Péter György: The Spirit of the Place*

Júlia Klaniczay, Edit Sasvári (eds):
Illegal Avant-garde
György Galántai’s Chapel Studio in Balatonboglár 1970-1973
Artpool-Balassi, Bp., 2003. 459 pages, HUF 4,500

“Generally speaking a real community in an era or cultural state derives from shared concepts. This, to a certain extent, also determines how far any community can get at this staggering pace. It is a conceptual commonality that is characteristic of a period and which instantly helps us identify the period something comes from. It is this conceptual content that is the guideline, not formal histories. Here we are sitting in the midst of socialist reality, and I refuse to accept that the discourse is always about socialist utopias. This kind of discourse confuses the future statements we should be able to formulate.”
Pál Pátzay1
“The use of the epithet hooliganism might be an overstatement but it does have some truth, in the sense that the exhibitions in Balatonboglár were not infrequently followed by happenings and house parties with scandalous endings.”
József Vadas2

In recent years the style and the themes used to discuss the afterlife and reflective memory of the Hungarian avant-garde have been slowly developing. There are more and more exhibitions3 and conferences4 seeking to embed the avant-garde into the art and social history traditions; moreover, some collections of studies and autonomous volumes5 – partly connected to each other – that deal with the avant-garde have also been published. Interest taken in the phenomena of the art world of the time overlaps in many respects with research on the social history of the sixties; therefore, the series6 of yearbooks and volumes of studies published by the 1956-os Intézet [1956 Institute] has significantly contributed to analysing the broader context of the culture of the Kádár regime, and the Hungarian neo-avant-garde. Forming part of this exploratory work is the volume edited by Júlia Klaniczay and Edit Sasvári, which seeks to explore the history of Balatonboglár, now certainly seen as mythical, with unbiased academic objectivity. I regard this important scene of the Hungarian neo-avant-garde and social history analogous to the Monte Verità not only because of its cultural history context and connections7 (the intellectual history contexts and connections between the international artists’ colony/colonies of the early twentieth century and the artists of the Balatonboglár scene can obviously be established) but I regard the scientific historical and methodological overlaps between Balatonboglár and the Zurich exhibition, now similarly seen as mythical, and the accompanying study volume, as being at least as important. Indeed, the exhibition organised by Harald Szeemann and his colleagues and the volume edited by them approached the theme – far from being common in 1978/1979 – using the methodology of cultural anthropology and micro historiography in order to understand the spirit of a place that was, for many decades, shaped simultaneously and individually by anarchist, vegetarian feminists, Dadaists, expressionists, nudists, theosophies, Bohemians, pacifists, free masons, painters, dancers, mystics, poets, communists and social democrats.
When reading the reconstruction of the history of Balatonboglár, we repeatedly run into the same questions as those addressed by researchers who explored the history of the Monte Verità: which mode of speech would be the most appropriate, and what secrets are uncovered and hidden by various social science disciplines? It goes without saying that every approach identifies some things and obscures others, just like in Calvino’s novel of irresistible power, Invisible Cities: lo and behold, each and every story related by Marco Polo was about one city, Venice, unknown to Kubla Khan. In other words, before launching into a critical analysis of Edit Sasvári’s excellent piece titled A balatonboglári kápolnatárlatok kultúrpolitikai háttere [The Cultural Background of the Chapel Exhibitions in Balatonboglár], as well as György Galántai’s compilation of documents titled Accidental Snapshots 1970-1973 and then the documents discovered and redacted by Edit Sasvári, I believe it imperative that I disassemble the ‘Balatonboglár story’ so after that the readers can hopefully succeed in reassembling it according to their own reading. Balatonboglár was a place that deserves to have a lasting spirit, but it was not a school like, for example, Nagybánya and Szentendre were in Hungarian art and cultural history. Edit Sasvári did not carry out an art history exploration and summary work in the traditional sense of the word either. On the one hand, thanks to György Galántai and Júlia Klaniczay, she had access to a database of considerable size, which has made Balatonboglár one of the best-documented stories in the history of Hungarian art. On the other hand, Sasvári would not have got too far if she had stopped at uncovering and reconstructing traditional art history connections, since articles and accounts that were written about Balatonboglár at the time were not analyses but reports to the authorities and reproachful recommendations aimed at totally excluding the Balatonboglár art scene from publicity. This means that Sasvári had to look up the real sources, i.e. the scientific historical context of her research into Balatonboglár, not only in the database of the Institute for Art History of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences but just as importantly in the Historical Archives of the State Security Services, the Archives of the Somogy County Court and the Archives of the Metropolitan Court. The workings of this peculiar situation are followed by Sasvári’s painstaking and precise study, which carefully reconstructs the process that led to Balatonboglár coming into being, while, perforce, it pointed beyond the scope of phenomena interpreted within art history. I would define her study more like a micro historiography, which faithfully presents, without resorting to creating any myths, why it was inevitable for the chapel exhibitions to end by being closed down by the authorities. At the same time, I also believe that knowing Edit Sasvári’s seminal study as well as Artpool’s excellent public online(!) collection, several questions are worth asking. This is made possible, moreover necessary, thanks to the work carried out by the people above.
Between 1970 and 1973 artists coming from various trends exhibited and performed their works. i.e. sang, made music, read out texts and had stage shows, in Balatonboglár, in the hillside chapel rented by György Galántai. Then – after various threats and measures – on 27 August 1973 Galántai and his fellow artists were removed from the building by ’the authorities’, i.e. the head of the criminal sub-department of the municipal police station, as part of a forced eviction procedure. Yet, this was not the end of the eviction story. On 16 December 1973 the article titled Happening in the Crypt, written by László Szabó, the editor of the television programme on crime titled ‘Kék fény’ [Blue Light] and a police correspondent at the time, was published in the columns of the daily Népszabadság [People’s Freedom]. It referred to Galántai and his company not as artists but as criminals, which was tantamount to publically reporting the people involved to the police, since Népszabadság was the paper of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party (MSZMP). The series of actions taken by the police did not end after the official closing down of the chapel in August: the Somogy County Central Police Station, acting as subdivision III/III-4.a of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, did not close the files opened on those referred to their attention. The reason for this could be traced back to the Kassák Theatre – or the Halász group, to use the secret police’s jargon – the activity of which had a lot to do with the closing down of the chapel, as by then it had become utterly unacceptable and intolerable to the party and, therefore, to the ministry. According to a report made in November, the Ministry of Internal Affairs did not see a reason to involve Galántai in a criminal procedure and was happy to see the chapel closed down. “Considering that no data were generated by György Galántai that would have suggested activities proving sufficient for a criminal procedure to be launched, the above measures were enforced as part of infringement proceedings”8.

