Art in Hungary, 1956-1980: Doublespeak and Beyond (Book Review)

Art in Hungary, 1956-1980: Doublespeak and Beyond. Eds. Edit Sasvári, Sándor Hornyik, and Hedvig Turai, London: Thames & Hudson, 2018, 384pp.

This collectively authored volume on Hungarian art under the state socialist regime of János Kádár offers readers a fresh, richly informative, and multifaceted picture of this critical period in Hungary’s post-war artistic culture. More than just an edited collection of individual contributions, it integrates texts by experts on different aspects of Kádár-period (1956-1988) art—specific temporal periods, policy phases, media, artistic modes, institutional spaces, and identities—within an orchestrated design. Following the introduction, seventeen chapters are grouped under four topical headings: Institutions, Discourses, Disguises, and Speech Acts. The chapters are helpfully cross-referenced, but the editors have also taken pains to avoid excessive redundancy between the contributions. The book thus provides an impressively rich and prismatically presented body of information that could serve equally well as an accessible introduction for a novice reader and as a scholarly resource for a reader already initiated into the key problematics and possibilities of art under state socialism.

In addition, though the book’s main task is to delineate the specificity of Hungarian art under the Kádár regime, its various chapters are strongly informed by knowledge of the art and art-historical scholarship in other socialist countries of East Central Europe, especially Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia. The authors regularly cross-reference concurrent developments in artistic production and cultural policy in different parts of East-Central Europe, thus highlighting the commonalities and particularities of Hungarian art within this broader Socialist cultural context. More directly, they underscore the ways in which networks of travel and exchange within the region, including exhibitions abroad, stimulated new artistic ideas or allowed margins of expressive freedom that were, at that moment, precluded domestically. Therefore, it should help readers with expertise in the art of other areas of the socialist bloc to draw relevant comparisons to better understand how specific national contexts of Socialism played out in the art spheres across the region.

A major challenge for the editors and authors of this volume was to treat with critical rigor the art of a system so riven by organizational and ideological contradictions that its most typical characteristic may, indeed, have been its often absurd and contemptible inconsistency, which nevertheless was sustained for more than three decades of rule. As Edit Sasvári writes in her introductory essay, “It is the incoherence of Hungary and other East-Central European regimes that makes it so difficult to understand in the context of art” (10). The Kádár regime managed irreconcilable antimonies on multiple axes: balancing an all-embracing Marxist-Leninist ideology with opportunistic Party administration of Hungarian society; pledging allegiance to the Soviet Union while soliciting the evident benefits of Western economic and intellectual relations; legitimating socialism in the name of “the people” while suppressing the resentful nationalism that was the basic sentiment of many of the actual people it governed; engaging in convenient amnesia about Hungarian antisemitism and the role of Hungry in the Holocaust while, simultaneously, inconveniently failing to shake off painful memories of the Soviet invasion that installed the regime in power in the first place.

This incoherence at the heart of the Hungarian state Socialist system not only infected the political structure and the official ideology of its major organs. It was also reflexively incorporated into each of the social subsystems, including the art system, distorting the actions, habits of thought, and expression of individuals in their professional roles and everyday life. (For this conception of differentiated and reflexively communicating social systems, see Niklas Luhmann, Theory of Society, volume 1 and 2, trans. Rhodes Barrett (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012 and 2013); for the specific subsystem of art, see also Luhmann, Art as Social System, trans. Eva M. Knodt (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000). ) Incoherence had its diachronic dimension as well, giving new accent to a more general feature of modern Hungarian history: its marked discontinuity, as war, revolution, counter-revolution, invasions, and lurches between regimes and ideologies undermined the basis on which enduring artistic traditions and tendencies might mature. As Gábor Dobó and Merse Pál Szeredi remark in their chapter “Hungarian Culture +/- Europe” Positions and Self-images of Avant-garde and Modernist Movements in Hungary, 1915-68”: “Should one insist on some generalizable observation about twentieth-century Hungarian culture, it would be about discontinuity, by which we mean both a lack of continuity and a breaking up of relationships. Relations between twentieth-century Hungarian avant-garde and modernist trends and the Hungarian cultural environment are arguably discontinuous, as avant-garde artists’ relationship with the Hungarian public was interrupted time and time again by censorship, political persecution and restrictions placed upon the public sphere. Consequently, avant-garde ideas and radical political and artistic programmes were not sustained in contemporary cultural discourse and, in contrast to Western European art history, had a small, limited or extremely belated effect on later art movements.” (39)

