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22 November 2019

"The whole world fits into his left hand…" – The Last Artistic Period of Béni Ferenczy

"'And yet I believe in the mission and greatness of art', Ferenczy wrote in the year he suffered a stroke. This creed is duly reflected by his performance as an afflicted artist. In the last reckoning, he succeeded in bringing worthy closure to an impressive oeuvre – not quite according to his original plans, but certainly in a way deserving our unconditional admiration."


I am Hungarian and live in Budapest, in recent years working mainly as an illustrator of books. I also paint and am fond of copper engraving and lithography. I would consider myself fortunate if, in the years I have left, I were granted the opportunity to bring completion and enrichment to my modest oeuvre, which I now see as fragmented by interruptions, cataclysm, war and misery.”

This is Béni Ferenczy writing in the spring of 1956, at the age of 66. What kind of plans did he have in mind? The question is rhetorical and likely destined to remain unanswered for good. Barely half a year after Ferenczy made this statement, a personal tragedy set conclusive limits to the continuation of his oeuvre. In November 1956 the artist suffered a stroke that paralysed his right side and robbed him of speech. Yet his sheer love of art and desire to create blazed a trail through his condition, and he eventually picked up his pencil. Using his clumsy left hand, he began to draw, paint and design pattern, his regained figurative idiom serving as somewhat of a proxy for the lost skill of verbal communication. The rebirth of his art is attested to by hundreds of drawings, watercolours, and nearly a score of works in small sculpture. The initially ham-fisted experiments were in due course followed by works on a par with his previous output. These products of Ferenczy’s last creative decade stand as an integral part and a worthwhile closure of his oeuvre.

How did Ferenczy’s career evolve? What niche had he come to occupy in Hungarian art before his life was fundamentally changed by an arterial blood clot in his brain? As members of a family of modern artists that is unique in Hungary, Ferenczy and his twin sister Noémi were born on 18 June 1890, in Szentendre. Their father, Károly Ferenczy was a founder and leader of the Nagybánya School. Their mother, Olga Fialka, an aspiring artist herself in her younger years, brought her extraordinary erudition and multilingualism not only to establishing the intellectual foundation of the Ferenczy family but also to the education of youths in town. The three Ferenczy siblings witnessed the fledging of modern Hungarian painting at the turn of the century. Having taken drawing classes with other students at the art school, they went on to study at major cultural centres in Europe. Valér, the oldest son, became a graphic artist and art critic specialising in copper engraving. Noémi chose the path of applied arts, making a name for herself as the reformer and leading figure of textile arts in Hungary. Béni himself, more interested in the plastic arts, mastered sculpture in Florence, Munich, and in Paris, where his work was advised by Bourdelle and Archipenko, among others.


Béni Ferenczy carving his statue Hercules. Nagybánya, 1916. FCSMA

Having completed his studies, Ferenczy began working in Budapest. He was one of the progressive artists carried away by the cultural revolution under the Hungarian Soviet Republic. His connections allowed him to actively participate in the comprehensive reform of the art scene and the development of a new art programme for the nation. After the fall of the Commune, he left Hungary to hunker down in Nagybánya in annexed Transylvania, then moved on to Vienna via Czechoslovakia. In the summer of 1921, he settled down in the Austrian capital, which became his home base for nearly two decades in emigration. However, the perennial scarcity of employment opportunities there forced him to interrupt his sojourn in Vienna on two occasions. In 1922–1923 he tried his luck in Berlin, a stronghold of artistic freedom and the European avant-garde at the time, but things did not work out for him. He ended up in Potsdam making marionette figures for a proposed puppet theatre. Finally, in 1923, before the birth of his second child, he returned to Vienna. His exhibition at the Sturm Galerie, the foremost venue showcasing German expressionism, opened in his absence.

