MI: To have a retrospective outside of the country is a great opportunity for a Hungarian artist based in Hungary. Last September and October you had such an opportunity in the northern Italian town of Varese. How many works and from what period did you exhibit? Where exactly did you place them in the prestigious Villa Recalcati, where memories of Verdi and d’Annunzio still linger?
ÁF: For the exhibition, I cherry-picked sculptures from the last twenty years. The invitation had hinted at the opportunity of a large-scale introduction of my work, given that the venue of the sculpture series launched four years ago was the 400-year-old park of the Villa. The Province of Varese, which hosts the series, usually invites internationally known artists working in large sculpture to present a solo exhibition that would be open to visitors for two months each. Like a magic key, the invitation opened all the doors in Hungary to much needed funding. Part of the lucky constellation was the Prima Award I won back in 2010, without which I would not have dreamt of accepting the invitation. The award allowed me to set other projects aside and work for the exhibition for a year and a half.
Ultimately, five stone sculptures and a large-sized work of wood and bronze were displayed in the park. Unfortunately, two sculptures, although featured in the catalogue, did not make it to Italy due to overweight, so I had to rethink the original layout. Together with Mr Gaetan Cassina, professor of art history and Curator of the exhibition, we decided to loosely group the sculptures around the main allée of the French garden along the longitudinal axis of the mansion. At first I was wary of the vast spaces of manicured lawn, each patch half a hectare in size, and of the monumentality of the centuries-old box and thuya trees shorn to a geometrical shape… Were they going to overwhelm and squash my work? But the setting turned out to be very accommodating, the trees and the lawn providing a refined, noble backdrop to my carved symbols. I had the impression – and it was confirmed by others – that the host space was enriched, possibly even restructured, by my work. Although the primary exhibition venue was the park itself, I also had at my disposal the main hall inside, consisting of four open-plan rooms only separated by columns on a total floor space of some 180 square metres. This was where we decided to show fourteen sculptures and four drawings. While working on the arrangement, I was surprised in a good way once again when I found that the early baroque space, burdened with opulent marble columns, mirrors and stucco, did not clash with the sculptures at all. In fact, the large mirror surfaces produced fascinating new views and spatial effects.
MI: Were you satisfied with the reception?
ÁF: The two dimensions of the reception of Curvatura di pietra [“Stone Curves”] were new and fascinating to me. One is the professional communication that accompanied the entire program. For the Provincia, it goes without saying that the artists they host are of the first rank. The press conference proceeds in the midst of flashes and rolling cameras, each reporter waiting for his or her turn to ask a question. The next day, abundantly illustrated articles announcing the exhibition are published. Three days before the opening, the hoardings are up around the city; banners fly before the palace entry. Each advertising surface uses the same visual motif, an emblematic section of one of my sculptures. The catalogue is stylish and substantial, with 36 reproductions, impeccable typography and layout, and superb print quality. As part of the opening ceremony, a professional introduction was held and there was a tribute to the very much alive cultural relations between Italy and Hungary. The vernissage continued with a concert by the violinist Matteo Fedeli from Milan, who included works by Bartók, Kodály and Ferenc Farkas in his programme. The audience was dazzled by the magnificent sounds of his 1727 Stradivarius.
The thing I learned in Varese was that my work does not feel out of place in a historic park or a baroque interior. These emphatic settings had no problem accommodating and integrating my sculptures. This easy fit may have something to do with the dynamism of my forms, which has come to the fore over the past twenty years. It’s as if the folds, the twists, the spirals finally found a home in Italy. About ten years ago, in an essay on contemporary Hungarian art, Júlia P. Szűcs commended my sculpture for what she termed its “Mediterranean elegance”. It would appear that the reception in professional circles and by the general public in Varese underscores the existence of this link. The effortlessness with which audiences took the validity of my work for granted is something I can only explain by some kind of deep-seated spiritual or intellectual connection.
My showing in Varese produced two tangible results. One is that the Provincia picked one of my sculptures for its permanent outdoor collection of contemporary art. The other is that the Spazio Lavit Gallery in Varese, which displayed some of my small sculptures, drawings and graphics, signalled its intention to continue working with me in the future.
MI: Looking back from this vantage point, one feels you have had a smooth career, from the early exhibitions through the apprentice years at the Beaux-Arts in Paris that you spent at the Atelier Gilioli, to the academic chair in Budapest. You have won all kinds of awards, commissions and recognition, in Hungary and around the world. What does success mean for a sculptor today?