The various metaphors used by the authors to describe the overall atmosphere of the Kádár period artworld and features of its particular niches attempt to body forth this discontinuous and incoherent space of discourse and practice: “doublespeak,” “grey zone,” “disfiguration,” “deconstructed,” “private public opinion,” “limited access,” “semantic minefield.” In his late, unpublished work Democratization Today and Tomorrow,(György Lukács, Demokratisierung Heute und Morgen, ed. László Sziklai (Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1985). Quoted from the English translation: Georg Lukács, The Process of Democratization, trans. Susanne Bernhardt and Norman Levine (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991).) written in response to the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the philosopher Georg Lukács reflected on the failure of state socialism to allow a genuine public sphere to subsist and the consequent forcing of public discussion into subterranean channels of gossip, euphemism, and conversation in secret. On the one hand, Lukács noted, “The participants are deeply convinced that taking part in [public] discussions has practically no significance for the issues themselves, or can frequently cause the participants personal harm” (150). On the other hand, he continues: “Vibrant and free public opinion exists, but in an underground and subterranean form…. Within Eastern European society, and dealing with all aspects of social  life, this public opinion is primarily a matter of private conversation, of immediate and spontaneous discussions between two people. The real influence of such a secretive world is extraordinarily various. However, it would be wrong to underestimate it, or to judge it as completely ineffectual. I mention only in passing that it has been my personal experience for decades that success in the cultural areas is determined by this subterranean public opinion (150).

The authors of Art In Hungary, with the benefit of historical hindsight, take a less optimistic view of this phenomenon, finding in it fertile soil for the characteristic Kádár-era idiom of an Orwellian “doublespeak.” With the exception of the intransigent neo-avant-garde and a few stubborn individuals of the artistic old guard such as Lajos Kassák and Margit Anna, most artists found at least some degree of accommodation with the system and learned the necessary dialect of its generalized doublespeak. The authors together explore the development and interactions of what Sasvári in her introduction identifies as three coexisting layers of the art scene in the 1960s and 70s: official art, supported by the regime’s art institutions and ideology; “national conservative art” inflected by moderate doses of modernist forms cleansed of any oppositional connotations; and neo-avant-garde art, which refused the legitimacy of the regime and developed its activities both on the margins of the Hungarian artworld and in a complex relationship with artists in other countries. Some of the chapters, in particular Péter György’s “Under Eastern Eyes,” Gábor Dobó and Merse Pál Szeredi’s “Hungarian Culture +/- Europe: Positions and Self-Images of Avant-Garde Movements in Hungary, 1915-68,” and Sándor Hornyik’s “Reforming Socialist Realism: Encounters of Eastern Modernization and Western Modernism” provide genealogical insights into the evolution of the three-layered art scene.

Flóra Barkóczi’s “Creative (Dis)Courses: The Forms, Methods and Locations of Alternative Art Pedagogy in Hungary” discusses art schools and pedagogy not only as a focal point in which artistic policy was implemented and modified over time, but also, more surprisingly, as a not fully subjugated space where alternative artistic practices might be propagated at at least temporarily unmolested by officialdom, as in the striking instances of neo-avant-garde artists Dóra Maurer and Miklós Erdély’s “Motion Planning and Performing Exercises” and “Creativity Exercises” workshops, and the subsequent “Fantasy-developing Exercises” and “Interdisciplinary Thinking” workshops of Erdély alone. Lóránt Bódi’s “Domesticated Modernism: The Role of Emigré Arts in the Cultural Politics of the Kádár Era” considers the regime’s ambivalent courtship of prestigious emigré artists such as Victor Vaserely and Amerigo Tot and its divided presentation of emigré modernism in external and domestic exhibitions, while Klara Kemp-Welch’s “Soft-spoken Encounters: International Exchanges and the Hungarian ‘Underground’” discusses the paradoxes of invisibility/visibility of the Hungarian neo-avant-garde as they networked their domestically marginalized art activities into international contemporary art scenes.

Other chapters trace the development of particular artistic modes, such as Dávid Fehér’s discussion of the transformations of figurative art from socialist realism to pop and photo-based realism, and Jószef Mélyi’s consideration of shifting practices of and critical views on abstraction, which was initially proscribed under the strong ideological demands of socialist realism but later partially coopted as a conveniently indeterminate vehicle for the vague humanism and pragmatism of mature Kádárism. Additional chapters that explore particular media and modes of the specifically neo-avant-garde art of the period include Emese Kürti’s “Poetry in Action: Language as a Performative Medium in the Hungarian Neo-avant-garde” and Katalin Székely’s “The Influx of Images: Photo, Experimental Film and Video Art in the Hungarian Neo-avant-garde.”