The late 1920s saw the most intense period of his stay in Vienna. It was then that he finally managed to catch up with the Austrian art scene. In 1927, he was adopted a regular member of the Hagenbund. In the summer of 1931 he was among the most prominent modern artists showing their work at the Neue Galerie’s exhibition Österreichische und deutsche Gegenwartskunst. Undoubtedly, the single most important commission he won during this period was for the tomb of the famous expressionist painter Egon Schiele. Yet this streak of success did not last long. With his marriage to his Austrian wife capsized and orders petering out, in 1932 Ferenczy moved on once again, this time to the Soviet Union. Here, it was not long before he realised that Moscow was not the right territory for free artistic expression. Commissions were predominantly reserved for local artists, forcing him to make do with writing articles in art history on the intervention of János Mácza, who worked at the Academy of Architecture. Despite the hardship, Ferenczy’s stay in the Soviet Union was prolonged to three years on account of a new love affair. Soon after his arrival, he met Erzsébet Mária Plop, an old acquaintance also in the middle of divorce and a native of Nagybánya, who had known the Ferenczy family since she was a girl. The shared memories easily put the two on the same wavelength, and they married a few months later. “I am a ‘husband’ once again, but in a different way – a better husband, you know”, the artist wrote to his twin and his friends. By the time he returned to Vienna, in 1935, he had been seriously entertaining the idea of repatriating to Hungary – something he had never doubted would eventually happen. He had always made it a point to maintain intimacy with the cultural life in Hungary. He had had his works featured regularly at exhibitions in Budapest, joined new artist associations, and enriched private collections in Hungary by several sculptures and numismatic works. After a few years spent commuting between Vienna and Budapest, Ferenczy was finally granted permanent Hungarian residency in 1938, the year of the Anschluss. During the war he mainly worked in small sculpture and medals. Under the Nazi occupation in 1944, he and his wife Erzsi gave shelter to Jewish children, for which they were awarded the title Righteous Among the Nations in 1990.

Wartime Budapest nurtured a friendly circle of intellectuals whose members would attain influential positions in the cultural scene evolving after 1945. Some of them would be appointed to the Hungarian Art Council, while others joined the faculty of the reorganised College of Fine Arts. The latter included Aurél Bernáth, Pál Pátzay, János Kmetty, Róbert Berény, Jenő Barcsay and, last but not least, Béni Ferenczy himself. Getting down to work with redoubled energy and great resolve, these artists almost invariably felt liberated by what happened in the country and looked to the years ahead with unbridled optimism. They had all the reason in the world to trust in a bright future, given that the reform of the College was based on officially recognised university status, institutional autonomy and academic freedom. Indeed, the period that followed brought plenty of work and travel opportunities for Ferenczy.


Standing Young Girl, 1927. Cast stone, 109 cm, Hungarian National Gallery

This privileged situation did not last forever, though. One of the first recipients of the Kossuth Prize (1948), Ferenczy soon found himself marginalised. The College of Fine Arts was subsumed under the Ministry, which promptly adopted standardised regulations applicable to all institutions of higher education in keeping with Stalinist principles. A syllabus revamped on the Soviet model was introduced, restoring the educational methods of the previous century and introducing positive discrimination benefiting working-class applicants. Ferenczy opposed both the reform and the demands for Socialist Realism in the arts, becoming one of the first artists to draw ire from the Communist leadership. Before long, in the fall of 1949, he was dismissed from his college position. Suddenly short on sculpture commissions, he switched to book illumination to make a living. Nevertheless, he brought the same hallmark enthusiasm and artistic touch to bear on his new job, coerced as he was to accept it. During the period of relaxation after Stalin’s death in 1953, Ferenczy began to receive commissions once again, which enabled him to embark on projects whose sheer scale would have made them inconceivable in the shadow of totalitarian dictatorship.


Béni Ferenczy and his statue Miklós (photo by László Várkonyi), 1946, FCSMA

It was roughly at this point in his career – one of over a half century that had already produced an outstanding oeuvre by the highest European standards – when what remained of the artist’s life was permanently shrouded in the tragic occurrence on that day in autumn. A progressive spirit in youth, always searching for new ways of expression and experimenting with the techniques of the avant-garde, Ferenczy entered his mature period with a predilection for reviving archaic principles of sculpture, focusing on problems of plasticity. The resulting works in and of themselves conveyed harmony and ancient Greek ideals without being bogged down in a sheer imitation of Antiquity. Indeed, Ferenczy as a sculptor is closely related to the Mediterranean-inspired Classicism of Aristide Maillol and Charles Despiau, one of the most influential trends in modern French sculpture. First and foremost, Ferenczy was a sculptor, although he also stands as a seminal figure of Hungarian medal art whose distinctive plaquettes and medals played a major role in the rejuvenation of the genre in Hungary. Additionally, he is remembered as a gifted graphic artist, illustrator, and an eminently erudite writer on art. Regardless of his reception by the powers that be – by turns one of recognition and censure – his stature in the Hungarian cultural scene has always remained uncontested.

