Jewish Heritage Report
Vol. I, Nos. 3-4 / Winter 1997-98
Budapest Jewish Exhibit Tackles Question of Art and Identity
by Ruth Ellen Gruber
BUDAPEST -- At the entrance to a major new exhibition at Budapest's Jewish Museum hang pre-war oil paintings of a neoclassical Budapest synagogue which was built in the 1820s. The synagogue still stands -- and looks much the same -- but today it is used as a television studio. Nearby hangs a huge canvas of a bearded Jew in a black hat bending to touch a black wall. The painting is by Laszlo Feher, who is one of Hungary's best-known contemporary artists -- and a convert to Judaism. In many ways these works and their contexts exemplify the concept behind the exhibition as a whole.
Entitled Diaspora (and) Art the exhibit brings together some 500 pieces in a carefully devised exploration of the changing position of Jews, artists and intellectuals within Hungarian history and society. "The Diaspora is a kind of mentality where people are not exactly inside society; they are people on the border of society," said Budapest ceramicist Levente Thury, who curated the show along with art historian Gyorgy Szego. "Society accepts them but sometimes hates them, sometimes creates difficulties. But there is also a sort of freedom in being a little bit outside -- this is the Diaspora."
Thury said the original idea behind the show had been to present an exhibition of "Jewish art" utilizing the hundreds of pieces which for decades under communism had lain locked and forgotten in the museum's storerooms. The aim was to create an important exhibit that would heighten the profile of the Jewish Museum and Jewish culture in the Hungarian mind at large. Under communism, the museum was little more than a marginal display of ritual objects "We knew, though, that building an exhibition simply around Jewish motifs would not be enough," Thury said. "But what is Jewish art? Jewish spirit? We found that the character of the European Jewish spirit involved the Diaspora." Thury and Szego, working with Jewish Museum director Robert Ben Turan, spent months rummaging through the museum's long-neglected collection.
They also located artworks in other museums and private collections and contacted contemporary Hungarian artists, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, to lend works, so that the pieces included in the show date from the early 19th century to the present. Some artists contacted the curators themselves to offer works for inclusion.
"It's not important if the artists are Jewish because Diaspora has many meanings," said artist Feher, who described Thury, Szego and Ben Turan as "pioneers" for conceiving the show. "From this aspect the show is very exciting -- the most important and serious work in the past few years. It doesn't close in anyone or place boundaries, but shows the freedom that lives in the Diaspora."
The show opened in March 1997 and will run through 1998. It is the first major exhibit in the Jewish museum's newly enlarged and refurbished exhibition gallery, which doubled the existing museum space. "We see it as opening a new chapter here in the way people think," said Ben Turan. "We're not a closed museum any more."
Paintings, graphics, and sculpture have been arranged in a series of rooms to lead visitors through a historical, artistic and psychological confrontation with themes such as tradition and identity, assimilation and exile. Isolation and responsibility are also key motifs. These themes have been at the core of debate concerning Jews in Hungary since Jewish emancipation in the mid-19th century and still form part of current discourse, both within and outside the Hungarian Jewish community.
Given the topicality, size and complexity of the exhibition, it is unfortunate that funds were not found to produce a catalogue.
The exhibit includes works by Jewish artists on non-Jewish themes and works by non-Jewish artists on Jewish themes. All styles are represented, from the classically conservative to the abstract and conceptual. Each piece is carefully juxtaposed to provide a commentary on the work, the style or the implicit idea.
An academic sculpture of Moses by turn-of-the-century assimilated Jewish sculptor Jozsef Rona, for example, shares a room with a stark, hermaphroditic Moses by Jozsef Jakovits, a non-Jewish contemporary who had strong links to Judaism.
The Holocaust is not a specific theme, and few pieces deal directly with the Shoah. But the murder of 600,000 Hungarian Jews by the Nazis and homegrown fascists forms an inescapable subtext. One painting shows a street corner in Paris, painted in 1931 by non-Jewish artist Istvan Cserepes. In the 1940s, Cserepes had a studio in Budapest's Jewish quarter. In 1945, he protested when the fascists rounded up Jews from his building -- and he was taken along with them and shot on the banks of the Danube with his neighbors.
Also providing a symbolic contrasts are several large installations put together by Thury and Szego from old pews, ritual objects, books and decorations taken from Budapest's ornate Dohany Street Synagogue, located next-door to the Jewish Museum. The synagogue, built in the 1850s and the largest in Europe, was re-opened last year after a full renovation.
The walls of the first rooms are crowded with paintings, many of them portraits. Frame almost touches frame, from floor to ceiling in an almost claustrophobic manner. "We created a living crowd," said Ben Turan. "But this crowd represents a killed and lost mass of Jews -- we revitalized it." There is a portrait of a soldier with earlocks; portraits of Jewish authors; Jewish community leaders; anonymous families in their living rooms and shops. One contemporary, multiple portrait piece includes a mirror. The pictures were massed together not just to represent pre-Holocaust life, but to represent the loneliness within a crowd quality.
Wall texts caption various sections of the exhibition. One in particular sets the tone for the show, a quotation from artist Ron Kitaj: "After Auschwitz, everyone lives in the Diaspora now." Recalling the "Arbeit Macht Frei" quotation above the gate of Auschwitz, it is written above a doorway leading to the latter rooms of the show, where contemporary artworks dominate. Here, the works are more scattered. The walls are barer, representing the isolation within contemporary society, the stifling of artists and intellectuals under communism, and the diminished size of the Jewish population.
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