“In Jovián’s art, “beauty” is the mature fruit of the symbiosis between a high standard of manual dexterity and intellectual creativity unfolding from one stage to the next over centuries, the true artistic repository of craftsmanship and expertise, doing all it can – in an age when the noble essence of “classical beauty” is turning on itself, like a snake biting its own tail – to break the vicious circle.”
My beautiful contemporaries” – these were the words György Jovián used to describe his sizeable paintings when he invited me to cast a friendly eye over them on a sunny morning in his studio on Bartók Béla Road, as if to say here you go: these are the works to be exhibited, this is what is in store for visitors to the series of exhibitions, looking back over thirty odd years of tradition, entitled Transylvanian Artists in Leányfalu. The picture cycle, as it is presented here today, has never been exhibited anywhere before.
Although we know it is always the paintings that can offer the most complete testimony about themselves, it is still interesting to catch a glimpse behind the scenes in the studio, where we can gain some extra insights into the background of these works in progress. To put it another way: a more complete picture emerges of what kind of obsessions drove our master to pick up his brush, and what the muses looking down from above suggested to him during those uplifting flashes of inspiration.
But before exploring the phrase “my beautiful contemporaries” in more depth, allow me to quote a few highlights from the illustrious career of György Jovián, a Munkácsy Award-winning painter and graphic artist and full member of the Hungarian Academy of Arts. Bear in mind that there is only room for a few choice examples here, as a full list of his achievements would take up all the time and space available to us here. So, let the facts – albeit in condensed form – speak for themselves!
György Jovián was born in Szilágysomlyó (Șimleu Silvaniei), Romania, in 1951 and attended a school of music and the arts in Nagyvárad (Oradea). Later, when it was time to embark on his university studies – heeding the advice of his friend the eminent painter László Tóth – rather than applying to study at the college at Kolozsvár (Cluj-Napoca), which adhered to relatively conservative principles, he tried for and won a place at the Grigorescu College of the Visual Arts (Bucharest) which was a far more avant-garde institution at the time. Indeed, I would go so far as to describe it as having a decidedly “French” outlook. After graduating from here, he stayed on and rounded off his studies by enrolling in a Master’s programme from which he graduated with flying colours. For a while he worked as a set and costume designer at the Oradea State Theatre, then in 1982 he moved to Hungary, where he worked first at the Játékszín and later the Merlin Theatre, before eventually joining the staff of the Petőfi Museum of Literature. He was awarded a Derkovits Scholarship, as well as a scholarship from the Hungarian Academy in Rome, the Madrid Scholarship from the Ministry of Culture, and the Hungarian Bank of Credit Scholarship. Besides these, possessing the requisite language skills, he also participated in residencies in Portugal and Austria. I will refrain from listing here his many memberships of artistic organisations, and I also ask to be excused from mentioning those of his approximately seventy solo exhibitions that were held at venues other than the Hall of Arts of Budapest and the Ernst Museum. Indeed, for similar reasons, for the moment let us not concern ourselves with the group exhibitions either – of which there is an impressive number – which allowed art lovers to view his works at some of the most prestigious exhibition spaces in numerous countries and capitals of Europe. The masters he is happy to name as his kindred spirits include the Catalonian Dadaist-surrealist painter and sculptor Antoni Tàpies, the English artist Francis Bacon, famed for his biomorphic figures; and, among the Hungarians, László Lakner, who excels in the infinite spaces of gesture painting and surrealism.
So now let us take a closer look at what lies behind the phrase “my beautiful contemporaries”, coined by György Jovián as the de facto title and motto of this exhibition, because the main elements of this linguistic structure, both together and individually, give us some clues about the painter’s artistic sensibilities.
The expression “beautiful” – and this is nothing new – is perhaps one of the most disputed adjectives in the Zeitgeist of any age, because the only true certainty is the march of Time, which brings major transformations in the aesthetic concept of beauty against the backdrop of constantly changing tastes and tropes.