 

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23 October 1956 marked the outbreak of Hungary’s war of independence against Soviet occupation. Béni Ferenczy, a friend of Imre Nagy, the head of the revolutionary government, followed events filled with hope. To what extent the upheaval and the subsequent repression of the Revolution played a role in his stroke is impossible to say, although it does seem certain that the artist’s health reacted readily to historic trauma; in 1944, for example, he had suffered a cardiac arrest during the German occupation. Pertinently, according to the testimony of his physician István Környei, the stroke occurred on 5 November, the day after Russian troops moved in, relegating him to a year and two months in hospital with his wife moving into his ward. The event left him instantly and permanently paralysed in his entire right side, and progressively reduced his ability to speak to a handful of muttered words. For a long time, his friends had doubts about the extent of the damage to his intellect, about how much really remained of his true self in a body trapped in silence. In time, however, it became clear that the master was capable of receiving the fleeting signals of the world around him. His comprehension of speech good as new, he would listen to radio broadcasts in Hungarian, German, Italian, English and French. He followed with alert interest not only daily conversation but also lofty discourse and readings of literary works during a gathering, responding vividly to news of momentous events and new accomplishments in art.

But his impaired speech and comprehension of the written word proved final. The motor aphasia attending his stroke did not improve, despite a consistent therapy of exercises in speech and writing. Even though he did show some progress in text comprehension, he remained forever unable to express himself verbally or in writing, barring a few simple words. His vocabulary was confined to a few dozens of mono- or duosyllables: yes, no, c’mon, never, good, oh, ouch, this, that, here, there, but, so, now, fine. Sometimes, a longer phrase, perhaps a name, would abruptly leave his lips, usually without any context. Yet soon enough, he put this extremely limited vocabulary to use expressing a range of complex meanings by applying variations in emphasis, stress, elongation and tone. In this way, aided by non-verbal means and proceeding in a guesswork question-and-answer fashion, he developed an ever more functional form of communicating with his wife and, to a lesser degree, with his friends. Most importantly, the language of visual expression never deserted him. While still in hospital, Ferenczy undertook the painstaking work that would last a year and lead to his resurrection as an artist. After the stroke, as a dominant right-handed man, he had to relearn the basics of artistic creation from the ground up. His experiments in the left hand proved promising. The initial chaos on paper slowly gave way first to recognisable forms, then to more than appreciable sketches and watercolours.


Rider with Angel (after Eugène Delacroix). Watercolour on paper, 289 x 198 mm, FCSMA

Starting in the second half of the 20th century, the pathology of artists increasingly came into focus. An interesting and relevant chapter in the literature on artists with neurological impairment is devoted to hemiplegic artists whose work often traces the process of their own rehabilitation. Ferenczy’s neurologist, István Környei, held his inaugural lecture at the Hungarian Academy of Science, in 1974, on the subject of his patient’s evolution as an artist after the stroke. The case study of the Hungarian sculptor became a reference in a special field of universal neurobiology. Studies written on the subject since have demonstrated certain regularities in the ways the work of artists change after a stroke. A brain catastrophe may affect the right or the left hemisphere, and the resultant paralysis or numbness of the limbs invariably occurs on the opposite side. Artists with a stroke affecting the right hemisphere suffered an impairment of parts of their nervous system responsible for visual skills, including spatial perception, and this left an indelible mark on their art. The patient with a right-hemisphere stroke fails to process visual information present in the left side of his field of vision. This often manifests itself in the fragmentation, blurring or, occasionally, the total absence of the subject on the left. Such “experiments” may be useful for the art historian, but can by no means be regarded as the true implementation of the artist’s intent. By contrast, a stroke in the left hemisphere of the brain tends to damage verbal comprehension and expression, without entirely preventing the artist from continuing his oeuvre. Clearly falling into this latter category, Ferenczy sustained a trauma principally affecting his capacity of speech, while he managed to hang on to some of his creative prowess. Környei deemed Ferenczy’s artistic recovery as by and large convincing. In the course of therapy, it became obvious that the sculptor’s creative intellect, spiritual self, and internal vision had not been severed from the real world, although deprivation of a kind remained evident in the impairment of his ability to communicate verbally. Despite these physical hindrances, his brain mechanisms and optical perception emerged sufficiently unscathed for the master to make artistic decisions without the aid of words ultimately to convey his thoughts and deepest self to the world outside in the form of visually appreciated works of art. The truth of Környei’s appraisal is corroborated by the masterpieces Ferenczy executed using his left hand only.

