György Kovásznai: A Cold War Artist. Animation. Painting. Freedom
The first UK retrospective of the work of the Hungarian artist, film-maker and animator displayed his extensive and eclectic range
Somerset House, London
3-5 March 2016
by MK PALOMAR
If you have no connection to, or knowledge of, Hungary, then it is possible you will not have heard of the Hungarian artist György Kovásznai (1934-83). The spectacular exhibition of his work at Somerset House, however, was remarkable not only for displaying his extensive and eclectic range (painting in still image, animation frame and film, through figuration, abstraction, surrealism expressionism and modernism), but also because it ran for only three days. Fortunately, Kovásznai’s work can be viewed online via numerous YouTube films1 and also through the Kovásznai Research Center Foundation.
Despite these unaccommodating circumstances, it is still important that (with the help of the extensive book Kovásznai: A Cold War Artist. Animation. Painting. Freedom by the exhibition’s curator, Brigitta Iványi-Bitter2) we review Kovásznai’s work, because his legacy is relevant today for anyone interested in animation, and also for creative thinkers and makers whose work merges concepts and practical processes from different disciplines such as graphic design, fine art, illustration, film and animation.
Kovásznai, who attended the Art Academy in Budapest during the 1950s, was recognised by his fellow students as being “a genius compared to others.”3 At that time, the institution operated under the surveillance of a strict party state. Kovásznai explained: “You were kept on a short leash … the masters enjoyed a total autocracy …”4 At the end of his first year, Kovásznai wrote a play, The Tragedy of the Freshman, voicing his opposition to the academy’s limitations and to tutors “unworthy of any professional title”.5
He riled against the greyish colour scale insisted on by the painting tutors, and he yearned for a more viable perspective, deciding to leave in 1954, in order (as he explained in a letter): “To gain a real experience from the proletariat.”6 Kovásznai went to work in the coal mines, his paintings and drawings showing the miserable conditions of the industry and clearly describing the workers’ suffering. This did not tally with the party propaganda of strong, heroic miners and, although he was readmitted to the academy in 1956, he was kicked out “shortly before his graduation in 1957”.7 At this time, Kovásznai was 23 and still living with his parents. In 1958, he finished his autobiographical novel titled Times and then joined the literary periodical Nagyvilág (meaning wide world), where he worked as an editor until 1974. This employment enabled him to rent a room in the house of the writer Miklós Mészöly, and, as his circle of friends grew, he met the painter Dezsö Korniss (26 years Kovásznai’s senior), and “rediscovered the Szentendre School”8 and the artists’ colony at Rottenbiller Street. The Szentendre School consisted of artists whose ideas were largely in line with the European School, and because their avant-garde approach to painting – brightly coloured surreal and imagined imagery – refused to conform to the gloomy naturalistic palette imposed by the Hungarian regime of that time, they were forced to work in secret. The Szentendre School’s free-thinking, colourful imagery echoed the experimental creativity that Kovásznai had been searching for, and he and Korniss “would debate the possibility of future routes for the avant garde and assess [how the socialist art imposed on Hungary in the 1920s had affected the creative scene since that time].9
In 1961, Kovásznai was employed as a story editor at Hungary’s main animation studio, the Pannonia Film Studio, where he wrote scripts for animation and feature films. Two years later, he made his first of six collaborative films with Korniss. Between 1962 and 1983, Kovásznai made 25 animated films in all, using various techniques including paper cut, collage, line drawing and stop-motion painting. “Animation was the only genre in which Kovásznai was able to really express himself [without being silenced by the regime]: his references were the 1930s avant-garde in Paris and Russia; he also knew about 1960s and 70s French cinema.”10
On first seeing Kovásznai’s work, I resorted to grasping for familiar visual comparisons; there are similarities in colour, pattern and playful imagery with the American experimental film-maker Stan Vanderbeek, and Kovásznai’s later work has a harsh satirical edge, becoming a touch more resonant with the American screenwriter and animator Terry Gilliam mixed with the German painter George Grosz. But Kovásznai had few references beyond Europe. So these American comparisons belong to this reviewer’s visual catalogue and it is Kovásznai’s apparent instinctive tapping into the wider creative zeitgeist that makes his work all the more extraordinary.
Alongside the exhibition, Courtauld Institute curator Sarah Wilson organised a discussion between South African artist William Kentridge, animator and educator Paul Wells of Loughborough University and New York-based Hungarian author and art adviser András Szántó.
When Szántó discovered Kovásznai’s work, he wanted to show it to Kentridge. Like Kovásznai, Kentridge had experienced the creative constraints of strict censorship, although, oddly, the South African cultural boycott had also allowed Kentridge a certain kind of freedom. From the 1960s to the 90s, the cultural boycott blocked all cultural exchange with South Africa, so there was no conversation with western contemporary art. Despite this undoubtedly restrictive imposition, it could be argued that, ironically, the boycott brought about a somewhat positive byproduct. Because no western art was seen or heard, creative competition was markedly reduced, which, Kentridge told us, allowed him to explore free from critical comparisons. “The films I made could be made without any expectation.”11
It is possible that once Kovásznai rediscovered the Szentendre School and found his creative freedom in film-making, he may also have understood that the restrictions of the political regime under which he was living, brought certain kinds of benefits: much as artists seeking to develop their practice sometimes limit the materials they work with in order to focus their imaginative skills, so the suppressive regime may have unwittingly contributed to Kovásznai’s creative process. Yet with the benefit of viewing Kovásznai’s work from the distance of more than three decades (Kovásznai died in 1983), it is clear that above all else, he had vision free from the confines of his time, and his work still reaches out now to inspire other painters, animators and film-makers from many different cultures beyond his own Hungary.
1. Riportré: Kovásznai 2010; William Kentridge and András Szántó – Conversation (Part 1); William Kentridge and András Szántó – Conversation (Part 2); William Kentridge and András Szántó - Conversation (Part 3).
2. Kovásznai: A Cold War Artist. Animation. Painting. Freedom by Brigitta Iványi-Bitter, Kovásznai Research Center Foundation, 2016.
3. Ilona Keserü in conversation with writer and curator Brigitta Iványi-Bitter, 30 September 2007. In: Kovásznai: A Cold War Artist. Animation. Painting. Freedom by Brigitta Iványi-Bitter, Kovásznai Research Center Foundation, 2016. page 25.
4. György Kovásznai, Self-Interview, manuscript, 1976, page 1. In: A Cold War Artist. Animation. Painting. Freedom by Brigitta Iványi-Bitter, Kovásznai Research Center Foundation, 2016. page 30.
6. ibid, page 31.
7. ibid, page 33.
8. ibid, page 60.
9. ibid, page 64.
10. In conversation with art historian and curator Brigitta Iványi-Bitter at the private view of the exhibition Kovásznai: A Cold War Artist, Animation, Painting, Freedom, Somerset House, 2 March 2016.
11. William Kentridge in conversation with Paul Wells, Sarah Wilson and András Szántó, Drawing on the Sidelines; Animation and the Avant-garde Outside the Western Canon, Courtauld Institute of Art, 28 February 2016.