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17 March 2012

Art Lives!

In Memoriam Tamás Körösényi Sculptor – (18 February 1953 – 25 June 2010)


Hello, this is Tamás Körösényi”, he would say on the phone, quietly but firmly, always a bit in a hurry. He had something to tell me quickly: about his plans, exhibitions, publications, assignments for his students. He would ask me for assistance with one thing or another: a preface to a catalogue, help in selecting works, advice, or simply a piece of information. I was always pleased to respond and to participate, because working with him was a pleasure. Tamás had a unique sense for objects of art. Every time we would enter an overcrowded museum storeroom, I would despair, but he would light up. Even if he had never been there before, he would take a look around and know immediately where to go. He would lean down and from the depths of the bottom shelf would pull out something, a sculpture or just a piece of one, dust it off, lift it up – and it was immediately clear that, yes, this piece was precisely the one we needed, the very reason we had come down into the gloomy basement of the National Gallery or had traveled out to the town of Vác. He had a profound and essential experience with human culture in its broadest sense: from ancient idols to current daily newspapers, from writings on aesthetics to puns. He would travel hundreds of kilometres to view a newly excavated archeological relic; to him, even imprinted bricks from a demolition site represented works of art. He was inspired by Giacometti and Messerschmidt, he admired Carl André and Matthias Braun alike. An artist sees things differently than an art historian does. The latter generally sees works of art as part of a larger whole, and seeks that which connects them. This, in fact, is the art historian’s primary duty; all else follows from this. What the artist has, on the other hand, is not duties but freedom. He is able to concentrate on a single detail, and then create entirely new connections based on that detail. Tamás had an amazing ability to take advantage of this freedom. For example, from the story of St Martin and his cloak, Tamás’s starting point was not the figures of the saint and the beggar, but the shape of the tear in the cloak, and in turn, that tear brought him to the questions of proportion and scale. A single such perception could serve as the inspiration for entire series of his works. Similarly, he took full advantage of his freedom in his approach to texts. He did not analyze a text; he took its underlying thought process and developed it further. His last exhibition was entitled: “Art Lives” – an allusion to Kassák, as he himself stated in the exhibition catalogue. (In 1926, Lajos Kassák published his article “The New Art Lives”, in the Kolozsvár [Cluj, Romania] journal Korunk, then republished it the same year as “Contemporary Art Lives”, in A tisztaság könyve [The Book of Purity]. In contrast, in Körösényi’s title the word ”Art” is bereft of adjectives, and thus expresses a stronger, more universal meaning.) Yet Körösényi’s exhibition was also a response to the writings of Arthur C. Danto and Hans Belting on art and the end of art history. Körösényi’s “cave series”, presented at that final exhibition, and entitled “Human Spirit in the Expanded Field”, echoes Rosalinde E. Krauss’ influential 1978 study “Sculpture in the Expanded Field”. Though Tamás did not explicitly cite the Krauss study, it is certain he was familiar with it, if only because he read everything. In her article, Rosalinde E. Krauss describes a breakthrough in the field of sculpture in the 1970s. But Tamás’s exhibition title and his works indicate that not only sculpture, but also the human spirit has extended its boundaries, freeing the arts – including sculpture – to expand the concepts of space and material to an essentially unlimited extent breaking with the traditional constraints. His rootedness in human culture was also the foundation of his teaching method. From 1971–1976, he was a student at the College of Fine Arts (today University of Fine Arts); beginning in 1990, he was an instructor there. From 1999, he was the head of the Sculpture department, and from 2009 until his death, he also directed the doctoral studies. In