 

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During the first years of recovery, Ferenczy found the main path to artistic rehabilitation through making copies, in pencil, ballpoint pen or watercolour, of well-known compositions by past masters such as Rembrandt, Delacroix and Michelangelo. Typically, he would not use reproductions but relied on his extraordinary visual memory, essentially preferring reinterpretation to sheer imitation, here and there adding his own unique flavours to the recipe. In addition to the classics, he had a fondness for invoking French masters of the 19th and 20th centuries. One of the pet models of his left-handed period was Honoré Daumier, whom Ferenczy declared to be the greatest illustrator, apart from Rembrandt, in his 1954 book on book illumination. The snarled line of the French caricaturist came handy as a feature of technique in the work of the inadvertently left-handed Ferenczy, who turned it to his advantage in the process of distilling his new style.

Before long, his hesitant, fractured lines acquired a measure of ease, and the first compositions genuinely of his own quickly followed. The living world surrounding him, now confined to narrow limits, became a recurrent theme of his drawings and watercolours: jolly companies conversing, sharing a drink, playing music; still lifes with flowers; occasionally, on the off chance, even a sketchy but expressive portrait.


Plein air, ballpoint pen and watercolour on paper, 196 x 296 mm, FCSMA

The flower still lifes, with their vibrant colours, are emblematic of Ferenczy’s left-handed period, if only because a bouquet of fresh flowers – in the company of art albums – was always found at his bedside in hospital, or later brought to his home by a steady stream of friends and visitors. This type of work undoubtedly gave Ferenczy more leeway than the reinterpretation of existing masterpieces, and it did not serve the overt purposes of communication like some of the figurative drawings did. In this way, the floral still life provided Ferenczy with genuine art therapy by allowing him to embrace the unadulterated experience of creation, to delight in the beauty of nature and, through paintings, to delight others therein. Precisely for this reason, this genre was arguably the one in which he felt most liberated from the beauty ideal of his mature period. While the pre-stroke watercolours are characterised by a restraint with colour typical of sculptors, the colour treatment of his still lifes is bolder, more amenable to experimentation.

Ferenczy’s literary friends intervened on behalf of the couple to help alleviate their financial difficulties by securing regular publication opportunities for his left-handed drawings in various periodicals. This usually meant intertextual drawings without a predetermined subject, although Ferenczy also accepted illustration tasks from time to time. Of particular personal relevance to the artist was an assignment to illuminate Gábor Tolnai’s book Itália dicsérete (In Praise of Italy).

The sculptor had offered Tolnai his drawings made in Italy back in the early 1950s, but the completion of the book dragged on for many years, and by the time it was accepted for publication, Ferenczy’s life had changed utterly. When the manuscript was read to him by his wife after his stroke, memories of his own trip to Italy in 1947–1948 came flooding back to him. He asked for pencil and paper, and would only draw Italy” for days on end. The imprints of the artist’s laser-sharp visual memory were the wonder of many, including friends flocking in from far away. Ferenczy took advantage of his rare talent as an illustrator in daily situations as well. When someone in the company came up with a visually inspiring topic, Ferenczy would grab a pen and actively join the discussion by raising a drawing instead of putting in a word edgeways. Miklós Hubay, returning from his trip to Mexico, gave the Ferenczys a detailed account of his experiences there; the artist kept track of the thrilling narrative by making sketches. Finally, the writer’s report on bullfights in Mexico was published with illustrations by Ferenczy, as an equal-footed dialogue between text and image.


Still Life with Flower Pot on the Patio. Watercolour on paper, 443 x 372 mm, FCSMA

Perusing Ferenczy’s left-handed works it is immediately apparent that, after the stroke, he embarked on the road of artistic recovery with enormous verve, and that it was relatively quickly – in barely over a year – that he managed to attain to the quality imbuing his finer works for the rest of his life. In portraits, he maintained his grasp on the character of his subject, and his handling of spatial perspective remained undistorted. What difference can be glimpsed compared to his previous periods mostly consists of a shift in style and thematic preference. Yet recuperation proceeded in fits and starts, with superb and inferior performance alternating during his last decade. The intent trapped in the muted body did not always break through. Lame attempts would give way to genuine masterpieces, and vice versa, often overnight.


