Törvénytelen avantgárd. Galántai György balatonboglári kápolnaműterme 1970–1973 (Illegal Avant-garde. György Galántai’s Chapel Studio in Balatonboglár 1970–1973), edited by Júlia Klaniczay and Edit Sasváry. Artpool–Balassi Kiadó, Budapest, 2003
(book review)

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Although the series of art events which took place at György Galántai’s Chapel Studio in Balatonboglár between 1970 and 1973 were a unique phenomenon not only in the recent history of the Hungarian art but in the international art scene, as well, the art profession did not pay them proper attention in spite of their significance and rich documentation.

The publication Törvénytelen avantgárd (Illegal Avant-garde) is an important work. It is the first step at working up the history of the Chapel Studio with the aim of publishing the sources and setting the events in a historical and cultural political context. At the same time, it bears evidence to the four years’ of the joining of forces against the regime by the young artists who managed to bridge over their aesthetic, theoretical, and personal differences.

The story told in a nutshell reads as follows: As an art student György Galántai hit upon the ruined and execrated churchyard chapel in 1966. He soon signed a lease contract, for using the chapel for art purposes, with the diocese authority of Veszprém, for 15 years. In the summer of 1970, after having been reconstructed, it was already suitable for giving room to the so called Chapel Exhibitions and various art events as an alternative art institute. Until 1973, a great variety of Hungarian and a few international exhibitions, concerts, lectures, theatrical performances, film screenings, and art events took place in the hillside chapel. But the authorities would not put up with the young avant-garde artists’ unauthorized “subversive acts” and the ongoing attacks made Galántai change the institute into a private studio from 1972 on. The chapel functioned as an exhibition space for artists turning more and more towards conceptual art for two more summers. In 1974, it was taken into public ownership and served the purpose of the official art then. The events of Balatonboglár were first made public in 1990.

The pioneering cultural political essay of art historian Edit Sasvári, “The Cultural Political Background of the Chapel Exhibitions in Balatonboglár” – based on the archival material becoming available after the change of regime – serves as an introduction for the book. Her essay presents the chaotic functioning of the authorities while documenting the area and revealing a cultural political phenomenon. She provides the reader with an overview of a decade, from the mid sixties to the mid seventies, and its social context.

Her account emphasizes the fact that in the second half of the sixties there appeared a new generation of artists which lead to a rapid emergence of new styles and trends in art. The members of this generation not only had a different aesthetic approach but a different attitude towards public life, as well. Reformist endeavours were on their way that could hardly be arrested by the time-honoured methods of the consolidation area. In fact, “the party had a policy for literature but no policy for the fine arts” thus there was a considerable insecurity about its control. The superintending authority, the Department of the Fine and Applied Arts neither had a proper apparatus nor an idea how to cope with this artistic fermentation. With the introduction of “pay exhibitions”, the cultural policy could finally mark off its enemies officially, grouping them under the so called “tolerated” category, on the one hand, and by decentralizing the authorization procedure, it threw the responsibility upon the local administration, on the other. Paradoxically, these events ran parallel with the apparent liberalization of the art world and the increasing criticism of the outdated and discriminative jury system.

Having given the main features of the chaotic cultural political situation, Sasvári goes on to describe the two groups – Szürenon, the followers of the Central-Eastern European abstract expressionist tradition later pushed out by the cosmopolitan conceptual artists of Iparterv – that took part in the Chapel Exhibitions in Balatonboglár, which she calls “one of the outstanding scenes of the postwar Hungarian art”, by quoting the words of Péter György, a well known Hungarian art critic.

The scenario of pestering Galántai and his fellow artists by the police and the media, as well as, the final closing down of the Chapel Studio is a wholesome story. Here is a short list of the events which took place:

1971: just before the summer season, the local council and the diocese authority set up an inquiry about the art programs. Concurrently, an article appeared in Somogy County Paper under the following title: “Some Avant-garde Artists Defy the Law. Illegal Exhibitions and Programs in a Leased Chapel.” Under the decree of the department of culture of the county, the president of the local council of Balatonboglár ordered to close the Chapel Exhibitions. György Galántai considered the measures unjustified as the relevant decree of the Advisory Office for Fine Arts applied to exhibitions organized by public institutions only. He turned to György Aczél, the head of cultural policy within the top Party leadership, who forwarded his letter to the assistant under-secretary of the fine arts department at the Ministry of Culture. The meeting of the representatives of cultural policy and the avant-garde artists at the headquarters of the Central Committee of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party. The representatives of the party and the state organizations, and the artists reached an agreement that, from 1972 on, the works intended to be exhibited would be submitted to the jury. When the local council refused to construct the water conduit and the toilet for the chapel, the county council set up a sanitarian inquiry.