Hungary, he is recognized as the creator of modern-day training in sculpture. For first-year students, he introduced a basic training course consisting of a series of assignments, starting with portraits and progressing to ever more abstract topics. The last assignment of the first semester is to create a work about the relationship between the part and the whole. At the end of the first year, students are free to choose a master teacher. For decades, students had graduated from the college without any knowledge of the achievements of their predecessors in the history of sculpture, or of contemporary sculptors. Tamás introduced a new requirement, a course on modern Hungarian and contemporary world sculpture. As part of this training, in 1995 he launched an exhibition series, “The modern tradition in Hungarian sculpture”, in the university’s central building, the Barcsay Centre. The 1995 exhibition featured Lajos Barta, in 1997 Ferenc Martyn, in 1998 Barna Megyeri, in 1999 László Péri – the latter was held in the Museum of Fine Arts, with international cooperation. In 2001, again at the Barcsay Centre, the “Sculptures by Hungarian Painters” exhibition represented a breakthrough in the Hungarian context. This subject, though, has occupied European researchers for half a century: books and exhibition demonstrated that the renewal of modern sculpture was significantly influenced by certain painters who, departing from conventions and freely reinterpreting the concepts of material and form, provided a distinctive inspiration for the new approach to sculpture. Tamás Körösényi’s exhibition on the Hungarian contribution to this development was the first and thus far only such survey. He planned an exhibition of the works of Zoltán Kemény, to be held in 2002. Kemény had lived in Paris and in Switzerland; in 1964 he won the Grand Prize for sculpture at the Venice Biennale. Abroad, he is one of the best-known Hungarian sculptors; his works are to be found in every major museum. Yet he is little-known in Hungary, even though his widow donated nearly 400 of his works to the Museum of Fine Arts. The objects in this collection – with a single exception – represent the artist’s early works, which have become a focus of interest during the past 25 years, because art historians have recognized in the collection a forerunner of post-modern thought. Though the catalogue to this planned exhibition was completed the exhibition itself did not take place, because the Museum of Fine Arts did not agree to lend the works. However, we must not give up hope that the exhibition will one day take place. The exhibition series continued, featuring Katalin Hetey in 2005 and Ervin Pátkay in 2006. The next one would have focused on Márta Pán, but the death of the artist prevented it from being completed. The list of featured artists indicates that, in addition to artists in Hungary, Tamás’s goal was to familiarize his audience with Hungarian artists who lived or are currently living abroad. His latest plan was to organize an exhibition featuring István (Étienne) Beöthy; this project will be completed by Tamás’s students in 2011. In organizing these exhibits and publishing the cataloges, Körösényi fulfilled a task that no museum or gallery would tackle. For this cultural mission, in 1997 Körösényi received the Henszlmann Prize of the Hungarian Society for Archeology and Art History. Exhibitions organized by Körösényi at the Fine Arts College “Epreskert” gallery served even more directly as a teaching tool. This gallery, an atrium of the college building, dates from the 19th century, when Alajos Stróbl, the era’s leading figure in Hungarian sculpture and director of the master sculpture training program designed it as a salon, complete with fireplace, pond, palm trees and replicas of antique sculptures. For the next hundred years, it served as a studio. Then Tamás Körösényi redesigned it as an exhibition space known as the Parthenon Frieze room, where graduating students and alumni could organize their own shows. The name alludes to reproductions of sections of the Parthenon Frieze displayed there. In addition, exhibits were organized here of the works of Tamás Lossonczy, in 2004 on his 100th birthday, and of András Kiss Nagy in 2007, ten years after his death.