Golden Age, 1959. Bronze, 46 cm, Hungarian National Gallery

 

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My name is Béni Ferenczy. I am a sculptor.” These are the opening words of a self-introduction written in 1956 by the master who, while giving flashes of his remarkable talent in a wide range of art genres throughout his career, always cleaved most passionately to the plastic arts, in the narrower sense of the term. After his catastrophic brain injury, however, it was a long and arduous road back to sculpture. He had had to make many a pen drawing and watercolour before he reached for the modelling clay and the wooden modelling tool in his closet. This stands to reason given that modelling a plastic material presupposes physical fitness and manual work to a far greater extent than does painting or drawing. Ferenczy’s ability to resume his creative work in sculpture at all must be seen as a great victory in and of itself, even though the rehabilitation of his plastic skills was to remain partial to the end. The paralysis of his right side forced him to renounce precision work so dear to him, such as that required by executing medals or plaquettes. Nor was he able to perform the finalising touches on cast bronze statues without help a phase of work that had always had a distinguished place in his process. Moreover, he had no choice but to narrow down the range of his diverse media. For instance, the simultaneous use of mallet and chisel proved an insurmountable challenge for his solitary left hand, leaving Ferenczy without the option of working in wood or stone. The only material now available to him was soft clay, but even this easily worked medium did not yield readily to the sculptor. Built from small lumps kneaded with a single hand, the statues needed a wire mesh frame, and the larger ones demanded more strength than the artist was able to marshal. These stages of the work were assisted by former disciples based on the master’s instructions and sketches. It was also former students of his who applied the final polish to the new small sculptures.


Boys at Play, 1947. Bronze, 52.5 cm, Hungarian National Gallery


Standing Boy, 1963. Bronze, 137 cm, Hungarian National Gallery


Torso of Standing Nude Boy, 1962. Bronze, 28 cm, FCSMA

All of this raises the question of the extent to which the quality of Ferenczy’s new plastic
work was influenced by the hands of others. All things considered, one might say that those helping hands may have left their mark on the character of the finished works, but the end results must without a doubt be regarded as realisations of the ageing master’s compositional and artistic ideas. Tamás Vígh was responsible for making the frame of small statues based on Ferenczy’s sketches on paper and in clay, and after the rough was laid on, the final shape of the statue was given by Ferenczy himself. In the laying of larger clay models, the artist had relied on the help of his students even before his illness, but their contribution to the overall concept of the finished work had never exceeded what would have been taken for granted by masters, disciples, workshops and ateliers over millennia of art history. Clearly, the perfect implementation of the artist’s intent now would have required not only precise instructions on his part but the work of his own two hands. In the absence of the latter, the statues from this last, left-handed period do bear certain symptoms of handicap, yet in terms of chosen themes they achieve an impressively close fit with the oeuvre on the whole. Specifically, they retain the two motifs that had persisted through Ferenczy’s mature period as a sculptor: the figure of the fragile young boy and the muscular female nude.

Ferenczy first retried his hand at modelling in 1958, portraying in clay a young boy in a slightly awkward, aloof standing posture. It is known that the artist, intensely self-critical by habit, was dissatisfied with the result so badly that he suspended his experiments for quite a while. Nearly a year passed before Ferenczy made another attempt at modelling a statue, but the outcome this time was anything but scrap. His small statue that became known by the title of Aranykor (Golden Age, 1959) was obviously suitable for being shown as the first piece of evidence for the master’s resurrection as a sculptor. The small statue portrays an urchin of a boy balancing his nude body on a bare tree branch. The figure, exquisitely executed in terms of anatomy, is marked by the rigorous structure and well-thought-out composition typical of Ferenczy, while being lighter of feet, somehow airier, almost floating, than his previous work. This clearly confessional statuette conveys the artist’s struggle and desire to regain the full capacity of movement. As he searches for equilibrium on the tree branch, the child figure seeks a grip with his left hand and leg, while raising his right limbs – those Ferenczy himself had paralysed – to the sky. Yet this struggle is presented without any tragic overtones. The futility of the effort is upstaged by a sense of serenity, the prevailing joy of life that looms large in the entire oeuvre, relegating innermost despair to the level of subtle allusion here as elsewhere in Ferenczy’s work.

