Péter Stefanovits : Heart murmur

Graphic artist Péter Stefanovits is one of the best-known masters of contemporary Hungarian graphic art, who, beyond his graphic work, has created a significant oeuvre as a painter, an installation artist, and in architectural-related fields. In addition to his outstanding artistic activity, he has contributed a great deal to the Hungarian art scene as an organiser and coordinator, making him an artist of his generation who has worked to create a homogeneous but colourful artistic life based on the integration and interaction of values and valuable efforts. This activity is highly commendable on a highly politicised Hungarian art scene.
Naturally, however, we shall primarily focus on Péter Stafanovits the graphic artist, all the more so because the other areas of his work rest on this solid, well-developed, professional foundation. Although he was born in Budapest, the city of Košice was a defining experience through holidays he spent there as a child and young man with relatives of his and with painter Gyula Jakoby, and the values he experienced there and later in Budapest.

His professors at the Academy, which he attended between 1973 and 1978, were Károly Raszler and Tibor Rozanits, eminent representatives of traditional reproductive graphic art. At the time he began his career, contemporary Hungarian art was characterised on the one hand by an opening to new trends and on the other by a wave of uncertainty regarding the traditions of Hungarian art. Stefanovits became a proponent of Surrealistic efforts, which then assumed a crucial role in Hungarian graphic art; however, in constructing his pictures he exploited the possibilities of montage, with a measure of reserved irony. From that starting point he developed his work in the borderland of classical traditions and avant-garde, which is object and motif-centred and symbolic – often drawing on motifs from Hungarian history – and ironic-contemplative, reserved and personal at the same time. His achievements as a graphic artist are highlighted by awards he received at his major exhibitions,  the Munkácsy Award (1995) and the Merited Artist Award (2011).
As important as his work in graphic art and painting is his activity in installations and environment building; and many “subdivisions” of his work were brought together in several large projects. Following the change of the political system in Romania he was involved in the painting of the wood panel ceiling of a Lutheran church in Șiclod, which had been designed by Károly Kós but built decades later. A decade after that, again with Károly Elekes, he was involved in decorating the interior of a chapel by the Red Lake, including its frieze, made with the secco technique. Recently, his work as a board member of the National Cultural Core Programme, the Batthyány Circle of Artists and chairman of the Foundation for Hungarian Graphic Art has been directed at helping contemporary Hungarian art cherish traditions and create new values.
An exhaustive presentation of this work would require an exhibition of Stefanovits’s collected works or a retrospective show. What strikes the viewer at first glance, however, is that few people are this familiar with the possibilities of graphic techniques, and meld them so well and comprehensively with painterly and other techniques, or even materials generally considered to fall outside of the realm of art. Throughout his career he also produced pencil drawings as well as charcoal and pastel pictures. Naturally, as a student at the Academy, he became acquainted with intaglio techniques, including copper engraving and aquatint, and from the very outset he has also employed relief printing, paper cutting and monotype. At the turn of the millennium he took interest in lithography and screen printing, and was among the first in Hungary to experiment with computerised graphic art. He employs the different techniques in conjunction, and from the 1990s onwards he began using Clorox, a bleach. In the mid-nineties he started making sculptural pictures using metal sheets with motifs made of sugar cubes, among other materials. As early as in the seventies and eighties he shifted from the two dimensions of graphic works and paintings into three dimensions when making stage designs for several performances in the Castle Theatre (Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Tamás Ungvári’s production of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, János Pilinszky’s Sepulchral Monument). His desire to work in space is marked by the fact that in 1988 he created some large-scale installations for a show in the Dorottya Gallery. The notion of the unity of the arts, the concept of melding the contemporary with the sacred inspired him to undertake ambitious tasks such as the painting of the wood panel ceiling of the Șiclod Lutheran church in 1994, and the frieze in the Saint Christopher chapel by the Red Lake in Romania, designed by Anthony Gall.