1972: Galántai informed the Advisory Office for Fine Arts of the date of the first exhibition of the year and sent them the list of the participating artists. The cultural department of Somogy county agreed on displaying the judged works on condition that “the local council should decide whether the chapel was to be considered an exhibition space or a studio”. The president of the local council said that programs organized by private individuals couldn’t be authorized. Galántai decided to change the chapel into a private studio. The head of the Advisory Office for Fine Arts asked the head of the department of the Ministry of Culture to initiate the rescission of the lease contract of the chapel on finding István Haraszty’s biomobiles a means of political resistance.

1973: A series of police raids and identity checks at nights, reports on the events at the Chapel and on Galántai by the III/III department of the political police. Feigned summary offences and a press campaign made up a psychological warfare. The county council legally terminated the use of the chapel, admitting that the artists had not violated the law.

1974: The chapel was taken into public ownership and restored to a “blue chapel”. The state “Chapel Exhibitions” opened their doors to create “the conditions for the overall display of contemporary Hungarian fine art.”

The next chapter entitled “How Could Art Begin as Life?” contains György Galántai’s colourful account of the art events that took place in the Chapel Studio. Apart from being the primary source of the history of the Chapel Exhibitions, this subjective diary-like text is of special importance since the reader can trace back the unfolding of Galántai’s artistic and political consciousness, too. The way the young painter, with a strong faith in the freedom of creation and a dream about its ideal functioning as a colony of artists, meets the new artistic trends: the first happening in Hungary, and the exhibition of the neoavant-garde group Iparterv. Although he is a bit shocked by the surrealist nonfigurative attitude of the group Szürenon (whose works were displayed at the first Chapel Exhibition), and is averse to building stratagems against the authorities, he decides to stop panel painting and forms a new notion of the artwork (the artwork is the demonstration of the idea) after the year of probation. He is proud to say that with the Direction board action (1971) of Gyula Gulyás, the shift of paradigm in the Hungarian art has begun in Balatonboglár, too.

Conflicts soon arise: while Galántai would like to extend the local art events (of Balatonboglár) into a self-organized nationwide network, his fellow artist Attila Csáji criticizes him for diluting the avant-garde. Meanwhile, a press campaign is launched and an inquiry is set up against them, and the chapel becomes a political matter. With a growing political and artistic consciousness, Galántai calls the meeting with the representatives of the cultural policy “an avant-gardist adventure of experimenting with the condition of power”. Besides, his attitude towards art undergoes a considerable change: he is concerned with the double nature of the artwork – its being identical with itself and different at the same time – and experiments with the reconciliation of conceptual and visual art. Ironically, he opens the first and last exhibition accepted by the jury under the title “K-358/72”, the number of the resolution, and understanding the utmost absurdity of the situation (programs organized by private individuals cannot be authorized), he decides to stop communication with the authorities from 1972 on. The subsequent self-control and solidarity provide the artists’ community with a euphoric existential experience, he reports. Forced to an underground status (with a series of police raids), the chapel becomes a cultic laboratory where the sacral meaning of artworks turns into a political one. It is to be remarked that Galántai’s story is made complete with brilliant descriptions and interpretations of the exhibited artworks.

He calls the year 1973 a political nightmare and the peak of the artistic performance in Balatonboglár. The “small Hungarian Dokumenta”, inspired by the Kassel events, is designed to be an experiment to present the entire range of underground art.

“I regard Balatonboglár as my second college, which was far more important than my first one because it gave me the opportunity to rid myself of all the unnecessary knowledge in my mind and it also taught me about ‘all-art’.”, György Galántai concludes his account. “My method is […] not something new. Yet, the novelty of it is that I swap around the non-related aspects of various views of life in such a way that connections form between things and meanings distant from one another. […] this is an assembling (computing) reading mode, […]. I’m not reading texts but meanings. In this reading mode anything can be connected with anything else if at least one of its points justifies it.”

The chapter “Annals History” presents the events which took place between 1966 and 1974 in a chronological order and is made complete with hundreds of photographs, the original documents of the art events/actions, and the short recollections of the artists, with reference to their source. The reader may learn about surprising encounters: it turns out that almost all the experimenting artists of the period were present in the hillside chapel.

The interviews of the next chapter “Recollections of the Participants” made with the persons involved in the Balatonboglár events are extracts taken from the documentary Vacation. The Chapel Exhibitions in Balatonboglár billed by the Hungarian Television in 1998, almost 25 years after the closing down of the chapel. Among the speakers there are the artists and their supporters of the period and, ironically, only four officials since hardly any of them would admit having played the part they did. These recollections bear witness to the one-time significance of the “institute” and the effect it had on the evolution of the Hungarian art scene.

The chapter “Documents”, which constitutes almost half of the book, includes György Galántai’s correspondence with offices and artists, official reports and police records, and state security files presenting the attitude of the authorities towards the avant-garde art, as well as, showing the cultural political background of the period.

The book is made complete with the register of the archivalia, a bibliography, and an index.

The primary importance of Illegal Avant-garde is that it is a gripping piece of reading for anyone interested in art and politics in the socialist area, as well as, a detailed source-material for further research.

(Ágnes Ivacs, 2008)

link to the webpage of the project