Janos Gereben
Janos Gereben

Fellowship Title:

The OP and POP of the Post-Socialist Realist Era

Janos Gereben
June 15, 1970

Fellowship Year

BUDAPEST—The mindless muscularism and happy-happy-happy of socialist realism were short-lived in Hungary. There was a period, to be sure, when the market and financial-political rewards did create such a “school” in Hungarian art, but—as this article aims to prove—it was a brief and isolated movement.

Tibor Duray: The Sufferer. 1958.

Jeno Gadanyi: The Seer. 1950.

And, even in this period (about 1949 to 1956), the output of the government- and party-supported socialist realists formed only a meager minority of Hungarian art.

This rejection of the Soviet model is so clear that party-approved art histories, such Lajos Nemeth’s Modern Art in Hungary, cannot find a sufficient number of paintings and sculpture to illustrate the “good and proper” direction.

Art in Hungary during the Communist years became more morose, disturbed, and depressed than it has been traditionally—and that’s a tradition not to be taken lightly.

In Hungary, there has been no continuous line of development in the arts such as that found in countries with more peaceful and fortunate histories.

France, for example, had such a tradition. There, artistic problems have been attacked and solutions handed down from generation to generation since the great Romantic and Classical periods and the age of Ingres and Delacroix.

Hungarian art in the first half of the 19th Century stirred without the benefits of such a background, one of a recognizable culture, an organic body of art. The country sadly lacked in versatility and trends that are the result of organized schools of painters; therefore, it also lacked in the stuff which forms a basis for future developments.

Without firm basis for experiments, Hungarian artists not only had to create something quite new to answer the challenge of “modern” life and art; they also had to bridge a gap of several centuries.

By the time they succeeded in the middle of the 19th Century, there was another major disruption: the revolution of 1848-49 and the trauma of its defeat.

(On the following two pages, a few examples are shown of early-20th Century Hungarian art in order to establish the above claim to “traditional depression.”)

Coming out of the hell of World War II one-century after the 1848 revolution, artists had to face the new demand for Communist “functional art” and for serving the state and the party with socialist realism.

Pal Gerzson: Two Heads. 1964.

Laszlo Mednyanszky: Head of a Tramp. 1910.

Janos Thorma: On All Souls’ Day. 1896.

Istvan Desi Huber: Terez. 1935.

Tivadar Csontvary Kosztka: At the Entrance of the Wailing Wall (detail). 1904.

Bertalan Por: Family. 1909.

Jozsef Rippl-Ronai: Father and Uncle Piacsek. 1907.

According to Nemeth, “after 1945, it was self-evident that art must belong to the people; the authorities wanted to avoid the tragic situation in which modern endeavors in art were isolated and remote from ordinary life.”

Hungarian artists were told that “instead of the solitary lyricism of the subjective ego, history now demands an ode chanted by a chorus.

“There is a call for a new, monumental art of the community.”

The response of the artists made the party very sad indeed.

Nemeth’s 1969 account puts it plainly:

“The development of socialism (and therefore socialist realism) was rendered difficult because the principles of the labor movement (?) were violated and replaced by the voluntarism of the Stalinist era.

“During the years of rigged trials, the revolutionary ardor of the initial period faded… there was now only dogmatism and all art was subject to official control.”

And the result?

“A tragic situation arose in which, owing to the temporary distortion of socialist ideas, the kind of art which was in demand—easily understood and addressed to the masses—became divorced from progressive artistic principles.”

A clear choice: socialist realism or art.

This, of course, is not the view of the party critics, however bold they are becoming (at least in Hungary) about criticizing the Stalinist period. Socialist realism, they say, is basically all right. It’s just the manner of carrying it out that’s at fault.

Jozsef Jakovits: Composition. 1958.

“The meaning became distorted,” the official account says, “and realism identified with the principles and style of 19th Century critical realism. This conservative interpretation was still further strengthened by the fact that too much emphasis was placed on the significance of national tradition… !!!”

There are many, many things that are wrong with socialist realism, but surely the overemphasis of national tradition is not one of them.

As it is, the Nemeth account concludes that “Hungarian art moved into a blind alley, and it was to be after several years—and then only after a recognition of the political mistakes—before any change could be effected.”

It wasn’t art that moved into a blind alley—it was socialist realism, which never had any promising direction in the first place.

And, it is fascinating that even today, with a certain freedom of telling part of the truth about the Stalinist period, Hungarian art critics would still identify art with the brief and unsuccessful period of socialist realism.

Of course, existing quite outside the aping of Soviet poster art, there has always been a large and substantial group of Hungarian artists doing their thing. The “only” problem they had during the 1949-56 period was that they couldn’t make a living painting or sculpting. They either had to submit some work acceptable to the commissars or work in a job, say, machine tooling, and do the real work in private, just as a hobby.

Although the official line is still that the principle of socialist realism is sound, today the party and the government are not leaning so heavily on artists. They can and do come out from their semi-underground and create with their Western leanings curtailed by self-censorship only.

Janos Tornyai “Our Daily Bread.” 1934.

Who are the artists of the Hungarian post-socialist realist era?

