This exhibition is part of ATA’s Laffer Curatorial Program, funded by a generous donation from Christine Laffer.
In the Heart of Europe: Hungarian Tapestry Art
Edit András, Curator
Dedicated to the loving memory of Ildikó Dobrányi.
As an art historian and art critic focusing on contemporary art and theory, I came across the phenomenon of tapestry art at the time of the millennium, when I was commissioned by Miklós Mojzer, museum director, to co-curate grand scale international tapestry exhibitions in the Museum of Fine Arts (Budapest).1 The exhibitions were titled Kárpit, the Hungarian word for woven tapestry, and now a household name for the international circle of art professionals and artists in the field. The shows have become as well known as other significant shows like the American Tapestry Biennial organized by ATA (American Tapestry Alliance) and ARTAPESTRY run by ETF (European Tapestry Forum).2 The grandiose Kárpit exhibitions didn’t just bring the cream of the international contemporary tapestry art to the heart of Europe, they also removed the local and unknown Hungarian tapestry art from its isolation and anonymity, connecting the best local products of the genre to the mainstream currents worldwide. In fact, that outcome was the very dream of the late Ildikó Dobrányi, president of the MKE (Association of Hungarian Tapestry Artist), with whom I co-curated the Kárpit shows.
Dobrányi was among the new generation of artists who exhibited in the watershed exhibition in the eighties entitled Plus/minus Gobelin, an exhibition in 1980, that signified the end of the experimental textile art dominating the seventies and the new beginning of traditional wall tapestry. Her vision was to carve out a path for the so called “autonomous tapestry artists,” not just within the otherwise obscure conglomerate of textile artists, but even within the MKE, a group that combined artists who were trained as designers (full of artistic ideas but being unable to realize them in tapestries) and those tapestry artists, who had ideas and the ability to realize them, trained artists whose medium was specifically tapestry. By uniting the role of the designer and the weaver they followed in the footsteps of Noémi Ferenczy, the first Hungarian artist of this kind, and considered themselves her followers.
This highly motivated core-group, led by Dobrányi, initiated the Kárpit shows. Taking literally the political changes after the end of the Cold War and collapse of the Soviet satellite system, the Kárpit shows embraced the international rules of the game by replacing the old Socialist practice of “national delegation of good comrades” as the way of determining participation in international exhibitions with the system of quality based selection made by a professional jury consisting of independent professionals from different countries. By the same token, the art works submitted for the exhibitions had to be nominated anonymously. Although this practice resulted in a higher standard for the exhibitions, it also generated escalating tension between the darlings of the old system who, despite their high status in the official culture, might not be selected for the shows. Old habits die hard; parochialism launched a campaign against those wishing to get rid of the semi-feudal, semi-socialist structure based on privileges gained for political loyalty. Dobrányi was attacked by fabricated accusations, none of which could be proven to be true. In the course of the witch-hunt she passed away, and the tragic event was followed by launching the Ildikó Dobrányi Foundation, of which I am a founding member. It was established with the purpose of taking on her intellectual and artistic heritage.3
Although this web exhibition showcases exclusively Hungarian artists, I wish to move beyond some obligate “national survey” of the scene, not just because such a project would go beyond the limits of this exhibition, but because in post-socialist Hungary the very notion of “national art” is highly abused and appropriated for political and ideological purposes, being restricted to the officially-supported, normative “state-art”.4 In addition, my selection is not intended to be comprehensive in historical terms, accurately presenting all the building blocks of the robust growth;5 instead I wish to shed light on what I consider to be the most alluring elements of it. I wish to present highlights from the oeuvre of some of the most significant followers of Noémi Ferenczy, works that resonate with my personal interests and professional position.
Noémi Ferenczy, the “mother figure” of Hungarian tapestry art, was a member of a well-known family of artists. After Noémi’s visit to Paris, in 1911, she fell in love with tapestry and received proper training in weaving. She became a master of the traditional haute-lisse technique. She established the Department of Tapestry at the Academy of Applied Art, Budapest, and was its first and most influential professor, demanding high standards from her students.
I do not believe in the popular account that art speaks for itself, as it has never been the case. Thus, I do not wish to leave the audience wandering clueless, rather I wish to offer a virtual guided tour with the interpretation and contextualization of the works I have selected, and grouped together along issue-based lines.