ÁF: In a manner of speaking, sculpture is a business. The sculptor must sell work to be able to create new ones. Success is a natural source of energy, something that reconfirms one’s endeavours and opens doors. Yet it is important not to set your aims at success directly. If you court success, sooner or later you will lose yourself, lose your own way, and you will become a wage labourer. The goal of the creative process is always a specific sculpture, but the importance of each work only lasts as long as it is in progress. When it is finished, you become interested in a new project, you finish it, and so on. This larger process is really what makes up one’s career. A work is a self-contained entity from the inception through the maturation of the concept to the physical struggle with the material to completion – and it is at once a phase in the larger picture. Each phase has its own pitfalls and partial triumphs. I am fascinated by the anxiety I feel each time a new phase begins. My pulse quickens, and I am worried sick about where this is all going to end up. When you submerge yourself in creative work, you exit the temporal domain. You are no longer aware of the passage of time. You may have your conscious destinations as you go along, but it is not sure you are going to get there. You may end up in a totally different place, possibly a dead end, or at a gate that opens unto the unknown, or back where you started. For me, the choice of material is intimately tied in with the process of working that material. I love carving my way in stone. Physical work relaxes me, it dissolves some of the surplus anxiety. It assigns a rhythm and even a limit to the progress. The texture and attributes of matter are encoded in our subconscious knowledge. Wood, stone, iron, glass, textile, clay – you name it – each possesses its own potential storehouse of expression. This latent knowledge, which we all share, supplies a bridge or means of accessing the intellectual-spiritual content condensed in the sculpture.
MI: Your ceramic objects from your teens, if I recall your earliest work correctly, are characterised by the same organic forms as your semi-figurative nudes, or the twisted shapes of recent years, or your configuration series. The soft, polished surfaces are often cut by sharp angles and rough abrasions. Evidently, your work belongs in a great tradition evolving in the work of Hans Arp and Henry Moore or, to cite a famous Hungarian example, Miklós Borsos, and you prefer the hardest materials – granite, marble, metal – that require hard physical work before they are turned into a sculpture. Have you ever thought of using more malleable materials, of extending the organic principle to your materials of choice? How do you relate to different materials as a sculptor?
ÁF: I am attracted to the hardness of stone. It’s a dense material that will only allow dense, concise expression. I don’t see why we shouldn’t think of a fissure or wear in stone as being organic. The state of stone is one of the fundamental initial conditions of the organic totality that surrounds us. Broken down in a process determined by its inner structure, stone produces an incredibly plentiful array of minerals from which the living world springs forth. For me, stone plays a central role on a par with water and fire on the stage where we humans make an ephemeral appearance as ant-sized extras.
When it comes to bronze, I am not interested in its modelled-and-cast variety, but in the sanded and polished surface of the metal, because of the chiaroscuro effect. In sculpture, shadow is more important than light. Light only assumes primary significance when the material you work with is transparent or reflective. This is because light tends to dissolve mass visually. I find wood very alluring due to its warmth and ease of working, but its lack of permanence seriously limits its use in outdoor applications. Plastics are ticking time bombs. We don’t know their rate of degradation, or how much harm their residue could cause.
MI: You have many sculptures installed in various spaces, mostly outdoors where you had to take the setting into consideration and adapt to it in many ways. One of them, the Recsk detention camp memorial, stands out from the rest precisely because of its harshness and grittiness. What is the function of harmony and disharmony in your work?
ÁF: I believe that the harmony/discord scale is tipped toward the former in my work. This may have to do with the way I see the world. What I mean is that the Creator gave me senses that are receptive to the beauty of the world, its inexorable drive toward perfection. I can glimpse the beauty and creative logic even behind decay and pain. However, I realise there can be no harmony without disharmony, just as there is no light without darkness, heat without cold, near without far. Well, there may be, but there is certainly no tension, no energy without binary opposition, and therefore no material, no form, no structure, no system. Nor time. That’s what it must have been like before the Big Bang. Artistic expression basically amounts to the communication of intellectual or spiritual energy, which depends on the tension generated by contrasts. There are not many pre-meditated, calculated moves in the way I work. I just let things happen to forms. Let the forms come to life on their own, as it were. I enable the emergence of contrasts and reconciliations. Whatever the phenomenon, I want to see it have a perceptible tendency toward something, a sense of direction. Completion is good when it stops short of total closure. I think this is the hardest part of all: to leave the work complete but open-ended.