But the most exciting were always the shows by Körösényi’s class, always based on a theme assigned by Körösényi and exhibited either in the Epreskert atrium, or at an external location ranging from the Greek Orthodox church in Vác to the Hungarian Institute in Stuttgart. These shows were entitled, for example, “The Age of Plastic”, “Where’s the Palm?”, “What’s behind the Curtain?”, “Creases”, “The Brick”, “The Mouth of Truth”, and – the last one – “3D Television”. The 2008 exhibition “Hello, Mr Schönberg!” was particularly interesting. Its theme was the gravestone of Georgius Schonberg (György Schönberg), the 15th-century provost of Pozsony (Pressburg/Bratislava), and confidante of Hungarian King Matthias Corvinus. The original gravestone is embedded in the wall of the Pozsony Cathedral; its replica, commissioned by Alajos Stróbl, was placed into the Hunyadi Chapel and is now in the wall of the former Benczúr studio, visible if you enter the Epreskert and walk toward the studios. The assignment for the graduating class of 2008 alluded both to Courbet’s painting (Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet!) and to the Gauguin picture which it inspired (Bonjour, Monsieur Gauguin!). The exhibition, featuring a number of truly clever solutions, also included works by sculpture students from Pozsony.

Körösényi’s assignments were always multi-layered and therefore highly inspiring. The sculpture department is the only one at the university which publishes a catalogue featuring the graduating students and their creations, a document that represents a priceless gift to future art historians. Thanks to Körösényi’s accomplishments over many years, the department was recognized in 2009 as a “Locus of Excellence” by the Higher Education Accreditation Committee. Tamás Körösényi did a good job of documenting his own exhibitions, too. If we survey his catalogues in order, a career spanning more than 30 years comes to life before our eyes, whose themes range from “lifting the veil” to “paving the field”. The years following his formal education reflect explorations in many different directions: pop art and minimal art side by side with objects and conceptual experiments. His first really big discovery was the veil, and its further development. In 1982–83, he spent a year at the Vienna School of Fine Arts, studying on a Herder Fellowship under Bruno Gironcoli. In his studio installation shown there, we see a partially draped figure lying on the floor. Beginning in 1980–81, he had already begun modelling the figures that he would eventually show at the French Institute of Budapest in 1985, entitled “Statues from Giacometti’s Paris Studio”. Though the statues, paraphrasing Giacometti’s typical figures, are veiled, the shapes of the figures are nonetheless hinted at. The entire scene reconstructs what the clay statues must have looked like in the artist’s studio at the point when they were covered with damp cloths to prevent their drying out. (Körösényi created his own statues out of polyester.) It was this exhibition which first signaled to the public that a unique personality had emerged among the new generation of Hungarian sculptors.

The veil – as concept and as form – necessarily led him on to the topic of disguises, specifically to colourful military camouflage. This camouflage is composed of brownish, greenish and yellowish spots to match the terrain and foliage found in moderate climates. At first, Körösényi would disguise various objects; later the spots became independent and changed into abstract spatial forms similar to colourful leaves. This marked the beginning of a period of more than a decade, which included the series entitled “Tájhangok” (Sounds of the Landscape) and “Illeszkedés” (Articulation). One exhibition after another, held in a great variety of spaces, featured individual forms or groups of two or three, typically in arched, plumed or gently curved compositions in a variety of positions. In fact, it was always the particular exhibition space which defined the figures’ structure and position with respect to each other and to the viewer. In the eyes of the viewer, these colourful and cheerful forms, in various shades of green, sometimes yellowish, bluish or even bright green, appeared to be the pieces of a spatial puzzle, even as it was clear that it would be impossible to fit them together into a larger whole. The figures are both closed and open; we sense their boundaries, but also that these boundaries need not be permanent. The forms, no matter where they are located in space – on the ground, on the wall, on a stair – merely hint at each other, and we ourselves create the connections among them as we walk through the space. This sense of connection is so strong that if we should see a single one of these sculptures – in a museum or at an exhibition – we would feel that something is missing, and conjure up the puzzle’s missing pieces from memory. This is all the more possible since the forms are variable, moveable, with no single definitive perspective. Faced with freedom to this extent, the viewer is granted extraordinary latitude, similar to a performer’s freedom to interpret a piece of music. Such interpretation is primarily an emotional relationship to the work, which the artist in no way controls, but he does provide all kinds of possibilities for free exploration, discovery and joy. An excellent opportunity for this dynamic was presented in 1994, when ten major museums in Budapest exhibited selected works from the “Tájhangok” and “Illeszkedés” series. The viewer who went to each of the locations was then able to construct his/her own spatial composition.