The central tapestry of Gallery 1 is one of the highlights of Noémi’s oeuvre, “Creation” (1913). Her early tapestries were inspired by stained glass windows, with pure and bright colors and clear-cut shapes. Man and nature live in symbiosis in a lavish and enchanting world filled with fascinating details. “The Muse” (1937), regarded as her ars poetic, was created during a time in which she concentrated on the creative work of humans, mostly women. The background, even in monumental and planar tapestries like this one, is rich and virtuous with subtle color tones. Her diverse oeuvre is an abundant source for fellow travelers, offering many paths to follow.
The blossoming tree with trembling leaves on the verdure, “Peach-tree” (1955), reverberates in its magnified mutation. This tapestry was the diploma work of Gizella Solti, Ferenczy’s immediate successor in the artistic and everyday meaning of the word, as she inherited Noémi’s loom, on which she has woven for almost 50 years. Verona Szabó’s millefleur tapestries, creations of fantasy and the wonders of nature enlarged and transformed into sensual material, and Ágnes Kecskés’s gorgeous panorama “Danube Bend” are the contemporary backwash of Noémi’s almost pantheistic love of nature. In “Swing,” Judit Nagy echoes the inner playfulness of the genre by the interactions between the central scene and the verdure, two basic elements of tapestry with different functions. Her works are full of art historical and iconographic references. The birds nest is like a hammock or a swing between the motifs of the verdure, as if hung between trees. In “33 Keleti Károly street” one of the birds is flying to the central scene from outside, passing the verdure, not even noticing the hidden danger in the image of a predator melted into the decoration.
Gallery 2 focuses on the capacity of tapestry for imitating reality and photography. The images are built from the woven technique’s smallest components, color picks that arise from the crossing of the weft and warp. The gallery consists of brilliant trompe-l’oeil works and their pop art, hyper-real contemporary equivalents. The inner connection overarching through the ages is thematised in Nagy’s “Natura Morte with Coca Cola and birds.” In the late seventies and early eighties, tapestry artists were tired of the dominance of experimental textile art which was competing with sculpture by extending into space, whilst giving up the most vital quality of tapestry, its two dimensionality and representational potential. Tapestry as an analogy of photography was also regarded as an implicit rebellion against the local practice of abstract tapestries designed by painters. This is the motivation that Ibolya Hegyi attributes to her triptych “Calling forth,” a portrait of Ingmar Bergman, cult figure of the time. Nagy’s “Stag-beetle” creates an optical illusion with an accuracy of an entomologist. Lívia Pápai’s “Here is your crib and future grave,” visualizing the lines of the Hungarian “Appeal” (a patriotic poem from the 19th century nation-building by Mihály Vörösmarty), provides a perfect illusion of spatiality with its assemblage of flat wall pieces, while her piece “Beyond the Iris” multiplies the tricks of the eyes.
The use of realism has actually never been limited to Hungarian tapestry artists with their new confidence in weaving, due to an awareness of the compromised role that the genre had to play in the time of Socialism. So, there is always a twist or additional layer we should look for. Solti’s “Sokol radio” is the soft, woven female version of the Soviet portable radio of the time, very popular behind the Iron Curtain. However, the brand name is replaced by the international sign of crying for help S.O.S. Nagy’s (“Wild Ducks,” “Key sentence”) and Eleonóra Pasqualetti’s pieces are the forerunners of more conceptual works. Pasqualetti’s “Dialóg” refers to the subversive element of the Hungarian neo-avant-garde, namely their usage of “pseudo,” quasi-reality, but in contrast to their predecessors, with playful irony. Gabriella Hajnal’s “New York” is a graceful comment on the overlapping of realism and abstraction, a central concern of the time.
The topic of Gallery 3 is conceptualism, which was understood differently in its Eastern European variant than in its “original” Western “hard core” manifestation. It was not the process of dematerialization, and the substitution of visuality with verbality, but rather a way of thinking about the very meaning, definition and nature of art that fertilized even such a sensual genre as tapestry. However, textuality does play a significant role in the local “soft” version (Hajnal: “Text-ile”), referring to the similarities in the process of weaving and writing. Nagy addresses questions about the nature of the art making practice through which she has chosen to mediate her ideas (“Weaving = Way of life”). Pasqualetti’s “Inflexio” is a tapestry within a tapestry, analyzing the specificities of the genre at the crossroad of painting, architecture and weaving. Hajnal, the doyen (with Solti) of the profession, runs back over the long and fruitful history of her own art making practice, as she “recycles” and “updates” her figurative, illustrative tapestry from the late fifties with self-reflection and humor, adjusting it to the spirit of the millennium (“Gift wrapped”). Dobrányi’s “Alternative renaissance” reflects on the rebirth of an ancient art form, in the course of which it keeps the basic structure but embraces contemporary elements.
