The Political Art that Shaped Cold War Hungary
LOS ANGELES â" If you are looking for a chance to explore the material culture, art, and politics that shaped Hungary in post-World War II, look no further than Promote, Tolerate, Ban: Art and Culture in Cold War Hungary, an exhibition currently at the Wende Museum of the Cold War in Los Angeles. The show, co-curated by Cristina Cuevas-Wolf of the Wende Museum and Isotta Poggi of the Getty Research Institute, is a testament to the rich, interconnected cultural arenas that developed in post-war Eastern Europe and that Cold War narratives, to this day, often fail to recognize. In explicitly highlighting the political dimension of all cultural artifacts, the display is also an excellent opportunity to consider â" with the benefit of hindsight and geographic distance â" the range of civic positions and ideas about personal responsibility that artists developed in response to state socialismâs particular forms of oppression.
The three verbs in the showâs title refer to the policy of the â3Ts,â which guided Hungarian officials in their relationship to various cultural phenomena â" in Hungarian, the verbs âpromote,â âtolerate,â and âbanâ all start with a ât.â The showâs greatest strength lies in its presentation of art and historical artefacts from both the officially promoted mainstream of Hungarian life and the semi- or unofficial âsecond public sphere.â The mainstream culture included everything â" from overtly political propaganda to fabric design â" that was deemed acceptable and worthy of support by the powers that be. The second public sphere encompassed activities that happened both under official auspices ( e.g., film production at state-funded studios) and entirely outside any official organizations and were either tolerated by the regime with reservation or banned outright.
The objects on view, which range from experimental films to garden furniture, were drawn largely from the collections of the Wende Museum and the Getty Research Institute. Because the Hungarian portions of those collections were not assembled systematically, the show cannot give a comprehensive mapping of life in socialist-era Hungary, but it does offer some good starting points and illustrates well the arc of Hungarian post-war history, from the Stalinist rule of MÃ¡tyÃ¡s RÃ¡kosi, complete with purges and show trials, to the suppressed Uprising of 1956, which was labeled a counterrevolution by the Soviet-supported authorities, to the consequent advent of so-called Goulash Communism under JÃ¡nos KÃ¡dÃ¡r, who remained in power until 1988.
The first part of the exhibition looks at representations of the 1956 Uprising and examples of what constituted acceptable âsocialist realistâ art both before and after that watershed moment in Hungarian history. Lovers of all things mid-century modern will also find a section on 1960s visions of the âgood life,â complete with advertising posters aimed at women as consumers of modern-day conveniences. Here, one can see how the material comforts and modest glamor of Goulash Communism would have dulled the urgency of moral dilemmas related to abstract notions of freedom â" a condition quite similar to the everyday experience in the West at the same time, as any number of Pop artists worked hard to point out. The second half of the exhibition, by contrast, offers glimpses into the counter-cultural milieu where ethical questions (raised, it appears, largely by childless young men) figured front and center.
The strongest works are the films. The first is an excerpt from PÃ©ter ForgÃ¡csâs âThe BibÃ³ Readerâ (2001), one in a series of films titled Private Hungary, which ForgÃ¡cs has been making since 1987, pulling from a large archive of amateur home movies. This film explores the life and writings of IstvÃ¡n BibÃ³, a lawyer, politician, and philosopher who managed to be inconvenient to every regime he lived under. The filmâs poetic snippets of home movies mesmerize the viewer while long quotes from BibÃ³âs writings delve deeply into his thought. Starting in the interwar period, BibÃ³ advocate d for social democratic values in Hungary, which largely lacked them throughout his lifetime. He stressed in particular the rights of every individual and the personal responsibility of each citizen for her or his active commitment to communally upholding those rights. True to his beliefs, BibÃ³ joined the government of reformer Imre Nagy during the 1956 Uprising, subsequently facing imprisonment and house arrest until his death. BibÃ³âs suggestion in The Jewish Question in Hungary After 1944 (1948) that âeveryone must draw up a list of things he was solely or partly responsible forâ points to the theme of personal responsibility in the face of oppressive forces that, for me, was the most resonant one in the exhibition.
