Ferenc CSAPLÁR: From Prohibition to Tolerance, Kassák’s Work and the Cultural Politics of the 1960s (2006)
Image Architecture – exhibition by Lajos Kassák
Back in April 1965, Kassák had asked for a personal meeting with János Kádár. After this meeting, the matter of the exhibition came before the political committee of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party. This body came up with the idea of “self-financed exhibitions”: Kassák was allowed to have an exhibition in a state institution, but only if he paid all the costs himself. Although as the result of the “debate on realism” shows the official viewpoint in 1965 was that abstract art was to remain prohibited, the decision makers were most probably taking into consideration Kassák’s upcoming eightieth birthday and also Kádár’s opinion, who had known Kassák from the 1930s and thought highly of him as a writer.
Kassák saw this event, which also promised a sudden change in the situation of contemporary Hungarian avant-garde art, as his personal victory—a victory over his professional adversaries, too, especially Aurél Bernáth and Pál Pátzay. He wrote this to Károly László on 12 September 1966: “In March 1967, on the occasion of my 80th birthday, I shall have an exhibition in Pest. This will be the first introduction of constructivism. The gate has opened, and I am walking through it.” He commented on what had happened in a similar tone to Victor Vasarely, too: “This will be the first constructivist exhibition here. See, I have broken through the concrete wall.”
What Kassák said in defense of modern Hungarian art, when opening an exhibition entitled “The Eights and the Circle of Activists” in October 1965 in Székesfehérvár, also contributed to the weakening of prejudices. It soon turned out that what Kassák got, after waiting so long when he asked for a chance to make an exhibition, was a concession from cultural politics, given with bad grace—a cultural politics that still had its reservations about modern pursuits in art, and voiced its political anxiety, while at the same time being in a sorry plight because of both leftist critics and conservative professional cliques. Adolf Fényes Hall, converted into an exhibition space out of one of the first-floor apartments in a tenement house at Rákóczi Boulevard 30, constituted one of the more out-of-the-way galleries in Budapest at the time. Artists who were not allowed to exhibit in the Kunsthalle or at the Ernst Museum for one reason or another—most often because of the “character of their work” (to use the official formulation of the time)—were able to organize exhibitions there.
In December 1966, Kassák received the estimates concerning the costs of the exhibition. The Kunsthalle, which was responsible for the operation of the gallery, included in its estimate cleaning costs, the cost of addressing the envelopes for the invitations, and the price of the ceremonial bouquet for the opening. These were all to be paid in advance.
However, Kassák managed to arrange for the competent employees of the Department of Fine and Applied Arts to pick a panel of experts (who were needed to examine the material of the planned exhibition) according to his taste. […] What happened in Adolf Fényes Hall at the opening of the exhibition on 4 March pointed way beyond the birthday celebration of an artist. Máté Major, who gave the opening speech, talked not only about the works of art, but also about cultural politics when talking about the works’ reception. Those who knew the studies on the tasks of literature and art published by the cultural theory working group of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party and its leaders in 1965–66, as well as the articles whose authors undertook to write agreeable comments about this group, could have no doubt about whom Major’s words referred to, whom they were aimed at, and whom they criticized. We can get a sense of the atmosphere of the opening from the following part of the speech:
“But there is something in Kassák’s being a poet and a painter, something in his poetry and art, that should make those who accept the poet (and even, rightly, honor him with the Kossuth prize)—while considering the artist as someone who got lost, the representative of ‘degenerate art’—think about their stance. […] Can someone with common sense imagine that Kassák, when he does this in his poems, tries to do just the opposite in his pictures and with a peculiar schizophrenia, strives to be ‘unclear to all’? That is, while he does not ‘deny’ the reality of nature and society and does not strive to ‘escape’ from the human and artistic obligation to take up a position in his poetry, he does just that, ‘denying’ and ‘escaping,’ in his paintings? Of course not!”
Those who filled the room and the corridor could hear other things, too. Kassák spoke not only to thank Makrisz Agamemnon and Máté Major; according to his contemporaries, he also “gave a lengthy and bitter talk about the cultural politics of the age.” The atmosphere was special, as the guests included György Aczél and his wife, too. Others remarked (not only during the opening but later, too), that the exhibition deserved a more worthy venue and better conditions.
One day, when the exhibition had been officially closed, Kádár himself visited it. This was a surprising gesture, as the first secretary seldom went to see artists’ exhibitions. This was probably the first and last time he entered Adolf Fényes Hall, a venue reserved for “tolerated” artists. He was interested. Someone noted that two years later, when he visited Aurél Bernáth, who was working on a wall painting entitled The Workers’ State for the Party’s headquarters, he defended Kassák and his paintings against the condemnatory remarks of his colleague.
The directors of cultural politics did not intend to publicly rehabilitate Kassák the artist. Their reservations were indicated by Kassák having to pay for the venue of the exhibition, which visitors also criticized, and the unfair conditions. It was also a telling sign that the panel of experts of the Department of Fine and Applied Arts, whose task it was to price works, did not recommend any of the pieces exhibited for public purchase, considering the official stance on abstract art.
Source: Élet és Irodalom 50, n. 49 (8 December 2006).