And we have not even mentioned the various synonyms used to interpret the concept at any stage in history. In Jovián’s art, “beauty” is the mature fruit of the symbiosis between a high standard of manual dexterity and intellectual creativity unfolding from one stage to the next over centuries, the true artistic repository of craftsmanship and expertise, doing all it can – in an age when the noble essence of “classical beauty” is turning on itself, like a snake biting its own tail – to break the vicious circle. But from day to day we can sense the growing prevalence of art gibberish, while the pretentious “friend of the arts” nods knowingly at what he or she does not understand. György Jovián’s visual magic, however, needs no abstruse rationalisation because the spectacle, the sensitivity, the craftsmanship, the use of colour, the deliberate suggestiveness and the mastery of painting techniques, together speak for themselves. The use of vague suggestions or often dubious ambiguity masquerading as poetry is not his bag; but he certainly is one for the direct expression of substance that allows for no misinterpretation.
He pairs the adjective “beautiful” with “my contemporaries” in a clear proclamation of his commitment to investing his art with up-to-date content. However, this is not achieved through an over-thought and distorted visual presentation, but by invoking the worthiest traditions and thus lending a documented authenticity to portraits of people within society whose natural way of life involved creating and passing on values that are worthy of recognition. Specifically: a violinist, a painter, a singer, an art historian and a visual artist. Each one an anointed ambassador of art. The picture entitled Lady with a Blue Cat, meanwhile, takes on parallels with these works through its mysterious philosophy. Despite the differences, it too incorporates contemporary, thought-provoking elements, perhaps concerning the unpredictable anomalies of the genetic experiments aiming at the horizons of our turbocharged era.
At this exhibition, the focus is very much on the peculiar image of portrait painting as a genre, which has embodied the most personal variety of artistic depiction throughout the ages from the first cave paintings to the present day. The portrait, by virtue of the relative durability of the material, the paint, is a tough adversary of Time; nevertheless, for us it has become a human-scale symbol of permanence in the persistent struggle between the finite and the infinite. As the classic aphorism goes: “Ars longa, vita brevis”, or “Art is long, life is short”. Throughout its history this type of image has evolved through many stylistic changes, from the idealised – and thus impersonalised – proportions of the Ancient Greeks through the realistic, warts-and-all portraits of the Roman age. As the cult of the individual came to the fore, a special appreciation was reserved for the features of the Renaissance man marvelling at the beauty of life on Earth. After that, the Baroque era boasted portrait collections that immortalised entire family trees with all the trappings of aristocratic pomp and circumstance. What be more fitting evidence of this than the endless rows of elaborately posed ancestors staring down from the crimson-wallpapered halls of stately homes; or, to give a specific example, the unique historical portrait collection exhibited in the Vasari Hall of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence? The era of photography disrupted, to a certain extent, the hegemony of realistic painting as a means of depicting people; but it was not capable of usurping the artistic prowess of the hand’s nerves and sinews, so the painted portrait marched on proudly because there is no substitute for individuality, and the substantive differences between the two processes lie in the fact that the painter thinks while working, whereas the camera does not.
Through the repetition of similar compositions, the pieces exhibited here emphasise the intention of seriality. The series of people painted in similar settings and poses, however, is anything but monotonous because the true essence of the works traverses deep psychological regions and the chromatic impression differs markedly from one picture to the next. The Bacon-esque calm that reigns in the backgrounds, through the absence of any formal elements, is how the painter draws our attention to the essence: the inner, emotional world of the subjects. Here, it is not striking gestures that form the figures into pictures, but their restrained yet assertive poise, while their open expressions looking out at the viewer generate the tension associated with contact.
Many viewers may be curious as to the purpose of the dots, overlaid in a geometric pattern onto the surfaces of the pictures. Well, this should not be a secret! Each work undergoes several phases of creation, and this is an artefact left over from one of them: determination of the proportions. The drawing of the realist figure is carried out with cartographical precision, and the “reference points” used for this during enlargement are an integral part of the process. The painter does not conceal this, however. On the contrary, he shows them to the viewer, giving us a glimpse of what goes on behind the scenes. In this way, the artist is also telling us that it is not reality hanging in front of us, but merely an illusion assembled from layers of paint. One that has been masterfully handled, however, so as to create the unique magic of the works.