Lieutenant Tibor Horváth had already proposed Galántai be detained on 13 December9, while László Szabó’s article was published on the 16th.10 You do not need a vivid imagination to guess why the MSZMP decided this timing for the publication of this insinuating text, which was rare even in the conditions of the era and defying all standards of press ethics.

The question is for what reason, at the zenith of the Kádár era, the cultural policy bodies of the MSZMP were unable to treat what happened at Balatonboglár as a professional issue, which – satisfying the requirement of publicity although arousing serious indignation, fear and disgust in the public – they finally ended with police measures and by publishing the above letter. Although in the end we see a single story, the story related by an art historian and the aesthete is different, and so is the story of the cultural and social historian or the cultural anthropologist. And still by way of introduction: it must be realised that the magic word here is authority. The Fine and Applied Arts Lectorate was a different authority than the Somogy County and the Balatonboglár councils, and various issues were highlighted and represented differently again by the Ministry of Culture and the secret police’s subdivision III/III.

The story as told by an art historian

The Balatonboglár story falls to pieces when viewed from an art historical and, in part, from an art theoretical point of view. Not just because of the wealth of genres and styles, including poetry, recitals, chamber and folk music, theatre, performance art, installations and panel paintings as well as minimalism, conceptualism, neo-dadaism and sound poetry. The problem stems from what those who witnessed the events also mentioned, namely that during these four summers – and this also indicates that the Spirit of the Place awakened – it felt as if time, the time of art history, sped up unpredictably. It was not just the artists and groups that alternated at an ever-faster pace but it was as if concepts were also changing increasingly fast, sometimes impossible for outsiders to follow. Balatonboglár brought artists together whose careers otherwise had little to do with each other either before or after this period: there are far greater differences in the actual careers and oeuvres of Miklós Erdély and Dezső Váli, János Major and Péter Legéndy or Attila Csáji11, László Haris and Endre Tót than could be assumed based on their participation in and ties with Balatonboglár. And although the former participants themselves, as well as Edit Sasvári are, understandably, of the opinion that Balatonboglár’s art history can be understood as a continuous shift from the local adaptation of international patterns towards the need and possibility of keeping up with the then prevailing situation and cooperation. This is of course partly a story created in retrospect, since during the last summer Balatonboglár was the venue for exhibitions by Béla Koncz, István Haász, Endre Hortobágyi, Sándor Molnár, Géza Németh and Dezső Váli, who were not exactly at home in the ’mainstream’ of the neo-avant-garde. At the same time, Sándor Csutoros, László Haris12 and József V. Molnár – who represented a more timeless and more meditative abstraction and cannot really be associated with the Kassák Theatre or the István Kovács Studio, i.e. performances organised by Péter Halász and László Rajk – also had exhibitions here. While all of this could be presented as the story of professionalisation and joining the activity of the international contemporary neo-avant-garde, it obviously cannot be separated from László Beke’s activity in Balatonboglár. It is another issue that seen from another perspective the Balatonboglár story can be understood as a story of isolation and exclusivity, i.e. the lack of tolerance. And indeed, the neo-avant-garde subculture regards it far less important to maintain ties with the outside world and society than with the imaginary community of individuals defining themselves as modern artists.
It is worth it and necessary to take a few steps back into the past in order to better understand what the art institutions and art history institutes of the time saw and perceived of the Balatonboglár scene. The exhibitions organised in Balatonboglár between 1970 and 1973 repeatedly drew attention to an increasingly undeniable art history and art theory problem: neither theoreticians, nor influential artists committing themselves to the communist regime had the least idea what was constituted by the art of the era, i.e. the art of socialism, which they hoped or believed to be triumphant. As a consequence, they did not know either how to deal with contemporary trends, and what reference point to choose in deciding how progressive or retrograde, they were, whether they imitated the west or were innocent and even worthy of their support. The era’s great cultural policy myth – the three Ts [támogatás (=support), tűrés (=tolerance) and tiltás (=ban)] worked in the area of literature in a clear and easy way, but not at all in the fine arts. While literary censors – the protagonists of Tibor Csernus’ picture – knew exactly what is to be supported, tolerated and banned, or the ban of which works was not in their power to prevent, those who shaped the fine art scene were troubled by the fact or had no idea what should belong in the category of support and what should be banned as all they had was their personal responses and bias in tastes, while they lacked a theoretical foundation in this regard. As Edit Sasvári also states: “After October 1956 the literature-centred doctrine of socialist realism became obsolete, and the traditional methods of content analysis could not be applied to the fine arts (and music, etc.) anyway.”13 An indispensable source for examining this utter helplessness is provided by the minutes of the Art Committee, which operated from 1962 to 1966 and was the predecessor of the Fine and Applied Art Lectorate, established in 196414. Included among the members of this committee were Nóra Aradi, Gyula Bencze, Endre Domanovszky, Pál Pátzay, Aurél Bernáth, József Somogyi, György Szilárd and Károly Plesznivy. The committee, which convened on a