H-Net Reviews Takes a Close Look at Hungarian Art

H-Net Reviews in the Humanities & Social Sciences commissioned an in-depth review of Éva Forgács’ 2016 book Hungarian Art: Confrontation and Revival in the Modern Movement. In the lengthy article the author,  Beata Hock (Leibniz-Institut für Geschichte und Kultur des östlichen Europa-GWZO), included the following highlights about Forgács’ work:

Forgács often returns to the “sociological gap” presented by the elitism and outsider character of vanguard art vis-à-vis the surrounding mainstream culture, and she emphatically addresses the fact that the avant-garde artist communities were radically left-wing and that many of their prominent members were of Jewish origin [… which was] not necessarily explicitly, objectively, lest approvingly talked about in Hungarian art historiography just a couple of decades back. Not only did a sublimated Holocaust history contribute to the tabooing of this subject area to some degree, but vanguard artists’ endorsement of a social revolutionary worldview and even the idea of “intellectual dictatorship” was also hard to come to terms with in late Socialist Hungary.


One of the most compelling independent sections elaborates on the cunning politicized aesthetics of the performative installation commemorating the reburial of the martyrs fallen in the 1956 revolution. […]  László Rajk’s set for this 1989 public celebration that had taken place just weeks before the Socialist system’s collapse in Hungary did not simply evoke the nation’s loss but, reaching back to the aesthetics of constructivism, the death of pre-Stalinist Communist ideals. Comprehending the martyrs not solely as victims of Communism but as idealist Communists themselves was a daring move. […] Other larger chapters contain particularly insightful passages, like the brief section on new Hungarian cinema emerging in the late 1960s, spearheaded by the ingenious director Miklós Jancsó.  […]

Budapest, June 16, 1989. Reburial of 1956 martyrs. Photo András Bánkuti.

The author’s first-hand lived experience adds rich historical detail especially to the discussion of the 1970s–80s and early 90s, and this is also where she attaches important nuances to a generally accepted narrative on cultural production in Communist countries. Whereas this narrative often shows monolithic tendencies, Forgács is careful to bring out, for instance, the consecutive swift alternations of strict governmental control and cultural-political thaw, with most “periods” lasting only a couple of years. She adds subtlety to the common perception that dissident artists in János Kádár’s Hungary chose their outsider position themselves. These artists aspired to be part of national culture, Forgács asserts, and it was rather the intolerance of the political system that turned them into a cultural underground, divesting them from wider public presence.