“Lenin Bust, Pécs” (1983), artist unknown, Zsolnay porcelain (image courtesy the Wende Museum)

LOS ANGELES — If you are looking for a chance to explore the material culture, art, and politics that shaped Hungary in post-World War II, look no further than Promote, Tolerate, Ban: Art and Culture in Cold War Hungary, an exhibition currently at the Wende Museum of the Cold War in Los Angeles. The show, co-curated by Cristina Cuevas-Wolf of the Wende Museum and Isotta Poggi of the Getty Research Institute, is a testament to the rich, interconnected cultural arenas that developed in post-war Eastern Europe and that Cold War narratives, to this day, often fail to recognize. In explicitly highlighting the political dimension of all cultural artifacts, the display is also an excellent opportunity to consider — with the benefit of hindsight and geographic distance — the range of civic positions and ideas about personal responsibility that artists developed in response to state socialism’s particular forms of oppression.

The three verbs in the show’s title refer to the policy of the “3Ts,” which guided Hungarian officials in their relationship to various cultural phenomena — in Hungarian, the verbs “promote,” “tolerate,” and “ban” all start with a “t.” The show’s greatest strength lies in its presentation of art and historical artefacts from both the officially promoted mainstream of Hungarian life and the semi- or unofficial “second public sphere.” The mainstream culture included everything — from overtly political propaganda to fabric design — that was deemed acceptable and worthy of support by the powers that be. The second public sphere encompassed activities that happened both under official auspices (e.g., film production at state-funded studios) and entirely outside any official organizations and were either tolerated by the regime with reservation or banned outright.

Sándor Pinczehelyi, “Small Star Coca-Cola III, Pécs” (1988, oil on canvas (image courtesy the Wende Museum)

The objects on view, which range from experimental films to garden furniture, were drawn largely from the collections of the Wende Museum and the Getty Research Institute. Because the Hungarian portions of those collections were not assembled systematically, the show cannot give a comprehensive mapping of life in socialist-era Hungary, but it does offer some good starting points and illustrates well the arc of Hungarian post-war history, from the Stalinist rule of Mátyás Rákosi, complete with purges and show trials, to the suppressed Uprising of 1956, which was labeled a counterrevolution by the Soviet-supported authorities, to the consequent advent of so-called Goulash Communism under János Kádár, who remained in power until 1988.

The first part of the exhibition looks at representations of the 1956 Uprising and examples of what constituted acceptable “socialist realist” art both before and after that watershed moment in Hungarian history. Lovers of all things mid-century modern will also find a section on 1960s visions of the “good life,” complete with advertising posters aimed at women as consumers of modern-day conveniences. Here, one can see how the material comforts and modest glamor of Goulash Communism would have dulled the urgency of moral dilemmas related to abstract notions of freedom — a condition quite similar to the everyday experience in the West at the same time, as any number of Pop artists worked hard to point out. The second half of the exhibition, by contrast, offers glimpses into the counter-cultural milieu where ethical questions (raised, it appears, largely by childless young men) figured front and center.

Installation view of Promote, Tolerate, Ban: Art and Culture in Cold War Hungary at the Wende Museum of the Cold War, Los Angeles

The strongest works are the films. The first is an excerpt from Péter Forgács’s “The Bibó Reader” (2001), one in a series of films titled Private Hungary, which Forgács has been making since 1987, pulling from a large archive of amateur home movies. This film explores the life and writings of István Bibó, a lawyer, politician, and philosopher who managed to be inconvenient to every regime he lived under. The film’s poetic snippets of home movies mesmerize the viewer while long quotes from Bibó’s writings delve deeply into his thought. Starting in the interwar period, Bibó advocated for social democratic values in Hungary, which largely lacked them throughout his lifetime. He stressed in particular the rights of every individual and the personal responsibility of each citizen for her or his active commitment to communally upholding those rights. True to his beliefs, Bibó joined the government of reformer Imre Nagy during the 1956 Uprising, subsequently facing imprisonment and house arrest until his death. Bibó’s suggestion in The Jewish Question in Hungary After 1944 (1948) that “everyone must draw up a list of things he was solely or partly responsible for” points to the theme of personal responsibility in the face of oppressive forces that, for me, was the most resonant one in the exhibition.