weekly basis at first, had to find answers to a host of practical questions. One of the era’s important regulations, which became an institution later on, was the law of two thousandths, prescribing the amount of funds to be mandatorily spent on contemporary fine art works during a state construction project. The tension that existed between the committee’s theoretical declarations and its helplessness went hand in hand with the daily urge of building the art canon of the period. Since the early sixties introduced a significant boom in Hungarian architecture, this was reflected in the proportionate growth in the importance of contemporary fine arts and open-air works, which made it especially awkward that no one knew exactly what contemporary art was all about. Nóra Aradi’s book, titled Absztrakt képzőművészet [Abstract Fine Arts, 1964]15 maintained an overwhelmingly self-confident tone up until the part where it provided a retrospective overview of which schools of the avant-garde addressed the crisis capitalism was undergoing and to what extent. In contrast, the list of contemporary examples was far less extensive. Since in the Hungary of 1960 the system of norms applicable to socialist realism was dead, the political elite talked about it in the past tense, referring to it as something that was part of the Rákosi era. This led to even greater indecision in determining what progressive, modern and real socialist fine art should be. In such a situation Pátzay and Bernáth showed an almost embarrassing degree of intolerance, while Domanovszky and Somogyi, for example, demonstrated far greater patience, generosity of soul and humanity. By definition Pátzay was unable to tolerate [Tibor] Vilt’s art, while Bernáth rejected everything that went beyond the categories of ’depictive’ and ‘representational’ painting, which the Gresham circle declared as being the exemplary means of expression in socialist art: “In this country it was the Gresham group that first formulated what socialist realism was (Szőnyi and I) as we felt responsible for the future of art, we felt responsible for the disaster art had found itself in, and because we loved our country and wanted to have art here.”16
Now then: in the following it is this reality full of deprivation, fear and lack of theoretical foundation, therefore looking at every element of the visual expression of the contemporary world of the ‘west’ with suspicion, that every form of experimentation, intellectual aspiration and quest that led to the emergence of groups in the areas of abstract art and architectural space-forming such as Szürenon – a group of Hungarian surrealist and nonfigurative artists – which was probably the first attempt, after the European School, made by Hungarian artists to define themselves as contemporary Europeans.
The oeuvre of Béla Kondor is worth mentioning in this context too, especially through his links with the avant-garde scene and more personally his ties with Miklós Erdély. In all likelihood it was Kondor’s art that created an unmanageable confusion among the critics and theoreticians of the day, who, desperately seeking and wanting socialist fine art to exist, already viewed Lakner and Csernus’ contemporary work with inane suspicion. While István Szőnyi was able to kick Szőnyi out of his painting class and it is a fact that he was only saved by the graphic artist Károly Koffán from being expelled from the academy, the system after 1956 ground to a halt when encountering his radical art, which did not observe the characteristic features of form of the contemporary avant-garde. Kondor’s dramatic story has certain elements that must be remembered when discussing Balatonboglár, since Kondor, a painter, photographer and poet, died in 1972; thus, the last great period of his oeuvre, his Műcsarnok exhibition of 1970, overlapped with the Balatonboglár years – still, he never went to the chapel. Kondor’s loneliness is clearly shown by an article written in 1970 by the popular art critic Géza Perneczky, defined as the pope of countercultures, who had been supporting him for a long time: in his writing he bade farewell to the artist who, in his view, was heading towards “worldly success”. “Now, at this exhibition in the Műcsarnok, we can witness the success of an experiment but are saddened by it. There are a few powerful works displayed but my overall impression is that Kondor failed to cross over into the domain of more universal tasks, what is more, he did not set himself any tasks at all.”17 Perneczky’s line of thought and arguments follow real, unadulterated avant-garde logic, according to which the quality and originality of a work are closely connected with universal novelty; hence, his suspicion of Kondor ’taking a step back’ also meant an anticipated withdrawal of the moral support of the neo-avant-garde scene. The complex and troubled relationship between Kondor and the heroes of the neo-avant-garde is expressed in the necrologue written upon his death by Gyula Rózsa. Népszabadság’s inner critic wrote the following in Kritika [Critique], the theoretical journal of MSZMP: “As regards art history and stories about human character, it must be said that despite all the moral and at times financial deprivation, Kondor never gave up on the society that initially wanted nothing to do with his loyalty. Commemorative lines such as these should not be reduced to a superficial stylistic analysis, so there is no need to list all those spiritual components that Kondor so eagerly built in, made his own and transformed into his oeuvre… Even people less sensitive than painters would be outraged and would be unstoppably cynical and disillusioned if their state commissions were revoked one after the other, if their pictures were not purchased, their exhibitions were misunderstood, praised for the wrong reason and kept secret. It takes an extremely strong person who, after being made a social outcast, actually takes a look at the company of other outcasts (highlighted in the original text) and decides not to throw in his lot with opportunists, when he is named as one of them. Below we are publishing a document: a raw, adolescently loose-tongued Kondor document, which will yet again hurt