, is their use of the photographic medium to reveal the failure of language. If reality is constructed through ordering (visual or verbal) language, and if, through language, reality (history, cultural order) has been conscripted into foreign service and falsified, then language must be understood as having failed its people.
As much as the works in this exhibition are indicative of a dissatisfaction with the situation in Hungary in general, and with the role of culture in specific, they expose a distinctly optimistic element combined with melancholy. In revealing the failure of language, the last vestige of traditional culture, this Hungarian photography has abjured its long relationship with the social representations of Socialist Realism in order to address deeply felt spiritual needs. A new kind of order, the private order of a spirituality that predates cultural history, has emerged.
The photographs of Lenke Szilágyi emerge from the profound rupture in contemporary Hungarian photographic discourse between social reportage, much of which descends directly from the aesthetic of Socialist Realism, and Subjective photography. In contrast to the social orientation of reportage, the Subjective photograph focuses upon the individual and the search for an inner truth. The development of a subjective style of photography in Western Europe and the United States after the Second World War was not followed in Eastern Europe. Socialist Realism imposed the truth of Socialist society over the truth of the individual in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Individualism, regarded as an implicitly corrupt remnant of Western influence, was prohibited. During the thaw of the 1960s the Subjective photograph appeared among other oppositional forms in Hungarian photography.
Szilágyi's photographs are reminiscent of the earliest photographs of Kertész, made in Hungary shortly before he emigrated to Paris. Her images descend directly from the tradition of the “decisive moment,” established by Kertész and Cartier-Bresson after him. What characterizes Szilágyi's photographs, and differentiates her work from the work of her predecessors, is the artist's refusal to provide a single, distinct subject within the photographic frame. Immediately appealing in their realism, Szilágyi's photographs are also ex-traordinarily disorienting.
In each of the photographs of the series “Sunday's Photo-graphs” the landscape, more than the figures within it, dominates the image. The figure of the artist appears in several photographs, in which she seems to wish to merge with the vegetation. In one the silhouetted figure's head has become a leafy branch. In another the figure lies in a foetal crouch in dense vegetation. In the last, the figure rests on the broken branch of a tree, looking out at the smoke-covered city below. Photographs in which the artist is not present show figures framed by their natural environment, yet always distinct or isolated from it. It is their clothing or their games, or the photograph itself, to which these figures belong.
There is a potent melancholy to Szilágyi's photographs.
They speak clearly of the artist's isolation from nature and of her alienation
from culture. Perhaps the most telling image in the series is a selfportrait
of the artist sitting alone on a plain bench in a stark room. The artist
looks at a chicken that is eating from the floor. A window at the side
of the room is sealed. Where other photographs in the series suggest the
dislocation of the figure within his or her natural surroundings, this
image depicts the absolute containment of nature by culture, and of the
artist as central to it.
Minor White, an early proponent of Subjective photography in the United States, defined the inner search characteristic of the style by declaring that “ever since the beginning, the camera points to myself.” In Szilágyi's photographs this inner search is undermined by the trappings of culture, which has come to use and define nature for its own purposes. Szilágyi's camera points to the absence of self, the impossibility of inner truth in a world where natural order has been subsumed by cultural order.
“The Great Fehérvár Flood” is the collaborative project of László 2. Hegedüs and László Lugosi-Lugó. Hegedüs is a graphic artist who has worked ex-tensively with film and photography. Lugosi-Lugó is a documentary photographer. With his wife, Aljona Frankl, he
has worked for years documenting various elements of con-temporary Hungarian culture. In the “Shops Series” Frankl and Lugosi-Lugó recorded the growth and decay of the “Hungarian economic miracle,” the privatization of small shops to stimulate the economy. Simultaneously, Lugosi-Lugó has documented the gradual disappearance of elaborate neon signs, constructed in the 1950s, from the streets of Budapest as the face of the city changes.