MI: There was a time you designed landscape sculpture projects, but not the kind of land-art, which relies on shocking contrast to the natural environment as a means of artistic effect.Why so? How have you been influenced by the perceived environment throughout your career? How would you reply today to the question whether the world lends itself to transformation – a question posed in one of your catalogues a long time ago? In more affluent countries, an architect can afford to play at being a sculptor. Conversely, do you think the sculptor can take on the land-transforming role of the architect?
ÁF: Let me answer that question by quoting a passage from my essay in progress.
You shift down the gears and drive up a steep serpentine road studded with hairpin curves. As you reach the pass, all of a sudden a vast vista unfolds before you of a hollow basin or a cluster of valleys hemmed by snowy peaks and crags in the distance. The spectacle dilutes your pupils and you are overcome by an eerie feeling. Your gaze races across the three-dimensional map, scanning the slopes dissected by patches of woods, pastures and plough fields, the villages snug in the folds of a valley and equipped with a celestial compass, and, finally, by way of completing the circle, tracing the zigzag silhouette of the mountain range as it clinches the horizon, here and there steeped in the advancing darkness. As you descend, perhaps a faint smile lights up on your face when you recognise the feeling of coming home welling up inside – the ineffable, enigmatic sense of an unknown familiarity.
What is this feeling? An illusion, perhaps? As you lose yourself in the spectacle, is it that the images reflected by the cornea smoulder below the threshold of consciousness as so many primordial symbols? As measures come to life, depth, height, length and width assume a tangible state; nearness and distance become palpable. The gaze surveys the three-dimensional space from the lofty arc described by the flight of a bird. The micro-voltage shock of time come alive is the price of the eye-adventure. The capacity to be framed in a gaze – the familiarity, the sense of near-certainty, the realisation that “it was once good to live here” – perhaps gives you a key to time itself. It may be the intangible shred of the past, whose volatility, whose fleeting character is precluded by the enormity and sheer realness of the landscape. If this is so, the very orbit of time will become enormous and tangibly real…
Let us go, then, and descend into this familiar yet unknown land. Let us try to decipher the messages hidden in the spectacle.
The first things that meet the eye are the geological foundation, the spatial structure, and the material make-up of the land – in this order. This is important, because the deeper layer of consciousness takes in the three dimensions of the land surface and instantly infers from them the genesis, dynamics and equilibrium of the tracts traversed by the gaze. These initial impressions unfold the proportions of the four primal elements relative to liveability and security.
The distant mountain ridge, be it barren or covered in snow, conveys a sense of shelter from the incursions of heavy storms and hordes unleashed by history. The wooded hillsides harbour the promise of timber and firewood. Further down below, pastures and hay fields trace the geological patterns of the slope. Decorated and rhythmically articulated by hay stacks, the landscape proffers increasingly pronounced signs of an ecology organised by human intervention. Even further downhill, the gaze reaches the village backyards, orchards, and, finally, a creek, or a string of plough fields stretching from one village to the next in a geometry perpendicular to the trend of the valley floor. As we descend from the indomitable, snowy peaks, the land becomes gradually tamed and civilised. And man, who lives in and on this land, uses, cultivates and sustains nature, just as he uses, cultivates and sustains himself.
I became interested in landscape as a spatial phenomenon in the 1970s. At the time, I was preoccupied with making space palpable and corporeal. I was also fascinated by the possibilities of interpreting the human body as a micro-landscape of sorts. I believe that my Ködkarcoló [“Fogscraper”] in Nagyatád and Kőesés [“Stonefall”] in Villány are my most worthy achievements in the field of land art. Although landscape as an inspiration crops up throughout my work, it was not until the turn of the millennium that I began to interrogate the possibilities of embracing and interpreting landscape on an aesthetic and philosophical plane. Today, I see much more clearly the reflection of our concept of space and of the past in the way we relate to a landscape.
This search for spaces and the past has been taking me to Transylvania, to the land of the Székelys. My research is in none other than future studies, really. I am seeking something deeply sustainable instead of chasing the illusion of “sustainable development”. But I am digressing from the domain of sculpture. What they call landscape rehabilitation could be an exciting task for me as a sculptor, and I hope it will be some day, but I am afraid Hungary will not get that far in my lifetime. Perhaps my students will be able to put some of my research results to good use.
MI: Now on to a touchy issue, about drawing as a discipline, which seems to have been sidelined at the Budapest University of Fine Arts for the past twenty to thirty years, including under your tenure as Provost. The prevailing view is that there is no need for conventional drawing from nature today, in the age of perfect reproduction technologies, and also that art, with a great century of abstraction behind it, has no business duplicating reality. Isn’t this a bit like a novelist or a poet refusing to learn how to read and write?