idealists, and will show that Kondor was not one for compromising himself and did not enter into deals with anyone even when in some regard he was seen to be in cahoots with rather dubious partners – he would not bow down to anyone, whether they praised him or called him a traitor…”18 In other words, Kondor was a hero, what is more, a genius, and the avant-garde was seen as a dubious partner during times when it lent support to Kondor and also when it gave up on him, like Perneczky did. As regards the Kondor-document mentioned above in the necrologue, it is truly valuable and takes us closer to achieving our goal: to reconstruct the contemporary situation of the neo-avant-garde, to better understand the world in which the chapel exhibitions had this sad ending and in which the chapel on the hillside was much like an island on dry land. Not long before his death, a conversation was recorded in Szentendre between Kondor, Dezső Korniss, Károly Klimó and János Pirk on tape by Gábor Varga, who then took the sound recording to the editorial office of Kritika, which – rather tactlessly – published the transcript alongside Gyula Rózsa’s necrologue. During this conversation Kondor was talking rather ironically and coarsely about Miklós Erdély, with whom he had otherwise nurtured a friendship for decades. He shared the story about one of Erdély’s actions he had planned to implement in a flat in Bécsi Street in Budapest. According to an account preserved in Artpool, Kondor’s condescendingly ironic tone was only a small episode in a friendship that was based on a long and mutual intellectual/spiritual partnership. And it was most probably the case. At the same time, it is true that the neo-avant-garde scene kept a certain distance from Kondor and from Gyula Rózsa, the latter standing out among the official critics of that time thanks to his objectivity, factual knowledge and good intentions. The relationship between Kondor and the neo-avant-garde was seen and interpreted by Péter Donáth with a clarity that is rare to be found in his critical but unbiased article (written in 1979 and finally published in 1991): “Like so many others in this century, Kondor sought to renew Hungarian art too, doing so in the spirit of a ‘peculiarly Eastern European modernity’. Those in the avant-garde movement kidded themselves throughout by thinking that following international trends is synonymous with progressing with them, while Kondor failed by asserting the absurd and unreal notion of a peculiarly Hungarian modernity.”19
I believe that a lack of understanding, misunderstandings and a fair share of mockery loom in the background of this story, along with the operation of the office that oversaw the contemporary art scene of the day and which continuously radicalised Galántai and his company between 1970 and 1973 up until the point when the police authorities stepped in, replacing the Lectorate, and the police’s pseudo journalist, László Szabó’s moment of triumph came, replacing the words of an art critic.
In 1970 neither Galántai, nor Attila Csáji, who was far more experienced than him and took a lion’s share in planning and organising ’season one’, was marginalised. In retrospect, the summer of 1970 could barely be called neo-avant-garde, since it blended into the era’s modern art scene and confusion far more than anyone would have believed when witnessing the events of the summer of 1973, only four years later. The exhibitions of Attila Csáji, György Galántai, László Haris, József Magyar, József V. Molnár and Oszkár Papp’s did not really differ from those temporary shows that opened in various venues in Budapest, such as cultural centres and university clubs, i.e. in the second line of the public fine art scene. At the opening of the chapel in Balatonboglár Adrienne Csengery and András Kecskés performed their work, and the opening speech was held by György Rónay. During the summer Balatonboglár was visited by Sándor Weöres and Amy Károlyi, a concert was given by the Postás Ensemble, and children’s drawings from the local school were exhibited; in September Adrienne Jancsó performed a piece and works by Tibor Csiky, Sándor Csutoros, István Haraszty, Ferenc Lantos, Gyula Pauer and Péter Türk were displayed. If anyone looks at this list of names, they would think of the programme of a high quality cultural centre, rather than the mythical Hungarian neo-avant-garde scene. Everything seemed to be in order, Galántai and the local authorities had a cordial relationship: the local council promised that they would pay the public utility developments. The preliminary programme for 1971 was also made and referred to as one of the stations of the “New Hungarian Avant-garde”. It might have seemed that Balatonboglár would follow the tradition of the Szürenon group, i.e. art would be personal, modern and go beyond the traditional set of norms previously held about beauty.
Whichever way we look at it: the programme had not a single trace of any political stance, political opposition in the literal meaning of the word, and not even a sense of subculture. While this does not diminish the value of Balatonboglár it must nevertheless have been seen that regardless of what happened to Galántai later, regardless of what he himself became, up until the summer of 1970, the chapel apparently followed the noble and gentle traditions of modern art. The oeuvres of the painters and those writers who attended the openings could be described by a fine distance kept from really existing socialism.
The suspicion of the local authorities was aroused visibly during the second summer. It is important to know that in that period exhibitions were unconceivable without the jurying process, i.e. the stamp of approval by the Fine and Applied Arts Lectorate was needed: the less local officials understood the art they were looking at, the more this stamp was needed. To put it more bluntly, if a work had the stamp, the authorities could not care less whether they understood what they were looking at, and perhaps did not care even when they understood it. If there was no stamp, suspicion arose: what could this thing, which cannot be understood, mean? As I see it, this is where the real problems began.