The kind of thinking that seeks to create large units and to bring together different values comes hand in hand with the need for pictorial condensation, and, concurrently, for presenting artistic issues from various different viewpoints, with the best available means. It follows therefore that Péter Stefanovits was never the kind of artist seeking to establish a “brand”. Indeed, his choice of technique and materials have continuously influenced the style of his works. His work defies being lumped under any particular style or ism. His early prints – Rumour Signals I–II (1977), Creation (1978), Annunciation (1983) ¬– suggest that he was influenced by lyrical expressivity. Later on he was inspired by the challenges of new painting in the eighties (Plant Erotica series, 1986), the new conceptualism that governed the nineties (Inventory, 2007 and Children’s Toy, 2009). He also forayed into photography (Time Game series, 2004). He often deals with themes in series, in which he consistently maintains certain stylistic elements. However, in more recent (but related) works, which carry on the earlier issues, new elements appear thanks to the new aspects he has chosen.
This reflects an interior formation, whose cornerstone is individuality that combines history and personal fate, scores of instances of private life and community projects, philosophy, faith and sacredness, the world of the Old and New Testament, as well as Green and Roman mythology. Stefanovits often cites parables, seemingly taking on the role of an impersonal chronicler. More often than that, however, does he comment on the issue in question with irony and self-irony, and colour his speech by grotesque and absurd means, contrasting various ideas with bold associations from surrealism.
A case in point of the coinciding of history and personal fate is Childhood Memory (1986) with the boots that remained after the statue of Stalin was pulled down [an event that originally occurred in 1956]. He connects his earlier lyrical expressive imagery with compositional themes of the subsequent period in City Centre (1985) which heralds the theme of his later works – an object placed in a landscape – as well as the issues of community life and history embodied in urban motifs. Eastern European history inspired his print Heart Sacrifice, which he made during the Romanian revolution and signed at Christmas 1989. This work would become the starting point for a series, which, connected to the human heart, demonstrated social change and the related dramatic contradictions by means of reactions of the human body. In Heart Murmur I the heart takes the shape of the map of Hungary; in Heart Murmur I–II pointed, dagger-like forms threaten a black cloud. These works speak of the change of the political system and the possibility of change in personal existence, whose importance is highlighted by the fact that Péter Stefanovits organised two exhibitions in those days called Heart Murmur (Miskolc, 1990; Vigadó Gallery, 1993). Typical of social contradictions in late-1980s Hungary, Stefanovits’s poster for an exhibition in Dorottya Gallery in 1988 was the last banned work in Hungary. It featured a work by graphic artist Péter Pócs depicting a crucified, burnt red star. Katalin Néray, director of the Műcsarnok at the time, was instructed by the powers that be to have it banned.
The change of the political system in Hungary released a liberating force in Stefanovits. Before and around the time of the ambitious Șiclod church project he began to create more and more Bible-inspired and outright sacred works (Symbol, 1976; Dream of Joseph; Pillar of Cloud and Fire, 1990; Above Altar I–III, 1993; Altar, 1995). Created in 1996, God (Three Letters) 1–5 reduces the means of imagery an arte povera level, likewise in the series of works dealing with fundamental issues of faith in the 2000s, made using Clorox. The expressive possibilities of this material – not usually associated with art – had interested him for many years. In 2003 he produced a large-sized textile-based work By the Danube, in which he placed the Hungarian and Slovak texts of Our Lord’s Prayer side by side, he reflected on the differences between the two peoples that existed in spite of their common faith. In 2011 he used Clorox to produce the tondos Sermon on the Mount I–V. Apparition I–III (2011) then uses another “anti-artistic” material, reinforced concrete. Using digital photographic technology, he placed objects associated with sacred art – burning candle, heart, white feathers evocative of angels’ wings – in barren spaces made of reinforced concrete.
Consummating the experiences of his seventies’ Transylvanian trips, in the nineties Stefanovits took great interest in history and the common causes of Hungarian at home and over the borders. This led to the creation of the series You Brought our Ancestors Up (1996), whose individual sheets and motifs determined the structure of the Saint Christopher chapel and its imagery that drew of a millennium of Hungarian history, emphasising the role of faith and culture, and the relationship of man and nature. The viewer is guided into the present through historical and art-historical quotations, affording contemplation on present, past and future. The relationship of history and the present, and its contradictions, are revealed in numerous works from the following years, like the Time Game series (2004), whose sheets feature human figures familiar from the photographs of Balázs Orbán, contrasting them with the means and figures (such as Walt Disney heroes) of present-day mass culture. The same Disney figures appear in the Clorox works In Museum I–II contrasted with a human skull, an archaeological and cultural historical symbol, offering an alternative to remembrance and value-creation. The experience of visiting a warehouse of a Transylvanian museum led to the creation of the digital print Inventory (2007) which depicts busts if Marx, Engels and Lenin in a dilapidated, cobwebby warehouse. An object bought at a flee market inspired Children’s Toy (2009), which depicts a tattered toy with the inscription “Stalin” carrying away human brains.
