The Labyrinth of El Kazovsky in the National Gallery

Conversation with the awardees

AndrásRényi, KrisztinaJerger and LászlóSzázados, curators of the exhibition The Survivor’s Shadow -– The Life and Works of El Kazovsky,were presented with this year’s MúzeumCafé Award. The exhibition staged in the Hungarian National Gallery was highly successful among museum experts and the public. Its approach to the oeuvre was fresh and novel. It used visuality consciously, in an up-to-date way, and recalled El Kazovsky’s personality, while elegantly avoiding the traps of becoming personal.

The idea of the exhibition was raised in the El Kazovsky Foundation, of whose board both KrisztinaJerger and AndrásRényi are members. From the start they agreed about thinking of an exhibition which the oeuvre deserved and giving a chance for El Kazovsky to escape from the time capsule which they thought he was caught in. PéterSiklós, chairman of the board, was the driving force. He went with the others to see the director of Modem in Debrecen, GáborGulyás, who immediately agreed with the idea was good. Not much later, as the newly appointed director of the Kunsthalle, Gulyás announced the exhibition at his inaugural address during a press conference, but three weeks later cancelled it. The reason is still unknown. They dreamed of a huge exhibition, but only a few suitable locations can be found for that in Hungary. The National Gallery seemed to be one. When director LászlóBaán accepted the idea it all suddenly became possible. The large-scale concepts were listened to and agreed with. El Kazovsky had died eight years previously. It was he who asked the members of the foundation handling his heritage to perform the task. The part of the oeuvre which had not been compiled was put together in a short time and the personal attachments to the artist provided the driving force for the work.

Jerger had the experience of staging exhibitions,Rényi’s task was to work out the concept. It was his idea to involve LászlóSzázados, since he was one of the best experts in Hungary concerning the 1970s and 80s, a crucial period in El Kazovsky’s art. In addition it greatly helped that he worked for the Gallery. Besides taking a lion’s share in organising as the chair of the El Kazovsky Foundation, PéterSiklós was involved in the artist’s Russian roots, connections and attachments as a co-curator. The small but very important “Russian back room” was designed to match his concept. Staging an exhibition involves team work. KrisztinaJerger compares it to a symphony orchestra in which everyone plays their own instrument professionally. A conductor is needed to hold the orchestra together. In this case AndrásRényi was the maestro. He developed the concept, defining content and form. TiborSomlai was the visual effects designer and graphic artist KláriKatona was in charge of the texts.

AndrásRényi knew El Kazovsky well, although they became close friends only in the last ten years of the artist’s life. They talked a lot, though exclusively about art. They did not touch upon personal matters or stories. Their friendship was not intimate enough, which proved to be helpful in relation to the exhibition. They also met in connection with the arts. In 1998 Rényi wrote a study about the film Caravaggio for a special issue on Derek Jarman in the publication Metropolis, which Kazovsky read. Jarman and Kazovsky were friends (gifts that Kazovsky received from Jarman were displayed at the exhibition) and he liked that film very much. The personal relationship with Rényi dates back to the article. It was then when they started to meet regularly. They exchanged ideas about films, pictures, statues, literature and dance, everything that was important for the artist, such as love, desire and yearning, but only in the way these subjects concerned the arts. Rényi also wrote much about Kazovsky and opened several of his exhibitions, although sometimes what he said caused offence. Kazovsky avoided certain words fetishistically and when he saw one of them in a publication about him he screamed. In a volume edited by Rényi a few weeks before Kazovsky’s death there was an important essay about panopticons. He checked all the words and without much ado erased the text he did not like. Kazovsky liked to travel a lot and regularly journeyed with his friends and important collectors. In his speech at the artist’s funeral Rényi emphasised that he spoke because an art historian was needed who talked about his artistic greatness and how absurd it was that he had always met the artist in that respect.

KrisztinaJerger and El Kazovsky were connected through the profession by friendship and travelling together. A large part of the exhibited works had passed through her hands in one way or another, since they worked a lot together. She curated several of the artist’s large exhibitions, such as those in the Kunsthalle and in St. Petersburg. At the beginning of his illness he stayed with Jerger in Warsaw for a month. Kazovsky was beautiful, clever and talented. The strong radiation of his personality made him an accepted and prominent figure.

LászlóSzázados was mostly concerned with Kazovsky’s personality: standing at the intersection of cultures and identities, he was continuously present in different positions and consistently followed his own path. In a very individual way he neglected but at the same time connected styles, eras and genres: hence the immense space – contemporary theatrical experiments, performances, subculture in music and fashion – and the complicated social networks he moved in. Seeing it from these aspects the arts of the 70s and 80s provides an exciting pattern different from the usual. Staging the exhibition was a very inspiring process.

The concept of the exhibition slowly developed during its construction, although the basic components and character, i.e. its organisation around certain magnetic notions, were kept. For example, the presentation of the “archetype event”, love for Dzhan, was raised relatively late and although it was known, its real significance became clear only on the way. Rényi is convinced that the exciting character of El Kazovsky’s oeuvre does not derive from his genius as a painter, but is rather manifested in his ability to turn a banal story of failure into a fatal event of a universal degree, to transform it into an enormous artistic universe. Kazovsky noticed the perspectives in love, the divine dimension, and constructed a large-scale counter-world on it.

The starting point of the original concept was that it would not be wise either to hold a didactic historical retrospective proceeding from the beginning to the end, presenting each period and each genre chronologically, or to stage a hommageexhibition with its funereal character. They did not want to lock him up in a pantheon from the aspect of art history and turn the key. They wanted to make it express problematic themes. They wanted it to be fresh, exciting, provocative and spectacular. They primarily wanted to address young people.

Everyone in the artist’s own generation knew Kazovsky. He was not an oppressed artist. Moreover he was included in the canon very early on. Kazovsky started in the middle of the 70s. The panopticons quickly gained him fame, then he emerged from the semi-underground subculture, which was so precisely recalled in the exhibition by LászlóSzázados. Kazovsky had his own path, theme, mythology, life problem and world, on which he built his art. Rényi strongly thought that the exhibition had to present strong features, which would make today’s young visitors gasp. They wanted to shock and to stage a spectacular, theatrical and bombastic exhibition.

Like every genuine artist, Kazovsky was devoted to size. He would have wanted to create in enormous sizes, but somehow was never able to create his works in the imagined size. But then the reception hall of the Gallery which, with its shining pink marble surfaces, terrible top lights and reverberating spaces is normally the nightmare of exhibition designers, provided the opportunity for giant dimensions. The giant dog RóbertAlföldi commissioned the artist to make for the National Theatre was erected at last in a space which fitted its proportions. The brilliant interior designer TiborSomlai splendidly reconstructed the decor architecture of the performance in the Kunsthalle in 1995.

According to Jerger, visitors cannot be expected to have background knowledge. They have two-three hours to absorb what curators have been concerned with for years. She is a curator who also sees through the eyes of a visitor. Nothing is evident, especially concerning contemporary arts. Visitors need understanding, the joy of reception and discovery. Without those they feel lost and are resistant. The spectacle closely served the objective, assisting the difficult task of interpretation. They constructed a dynamically pulsating labyrinth. Jerger guided many groups and she asked all of them whether they knew El Kazovsky. Many had not even heard his name. Yet the exhibition broke a record with 30,000 visitors, and at the end of the guided tours they were so much moved that many of them left saying they would return and bring their friends.