The story as told by the cultural historian

In the summer of 1971 genres and artists appeared in the programme of the Chapel that not only art historians found hard to wrap their heads around and define, but the local authority, i.e. the Council, and a part of the local inhabitants felt provoked by.
Imagine the nightmares and dark despair felt by an average council employee in the seventies in the Transdanubian region of Hungary when encountering the more and more frequently arriving groups of ‘Budapesters’ making their way to the chapel. There is an obvious difference between the visual documentation of the era when you browse through the extremely informative photo-documents of the volume under discussion and compare them with the official images of the period, such as the photos in Ifjúsági Magazin [Youth Magazine], Magyar Ifjúság [Hungarian Youth], Népszabadság and the pictures taken by MTI [Hungarian News Agency] of socialist young people. It is this difference that was perceived by the people of the day. The artists arriving in Balatonboglár and their audiences were exactly like the hippies and anarchists of the West as shown in the socialist newsreels and illustrated magazines of the time. Millions were familiar with the photos taken of the student protests of 1970 and 1971 in Paris and across the United States, and the visitors arriving in Balatonboglár reminded people of these young people more and more. The guys had longish or even very long hair, while the girls wore shorts and skirts that were very short. Regardless of what the Lectorate in Budapest thought of what these young people were doing – supposing they knew about any of it – Balatonboglár saw a foreign subculture, a different tribe, appear in the otherwise boring Balaton summers. If you watch the first scene of Péter Bacsó’s film Nyáron egyszerű (Simple in the Summer, 1963), you can form an impression of how the film director, a very progressive one at the time, saw the communal dance of the “modern” young people on a rain-beaten pier on the Danube’s bank. The image of the young people dancing half-naked or in bathing suites was at an incomprehensible distance from the lifestyle that MSZMP and the cultural authority of the local council were able to understand and control. In Tamás Banovich’s film titled Ezek a fiatalok (These Young People, 1967) the main protagonist (played by Lajos Őze) wants to make sense of why young people are “scuffling” at concerts. The visual divide, which was generational by then, is precisely perceptible in the film. In the last, ‘scandalous’ scene of Márta Mészáros’ film titled Eltávozott nap (The Girl, 1968) the protagonist, who is a worker in a textile factory (what else?) and played by Kati Kovács makes a pass at a clearly devious member of the intelligentsia and manages to lure him away from his girlfriend, who he is was dancing with, without saying a word, and the young man and the dedicated member of the working class start kissing while the music of the Illés band is playing.
Some of the young people who went to the chapel in Balatonboglár most likely corresponded to the visual stereotypes and prejudices and met the semantic expectations that were created by the series of the above-quoted experiences. The first open attack also came at a local level: Barna Horányi’s article was published in the Somogyi Néplap [Somogy County People’s News], the title of which (“Bérelt kápolnában – Illegális kiállítások, műsorok - Törvénytelen úton néhány avantgarde” [In a rented chapel – illegal exhibitions and events – some avant-garde people follow an illegal path]) was already rather foreboding.
At this point there was no, and there could be no stopping. Galántai, who even if he had wanted, would not have been able to have all the exhibitions in Balatonboglár approved by the Lectorate, since the “site-specific installations” and happenings (only a few other words had such a bad ring to it as these for the officials of cultural institutions, such as Barna Horányi) were not suitable to be juried; moreover, Galántai’s patience was running out and he was increasingly trying to exploit the difference between private studio shows and public exhibitions, which, in this case, is rather difficult to pinpoint. As the local authorities perceived everything that went on in the Chapel as alien at best, even hostile, after the publication of Horányi’s article each communication act about the chapel obviously had a greater impact. Concerning the Budapest scene: it suddenly seemed distant. In his reminiscences Galántai mentions (p. 57) that seeing his drawings, the observers in the party headquarters, Árpád Szabados and Ferenc Banga, he had no qualms about what he was doing, which meant that – on better days – the ’headquarters’ was not aware of the cultural ’deviance’ of the chapel, which was increasingly perceptible locally. Thus, as I see it, Galántai’s radicalisation was at least as much the doing of the local authorities as the Party Headquarters, which became ever more vigilant from 1972 onwards. During the winter of that year things were going fine in Budapest: Galántai and his associates met the representatives of the MSZMP, who took them seriously, despite the opinion of the especially hostile and arrogant comrade, József Vadas, who was entrusted with writing reports. At the same time, the same questions arose again and again locally: public health concerns, electricity, etc. On 7 June 1972 Galántai terminated the invisible contract. Graphic designer Károly Schmal made a large poster, for which he used the Lectorate’s decision to approve the exhibition planned for early summer. The title of the exhibition was the number of this document: K-358/72.
It is from this time that the emergence of neo-avant-garde subcultural activities and that partial prevalence in Balatonboglár can be dated. Works by Tamás Szentjóby (Expulsion exercise, Crime-prevention autotherapy, Fire miniature – prevention) and Miklós Erdély (Firewood: The proletarian of fuel for fire) as well as the performances of the Kassák Studio, and the Bosch+Bosch Group (Bálint Szombathy) from Újvidék (Novi Sad) all fell outside the domain of the fine art scene the peripheries of which the local and central authorities were still able to handle. At the same time, the development of the neo-avant-garde scene and subculture did not mean that it would share the same ideological platform as the political opposition that appeared a few years later. Of course there were numerous personal connections between the members of the neo-avant-garde and the democratic opposition, and solidarity also obviously developed in the face of the common enemy. However, this is a matter of social history.
The overwhelming majority of the democratic opposition, which grew up in the ‘Lukács nursery’, saw the neo-avant-garde art scene as an imperceptible and unevaluable aesthetic experience. To put it clearly: while, on a personal level, I think that the various genealogical experiments aimed at creating one big story out of the occasional joint actions of the neo-avant-garde and the political opposition against a common political enemy were nice gestures, I regard this approach as a clear mistake from a scientific perspective. Therefore, it is not all the same whose story we relate to posterity – to Kubla Khan. In my view, recording personal connections and communities of friends as well as exploring and reconstructing the interpersonal relations that existed in those days might speak volumes to a political scientist and provide raw material to cultural historians – but to a great degree, such information will be of no interest to an art historian. My personal conviction has not changed much in this regard since 1990.20 It is worth taking a look at the catalogue of the exhibition titled Szamizdat. Alternatív kultúrák Közép- és Kelet-Európában 1956-1989 [Samizdat. Alternative Culture in Central and Eastern Europe 1956-1989] for example, the makers of which evidently took a profound interest in fabricating the afore-mentioned genealogies. It is enough to refer to the Hungarian section alone: the works of Endre Tót, Tamás Szentjóby, György Galántai, Tibor Hajas, László Lakner, István Haraszty, Sándor Pinczehelyi can only be discussed side by side – to some extent – in a text on political history. If, however, we steer over to art history and aesthetics, the only appropriate framework for these works is a dialogue as they do not form part of a series.21
The absurdity of the situation that evolved in Balatonboglár and the influence of historical contexts on interpretative patterns can be best documented through a work of art that also throws light on why a significant number of the works exhibited and performed in 1972 and 1973 were ’invisible’ and outside the paradigm for the average art historian of the period; moreover, it also reveals why people like Barna Horányi (journalist of the Somogyi Néplap) were replaced by informers like László Algol, i.e. Gusztáv M. Hábermann, whose detailed reports to the secret service about the Kassák Theatre can be regarded as elite intellectual accounts with significant value as source material. The work referred to above, János Major’s Élő síremlék [Living Sepulchre], can be seen as a local adaptation of the popular ’artist as a living statue’ genre, which was rather popular worldwide at the time. The only hiccup is that the posing figure of Major, who covers his naked body with a kerchief only at his genitals, is standing on a Pravda newspaper. The inscription on the pedestal says: Jancsi [Johnny] Major (Neufeld), written in Latin and Hebrew script. Under it there are two dates: 1934-19, and written in a script typically used by engineers is “You lived for your art / And became its martyr”.
Something like this as a work of art did not exist in those days, in multiple ways; the multiple provocation was virtually oppressing. In 1973 in Hungary the ’Jewish question’, the issue of Jewish origins, did not exist in the public domain apart from the very narrow neo-avant-garde scene. The Israelite denomination had nothing to do with Jewishness.