László 2 Hegedüs: Untitled from the series
"The Great Fehérvár Flood" (1989)
Fehérvár is a small city south of Budapest. Its distinctive
old town center has been beautifully reconstructed, whereas countless nondescript
concrete high-rise buildings line its outskirts. The city is at once the
site of tourism and the home base of the Soviet occupational forces in
Hungary; it is, in other words, a site of conflict. There is no river or
sea near by that could possibly cause flooding. “The Great Fehérvár
Flood” is an elaborate fantasy. It presents the dual possibilities
of an indiscriminate washing away of post-war culture and a much needed
cleansing of the debilitated Hungarian soul.
“The Great Fehérvár Flood” is a powerful incrimination of the imposition of Socialist Realism on all aspects of Hungarian culture, and of that culture's disappearance behind the facade of reconstruction. Beautiful as it may be, the reconstructed city center is no different from the highrise workers' housing in these photographs. It is less a tribute to Hungarian architectural tradition (most of which, after all, reflects the cultures that have dominated Hungary) than to the wisdom of the Central Committee who recognized in the city a stopover for tourists on their way to Lake Balaton. The flood washes away the history of Hungary's domination, the ideological landscape, from official buildings and workers' housing to private shops and monuments to the Liberation. Its rising waters hint at the possibility of a rebirth of Hungarian culture.
Zsigmond Károlyi's untitled series offers his audience quite a different view of Hungarian reconstruction. As in so many Eastern European cities, post-war reconstruction has been slow to occur in Hungary, and hous-ing is poorly maintained. Many of Budapest's old buildings are suspended in scaffolding, much of it quite old. In Károlyí s photographs these wooden structures offer dual significance. Hand painted onto the photographic paper using old or poor photo-chemicals, the images appear to be physically disappearing from the edges of the print as much as they are, in fact, chemically decaying on its surface. Károlyí s scaffolding is a none-too-subtle indictment of the Socialist regimé s failure to live up to its promises.
Zsigmond Károlyi: From Scaffold Series # 14, 8
On a very different level, Károlyi's photographs
indicate the frailty of the remnants of Hungarian culture. In speaking
about the geometric “X” motif in his photographs, the artist gestured
at the scaffolding that holds up the inside walls of his studio. These
structures, hidden from the view of the public, support the room in which
the artist has lived and worked; without them the walls would quickly weaken
and fall. Like “The Great Fehérvár Flood” Károlyi's photographs
speak of the disappearance of Hungarian culture behind the facade of reconstruction.
Further, Károlyi questions what would remain following the dissolution
of imposed culture. Frail as they may be, these structures support the
artist's work. Prophetically Károlyi poses the question now plaguing Hungarian
political reformists: With what shall we replace that which is all we know?
Károlyi's photographs speak of the interior definition of the artist by exterior forces, of the struggle to find a voice of one's own in circumstances where the only known language supports a decaying structure. The photographs of István Halas reveal a similar struggle. Using only photographs made inside his small studio, Halas combines fourteen negatives in each of the four photographs that make up the individual “Sonnets” in the series “Sonnets I-V.” In this series, Halas speaks eloquently of the artist's difficulty in finding a place within the structures of Hungarian culture without perpetuating its terminology.
Like Károlyi, Halas was trained as a painter. His work with photography has fluctuated from portraiture to landscape to “interior landscape,” using both color and black and white. His earlier work with portraiture and land-scape was distinctly influenced by Western photographic trends. In his minimalistic landscapes, Halas attempted to bridge cultures using unifying elements from the architecture of different European and American cities. Halas' work with photographic tableaux, of which “Sonnets I-V” is the most recent series, represents a retreat from his earlier efforts.
Sonnet 1 depicts a photocopy of a portrait of Robert Frank by Richard Avedon, one of many images hanging in Halas' studio. The photograph is significant in its representation of two artists whose radically different approaches to photography have greatly influenced Halas' earlier work. Here it signals a departure both from the influence of these artists and, by extension, from the dicta of Western photographic trends.