This theme next emerges in Tibor Hajas’s “Self-Fashion Show” (1976), a short film which Hajas made at the renowned Balázs Béla Studio. To make it, Hajas, an artist who worked across multiple media and died young in a car accident in 1980, filmed passersby in silent, long, straight-on shots on a large Budapest square. Some are seen amid the bustle of the city; others appear to be isolated in the studio, though in reality, they stood against a backdrop on the same busy square. Over the footage, several voices intone suggestions on how one should present oneself to the world: “Decide whom you would like to please. … Try to make a nice impression. …Represent a lifestyle, an era, a fate, a personality.” This advice sounds ominously like orders, and the film balances on a knife’s edge in its meaning — it could be taken as encouragement for individual self-expression or a demand for conformity. The suggestion seems to be that it is up to each individual to interpret the words. Hajas also captures the ever-present pressures that surround a person in the public sphere: the glances of strangers; the constant possiblity of surveillance, as represented by the film camera; an internalized authority figure — in this case, probably the State, but it could be many other things, too, which, like the film’s soundtrack, drones on in one’s head.

Installation view of Promote, Tolerate, Ban: Art and Culture in Cold War Hungary at the Wende Museum of the Cold War, Los Angeles

Hajas’s second film in the exhibition, “Vigil” (1980), comes from a phase in the artist’s work when he subjected his body to extreme conditions, experimenting with total trust and the freedom found in letting go of fear. In the performance captured here by his collaborator, János Vetö, Hajas created a dangerous setting by breaking a lighbulb in a puddle of water. He then had himself medically tranqualized, putting himself entirely at the mercy of the collaborators who were tasked with ensuring his safety from electrocution and other hazards. As the audience observed the performance, Hajas’s pre-recorded voice delivered a long monologue: “This is the voice to revert to, this consciousness. This is the lighthouse, the navigation light, the course; this is the standard to which to conform every time that the need arises. … This voice is sheer vigil, nothing else. … My complete awareness of my own fragility is what turns me invulnerable.” Over and over, the voice says, presumably to Hajas, “Do not let yourself be deceived, Master.” Though descriptions of Hajas’s influences often cite Eastern thought and meditation as inspirations, in this performance, the Christian iconography — the artist experiences near-death and then rises from it — is striking, and the piece is a vivid, visceral answer to the question of what it takes to truly live “within the truth,” to borrow a term from the Czech writer and dissident Václav Havel.

László Beke, “Handshake Action between Hungarian and Czechoslovakian Artists Balatonboglár: Chapel Studio” (1972), gelatin silver prints (image courtesy Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2017.R.4) © László Beke)

The half of the show dedicated to the “second public sphere” encounters the usual difficulties one faces when trying to represent conceptual and performance art that was created for and by a close-knit, closed-off community of artists in which social energy and interpersonal relationships were as important an outcome as any physical “piece”of art. Yet several pieces do stand out here as further insights into what artists felt they personally could do in the face of complicity or complacency about situations which ordinary citizens are not supposed to be able to alter. A group of Hungarian and Czechoslovak unofficial artists met at the lakeside resort of Balatonboglár in the summer 1972 and created a photographic record of every member of the Hungarian contingent shaking the hand of every member of the Czechoslovak one — a citizen diplomacy antidote, however modest, to the fact that Hungary officially participated in the Soviet-led suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968. “Stamp Film” (1982-1984) depicts the outcome of efforts that the artist couple György Galántai and Júlia Klaniczay undertook to develop an extensive international mail art network. In 1982, they solicited stamp designs for World Art Post from artists around the globe, and the film is evidence of the hundreds of entries they received in return.

László Lakner, “Gesammelte Dokumente” (1960-1974), depicting “Seamstresses Listen to Hitler’s Speech” (image courtesy Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (84-B11325) © László Lakner)

The biggest discovery for me was László Lakner’s Collected Documents, 1960-1974, a group of texts and photographs in which the painter, who very much awaits discovery in North America, documented his own shifting inspirations and interests during a formative period. Though his later work changed dramatically, in the 1960s and ’70s Lakner worked in a naturalistic idiom that ranged from expressionistic to hyperrealist. In the Collected Documents, he discusses his preoccupation at the time with group portaiture. This interest bears a clear affinity with István Bibó’s concern with “community” — a term that establishes who is “in” and who is “out,” who deserves care, support, and rights, and who does not. Lakner’s painted copies of found group photographs ask their viewers to think about how “community” is visualized and to what end. His “Seamstresses Listen to Hitler’s Speech” (1960), a painting based on a 1942 photograph, was, for me, a particularly powerful image. Lakner wrote about the process of making it: “I did not want to make ‘art,’ but simply to grasp something, or, perhaps, to discover something.” Something about collective horror and responsibility in the face of it, one imagines, that we all still need help discovering.

Promote, Tolerate, Ban: Art and Culture in Cold War Hungary continues at the Wende Museum of the Cold War (10808 Culver Blvd, Culver City) through August 26. 

Ksenya Gurshtein is a curator, art historian, writer, and translator who lives in Wichita, KS. More of her writing can be found here.