This blindness and collective prohibition was one of the important inventions of modernisation for which the Kádár regime is still respected by quite a few people. According to the anthropology and pedagogy of the period, man is his own creator, and family origins were unimportant in this Hungarian melting pot. Excluding the Jewish question from the public discourse went hand in hand with the memory of the Holocaust disappearing from the public sphere of the time. In such a context, Major’s work was an incomprehensible insult in every one of its elements for all those who regarded socialism as their only world. And then there was the Pravda newspaper and Major in his changing poses. If the members of the secret police of the time – already busy carrying out measures then – inspected this work, it definitely did not bring a smile to their faces. I believe that in addition to disregarding a lot of taboos, it was an oppressing sarcasm, a kind of irony that was feared and did not fit in with the positive anthropology of the time, that the officials saw in this work, just like those who saw Major’s graphic masterpieces (Önarckép [Self-portrait] and Biboldó mosakszik [Biboldo Washing Himself], 1967-1974). As Major himself asserts in his text written to Dr Ernő Szita, his goal was merely to portray himself in accordance with the antisemitic perception of the day. Hence, the public was shown, as if in a brilliant trompe l’oeil, the huge genitals and the syphon of a washbasin in-between the skinny, devil-hoofed legs of a grinning self-portrait of Major.
Major visually represented the same problem as the Kassák Theatre, Tamás Szentjóby and László Najmányi. These artists were able to break away from the prevailing power relations of their time and since they regarded their own subculture as their first and last, i.e. exclusive, audience, their excellent art simply got stuck outside the scope of the era’s definition of what art is. The majority of the fine artists who exhibited their works in Balatonboglár pursued their art with success after 1973 too, and quite a few of them had become recognised by the 1980s, i.e. before the change in the political system; in contrast, the heroes of 1973, the ’hard core’ artists did not meet such a happy fate. Emigration, which was the path several of them were forced follow, partly because of being part of the Balatonboglár scene, took a disproportionately major toll. It is far easier to state this objectively now, in retrospect, based on the documents in this volume, than it would have been back then, when those affected had to live with the oppressive consequences of their choice for decades.

The story as told by posterity

Some of those artists who chose to stay in Hungary later managed to play a significant part in the Hungarian contemporary art scene later on, depending on their talent and personal attributes. András Baranyay, Péter Donáth, István Haraszty, György Jovánovics, Ádám Kéri, Sándor Molnár, András Orvos, György Szemadám and Gyula Pauer and, last but not least, György Galántai are all well-known figures in the 21st-century public art scene: the art canon of contemporary Hungarian art would be inconceivable without their oeuvres. Reviewing the life stories of the émigrés of the Hungarian neo-avant-garde, there is reason to feel sad. Tamás Szentjóby, Péter Halász, István Bálint and László Najmányi all returned to Hungary in the end, but they did not quite manage to easily make themselves at home amidst the everyday reality of the post-1989 Hungary they arrived in. All those who stayed abroad, including Árpád Ajtony, Péter Lajtai and Gergely Molnár22, are only known to a limited degree, mostly by the researchers specialised in the era; their oeuvres being re-canonised can only result from volumes such as Törvénytelen avantgárd. And although re-canonisation can never be tantamount to restitution – nor does it need to be – it is still our task at hand, which we owe to Hungarian emigre culture, to interpret the insensitivity shown in Hungary to all political minorities and communities. Gergely Molnár’s oft-quoted text, Dream Power, is a dream indeed: the dream of a contemporary Hungarian culture that feels just as at home in our global world. This dream was shared by the neo-avant-garde heroes of Balatonboglár. This dream was dreamt in America, as told by György Spiró23 so insightfully in a novella that takes place among Hungarian emigres living in New York in the 1980s.
The Monte Verità in Ascona lived on for some forty years. Balatonboglár was given four summers by Hungarian society.