Magdelena Radomska’s “Working in the Twice-mined Semantic Minefield: The Politics of Hungarian Neo-avant-garde Movements” might also be seen as a treatment of artistic medium, in this case the neo-avant-garde’s transformation of political language into materials of art and the quasi-political discourse of avant-garde “isms” into an artistically deployable language. Radomska views the Hungarian neo-avant-garde as having evolved an artistic mode that navigated a “semantic minefield” with two sorts of dangerous discursive mines: the propaganda discourse of official Socialist cultural policy, and the Western art historical discourse that offered only the prospect of “catching up” from the putative “backwardness” of the Socialist hinterlands of modernity.

Still another set of chapters considers major historical neuralgic points or social blind spots in the artistic and ideological legitimation of the Kádár order: Géza Boros’s “Taboo and Trauma: 1956,” Daniel Véri’s “The Holocaust and the Arts: Paths and Crossroads,” and Hedvig Turai’s “Limited Access to Greatness: The Position of Women Artists.” The latter essay, in fact, though it is not evident from its title, puts not only gender but also its intersectionality with Jewishness at the center of its discussion. The four women painters discussed—Erzsébet Schaár, Margit Anna, Júlia Vajda, and Lili Ország —wrestled with the tension between their (partially thwarted) recognition as “universal” artists and the particularity of their histories as Jewish women in wartime and post-war Hungary, while both Margit Anna and Júlia Vajda suffered the experience of traumatic wartime widowhood from their artist husbands, the painters Imre Ámos and Lajos Vadja respectively, and worked for decades under their haunting shadows.

While each of the authors of Art in Hungary assume the deconstructed social and ideological background of Kádárism in their analyses, some chapters more directly analyze the intermeshing of official power ideology with weak counter-institutional spaces, deformed public and private spheres, and the expressive dilemmas of navigating the interstices between them. For example, Júlia Perczel’s “The Art Sphere as a Grey Zone” considers the expansion of an unevenly respected, but also imperfectly policed private sphere as the condition of certain typical manifestations of the art sphere in this period: personal contacts between younger artists and older, partially sanctioned members of earlier avant-gardes; artist circles and private exhibitions in apartments or in provincial spaces away from the centers of official control; artistic modes such as mail art that could to some degree evade oversight.

Maja and Ruben Fowkes’ “Liberty Controlled: Institutional Settings of the East European Neo-avant-garde” considers Hungarian neo-avant-garde practices in a comparative ambit including Poland, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia. They conclude that the controlled “liberty” that the Kádár regime ambiguously held out also helped catalyze distinctive forms of neo-avant-garde creativity. Hungarian neo-avant-garde art was, they argue, shaped by tactics of evasion and interruption of official mechanisms for the control of art, and hence, ironically, also bears distinctive imprints—albeit in reversed form—of the very state apparatuses they opposed. Edit András’s chapter “Out of Private Public Opinion into Shared Personal Opinion: The Public, Private and the Political” offers a nuanced analysis of the intricate reversibility and entanglement of publicness and privateness—including issues of gender and sexuality that have only received limited attention in art historical studies of this period—for such artists as Tibor Hajas, Károly Halász, Dóra Maurer, Bálint Szombathy, Endre Tót, and Zsuzsa Szenes. She advances in conclusion a notion of “imaginary transgression” that sought in artistic practice and art-shaped forms of sociability “an alternative formation of public/private relations, both of them malfunctioning under socialism” (247). Adorno’s image of torn halves that do not add up to a whole, originally applied to the split of Western art into high art and culture industry, pertains here as well—but along the very different lines that culture was segmented by the specific structures of East Central European state Socialism, and by the Kádár regime in Hungary as its still more particular variant.


Tyrus Miller (Los Angeles)
Tyrus Miller is a scholar of 20th-century art, literature, and culture, with a specialization in the innovative modernist and avant-garde literary and artistic movements of Europe and the United States. In addition, he has written extensively on the art and culture of socialist and post-socialist East-Central Europe. He is author of Late Modernism: Politics, Fiction, and the Arts Between the World Wars; Singular Examples: Artistic Politics and the Neo-Avant-Garde; Time Images: Alternative Temporalities in 20th-Century Theory, History, and Art; and Modernism and the Frankfurt School. He has edited Given World and Time: Temporalities in Context and A Cambridge Companion to Wyndham Lewis. He is also the translator from Hungarian and editor of György Lukács, The Culture of People’s Democracy: Hungarian Essays on Literature, Art, and Democratic Transition and series co-editor of Brill Publisher’s Lukács Library series.