During the past two decades, three generations of artists have been at work in Hungary, living and creating side-by-side.

The oldest of them were members of the post-Nagybanya School (a uniquely Hungarian group of painters formed around the turn of the century), and most them, born around 1890, were already past the prime of life at the time of the Soviet takeover.

The middle generation, born between 1900 and 1910, constituted the main body of what became known as the European School. Many of these artists were killed or wounded during World War II.

And, the third, the truly contemporary group whose members began to exhibit their work around and after 1955.

Among them, the young painters of the Hodmezovasarhely School were the ones who developed a style with strong homogeneity. The formation of this colony of artists dates from the early 1950’s when a number of them began to settle in the ancient country town of Hodmezovasarhely in the Great Hungarian Plain.

Gyorgy Kohan came out of this school, a painter of great dramatic power and strong contrasts. His art is in the manner of Aba Novak and Mexican mural paintings. Lesser talents in the same school are Csaba Fejer, Gyula Kajari, Janos Szurcsik, Laszlo Patay, and Sandor Vecsesi—all young enough to grow to unpredictable heights.

Jozsef Nemeth: Peasant Cart. 1964.

A strong influence on these artists is the work of Istvan D. Kurucz who painted peasant themes in a realist style in which the forms are often summarized.

Ferenc Szalay and Jozsef Nemeth are two members of the group with strong verist accomplishments.

Nemeth’s paintings, for example, clearly show the influence of pre-1945 neorealism. His work is about peasants who show little sign of being involved with collective farms. Yet, there is something vaguely reminiscent in these works of the physical squareness of socialist realism.

Four major young artists outside any definable major school or group are Be1a Gruber, Tibor Csernus, Bela Kondor, and Lili Orszag.

Gruber studied under Janos Kmetty and Aurel Bernath, two of the greats of the Nagybanya School, created sensitive and neurotic work, died at the age of 27 in a hospital for nervous diseases.

Lili Orszag developed a unique surrealist style, using velvety greys and deep browns to paint the sun, the moon and various motifs associated with Hebrew rites and burial ceremonies. She is using a cubist division of space with a central perspective as details direct the sight towards a vanishing point—where a suddenly curving space pulls the eye back so that the ebb and flow of space seems to fill forms. She and her followers are called Tachist-surrealist magic realists.

Istvan D. Kurucz: Men in Sheepskin. 1942.

Lili Orszag: Petrified Complaint. 1967.

Tibor Csernus, now living in Paris, was the most gifted pupil of Aurel Bernath. Towards the end of the 1950’s, he moved swiftly beyond the sketchiness of impressionism to achieve a style in which there is a blend of Tachist factor and surrealist symbolism.

Influenced by Csernus, a number of young painters, including Laszlo Lakner, Laszlo Gyemant, Ferenc Koka and Akos Szabo, became interested in the international movement associated with theories of surrealism.

Bela Kondor, one of the most talented of young Hungarian artists, came out of this group, but developed a completely individual style of his own.

With an utter rejection of socialist style or ideology, Kondor uses ancient symbols and a Picassoesque technique. His subtly vibrating network of lines has emotional and plastic meaning beyond the realm of Soviet posterism.

The tragic heritage of Gruber, the presence of Csernus, Kondor, and Orszag combine to create an atmosphere in modern Hungarian art which—incredibly—lacks any reference to a 10-year oppressive period of Stalinism, an era all artists in Hungary have lived through.

There are hundreds of up-and-coming artists in Hungary today working and growing as if they never had to paint happy workers and peasants marching hand-in-hand under the portraits of Stalin and Rakosi. The regenerative powers of the human (and artistic) psyche are amazing!

In modern Hungarian art, man’s relationship to nature and reality is primarily emotional and therefore—under the circumstances—tragic.

But, the artists are also showing a lyrical, and more hopeful, approach to motifs, whether of the objective world or concerning human relationships.

Bela Kondor: Clown Dressed in Bishop’s Purple. 1966.

Endre Balint: Grotesque Funeral. 1964.

Still, the brutal reality of Hungarian history (and present) is the major “message” in the fine arts. Even the tentative beginnings of some kind of Hungarian classicism were crushed—the “materialized inner joy” of modern classicism is quite impossible to realize in this country.

This is such an inescapable conclusion that the party art historian must say the same thing in so many words:

“Modern Hungarian art has been greatly affected by the tragic history of our country and of East Europe in general; the social development of Hungary has been strangely erratic, there has been a long struggle for national independence and consequent emphasis on patriotism; artistic and political considerations have been mingled in all our artistic endeavors.”

Mingled indeed.

But the worst period has long passed. There is some hope that time will heal the wounds and the future will prove a bit better than the past for Hungary’s artists. Their present is a vague, precarious affair which offers hope, but no more than that.

Dezso Korniss: Calligraphy. 1959.

Imre Varga: Apocalypse. 1967.

Laszlo Bencze: Woman Meditating. 1948.

Received in New York on June 15, 1970.

Janos Gereben of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin is an Alicia Patterson Fund award winner who has recently completed his fellowship year. This article may be published with credit to Janos Gereben, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin and the Alicia Patterson Fund.