* In: BUKSZ, Vol. 16, issue 4, winter 2004, pp. 328-335 Download PDF <>

1. Tibor Wehner (ed.): Adatok és adalékok a hatvanas évek művészetéhez. A Művészeti Bizottság jegyzőkönyvei 1962–1966. [Data and Supplements to the Art of the Sixties. Minutes of the Art Committee 1962–1966]. Képző és Iparművészeti Lektorátus, Bp., 2002. Vol. I, 269. <>

2. József Vadas: Megjegyzések a Kápolnatárlat résztvevőinek referátumához [Notes on the Accounts of the Chapel Exhibition’s Participants]. In: Júlia Klaniczay, Edit Sasvári (eds): Törvénytelen avantgárd. Galántai György balatonboglári kápolnaműterme 1970-1973. [Illegal Avant-garde. György Galántai’s Chapel Studio in Balatonboglár 1970-1973]. Artpool–Balassi, Budapest, 2003, 246. <>

3. A XX. század magyar művészete 12 [Hungarian Art in the 20th Century 12]. Székesfehérvár, István Király Múzeum, 1987; Az avantgárd vége 1975-80 [The End of the Avant-garde 1975-80], (A XX. század magyar művészete 13.) Székesfehérvár, István Király Múzeum, 1989; Altorjai Sándor életmű-kiállítás [Sándor Altorjai’s Oeuvre Exhibition]. Székesfehérvár, Szent István Király Múzeum, 1990; A magyar neoavantgárd első generációja 1965-72 [The First Generation of the Hungarian Neo-avant-garde 1965-72]. Szombathelyi Képtár, 1998; Erdély Miklós emlékkiállítás [Miklós Erdély Memorial Exhibition]. Műcsarnok, 1998; Hajas Tibor emlékkiállítás [Tibor Hajas Memorial Exhibition]. Ernst Múzeum, 1997; A szentendrei Vajda Lajos Stúdió 1972-2002 [The Lajos Vajda Studio in Szentendre 1972-2002]. Műcsarnok, 2002; Színezett régi levegő. NahTe bemutatja Vető János és KINAherceg fényképmunkáit digitális nyomatokon+néhány ezüstzselatin [Coloured Old Air. NahTe Presents János Vető’s and KINA/Prince’s Photo Works in Digital Prints + Some Silver Gelatine Prints]. Magyar Fotográfusok Háza, 2002. Hordozható Múzeum, Pop Art, conceptual art, actionism Magyarországon a 60-as években [Portable Museum. Pop Art, Conceptual Art and Actionism in Hungary in the ‘60s]. Ernst Múzeum–Dorottya Galéria, 2003; Pécsi Műhely [Pécs Workshop]. Pécsi Galéria 2004. <>

4. A hetvenes évek kultúrája. Tanácskozás a Fiatal Művészek Klubjában, 1980, április 10-12., Dokumentumválogatás [Culture in the Seventies. Debate in the Young Artists’ Club, 10-12 April 1980, Selected Documents]. Balassi, Bp., 2002. József Havasréti, Zsolt K. Horváth (eds.): Avantgárd: underground: alternatív. Popzene, művészet és szubkulturális nyilvánosság Magyarországon [Avant-garde: Underground: Alternative. Pop Music, Art and Subculture in the Public Sphere in Hungary] Kijárat Kiadó–Artpool Művészetkutató Központ–PTE Kommunikációs Tanszék, Bp.–Pécs, 2003. In connection with these two volumes, see: Attila Fonyó: A pangás évei [Years of Stagnation]. BUKSZ, Autumn 2004 and Művészet és hatalom a Kádár-korszakban [Art and Power in the Kádár Era], JAK (PIM), Bp., 2004 <>

5. Ádám Tábor: A váratlan kultúra. Esszék a magyar neoavantgárd irodalomról és művészetről [The Unexpected Culture. Essays on Hungarian Neo-avant-garde Literature and Art] Balassi, Bp., 1997; A szocializmus emlékezete. Szoc.Reál [Remembering Socialism. Soc.Real. issue 8 (August 2003); Pál Deréky, András Müllner (eds.): Né/ma? Tanulmányok a magyar neoavantgárd köréből [Muted? Studies from the Circle of the Hungarian Neo-avant-garde]. Ráció Kiadó, Aktuális Avantgárd, Bp., 2004; András Bohár: Aktuális avantgárd: M.M. Hermeneutikai elemzések [Topical Avant-garde. M.M. Hermeneutical Analyses]. Ráció Kiadó, Aktuális Avantgárd, Bp., 2002; Zoltán Kékesi: Médiumok keveredése. Nagy Pál műveiről [Mixing of Media. Pál Nagy’s Works]. Ráció Kiadó, Aktuális Avantgárd, Bp., 2002; Péter H. Nagy: Orfeusz feldarabolva. Zalán Tibor költészete és az avantgárd hagyomány. [Orpheus Sliced Up. The Poetry of Tibor Zalán and the Avant-garde Tradition] Ráció Kiadó, Aktuális Avantgárd, Bp., 2003; Bálint Szombathy: Art Tot(h)al, Tóth Gábor munkásságának megközelítése 1998-2003 [Art Tot(h)al, Approaching the Oeuvre of Gábor Tóth 1998-2003]. Ráció Kiadó, Aktuális Avantgárd, Bp., 2004; Szilvia Sz. Molnár: Narancsgép, Géczi János (vizuális) költészete és az avantgard hagyomány [Orange Machine, János Géczi’s (Visual) Poetry and the Avant-garde Tradition]. Ráció Kiadó, Aktuális Avantgárd, Bp., 2004. <>

6. János M. Rainer (ed.): Hatvanas évek Magyarországon. Tanulmányok [The Sixties in Hungary. Studies]. 1956-os Intézet, Bp., 2004, János M. Rainer, Éva Standeisky (eds.): Magyarország a jelenkorban. Évkönyv XI [Contemporary Hungary. Yearbook XI] (2003). 1956-os Intézet Bp., 2003; János M. Rainer (ed.): Múlt századi hétköznapok. Tanulmányok a Kádár-rendszer kialakulásának időszakából [Everyday Reality in the Past Century. Studies from the Period of the Forming Kádár Era]. 1956-os Intézet, Bp., 2003. <>