It is hardly coincidental that Ferenczy chose the figure of the fragile adolescent boy as the vehicle of his confessions as a sculptor. The nude boy had been one of his recurrent motifs since the late 1910s, and became pervasive in the 1930s. Apart from the massive female nudes inspired by his wife, the figure of the solitary boy evolved into the central theme of his mature period. The model was the son of his second wife Erzsi from her previous marriage, who had been left behind in the Soviet Union. The loss of Miklós, or Nikola as he was also called, along with the premature death of Mátyás, Ferenczy’s son from his first marriage, undoubtedly made a contribution to the theme of the forlorn, fragile boy. However, the figure of the adolescent, originally gaining poignancy from personal tragedy, soon shook itself free of memories to claim a life of his own as a sort of interiorised self-portrait. It was by carrying forward this motif that Ferenczy created what is widely regarded as a tour de force of his mature period, known today as Játszó fiúk (Boys at Play). This group of compositions was heavily influenced by the early works of the artist’s father, Károly Ferenczy, notably by his painting Kődobálók (Boys Throwing [actually skipping] Stones). The tone of subdued reverie characterising the father’s paintings makes an unmistakable reappearance in the son’s rendition of melancholic, self-absorbed youths with typically sloping shoulders.

More than just a constant theme in Ferenczy’s oeuvre, then, the lonesome boy became a focal concern in his left-handed period as a sculptor. In the 1960s, it returned mainly in the form established earlier. Following a number of versions, the standing nude boy achieved its crystallised implementation in a work made in 1962 through 1963: the only large statue of the left-handed period, assisted by Tamás Vígh. Ferenczy’s former student prepared the frame and applied the rough clay on it based on a small statuette from 1962, with Ferenczy himself adding the final touches and assuming charge of finishing the surface. The statue was unveiled in 1977 as part of a fountain structure on the corner of Váci and Kígyó Streets in downtown Budapest. Beyond a doubt on a par with the major works of the mature period, this statue can be regarded as the summation of the artist’s credo. In its general mood, the lonesome, melancholy boy staring into space at his feet is akin to the confessional portrayals of young boys rooted in Ferenczy’s paternal heritage and further shaped by personal tragedy. The stature and weighty limbs of the Standing Boy exemplify the proportions honed by Ferenczy in his mature period, while the contrapposto and the tree trunk supporting the weight-bearing leg, reminiscent of Roman marble statues, symbolically harks back to the early chapters of European sculpture.


Atalanta, 1937. Bronze, 36 cm, Hungarian National Gallery

In short, the adolescent of the fountain in Kígyó Street carries forward the theme of the introverted vita contemplativa type familiar from the younger Ferenczy, in contrast to the open, extroverted movement of the boys in his last years, radiating an overriding relish of life, the carefree pleasures of childhood. The Standing Boy of 1966, albeit closely related to the Miklós-statues of the 1930s in structure, is not a lonely, abandoned figure anymore, but a youth stepping forward with an arm stretched out, as if greeting someone dear to him not seen for a long time. Conceivably, Ferenczy may have intended the statue as a memento of the joyous meeting between Erzsi and her son Nikola, who in the summer of 1956 – by then a full-grown man of 24 – showed up on her mother’s doorstep to become a regular visitor in Budapest ever since.

Ferenczy’s other favourite subject, the female nude, also retained its privileged status in his left-handed period. The figure of the powerful, heavily built woman, inspired by his wife, had first appeared in the work in the second half of the 1930s, during the first years of Ferenczy’s mature period, and remained a staple of his oeuvre till the end. Erzsi’s ample, feminine body, well-marked features and short-cropped hair are echoed in the robust, Michelangelesque female figures sculpted by the artist, each caught in the act of a gesture that is seemingly random but actually composed with the utmost care.

Ferenczy’s female statues from the 1960s lack none of the power of the masterpieces of his pre-stroke mature period. They are characterised by the same subtle, sensitive approach to modelling and purposeful composition that became the artist’s signature in the 1930s and 40s. Indeed, the sheer bulk of his female figures, variously shown sitting, standing or undressing, with their unrealistically thick ankles and wrists and their consciously modified build, is a key motif in Ferenczy. The carefully calibrated distortions compared to the anatomically intact, precise body had been developed through a long career in art, and the results applied consistently in the new work as well. For instance, Ferenczy long sought the definitive anatomic traits of youth, which he finally identified in the proportions afforded by a slim waist, heavy limbs and taut breasts suspended high up on the torso.

Albeit the female nudes of the left-handed period represent several types, each of them, without exception, can be paired with analogies from the artist’s pre-stroke mature period, as if he intended to refine those earlier examples. In his creative strategy as well, he followed the tried and true methods of his healthy self. In 1965, he made a torso version of his Female Nude from the year before, now bereft of arms. In fact, Ferenczy had practiced this technique of reinterpreting his own work since the late 1930s, the end result invariably turning out to be a new, independent work freed from the shackles of the full-figured renditions that served as the starting point. Like the torsos of Aristide Maillol and Charles Despiau, Ferenczy’s first truncated figures resemble the standing nude of the left-handed period insofar as they constitute a complete unit or a “final, conclusive aesthetic given” in which the part stands for the whole, without the “mutilation” of the subject arousing a sense of something missing. His Draped Female Torso from the 1960s, during his left-handed period, is a fine example of this metonymic type of representation. It shows massive Antique influence without coming across as fragmented in any way: It is a complete, finished work in its own right.