The materials and techniques used in these series are extremely simple: pulped newspaper mixed with glue and spread on a steel frame. (The larger figures were made of polyester.) This material anticipated the use of newspaper, specifically the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, in Körösényi’s next series, which raised new issues of sculpture. In 2000, Körösényi spent three months in Frankfurt. Near his studio, he discovered a large stack of old newspapers. At that point, he had for some time been occupied with the problems of proportion and scope. In 1998, he had completed his sculpture “Akkor és most” (Then and Now) for an exhibition in Szombathely, entitled “Városnézés” (Sightseeing). The Körösényi sculpture consists of a flowing drape that is nearly cut in half. It alludes to St Martin of Tours, who was born in what is now the town of Szombathely and is its patron saint; according to legend, he gave half of his cape to a beggar. Halving the cape indicates a proportion, and also raises the issue of scale. (As for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, it too “measures up”, on the scale of journalistic quality.)

The composition “Frankfurti variációk” (Frankfurt Variations) consists of 17 pieces, which he organized – with some overlap – into four series (12+4+4+7). He presented these groups at various exhibitions, primarily at the King St Stephen Museum of Székesfehérvár and at the Budapest Gallery in 2001. The basis for each work is a mound of newspaper pulp, which then forms a base (a “sheet”) that is cut in different places. The parts of the sheet can be independently folded up or down, or rolled up. Some works can be placed on a wall; some are “prone” and must be placed on a pedestal; five sculptures are propped up by wire in a standing. Their relative positioning depends on the exhibition space. They have an entirely different effect when placed on the wall, as a quasi-relief, than when standing up in the space. Apart from the effect of plasticity, the waves of the cylindrical surfaces, the special lighting and cast shadows, and the slightly hand-painted surfaces all add the character of a painting to these works. These painting-like characteristics were dominant at the Körösényi exhibition entitled “My Ghosts”, held in 2005 at the Budapest Hall of Art. The apse of the hall featured 13 large-scale, brightly coloured sculptures on wheels. The “veil theme”, first evoked 20 years earlier, seemed here to have come to a close. The baroquely crumpled shells, torn masks in frivolous colours, and vibrating silhouettes all seemed in their ecstatic torment to be something quite new, different from all that came before, hinting at some almost demonic inspiration. The artist himself has explained that the inspirational experience, in fact, came from Franz Xaver Messerschmidt’s “character heads”, whose drama and grotesqueness were much tamed in Körösényi’s abstract ghost figures. The shadows projected onto the walls, greatly enlarged, reminded the viewer of Plato’s cave allegory – most likely no coincidence. In 2008 in the town of Kalocsa, Körösényi organized his inaugural exhibition as a member of the Széchenyi Academy of Literature and Art. An expanded version of this exhibition was shown in 2010 as part of the Art Collection of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. This exhibition included a group of Körösényi’s older works that reflect on some pieces in the Academy collection, juxtaposing past and present. Here, he also exhibited his series which alludes to Kassák, the series for which this exhibition was named; these pieces are actually minimalist plastic art. And he also introduced his latest works, the cave series. This series seems to have defined a new viewpoint, a new approach to space. In the catalogue, Körösényi himself alluded to the cave allegory, to the contrast between reality and appearance. More generally, he described his current focus as the coexistence of opposites. But having described this newest direction in his work, his life’s work came to a close. The title of this final exhibition – Art Lives – is like a final message. In June 2010, at the end of the academic year, he attended a year-end gathering of his students in the Epreskert, and then went home. He went to bed and never awoke. In September, the Department of Sculpture began the academic year with a remembrance of him. His former students organized a small exhibition of his cave series, and the Parthenon Frieze room was renamed the Körösényi Room. The exhibitions continue, because art lives on.

Translation by Katica Avvakumovits




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