ÁF: Yes, it would sound quite like that. Except that drawing remains a core discipline that carries weight at the University of Fine Arts. Anatomical drawing, based on Jenő Barcsay’s method, is still compulsory for students majoring in graphic design, painting, sculpture and conservation. Drawing studies and figure drawing are required courses for painters and sculptors. In addition to drawing subjects taught at the Graphic Department, I make it a point to hold model drawing seminars for my own class. True enough, some majors, such as Intermedia or Art Theory, offer no drawing classes at all, and there may be a couple of professors on the faculty who consider drawing to be of secondary importance. But all in all, I daresay that there are few art universities in Europe that offer a drawing education as well-founded and substantial as ours.
MI: You are known for your dedicated involvement in building communities. In the village of Szentendre outside Budapest, you have managed to rally the artists for the common cause of holding regular exhibitions together. The group now has its own gallery. But do you really think that the concept of the artists’ colony, in the 19th century sense of the term, can continue into the 21st century?
ÁF:The Szentendre artists’ colony, in the old sense of the term, deserves to exist today, if only because the artist, generally speaking, is a lone creator who has no job or institutional affiliation. If he is lucky, he will have his friends and professional ties, but he is rarely if ever given the chance to find out how his ideas and undertakings stack up against the views and tastes of a community. Professional community relations have various degrees. The most common form is when friends and acquaintances team up to do a commission together. The next level is when we organise a collective exhibition. The third means periodic, localised group work focused on a specific theme or material. This is virtually the latter-day artists’ colony, where artists cohabit for weeks at a time. Being so close together offers the benefit of continuous professional dialogue and debate, which is obviously a form of training. It’s also a time for exchanging recipes, addresses, and tricks of the trade. In this day and age of the Internet, you could accomplish the same thing using a screen and a keyboard, but it would be different, in much the same way as live music is different from recorded music. I am talking about the magic of presence and individuality versus the irresponsibility of loneliness. At the University, we hang on to this very 19th-century method, and year in and year out, I have most of my students discover their own true vein at the colony.
MI: I have seen that you painted some of your latest sculptures with motifs very similar to the ones in the paintings of Anikó Rákosy. Are you influenced by your wife’s art? Is her painting influenced by yours? And any way, what does it mean when two artists share the same roof for decades?
ÁF: The ones you have seen are collaborations. We come up with the idea together, I sculpt the basic form, then Anikó comes in with her colours and motifs. I think she and I have a close affinity for each other’s art. These painted sculptures must be regarded as organic experiments of our being together. We have had a go at it, but I am not sure that the two different value systems have added up to a positive aggregate. We influence each other, to be sure, but not to the extent of nudging the other out of character. I hold Anikó’s painting in very high regard. It’s intense colourist painting of the highest order, with an impressive command of colours. At times, she can be astonishingly free. At other times, she will struggle with the painting a lot, and it’s all for the better when the painting wins.
We have lived together for 44 years. It’s like the re-crystallisation of granite…
MI: How do you define your own art against the new trends of the day? Where do you belong? What do you see coming your way in the near future?
ÁF: I don’t know how to align my work, because it will not fit any trend. The genres recognised as being popular at present include video, installation, political agenda, neo-figurative representation, possibly monumental high-tech. What I am searching for is yet without a name, although the term “energology” does come to mind.
For the trendy folk, this is boring “formal” art. On my part, I believe that forms invariably represent something, and that the act of forming and being formed always communicates with the ineffable meaning and energy of creation.
As long as I am in good enough shape, I will continue to undertake physical adventures as a sculptor. When I am not, but my mind is still sound, I will commit my ideas to paper in the hope that others may find them useful one day.
But to give away one specific detail, I can tell you that in two years, when I turn seventy, I might just have one large, lifetime achievement exhibition.
I would like to be cautious about making statements about my ambitions, though. The circumstances have a tendency to derail my plans, you see. I have just accepted a position to chair the Committee of Education, Training and Science of the Hungarian Academy of Arts. We are convinced that the impending reform of higher education makes it all the more urgent to extend to art education all the professional protection we can muster. Each of the eight divisions of the Academy has delegated a professor to the Committee. Our first and foremost task now is to alert legislators and the government to the unique demands of art education and training.
As permitted by these personal ambitions and official functions, I would like to spend as much time in Transylvania as I just can.
Translation by Péter Balikó Lengyel