Beside the harmonious variations on themes familiar from Antiquity, elevated to an autonomous, modern art from, Ferenczy’s language, while operating on the same principles, also gave birth to a new torso type. Most of the ones from the mid-1950s were guided by more than just formal considerations. The torso version of his Prodigal Son exhibits truncation as a feature of positive expressive force, amplifying the already strong emotional charge inherent in the shape. Likewise, the absence of limbs enhances the sense of pain and vulnerability in the statue titled Caritas. The female figure extending help to the needy is rendered, paradoxically, without limbs – without the instruments of action. In a tragically ironic twist, this newly introduced torso type soon became emblematic of the artist’s own infliction. One of Ferenczy’s most awkward and at once most heart-rending works is a small statuette from 1962, depicting the torso of a tormented, ageless male body. The figure stands in a narrow straddle, tilts his head slightly to the left just like the Prodigal Son of 1956, and has his arms missing. In this work, no trace is to be found of Ferenczy’s optimism and boundless joy of life. The mutilated male stands as the enactment of the artist’s personal tragedy, whose sheer existence attests to the fact that, in the year of its creation, Ferenczy had not yet come to terms with the newly assigned limits to his life. In stark contrast to this emblem of dejection, as already mentioned, the sculptures of the last years do not convey a modicum of the drama, the trials imposed by disease. The small-scale statue Farewell, from the year before the artist’s death, invites us with childlike sincerity to share in the acquiescence of an incapacitated sculptor, who nevertheless found fullness through his art.


Béni Ferenczy modelling clay (photo by Károly Gink), 1966, FCSMA

As Ferenczy slowly regained some of his plastic skills through his marvellous resilience, he must have grown less and less immune to the yearning to revisit his pet genres of medals and plaquettes, at least for one last time. A number of his left-handed drawings bequeathed to us contain compositions framed in a jagged circle or a quadrangle clearly resembling designs for medals or plaquettes. Ferenczy even designed a grave-marker with a bas-relief motif in which the epitaph is spelled out by a random sequence of real and fictive letters. These works survive to suggest that the artist, deprived of his right hand, nurtured a flicker of the hope in his eventual recovery to the end of his life. In this precise regard, his creative desire certainly had the power to overrule the helplessness of medical science.

 

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The literature of his day routinely declined to undertake a thorough examination of Ferenczy’s left-handed period. Although commentators did touch on his resuscitated powers of creation, they only did so in passing. Ferenczy’s left-handed works were mentioned in studies mainly on account of their heroic implications. The general reverence for the ageing, afflicted sculptor prevented any critical analysis of his post-stroke work in his lifetime. The impairment in the quality of the late works, created as they were by an untrained, shaky left hand, is an incontestable fact, as is the diminution of the arsenal of techniques available to the artist. It is therefore important to ask, above all, what is the correct angle to take on such a period confined by an irreversible condition, which befell the artist after nearly half a century’s worth of creative output. Obviously, the right approach is one with reservations and due consideration of the circumstances in which these late works were born. As Gyula Illyés pointed out, Ferenczy’s imagination, manifested through the enormous struggle involved in working with one hand, “left us works that are valuable but begging to be judged by their own special aesthetic merit”.