Nagy’s “A butterfly perched on my window” could be understood as “process art work” as well, frozen into wool. Hegyi’s “Shape of Time” is a clever and complex paraphrase of Miklós Erdély (central figure of the Hungarian avant-garde) and Solti’s joint work, “Mobius strip,” and also references Kubler’s influential theory. Her “Passages” and Pápai’s “Laterna Magica” reflect on the universe and on science, from the perspective and with the help of an ancient, but Phoenix-like, genre. Marika Száraz’s shaped tapestries have strong resemblances to Eastern European constructivism and suprematism of the 1920s, movements that attempted to create a new language to match utopian visions of the time, rather than offering another abstract “ism” for art museums, even though they too, were later dried out through classification.
Due to both the long time appropriation of social and political topics by official art during the Socialist regime, and to the time-consuming nature of the genre, socially, politically, and discursively engaged works with a critical attitude are relatively rare in the local tapestry scene. Some of them are collected together in Gallery 4. Hajnal is one of the artists who addresses social issues such as violence, fear, hatred, and trauma, in her touching and deeply emotional pieces (“Knives”; “Raports”). Solti’s “Half a striped coat” refers to micro history through her personal memory of her father’s war story. Her “Shot-proof robe” commemorates the assassination against Pope John Paul II. Pasqualetti smuggles private and female issues, like pregnancy, not previously considered worthy of a serious and time-consuming genre, into her arsenal of topics (“Nine”). The reminiscence of the Harem, fleshly female body behind abstract arabesque motives, is evoked by Emese Csókás’s “Meadow.”
Gallery 5 turns back to the starting point and pulls together contemporary metamorphoses of the greatest principles inherent in Ferenczy’s art. Micro- and macroscopic viewpoints to the universe and virtuosity of technique demonstrate the high capacity of traditional tapestry art not just to survive, but to resurrect. Ferenczy’s pantheism is transformed into visionary, blurry scenes in Solti’s works, while the predecessor’s sophisticated and sensitive treatment of even the most neutral background is magnified in the hand of her pupil’s oscillating and rich textures. If experimentalism is still persistent in the activity of current tapestry artists, it is through a preoccupation with the excavation of hidden potentials within the traditional technique of the genre and not beyond it. Száraz provides a tactile sensation of annual rings in the cross section of a living organism, while Dobrányi blows up micro elements of nature, like details of grasses and foliage, which are incomprehensible to the eye. Hegyi is able to transplant time-based process art, generally connected to genres of moving images or performance, into the materiality of tapestry, as she conveys atmospheric effects in her “Weather forecast/H2O.” “Golden Age” is a magnificent piece resembling an hourglass in which, like the glorious time of humanity, if it ever existed, fades away like the sand that twirls down. It could be conceived as a metaphor of our vanity and ignorance, or interpreted as the consciousness of existence, able to find meaning in ordinary material life.
Finally, I hope I have shared with you my joy and passion for the outstanding selection of Hungarian tapestry art in this curated exhibition.
1 Kárpit / Tapestry. Budapest, 2001; Kárpit 2. Metamorphoses. The Art of Woven Tapestry Past and Present. Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest, 2005-06.
3 http://www.dobranyifoundation.hu/ Web of Europe, an exhibition and conference organized by Ibolya Hegyi continued her path. Hereby I wish to express my gratitude to the Foundation and especially to Ibolya Hegyi for the generous assistance for my work in contacting the artists and collecting the photos.
4 See about this conservative cultural turn: Artmargins online http://www.artmargins.com/index.php/5-interviews/721-hungary-in-focus-forum
5 For this purpose see: Tapestry Art in Hungary. Published jointly by Vince Books and the Association of the Hungarian Tapestry Artists, Budapest, 2005.