In Sonnet II crumpled paper and cigarettes
lie on the studio floor. The graphic image of an umbrella, used in a collaborative
film of Halas and László 2. Hegedüs, and a pin commemorating the Polish
Trade Union Solidarity appear, as does a wall label used in an earlier
exhibition of Halas' work. In Sonnet III, the black frame of a single
photographic image is obscured by the text of a poster from the Esztergom
Foto Biennial. Sonnet III also contains an earlier work, a simpler
tableau of four photographs of the stairwell to Halas' studio. In the fourth
and final image, a glowing lightbulb is montaged with the insignia of the
Liget Galéria taken from a poster designed by the artist. Behind the bulb
and the insignia looms the first of Halas' complex tableaux, made in 1986.
This early work encapsulates the history of Halas' development as a photographic
artist, beginning with his first and ending with his most recent image.
Sonnet IV and Sonnet V return the viewer to the objects of the artist's studio. A copy of the catalogue Bilder recalls the exhibition of Hungarian photographers at the Photogalerie Wien in which Halas' tableaux made their first public appearance. The outline of a hand obscures the image of a single--frame photograph and the form of a long strip of film overshadows a pile of prints. Finally, the word “zenit” (zenith) emerges, suggesting that the artist has found, within the confines of his studio, his own voice.
In “Sonnets I-V,” Halas presents a series of juxtaposing signs that show the crosscurrents of his life as an artist. His photographs are distinctly selfreferrential; the artist speaks only for himself. He confines himself to his studio, but that small space is filled with signs from the outside. “Sonnets I-V” is a dialogue of signs, many of which are but notes by the artist to himself; they are the origins of a private language and, as such, offer little information to the viewer. It is in the juxtaposition of these private signs with others from the outside that the viewer is encouraged not so much to understand the artist, to seek reassurance in his images, as to engage in the dense visual process that he has begun. The photocopied Avedon portrait represents a removal from the sleek, formal surfaces and highly public life of one artist (Avedon) to the obscure meaning, damaged surfaces, and highly reclusive life of the other (Frank). At least a fourth-generation copy of the original and rephotographed by Halas only in pieces, the photocopied portrait depicts a physical tearing away of the image from its context in reality, from cultural order. The glossy poster from the Esztergom Foto Biennial, a place where conformity to genre and institutionalized practice are encouraged and rewarded, is juxtaposed to the insignia of the Liget Galéria, where the development of the private language of the artist, as free from influence as it is free to appropriate the terms of influence, is encouraged.
Halas' photographs speak of the search for self through the subversion of meaning in visual forms. Like Zsigmond Károlyi, he presents a response to official culture while recognizing that the work of the artist, particularly if it is to achieve public response and support, must always be deeply rooted in its terminology. The terminology by which the ar-tist is defined in the photographs of Zsuzsanna Ujj are, by contrast, archaic. They are the signs of an imposed cultural order that far predates the Hungarian Liberation.
Ujj is a poet, performer, musician, and visual artist who works exclusively outside the Hungarian system of directed culture. She is one of the few Hungarian artists who continues to link performance, Action art, and photography. Exhibitions of her photographs have often been accompanied by performances and documentation.
Ujj’s work deals powerfully with the cultural representation of gender, the power of sexuality, and, ultimately, with the dual relationship of sex to death and of representation to violence. In one photograph, the artist sits upon a fabricdraped chair that rests on a platform. Her body is painted to emphasize her eyes, mouth, breasts, and vagina. Her position, looking down at the camera, is one of power. A second image shows the painted body swooping down upon the viewer. Her arms and legs disappear into the black background. Her mouth is open as if in a scream, her look menacing, devouring. In the third image of the series, the artist stands with the figure of Death. Death is a man in a dark suit; the artist’s hand rests provocatively on his leg.
