Down to a T: Presenting the Past

/ by Zsófia Bán

Decades are stories that present themselves as chapters in the book of history.


They are presented to us as virtual, mathematical units boxed, wrapped and shelved for later inspection. The sixties, for instance. For some time now, Hungarian art historians have started to call it ‘the long sixties’, marking the beginning of the period with the tragically-defeated Hungarian Revolution in 1956, and plunging its tail into the grey, indistinct mass of the seventies. Others choose to anchor the end of this period in another historical moment, the Prague Spring in 1968, associated with one of the most shameful events in our history, Hungarian troops marching into Prague, this time as loyal aides to the Soviet regime in restoring their power within the Eastern Bloc. Consequently, the Western and Eastern European narratives of 1968 are radically different, though this difference is typically lost on many who seek to understand this period in European history. The fresh mint flavour of ‘sixty-eighters’ or ‘sixty-eight’ suddenly turns sour, when tasted in this different context. In these parts, instead of the radical, young and energetic questioning and undermining of power – the power of patriarchal society ruled by the suspect History of the Fathers – these terms are more likely to evoke an uneasy confrontation with the idea of collaboration, and with the shame of selling out the very idea of revolution (including our own defeated one). The same kind of horse, only one has a trunk.


The current exhibition at the Hungarian National Gallery in Budapest, Within Frames: The Art of the Sixties in Hungary (1958–1968), is devoted to investigating the complex and controversial history of Hungarian art in the period. No topic could be more significant, historically and artistically relevant, yet less well-known to the wider art-loving public. And no topic could offer itself as a better field for the investigation of the above-mentioned blind spot in European historical memory. In the arts, this was the period of the famous ‘Three Ts’ (the Ts standing for three categories in the arts, all beginning with the letter T in Hungarian: Tiltott, tűrt, támogatott, meaning: Banned, tolerated, supported.) This system loomed over Hungarian cultural life as a whole, determining the fate of artists and artworks, deciding which author could be published, which filmmaker could make films, and which artist could exhibit. Dissenting voices were either censored (‘banned’) or ‘tolerated’, as long as their experimentation remained within certain limits/frames. Artists whose works counted as ‘progressive’ by the ideological standards of the day were ‘supported’: They were allowed to publish, exhibit, shoot films, and design buildings, and their work was sponsored by the state.


Despite the seemingly fool-proof taxonomy, this period actually proved to be highly complex, as the still-heavy influence of Socialist Realist art from the fifties was often mixed with aspirations to contemporary modernist art, and the experimentation with modernist motifs and techniques often resulted in works with a characteristically undecided, ‘in-between’ flavour (named ‘szoc-modern’ or Socialist Modern). Artists were probing new styles and media, and experimented with individual, local forms of contemporary artistic expression. Works would slip by the ever-watchful gaze of the notorious Censorship Office, resulting in valuable artworks that have clearly weathered well with time. These did not belong to the openly dissident, avantgarde forms of art that most often fell under the ‘banned’ category. They were tolerated in spite of their experimentation, often resulting in solitary oeuvres, creating a category of their own. By presenting the history of the ‘Three Ts’ within an imaginary decade of Hungarian Socialism, the organizers relegate this history to the realm of a quaint past, making it a symbol of bygone days and a lesson to learn from. It seems, however, that the more general lesson has yet to be learned, and the past has yet to be connected to the present.


Curator Zsolt Petrányi divided the exhibition into seven parts: The first section focuses on ‘artists such as Jenő Barcsay, Sándor Bortnyik, Gyula Hincz, and Béla Uitz, whose œuvres are rooted in the early twentieth-century avant-garde, great survivors who continued to play an important role in art in the period after 1956’, as the curator states in his introduction. The second section is dedicated to modernist industrial design, including furniture, textiles, posters and everyday objects. The third is devoted to ‘political art’ that responded to international events in world politics, including works by influential international artists like Picasso, Renato Guttuso or the East-German Willi Stille. The fourth focuses on the topic of ‘building’, the fifth ‘rediscovers Modernism’, the sixth leads us into the ‘Forbidden Zone’, and the seventh closes the excursion by offering examples from contemporary visual culture (public art, book illustrations, book covers and prints). This was a culture of communication based on reading between the lines, constant coding and de-coding, and similarly to what was happening at the physical borders of the country, border transgressions were duly punished in the world of art. While the artworks of the period often provocatively challenged ‘the nature of reality’, the same unfortunately cannot be said of the exhibition itself.


Within Frames conveniently sets the beginning of the decade in 1958 – even though, according to general consensus, the new era really began in 1957, the year of ‘consolidation’ following the defeat of the revolution, the consolidation of the Soviet regime. As for the end of this fictitious decade, this ambitious exhibition has little to say about the profound effect of ‘68 on the national psyche. Even more disturbingly, it has nothing to say about how this effect compounded with the psychological experience of a freshly-lost war (no, we were not fighting alongside the Soviets), the publicly never-acknowledged frenzied national collaboration with the Nazis in the extermination of the Hungarian Jewish population (except for those in Budapest), the tacit offer by the Soviet-installed new Hungarian government in 1957, the year of consolidation, a deal suggesting that as long as people collaborate with the new regime, no one will probe the responsibility of those who committed atrocities during the war years (e.g. as members of the Arrow Cross, the Hungarian national socialist party) or who merely collaborated as civilians, many of whom were, by then, living in houses and apartments confiscated from the Jews and from those designated class enemies (aristocrats, rich farmers, dissident intellectuals, etc.), most of whom were being deported to small villages in far corners of the country, to work as farm hands. The curator of this exhibition apparently felt no need (or perhaps received no financial support) to reflect on the moment in time (namely, our present moment) from which we cast our eyes on that decade far, far away in a strange galaxy, and to ponder how all this may have affected our current political situation.


You could, of course, argue that an art historical overview cannot be expected to cover all that ground. You could, of course, argue that you need to get your ducks in a row and set your frames and limits. But if you choose to delimit your decade by certain dates, you cannot choose to remain silent about their symbolism and complex connotations and package your story as if it was merely a colourful chapter of the country’s national past. As if it had no effect on what is happening as we speak, two months before general elections in Hungary. As if it did not look troublingly like an earlier chapter of our history of collaboration, our culture of silence and passivity, our tendency to legitimize illegitimate – though technically legal – powers. As if the history of the Iron Curtain had no connection whatsoever with the fine razor fence promptly raised at our southern borders at the height of the European refugee crisis. But then, perhaps, this ambitious exhibition could not have been housed at the National Gallery, presiding over the city on top of a hill, a grandiose building that used to be the seat of the royal family, the Castle that Hungary’s current Prime Minister aspires to make his home in the near future, relegating the National Gallery to another, yet non-existent building.


But then, it’s only art – and the rest is history.

Zsófia Bán

is a writer, critic and scholar.

Her fiction has appeared in both Hungarian and foreign translations, including German, English and Spanish. She has been the recipient of several prizes for fiction, essay writing and criticism. She lives and works in Budapest where she is Associate Professor of American Studies at Eötvös Loránd University. Her most recent book of essays on the visual representation of historical memory came out in 2016 (Turul és dínó, Magvető Publishing House [The Turul Bird and the Dinosaur]. A German version of the volume is forthcoming in 2019 (Matthes und Seitz). Zsófia Bán was a writer-in-residence with the DAAD Artists-in-Berlin Program in 2015/16.

The portrait photo was taken by Dirk Skiba.