The number of works dating from Ferenczy’s left-handed period runs to the hundreds, in part due to the vastly more time now available to him for creative pursuits, and in part simply to the absence of selection. The range of activities he could still practice was essentially limited to perusing art albums, listening to music, and receiving visitors most of the time. Yet in the midst of this drastically reduced pool of choices, there was always the opportunity to create, and he did, tirelessly. In this period of the artist’s life, drawing served the purposes of both therapy and communication, which makes it very likely that not every work created around this time was motivated by specific artistic intent. It was Erzsi, Ferenczy’s wife, who saw to it that her husband have everything in place to answer a call of inspiration; it was she who pressed the pencil in his hand and egged him on to relearn his skills. She was also instrumental in preserving the works and seeing them to publication, as well as in having the statues cast in noble materials. Naturally, the devoted wife saw precious value in anything her husband came up with. Unlike her, Ferenczy himself – and this is a fact we know from various memoirs – was often critical and doubtful about his own work, and would not show just anything he did even to his friends, if he could help it. However, there are certain circumstances that can be interpreted without reservations as signs of the artist’s own acceptance. They include drawings published and/or submitted to exhibitions in Ferenczy’s lifetime, in whose selection he obviously had a say as the artist in full possession of his mental capacities, as well as the drawings and paintings he gave to his friends as gifts. Surely none of these had been intended for the waste basket! This category of works found adequate by Ferenczy himself further includes the handful of statues he produced after his stroke. This is because a sculpture in progress, by virtue of the techniques involved, keeps open the possibility of extended contemplation and correction. Unlike an ink drawing which, once botched, is beyond repair, a project in clay, if kept sufficiently moist, provides the maker with the opportunity of a prolonged work process.

 

*

 

Not only did the ailing Ferenczy manage to consolidate his formerly shaky position in the Hungarian art scene at the cost of heroic effort, but his career, severely delimited by his condition as it was, went on a sort of march of triumph. The mute and hemiplegic artist, mostly reduced to painting floral still lifes and classicist compositions, no longer presented a threat in the eyes of art policy makers, nor did anyone feel inclined to make demands on him. It is little wonder, then, that he earned recognition of his oeuvre precisely during this period. Apart from the award of the highest decorations and the putting up of some of his former works in public spaces and cemeteries, a string of comprehensive exhibitions dedicated to the artist were held in Hungary and abroad, with the works of the most recent years among those on display.


Béni Ferenczy with his statue Farewell,(photo by Edit Molnár, MTI), 1966, FCSMA

The tragedy and near-miraculous artistic recovery of the widely venerated sculptor achieved “exultation to symbolic status” among the artists of the era, particularly in literary circles. The majority of Ferenczy’s friends were writers and poets, and most of them remained part of the couple’s life after the affliction of the artist. Their loyalty had more than a little to do with Ferenczy’s captivating aura of subdued greatness that he continued to radiate even as an invalid man as well as to the constant presence of Erzsi, his wife and a sort of antipode to him with her powerful, passionate character. While in the 1950s Ferenczy had made portraits of his newfangled literary friends, now his figure became a theme for them in turn. As the devastating stroke occurred roughly simultaneously with the national tragedy of the crushed Revolution, Ferenczy’s contemporaries came to regard his fate as the projection of the nation’s destiny. The sculptor’s courage in the face of an impasse in life gave a measure of hope to the writers silenced and driven into the internal exile of inaction after the events of 1956. As a result, by the late 1950s, the ageing master had become the muse for a number of preeminent figures in Hungarian literature. He made an appearance in confessional recollections in verse and prose by Gyula Illyés, László Nagy and Sándor Weöres. His influence on a handful of writers and poets, in particular Miklós Hubay, Ferenc Juhász and János Pilinszky, was so profound that his person, an object of almost religious veneration, became an inevitable point of reference in their works. Mátyás Domokos describes his acquaintance of Ferenczy as a formative tryst with greatness that would cast a light on his life till the end. Miklós Hubay used simpler but all the more effective words to convey the personal magic of the artist: All who had the good fortune to know him consider themselves happy for it. So do I.”

Working under the constant support and encouragement of a loving wife and a host of friends, the ailing artist was followed with keen attention by an entire nation. Whenever an exhibition showcasing his work opened, the major papers would visit his studio to report on-site on his current state of health and changed circumstances. We must credit the tender loving care of Erzsi and the sustaining power of his own creative impetus for Ferenczy’s ability to work for more than a decade longer, using his left hand only, to enrich posterity with a set of objects unique in Hungarian art. He took farewell of this life on earth in the eleventh year of his illness.

And yet I believe in the mission and greatness of art”, Ferenczy wrote in the year he suffered a stroke. This creed is duly reflected by his performance as an afflicted artist. In the last reckoning, he succeeded in bringing worthy closure to an impressive oeuvre – not quite according to his original plans, but certainly in a way deserving our unconditional admiration.

(The present study is the English translation of an abridged version of the introduction to a book published privately in 2017 Balkezében is elfér a világ” – Ferenczy Béni utolsó alkotókorszaka /edited and with an introduction by Dorottya Gulyás/. Budapest, Ferenczy Family Art Foundation /FCSMA/, 2017. ISBN 978-963-12-9884-0.)

Translation by Péter Balikó Lengyel


 

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