Ujj’s poses in her photographs are often reminiscent of prehistoric figurines of the Goddesses of Fertility. Such figurines are thought to have commemorated the relation of the fertility of women to nature, and to “give magical aid in childbirth and conception.” (13) In her earliest representations, the Goddess was depicted as the source of life, and intercourse with her the source of knowledge; like nature itself, she was untamed. In the course of history, however, nature came in-creasingly to serve the needs of man and reproduction became an integral part of his economic development. (14) The role of women, and with it the perception of the Goddess, changed.
Artemis-Diana, once the wild mother of vegetation...was rendered chaste and frigid, she was made into a virgin. She no longer fetched men into her womb, but rather struggled against those who pursued her in order to watch her bathe in the nude. Later on this Diana was compared with the Virgin Mary...Intercourse was less and less knowledge, it developed into a menace. The vagina acquired teeth. It ate and devoured. (15)
Like Halas, Ujj makes photographs that are selfreferential. The setting of her photographs is always an anonymous space within which darkness encroaches from all sides, reminiscent of the caves in which Goddess rituals were performed. In one photograph, a bright light illuminates and beckons the viewer to her womb. In the next, her blurred and bleeding figure appears in pain (fig.10). In the final image, a horrible, bloody mass emerges from her. In these images, Ujj represents a powerful Goddess whose sexuality must be feared. The Goddess is no longer connected with nature, nor does she bear any relationship to the Virgin.
Ujj's photographs struggle against the historical violence of the representation of women by focusing on sexuality as an imposed cultural construction. Through a series of con-frontational poses directed at the viewer, recognizable through their appropriation of sexual symbols, Ujj undermines her audience's “innocent gaze.” To strike a pose, as Dick Heb-dige has written, is to pose a threat. The anonymous space of the Ujj's photographs extends to the space of the gallery or museum; the threat of her pose extends to the viewer within it. Returning the gaze of the viewer Ujj defies the borders of the print. Her photographs transform the gallery, and with it the tradition of the passive female nude that it represents, into a site of confrontation.
János Vető's photographic constructions, like those of István Halas, are unyielding and enigmatic; they are composed of many layers. In subject and construction they are both striking and defiant. Well known in Hungary for his work as a musician, especially as a member of the legendary“cassette band” Trabant, Vető is also recognized for his profoundly influential work with the late Tibor Hajas. His photographic work, made under the pseudonym “Kina,” is inconsistent, ranging from the hand-painted series “Poisoned Candies” to documentation of his visit to the United States made with a low-grade Soviet camera, the “Lomo.” His works are often presented in unusual installations.
The present series of Vető's photographs was first exhibited in Budapest in 1989 at the Contemporary Art Forum of Almássy Square. For the installation, the series was attached to hinged, book-like binders that were attached to a random pile of hard wooden chairs. The chairs were stacked on top of a similar pile of tables and desks. The tables and chairs are the same as those in which students sit to study in Hungarian schools and cultural houses. Vető's photographs are intended to turn the academy upside down.
Vető's subjects are the things with which he surrounds himself: pencils, cigarettes, a jar full of paint brushes. In his photographs, however, familiar things are removed from their usual context. Their cultural use, and thus their function as objects within culture, is robbed from them. In photographs such as Gitárlecke Földönkivülieknek (Guitar Lesson for Ex-tra Terrestrials) and Black Could Flag, his materials seem to have been elaborately arranged in abstract patterns for the artist's
own amusement. Considerably more enigmatic are the photographs Cave
and Realiti. In the densely layered Cave, documents, a palm leaf, and fabric
encircle halfnaked women wearing pig masks. In Realiti, a plastic female
doll, whose physical features have been scratched by the artist into the
negative, is attacked by a rubber bat and dinosaur; all other details of
the image have been obliterated by the ar-tist's scratching away the emulsion
from the film.
