Context & Identity in Contemporary Hungarian Art

Reimagining the near past and constructing local identities. A Fulbright project by Linnea West (2012-13)

National identity in the visual arts (4): the aftermath of 1989

Yellow_notebook_paperIn 1989, Hungary became its own democratic, capitalist nation, and its art scene—hitherto restricted but state-supported—was thrown into the wilderness to fend for itself. And it did. Some of the changes that must be considered include institutional changes, the treatment of formerly unofficial artists, how art history was considered and written, how all of this related to money and international relations, and finally styles and trends in the visual arts. In this radical shift, representations of national identity were notably absent. These seismic shifts set the scene for Hungarian art today.

At the institutional level, changes include the formation/revitalization of cultural centers such as the Műcsarnok (that is, the Kunsthalle), Ludwig Museum, Artpool, Goethe Institute, Studio of Young Artists Association, and Trafó. Commercial galleries and a commercial framework for art came into being, although without a Western-style culture of individual patronage to support it. These institutions, but more importantly the universities with art schools, were soon filled with formerly banned or censured artists, artistic heroes of the resistance, if you will. The canonization of formerly banned artists was a reward for years of suffering and recognition of artistic merit. So, prestigious faculty positions were allotted to artists such as Dora Maurer. Former unofficial artists, who tended to be avant-garde, Abstract/Conceptual artists, became the new definers of style and education of next generation.

Artists of second IPARTERV exhibition pictured. The photograph was used for the cover of the publication Dokumentum 1970. From the Exhibition History website.

This “great generation” of artists also became codified in art history, as the new institutions were able to finally write and show a representative version of art history that highlighted their works. Hungarian art historians Gábor Andrási and András Zwickl write that: “At one stroke, ‘avant-garde’ ceased to be a positive or negative value judgment; its emotive charge had evaporated while the militant mentality that functioned in terms of polar contrasts and ideological opposition, dealing blow for blow, suddenly became anachronistic.”[1] Their artwork became historical quite suddenly, and elements of the past like the IPARTERV exhibition became legendary, creating a living canon of sorts.

However, the need for art historical research and documentation was great: after the past two or three decades when no work of that kind was done, it created a serious need for an analytical, systematic approach. For example, there were no monographs on some of the most important artist before that point.

All of this sounds—and of course was—positive progressive steps, but naturally a shift this tremendous did not happen easily. In the arts, problematic relationships to money and the international, specifically Western, world were apparent in the new situation. Money was a difficulty in terms of creating a commercial structure for the art, changing how public arts were funded, and of how artists approached production. The traditional binary of Eastern versus Western did not dissolve with the Iron Curtain, but artists tend to rush forward into the international context at the expense of the national one, rather with an attitude of ‘good riddance.’

Antal Lakner, DIRECTION SIGNS, 1993, as part of Polyphonia exhibition

Antal Lakner’s Direction Signs (1993) reading “Over Here” and “Over There” as part of the city-wide, discursive Polyphonia exhibition

Given the new lack of state support, many institutions and artists struggled to find resources. To meet this need, a unique exception was the Soros Center for Contemporary Art (SCAA), founded by George Soros to foster the Hungarian contemporary art scene. The SCCA Bulletin 1991-94 put it thus: “It has become commonplace to point out how the artists, perfectly aware of the limits and bondages of the previous system imposed upon them (and also aware of the ways to get around them) find their place in democracy, which does not only allow them a total freedom of expression but also casts them into a state of existential and financial destitution.”[2] Artists and institutions, used to a relatively comfortable if limited position, began the exhausting business of scrounging for money.

In terms of international relations, the Hungarian art scene was eager to join the rest of the world. “The newest generation views itself as international as a matter of course, where the free passage between geographic and intellectual regions of all sizes and shapes fits into a broader–European and intercontinental–context.”[3] The game of “catch up” that Hungary has so often played with the West was quickly realized and the arts integrated Western trends and modes. The divide between Hungary and the Western world did not dissolve with the Iron Curtain, however, and what worked internationally did not also work the same way locally. In fact, “there is a very marked difference between exposure abroad and acceptance at home. It seems that a twofold standard exists in evaluating contemporary artists, and the international success of young artists are often of little consequences at home, where the criteria of the latest discourse may not fully apply.”[4]

Initial trends in art styles and art making practices did not include much about national identity, or issue-based work at all. Despite the strong history of political art and huge changes to the nation, “issue-based art has not yet become a significant part of Hungarian art. … attitude of social criticism manifest during earlier decades, in overt or hidden forms, is also missing.”[5] Art historian Edit András goes so far as to say that artists, and society, were unable to cope with the trauma of the past, as an explanation for the silence:

“As an aftermath of the inability to carry through the “trauma process”, the culture of the Socialist past became a taboo issue. Leaving the past as it is, and not bothering it with excavations and analyses, became a kind of unwritten agreement. In the region, and surely in Hungary, only a few young artists felt it necessary to analyze the past in the shadow of a new kind of globalization and of a new political formation, the deeply desired integration into the European Union.”[6]

The silence was, perhaps, resounding. And the art produced formed no discernible trends or school, but splintered into a plethora of Western-borrowed styles and was taught by ‘the great generation.’ In terms of creating a structure for the arts and incorporating unofficial art into art history it was very successful period. But it was clearly an exciting but uneven and varied era of transition for the Hungarian arts scene.

Next article in this series: National identity in the visual arts (5): current situation

Previous article in this series: National identity in the visual arts (3): the Soviet Era 

[1] Gábor Andrási and András Zwickl, “Contemporary Art in the Nineties,” in The History of Hungarian Art in the Twentieth Century, ed. Gábor Andrási et al. (Budapest : Corvina, 1999), xx.

[2] Katalin Neray, “The Past Five Years of Hungarian Visual Arts,” in SCAA Bulletin 1991-1994 (Budapest: Soros Center for Contemporary Arts, 1994), 14.

[3] Andrási and Zwickl, “Contemporary Art in the Nineties,” in History of Hungarian Art in the Twentieth Century, xx.

[4] Andrási and Zwickl, “Contemporary Art in the Nineties,” in History of Hungarian Art in the Twentieth Century, xx.

[5] András Zwickl, “Five Years,” in SCAA Bulletin 1991-1994, 21.

[6] Edit András, “An Agent That Is Still at Work: The Trauma of Collective Memory of the Socialist Past,” in Writing Central European Art History (, 12.


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This entry was posted on January 14, 2013 by in Article, History.

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