This theme next emerges in Tibor Hajasâs âSelf-Fashion Showâ (1976), a short film which Hajas made at the renowned BalÃ¡zs BÃ©la Studio. To make it, Hajas, an artist who worked across multiple media and died young in a car accident in 1980, filmed passersby in silent, long, straight-on shots on a large Budapest square. Some are seen amid the bustle of the city; others appear to be isolated in the studio, though in reality, they stood against a backdrop on the same busy square. Over the footage, several voices intone suggestions on how one should present oneself to the world: âDecide whom you would like to please. â¦ Try to make a nice impression. â¦Represent a lifestyle, an era, a fate, a personality.â This advice sounds ominously like orders, and the film balances on a knifeâs edge in its meaning â" it could be taken as encouragement for individual self-expression or a demand for conformity. The suggestion seems to be that it is up to each individual to interpret the words. Hajas also captures the ever-present pressures that surround a person in the public sphere: the glances of strangers; the constant possiblity of surveillance, as represented by the film camera; an internalized authority figure â" in this case, probably the State, but it could be many other things, too, which, like the filmâs soundtrack, drones on in oneâs head.
Hajasâs second film in the exhibition, âVigilâ (1980), comes from a phase in the artistâs work when he subjected his body to extreme conditions, experimenting with total trust and the freedom found in letting go of fear. In the performance captured here by his collaborator, JÃ¡nos VetÃ¶, Hajas created a dangerous setting by breaking a lighbulb in a puddle of water. He then had himself medically tranqualized, putting himself entirely at the mercy of the collaborators who were tasked with ensuring his safety from electrocution and other hazards. As the audience observed the perform ance, Hajasâs pre-recorded voice delivered a long monologue: âThis is the voice to revert to, this consciousness. This is the lighthouse, the navigation light, the course; this is the standard to which to conform every time that the need arises. â¦ This voice is sheer vigil, nothing else. â¦ My complete awareness of my own fragility is what turns me invulnerable.â Over and over, the voice says, presumably to Hajas, âDo not let yourself be deceived, Master.â Though descriptions of Hajasâs influences often cite Eastern thought and meditation as inspirations, in this performance, the Christian iconography â" the artist experiences near-death and then rises from it â" is striking, and the piece is a vivid, visceral answer to the question of what it takes to truly live âwithin the truth,â to borrow a term from the Czech writer and dissident VÃ¡clav Havel.
The half of the show dedicated to the âsecond public sphereâ encounters the usual difficulties one faces when trying to represent conceptual and performance art that was created for and by a close-knit, closed-off community of artists in which social energy and interpersonal relationships were as important an outcome as any physical âpieceâof art. Yet several pieces do stand out here as further insights into what artists felt they personally could do in the face of complicity or complacency about situations which ordinary citizens are not supposed to be able to alter. A group of Hungarian and Czechoslovak unofficial artists met at the lakeside resort of BalatonboglÃ¡r in the summer 1972 and created a photogra phic record of every member of the Hungarian contingent shaking the hand of every member of the Czechoslovak one â" a citizen diplomacy antidote, however modest, to the fact that Hungary officially participated in the Soviet-led suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968. âStamp Filmâ (1982-1984) depicts the outcome of efforts that the artist couple GyÃ¶rgy GalÃ¡ntai and JÃºlia Klaniczay undertook to develop an extensive international mail art network. In 1982, they solicited stamp designs for World Art Post from artists around the globe, and the film is evidence of the hundreds of entries they received in return.
The b iggest discovery for me was LÃ¡szlÃ³ Laknerâs Collected Documents, 1960-1974, a group of texts and photographs in which the painter, who very much awaits discovery in North America, documented his own shifting inspirations and interests during a formative period. Though his later work changed dramatically, in the 1960s and â70s Lakner worked in a naturalistic idiom that ranged from expressionistic to hyperrealist. In the Collected Documents, he discusses his preoccupation at the time with group portaiture. This interest bears a clear affinity with IstvÃ¡n BibÃ³âs concern with âcommunityâ â" a term that establishes who is âinâ and who is âout,â who deserves care, support, and rights, and who does not. Laknerâs painted copies of found group photographs ask their viewers to think about how âcommunityâ is visualized and to what end. His âSeamstresses Listen to Hitlerâs Speechâ (1960), a painting based on a 1942 photograph, was, for me, a particularly powerful image. Lakner wrote about the process of making it: âI did not want to make âart,â but simply to grasp something, or, perhaps, to discover something.â Something about collective horror and responsibility in the face of it, one imagines, that we all still need help discovering.
Promote, Tolerate, Ban: Art and Culture in Cold War Hungary continues at the Wende Museum of the Cold War (10808 Culver Blvd, Culver City) through August 26.Source: Google News Hungary | Netizen 24 Hungary