Vető's photographs defy classification. His Still Life is not still, but is constantly disappearing and re-emerging as the eye focuses upon the different elements that it contains; its brushes fade from view as the eye discovers the outlines of palm leaves. Realiti is not reality; rather, it is a haphazardly constructed joke. Perhaps an oblique reference to Plato's cave, the figures that emerge from the shadows of Cave mock the viewer's search for meaning and reassurance in the photograph, just as Black Could Flag, apparently a stain on film, transforms the symbol of patriotic fervor to an abstract and useless form. By emphasizing inchoate form, Vető's photographs seem to represent the dissolution of reality and the laughable condition of those who continue to hold to it.
The photographs of Tibor Várnagy recall the experiments of Russian Suprematist Kazimir Malevich at the turn of the century, and the cameraless photographs of Moholy-Nagy. The Suprematist vision of Malevich existed as a spiritual counterpoint to the revolutionary social vision of the Russian Constructivists. (16) In con-trast to the Constructivists, Malevich sought pure form in art, form as it emerges from raw material. He believed that the depiction of things, the reproduction of nature, was indicative of “cowardly consciousness and insolvency of creative power in an artist.” “The square is a living, regal infant,” Malevich declared in 1916. “The first step of pure creation in art.” (17)
The path charted by Malevich toward the purity of form, toward the artist as a “null” freed from slavery to the obligations of art, was profoundly influential to the young László Moholy-Nagy. Whereas the pursuit of pure form was for Malevich an inquiry into human spirituality, for Moholy-Nagy “religion simply did not exist.” (18) Moholy-Nagy believed that art was “the activation of the energies of the subconscious through the optical organ of the eye...the education of man's subconscious.” (19) It was an educational process in which he saw photography playing a primary role.
In the pursuit of pure form in photography, Moholy-Nagy advocated the use of the cameraless photograph. “The photosensitive layer-plate or paper-is a tabula rasa where we can sketch with light in the same way that the painter works in a sovereign manner on the canvas with his own instruments of paintbrush and pigment,” he wrote in 1928, in the publication Bauhaus. “Whoever obtains a sense of writing with light by making photograms without a camera, will be able to work in the most subtle way with a camera as well.” (20) In his photograms, Moholy-Nagy demonstrated how photo-graphy could accommodate the Suprematist experiments in pure form.
Várnagy's photographs combine Malevich's spiritual quest with the technological consciousness of Moholy-Nagy. His Four Black Squares and Fifth Black Square emerge from a devotion to photographic experimentation and from his development of schnass. An obscure word originally used by German guestworkers in Hungary to describe the poverty of the Hungarians and their culture, schnass is the term used by Várnagy to describe his practice of working exclusively with Hungarian photographic materials, and eliciting from them their inherent qualities.
Underlying Várnagy's photographic experimentation is a dialogue with Hungarian culture. In the series “Strabizmus” (1986), for example, Várnagy used many small sheets of paper to create a large image. The manufactured sheets were poorly cut, and when placed together in a large rectangle gaps showed between them. The gaps became an integral element in the overall work. In his Four Black Squares and Fifth Black Square, Várnagy found his materials incapable of yielding a perfect edge; light consistently permeated whatever borders he constructed to inhibit it. This work acts at once as a return to the spiritual quest of Malevich's Black Square, and as a poignant indicator of the social and material poverty that necessitates such a quest.
Tibor Várnagy: Black Square, 1988
In common with many other artists, Várnagy's photographs
are indicative of a departure from realism, the desire to divest objects
of meaning by denying the validity of their cultural functions. In his
work with cameraless photographs, Várnagy has been particularly successful.