7. Gabriella Borsano, Claire Halperin, Ingeborg Lüscher, Harald Szeemann (eds.): Monte Verità – Ascona. Berg der Wahrheit. Lokale Anthropologie als Beitrag zur Wiederentdeckung einer neuzeitlichen sakralen Topographie. Kunsthaus Zürich, 17 November 1978 – 28 January 1979.<>

8. Törvénytelen avantgárd [Illegal Avant-Garde]. 344. <>

9. Ibid. 360.<>

10. László Szabó is now the vice-president of the national chamber of private investigators. Cf. Kiskegyed 2002/2. <>

11. “The conflicts of opinions that existed within our community were negligible and insignificant compared to the conflicts of opinion we had with the system.” Attila Csáji in: Törvénytelen avantgárd. 201.<>

12. “After some time passed, it seemed that the original concept aimed at creating a fully open intellectual workshop was failing…. I think what happened here was the miniature version of what took place in many countries in this region after 1989, namely that the moment they were given some space, i.e. this little chapel in Balatonboglár, the same people who had been able to work together perfectly, in agreement, up until the ‘great enemy’ existed realised one after the other that they did not really agree on many things.” László Haris in: Törvénytelen avantgárd. 201. <>

13. Törvénytelen avantgárd. 13. <>

14. Adatok és adalékok a hatvanas évek művészetéhez. Op. cit. <>

15. Nóra Aradi: Absztrakt képzőművészet [Abstract Fine Arts]. Kossuth, Bp., 1964 <>

16. Adatok és Adalékok. Vol. I, 267. <>

17. Géza Perneczky: Magyar romantika [Hungarian Romanticism]. Élet és Irodalom 21 March 1970, 12. <>

18. R. (Gyula Rózsa): Kondor Béla 1931-1972 [Béla Kondor 1931-1972]. Kritika, February 1973, 14. <>

19. Péter Donáth: Ami a két ’Nem’ között történt. A Kondor-jelenségről [What Happened between Two ‘No’s. The Kondor Phenomenon] In. Donáth Péter [Péter Donáth]. 1938-1996. Szent István Király Múzeum, Székesfehérvár, 1998. (eds.: Edit Sasvári, László Százados). 46. First published in: Új Művészet, 1991, issue 5, 7-12. <>

20. See: Péter György: Avantgárd az Aczél-korszakban: Föld alatt, föld felett [Avant-garde in the Aczél Era: Underground, above ground]. Magyar Napló Vol. II. Issue 8 (22 February 1990) and Ádám Tábor: Az agresszor válaszol [The Aggressor Responds]. Magyar Napló, Vol. II. Issue 14 (5 April 1990). Ádám Tábor’s response was published in the excellent volume titled A váratlan kultúra (see footnote 7) without any reference to the original debate. <>

21. Szamizdat. Alternativ kultúrák Közép- és Kelet-Európában 1956-1989 [Samizdat. Alternative Culture in Central and Eastern Europe 1956-1989]. Stencil Kiadó–Európai Kulturális Alapítvány, Bp., 2004. The same applies to the studies written by Miklós Haraszti and Tibor Várnagy, published in the volume. Browsing through the volumes of Beszélő, it becomes clear that in those days personal friendships, dedicated solidarity, tastes, aesthetic values and views were rather separate categories. <>

22. How little it takes to misunderstand individual achievements of the neo-avant-garde, which has absolutely no canonised history, is clearly shown (to me) by Attila Fonyó’s text “A pangás évei” [Years of Stagnation], which is an excellent sociological study but also reflects an aesthetic blindness in several respects; it was published in the most recent issue of BUKSZ. The importance of the band Spions and Gergely Molnár as a cultural icon can only be understood if we can accept and deem this thesis worthy of interpretation: subculture is an autonomous entity, a closed cosmos. Fonyó is mistaken when he claims that while Tamás Cseh did not belong to any of the subcultures, Gergely Molnár was only able to communicate within the sphere of subculture. As I see it, József Havasréti’s study, the one criticised by Fonyó, was especially noteworthy in that it fully understood the absurd drama of an artist excluding himself from the everyday reality of the Kádár regime as Spions did. Tamás Cseh lived within the Kádár regime, which does not detract at all from the quality of his art, which I held in high regard myself and still do. However, subculture, and especially Molnár’s aggression, also derived from a kind of behaviour with which a dedicated dandy literally, in every second of his life, virtually invited socialism to a duel. Of course this was an absurd approach, just like what was manifest through the lives and peculiar art of János Vető, Tibor Hajas and Tamás Papp, who were in the same boat as Molnár. It must also be seen that a comparison between Spions and István, a király [Steven the King]puts cultural worlds side by side that had no connection whatsoever, similarly to some of the artists of the Balatonboglár scene, apart from the fact that they existed in the same space and at the same time. I believe the same error of judgement can be seen when he draws a comparison between film director János Xantus and actor/director István Bujtor. It is true that the works of both are source materials but sources of totally different things. The – partially superficial – films of Xantus could even be interpreted as the moaning of a rich kid living on the periphery of the above-mentioned subculture, while Bujtor implemented a theoretical concept, which could be called the “socialist entertainment industry”, and he owed his success to the fact that the kind of films he made were banned from coming to Hungary from the west at the time. In any case, Bujtor’s films reveal nothing about “the decade’s cultural context and lifestyle on the whole”, especially that we cannot even talk about a context when there are no alternatives to speak of. A context can only exist when there are more options than one. <>

23. György Spiró: Honn. In: Álmodtam neked [I Dreamt for You]. Szépirodalmi Könyvkiadó, Bp., 1987. <>