Illegal Avant-garde:
The Balatonboglár Chapel Studio of György Galántai 1970-1973.*

If the exhibitions held thirty years ago in the Balatonboglár Chapel can be considered to have any relevance now in terms of the sociology of art, it is on the grounds that they constituted a brief moment when what had always been, and would always be, disconnected, came to be united. This may seem a rash statement but I take responsibility for it, all the more so as I think one of the most embarrassing turns in the (public) history of the past fifteen years derives exactly from this misunderstanding. More precisely, this moment is a blank / severe symbol of the well-known situation when the common wounds and injuries are refined for an instant into a shared sentiment, a common desire, only to disappear quickly and allow everyone to turn against the other anew.

This, I believe, is a process we have come to know all too well since 1989-90.

Though the summertime exhibition venue, soon to function as an art commune as well (with no generational or geographical restrictions), undoubtedly contributed to the birth of works that would gain a legendary status, I now wish to concentrate on what I think is more important, even decisive: the fact that the chapel on the cemetery hill gave home to a spirit that seldom haunts Hungary, that of patience and solidarity, which were then, for brief moments, to emanate from behind the walls. Powered for four years by György Galántai’s energy and talent, banned thirty years ago by a stupid and aggressive regime, the series of exhibitions, irregular as it was, managed to summarize continuously the intersection between the visual arts, experimental music and theatre, and literature in the late sixties, providing at the same time trends and groups which tried to maintain their distance from one another, but which never talked about this distance, with an opportunity to assimilate. To quote a concrete example: it tried to dissolve conflicts whose roots later turned out to be not merely questions of aesthetics or art history.

One of the merits of the book is that it allows us to formulate questions about the sociology of art which could hardly have been posed before – because, among other reasons, sources were denied, forgotten or unavailable. Galántai and his wife, Júlia Klaniczay later founded a collection and an art research institute on the “ruins” of the Balatonboglár chapel: their intention was to make Artpool a base for research in history and sociology.

One set of problems which I find very important, and which has remained unanalyzed, is the relationship between progressive Hungarian art and politics (the current right- and left-wing opposition), and in particular the complexity and quality of these ties. 

To oversimplify the matter, we could say three “trends” existed in the early seventies: the first was expansive, of a sociological character, sensitive to “fate,” directly or indirectly reacting to political influence, employing the tools of conceptualism and performance, with strong affinities towards film and theatre. Miklós Erdély, Tamás Szentjóby or Gyula Pauer, later Tibor Hajas, maintained close relations with the constantly changing, form-seeking opposition, though the nature of these relations is still unclear. Another group which inhabited the boundary of literature and the visual arts ironically identified itself as apolitical, its members assuming the outsider’s position as a gesture of existential philosophy. They are the least remembered today, so it is perhaps useful to cite their short manifesto:

“WHAT IS UNDERGROUND? Nonofficial art. It is an artistic “movement” that neither supports nor attacks the establishment, but remains outside of it. Any attack on the establishment would acknowledge its existence. Being a real, organized movement would be another form of engaging in the game of the superficial world. The underground does not forbid its supporters from political subjects, as it does not forbid and order at all, but the appearance of all such subjects is the private business of the artist. The coordinates of the underground are freely shifting.
What does the Hungarian underground want?
It wants to be a form of unidentifiable, un-analyzable, ungraspable, and incorruptible, outsider art. PRIVATE ART.
Who does it address? Itself. The artists address one another. Anyone whose interest is friendly.
It does not expect recognition, but it can appreciate it.
What kind of a relationship do underground artists maintain with one another? – A friendly one.”
(Béla Hap: Halk magyar underground-kiáltvány [A quiet manifesto of Hungarian underground], Szétfolyóirat, February 1972 (?).)

The third group was originally also apolitical, but because of its constant clashes with the official understanding of art, and thanks to its activist principles of aesthetics and education, it had to engage in politics. Imre Bak, János Fajó, Tibor Csiky and others employed the principles of Kassák and the Hungarian avant-garde predating the Second World War [check original], but above all, of the Bauhaus, when they made the democratization of art their programme.

By the middle of the seventies – i.e. when the Balatonboglár chapel exhibitions had already been forced to close – it became obvious that neither the anarcho-liberalism of Erdély or Szentjóby (Szentjóby’s most powerful slogan – Be prohibited! – became void), nor the amateur Bauhaus movement Fajó advocated, could redeem Hungarian art, let alone Hungarian democracy; as a consequence and also because of the prohibition, Hungarian art became so apolitical it became cut off from its own age, as it were. In the middle of the decade it was [documentary photo based] szocio-fotó based traditional-technique graphics that was momentarily influenced by politics, then at the turn of the seventies and eighties the mostly self-taught artists of Vajda Lajos Studio (Szentendre) produced a persiflage of conditions in Hungary through a peculiarly camp form of art, and then in the middle of the eighties a fairly small number of artists gave visual representation – following perhaps Polish examples – to a form of more active political resistance (Inconnu Group). Naturally, Galántai himself remained active, and even transferred his organizing activity in Balatonboglár to a higher dimension when launching his quasi-samizdat Aktuális levél /Artpool Letter [Topical/Artpool Letter] in 1982. However, in Hungary a more thorough criticism of the regime was to be found in documentary films and the literature of sociography. (Which is why Hungarian visual artists were accused in the 1990s of having taken no active part in the overthrow of the old regime, a not completely unfounded statement which was to have pecuniary repercussions when it came to funding the arts.)

The kind of road then via which art in the Soviet Union reached social art, or which Czech artist Milan Kunc travelled, remained mostly uncharted in Hungary. This in any case had the advantage that artists – since their works referenced art only – could at last be evaluated according to the criteria of art alone, and not through their political commitments; the drawbacks of the apolitical stance also became apparent: with their orthodox veneration of the image and their virginal and ethereally abstract honesty the members of the generation that started working in the sixties and seventies became anachronistic figures in the communication and media context of the nineties. In other words, their politically motivated apolitical attitude made them and their followers insensitive to topical issues which may be independent of politics, but which practically demand a sociological approach.

Containing documents relating to the history and prohibition of the Balatonboglár exhibitions, recollections and a selection of state security files, the volume is not only an excellent source for research but also a puritanical memorial.

(Edited by Júlia Klaniczay and Edit Sasvári, designed by Balázs Czeizel and György Galántai. Artpool-Balassi, 2003, pp. 457.)

István Hajdu

*In: praesens, 2003/3.149-150. <>

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