His series of “TV Contacts,” made by holding pieces of photographic
paper against the television screen, transformed the everpresent features
of newscasters to pure form. Removing them from their context, from the
distrusted, Statecontrolled media, Várnagy effectively robbed the newscasters
of their role as the determiners of Hungarian reality and culture. His
work with a camera, distinguished by a marked decay of the image created
by reproducing the negative numerous times before printing, has accomplished
similar results by underscoring the role of the artist within Hungarian
“The group of suprematists. . . has waged the struggle f or the liberation of objects from the obligations of art,” Malevich wrote in 1916.(21) That struggle continues in the work of Várnagy, who recognizes the only real liberation as spiritual. Only through such liberation will the artist rediscover his relationship to the world of natural forms, from which a new language can be constructed. Only through the emergence of such a new language will the imposition of ideological values upon pure form disappear from art, and a new Hungarian culture appear.
Today Hungary, with Poland, is charting the future of Eastern European political and social life. The singleparty system is opening up to embrace the plurality of voices that has always existed there. The disappearance of borders, however, does not necessarily imply the arrival of independence. More than most, Hungary's artists are aware of the encroaching influence of the West. What they seek, as domination from the East fades and the influence of the West beckons, is the rediscovery of their own traditions and histories. In Hungary, language has always served as a uni-fying factor, as that which distinguished Hungarian tradition and history from the histories and traditions imposed upon the Hungarian people by the Turkish, the Austrians, the Germans, and the Russians. To explore visual language, to remove from it the remnants of dishonor and servitude and to uphold in it that which has, somehow, retained its purity, is the goal of these artists. By looking into themselves, by liberating form from ideological domination, they are rewriting their own histories. In the work and spirit of these artists, the language of independence is being born.
I have released all the birds from the eternal cage and flung open the gates to the animals in the zoological gardens. May they tear to bits and devour the leftovers of your art. (22)
1. Zoltan Halász, ed., Hungary: Geography, History, Political and
Social System, Economy, Living Standard, Sports, Budapest, 1963, p.
2. Alexandr Rodchenko in Thinking Photography, ed. Victor Burgin, London, 1982, p. 178.
3. Daniela Mrázková and Vladimir Remes, Early Soviet Photography, Oxford, 1982, p. 9.
4. Ibid., p. 10.
5. John E. Bowlt, “Alexandr Rodchenko as Photographer,” in The Avant-Garde in Russia, 1910-1930. New Perspectives, eds. Stephanie Barron and Maurice Tuchman, Cambridge, Mass., 1980, p. 58.
6. John E. Bowlt, ed., Russian Art of the Avant-Garde: Theory and Criticism, 1902-1934, New York, 1988, p. 291.
7. Peter A. Toma, Socialist Authority. The Hungarian Experience, New York, 1988, p. 76.
8. Miklós Haraszti, The Velvet Prison. Artists under State Socialism, New York, 1987, p. 100.
9. Ibid., p. 37. 10. Ibid.
11. Vaclaw Havel, A Besieged Culture. Czechoslovakia Ten Years after Helsinki, Stockholm, 1985, p. 133.
12. László Beke, Expozició, Hatvan, Hungary, 1977, n.p.
13. Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God. Primitive Mythology, New York, 1959, p. 139.
14. Gayle Rubin, “The Traffic in Women,” in Toward an Anthropology of Women, ed. Rayna R. Reiter, New York, 1975, pp. 1S7-210.
15. Hans Peter Duerr, Dreamtime. Concerning the Boundary between Wilderness and Civilization, New York, 1985, p. 43.
16. Michail Grosman, “About Malevich,” in The Avant-Garde in Russia, 1910-1930, p. 25.
17. Kazimir Malevich, “From Cubism to Futurism to Suprematism: the New Painterly Realism,” in Russian Art of the Avant Garde. Theory and Criticism, p. 133.
18. Krisztina Passuth, Moholy-Nagy, New York, 1985, p. 25. 19. Ibid., p. 319.
20. Ibid., p. 303.
21. Kazimir Malevich, “From Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism: The New Painterly Realism” in Russian Art of the Avant-Garde: Theory and Criticism, p. 135.