I've begun the second chapter of this journey as all adventures should, by diving in rather than beginning with a taste of the waters. Yesterday I spent the day at the Hungarian National Gallery, meeting with the curator of the post-World War II section and exploring the collection. In talking with my contact at the Ludwig museum (more to come on that one), and Zsolt at the National Gallery, I’ve come to understand much more clearly the artistic system in Hungary, as well as the development of contemporary art in the last century.
The National Gallery is in Buda Castle in the old palace building, magnificently rich in detail and royal from every angle. The collection is very deep and the permanent exhibitions display centuries of Hungarian sculpture and painting. The museum starts from the ground up, on the first floor is the older art, working its way up to contemporary art on top.
I’ve seen collections struggle in repurposed buildings such as this one, as it can be difficult to integrate the display of art into rooms and areas that were not intended for the exhibitions of big, flat rectangles. Yet the National Gallery excels in this area, especially the post war contemporary curating.
The building has a large central area, dominated by a huge staircase with large landings. Most of the art is housed in the wings that extend to either side of the building. The contemporary art effectively uses this large open landing space to display monumental works that introduce some of the themes, techniques and materials that dominate the Hungarian contemporary canon. The top landing is particularly fantastic, with two sculptures and a hanging piece in the dome that deal with themes of struggle, life and death and memory.
The name of the exhibition is Shifts, which is designed to evoke the recognition of the gradual development in Hungarian art, how each group influenced the next rather than being a timeline of abrupt change.
A major issue presented is that of state supported art versus what artists wanted to create. Obviously, Hungary was under communist rule after World War II, which had very strict standards of art that it accepted. Social Realism was the most accepted form of art, portrayals of life and family and work.
Under the soviet regime there were three types of art the three T’s, which translate to supported art, accepted art, and unacceptable work. The museum does a fantastic job bringing the three together and contrasting them. For example, there are photos of entries to a contest to design statues of Stalin in 1949. Yet next to these pictures, all representing austere, classical based figures, is a sculpture by one of the same artists, which is highly progressive and creative.
Artists ran many risks. Either they could not practice art, conform to Soviet standards, or lead parallel artistic careers. Each path held its downfalls. The first is obvious; if an artist didn’t practice they couldn’t be an artist. An artist that conformed sacrificed his artistic integrity but an artist that led parallel lives risked being shunned by one or both sides (one much more dangerously).
What is interesting is that as the social realism developed, the subject matter was more important than the style. Thus, as long as a work presented an acceptable theme or story with an agreeable title, it could experiment stylistically. It is fascinating to see accepted spirit of the age ideologically accepted by the soviet government portrayed in modern language.
Artists who did not conform had extremely limited funding and access to exhibition space. They often exhibited in creative spaces, setting up sculptures on the streets (without permits) or showing films on the sides of houses. Patronage for creative and progressive art hardly existed.
This problem precedes a problem that still seems to plague that Hungarian art world today. Artistic funding is not high, and comes with the assumption that an artist or curators will a certain direction in some of their work. There seems to be corruption and favoritism in grant giving, as well as an overwhelming lack of funding for both museums and artists.
Nonetheless, as the whole collection at the National Gallery, in particular the contemporary work shows, Hungary as a country has a rich artistic tradition that is not to be missed, in spite of any difficulties is has and continues to endure.
In the coming weeks I’ll get more breadth to my artistic exploration here. I will see more museums, private galleries, alternative art spaces and hopefully meet some artists as well to understand their experience working within this system. Today I left Budapest to go to a very different museum, the Istvan Kiraly Muzeum. Look back tomorrow for a report on that!
I may have traded mountains and nature for paintings and the city, but the adventure of the art scene here is just as thrilling, though in quite a new sense.