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  • Writer's picture Kester Eddy

An exhibition about exhibitions? – In case you think that's odd, you would not be alone

Updated: Oct 12, 2023

Artists are free, right? Free to paint reality as they see it. Well, an exhibition now on in Budapest puts the mockers on that idea. Art historian Daniel Véri, with helpers, has spent seven years getting this show up and running, during which time he unpacked a collection of paintings that had not seen the light of day for more than four decades. It was an art historian's heaven – heaven about hell, that is.

Photo: Hungary's very own Jackson Pollock! It may seem incongruous, to say the least, having an 'idealistic' family image in a work of art on the Holocaust - happy families is not what one usually associates with names like Bergen-Belsen, Dachau and Treblinka. This is only one element of a giant work by György Konecsni: Liberation (A Man, a Woman, their Child, and the Dove of Peace) Felszabadulás (Férfi és nő gyerekkel és békegalambbal) - 1965

The paintings that Daniel Véri unearthed were the remnants of exhibitions, supported by the state, supposedly depicting the Hungarian Holocaust, and displayed in Auschwitz in 1960 and 1965. They were paintings that had been packed away, poorly labelled and forgotten about. I'm not going to go into a long review of this show, because I've already done that in a recent Budapest Business Journal – see:

However, I didn't have space in that piece to talk about all I wanted to, including the painting above, and it's significance.

The first incongruity, as Véri endearingly puts it, is that these exhibitions were “not exactly about the memory of the Holocaust”.

Not that the word 'Holocaust' was really used back then, especially not in Hungary. Rather, they were about “an anti-fascist historical narrative, meaning very long and great historical narrative, starting from the Hungarian Republic of Councils, or the Hungarian Soviet Republic of 1919, and that early post-war period, in that period of building socialism,” he explains.

As far as the idealogues were concerned, the Holocaust was only one episode in this. So, in Véri's assessment, “what was important for the commissioners was not exactly the victims' experiences or perspectives, because they could have hired Holocaust survivor artists for this job, but they did not. They were rather interested in visualizing this anti-fascist narrative, meaning a focus on resistance, anti-fascism and within the anti-fascist resistance, the role of communists back then, who were considered predecessors and a source of legitmisation for the then Communist leadership of the country”.

But what of the monster work by György Konecsni, consisting of 40 60cm by 60 cm panels, 3 metres by 4.8 metres in total, and its curious, one-panel, happy-family centrepiece?

(Which, by Véri's reckoning, is “the greatest painting of our exhibits” - at least “if you don't take into account the whole context, the commission and the depiction versus the experience in Auschwitz”.)

“These were painted with the panels lying on the floor with dripped paint, a la [pioneering US expressionist painter] Jackson Pollock and abstract expressionism ... what we can see is that the artist, to get the jury's approval, inserted, on top of the whole thing, the figurative motives, but first, he created the whole abstract, expressionist background,” Véri concludes.

The reason for this tactic is because abstract painting was a very definite no-no in Communist thinking, but Konecsni was interested in exactly this. So to comply with his commission and get it past the censors, he created the 'happy family' panel entirely separately and even on different paper, before gluing it on top.

Some might say a typical Magyar ruse.

Asked if the current exhibition teaches us as much about the political situation in Hungary in the 1960s as it does about the Holocaust, Véri replied: “Yes, very much so, … or even more.”

Commissioned Memory - Hungarian Exhibitions in Auschwitz, 1960/1965, runs from September 14 – December 3, 2023, in the Blinken OSA Archivum, Galeria Centralis, Arany János utca 32, 1051 Budapest.

ADDENDUM: I was kind of intrigued by the name of Konecsni, as it doesn't sound very Hungarian, and googling him it seems he was born in Kiskunmajzsa, a small town way down south, about 25 km from Szeged. No ethnicity other than Magyar seems to be mentioned.

However, György Konecsni seems to have been a very prolific artist - and I was suprised to find one of his most notable creations has already appeared in a post on this blog - as KesterTester48, in August 2021 - see:

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