But the pictures on display here have another recurring main character: the iron railing, whose hard structure effectively resolves the softness of the living bodies, dissecting the surface while also tying the individual elements of the series together as a recurrent motif. Railings and fences are an indispensable part of our everyday lives, perhaps because they so starkly illustrate the unattainability of absolute freedom. It is also worth knowing that iron railings have symbolic meaning in art history. Édouard Manet, for example, created his emblematic painting The Balcony in 1869. In this picture, known members of the aristocracy look out across time from behind a similar railing on the balcony of one of Paris’s well-to-do apartment buildings, which were so fashionable at the time. A symbolic reference to this element creates an untraversable plane between the viewer and the subjects of the picture. In other words, he is making it clear to us that the two parallel spaces are not interchangeable. One of Jovián’s nudes – in a deliberate reference to Manet – is also named The Balcony. It seems that some strange magic may be hidden in the subtext of the French painter’s work, as René Magritte also made a very surprising version of it, with freshly planed wooden coffins standing in the places of Manet’s vital, beautiful figures. But this is nothing new, as the perpetuation of certain visual elements from other artists’ works is part and parcel of the cascading, interrelated progression of art throughout history. For example, Rembrandt, in a homage to Tiziano, created his self-portrait now exhibited in London in the same pose as one of the Italian master’s portraits; in fact, he even donned a period costume, signifying their shared ideas and values. Picasso, for his part, created an unprecedented number of variations on Velázquez’s emblematic work The Ladies in Waiting, while Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus lived on for centuries as an archetype of nude painting.
Picture cycles – such as this one – have a prominent role in György Jovián’ oeuvre, and this is irrefutable proof of just how thoroughly the artist explores the characteristic world of a given theme. Thinking in terms of whole cycles, above all, highlights the charismatic colours of the creative ego; in other words, it becomes a recognisable characteristic of the artist, strengthening his artistic identity.
This is why I have to spare at least a few words for another very popular series of his works, known by its overarching title of Demolition, which clearly stands in a category of its own within Hungarian contemporary painting. The Demolition series is diametrically opposed to the concept, represented by the slogan “We Build…”, that tried to insinuate or force itself into the public consciousness throughout the era of “Socialist realism”. A great achievement of this cycle is how it shows the aesthetic heights that can be achieved by images of decay, destruction, chaos, scrap yards and transitoriness with the right inspiration, an expert eye and hand, and creative power. But I could also say that, in this series, György Jovián somehow manages to sit and stand at the same time, cleverly uniting elements of realism and abstraction that are generally felt to be terminally irreconcilable. His references are clear: the world order is reflected not by the pedantically ordered, manicured chateau gardens of France, but by the tangled vascular systems of rainforests interwoven with vines; not in the polished new world, but in how it can be irresistibly crushed by the jaws of Time. In other words, the order of a natural world permeated by such massive energies is not on the same scale as our concepts of order in the everyday sense, as governed by passages of law. Every work in the Demolition series is a masterpiece, a testament to the painter’s vision and expression. Progressing from one work to the next, the artist immersed himself so completely in the process of material fermentation that eventually he must have felt it was time to show the positive essences as well, this time through the portraits of subjects blessed with an exceptional talent for harmonious and constructive creativity.
Finally, I would like to add that the exceptional quality found in his oeuvre does not merely stem from his technical accomplishment or the mastery of a certain style, but above all from his superior ability to give a sense of completeness, the harmonious unity of the newly created works, the expression of a clear logical and philosophical vision. For him, painting is as much of a compulsion as the colonisation of distant lands was for the seafaring explorers of the Middle Ages with their memorable proclamation: “Navigare necesse est!” – “Sailing is a necessity!” György Jovián believes that the beauty of this dedication lies in the urge to turn inspiration into a reality, or as he puts it: “It doesn’t matter what, but I must paint.”
In closing, I make no apologies for stating my subjective, personal opinion that György Jovián is the most prodigious painter working in our part of the world today. I certainly do not think I am the only one to hold this opinion. And of course, later Time will also have its say.
Translation by Daniel Nashaat