But where is it taking them? At this point – given that it is an absurd task, what with the toy car not having any wheels – Péter Stefanovits’s acute sense of humour and irony comes into play. The viewers of his work see both sides of the coin, being faced with the human characteristics and social contradictions they (we) represent, and are perhaps brought closer to mending or resolving them. In 1997 he was occupied with the pictorial representation of The Love of Molecules and Emotional Analysis, and in 2008 Chromosome Analysis. Also in 2008 he created Emotional Particles a not-so-emotional work from radically different pictorial elements. The digital print Székely Spaceship (2008) in his interpretation is as absurd as is Moebius Landscape (2007), among whose bushes there wrestling wooden figures (seen in studios, used to model the movements of the human body). Between 2001 and 2005 Stefanovits produced a series of drawings, which, like a visual alphabet, deal with various concepts, phenomena and events. He built a totem from soft teddy bear and made a married couple from a spoon and a fork, and in 2008 he created a collection of Portable Altar variations. His small-sized paintings (Five Summer Tidings, 25×25 cm each, 2009) depict attractive summer holiday locations, including a deckchair, a bowl of fruit, a shady tree and games on a television screen; however, among the white fluffy clouds in the fifth picture we see a ominous motif in the form of a black aeroplane.
As typical as the presence of powerful colours is in Stefanovits’ works, lending even his prints a painterly quality (such as the 2001–2002 lithographs Europoster I–II, 2001; Man’s Heart, 2001; Hiding Cross, 2002), the opposite quality is equally characteristically present, such as drama and a presentiment of impeding catastrophe.
The big social failure of the Communist concept of so-called “Living Socialism” and the disillusionment in the wake of the change of the political system naturally awoke suspicions regarding the future of social construction in Péter Stefanovits (among many other people). In response, in the 2010s, he produced some large-sized lithographs, in which the only hints of European culture and civilisation are a solitary corpus and ruins of buildings (Open-air Exercise I–II with an aircraft and a motif suggestive of disembarkation, 2011; Reports from Tomorrow I–II, 2010). The series City Murmurs (2014) depicts a decaying city and objects in the no-man’s-land on the city periphery, including memorials and triumphal arches that are neither urban- nor folk-style (to mention two trends that have for decades divided Hungarian culture and art), as well as roads leading from nowhere to nowhere. They also depict curious creatures that are themselves fragments: wreckages, torsos, mutants that will never be harmonious or complete again, or useable constituents in a micro- or macrocosm. They are reminiscent of visions from depressing dreams, and the environment in which they appear presage the unstoppable terror crawling out of the unconscious. The way his solutions – a solitary train on the distant horizon or a smoking ship – attest, he consciously refers back to the great Surrealist forefathers who, at the turn of the century or between the two world wars, portrayed their fear of impeding cataclysm, while forgetting the greatest dangers threatening humanity, the dictatorships clad in brown and red. Yet if there is anything that can remind us with elementary force of these threats, it is the life instinct in all of us, that is beating of the human heart, which the title of Stefanovits’s work from thirty years before hints at: Heart Murmur.
In 2014 Péter Stefanovits not only created City Murmur, but also a number of works in which the subtle tones of watercolour are counterpointed by black clouds and military aircraft flying over the landscape. Also in 2014, he created the sheets of Chronology that bear the inscription “Kyrie eleison” until it is washed away by the waves on the sandy beach. The doubt continues to this day: the screen print Sepulchral Monument 1–2 (2016) features the memento mori skull as well as endangered or destroyed nature. At this point Stefanovits – who only a few years ago paraphrased in the form of a large-sized individual piece his originally small aquatint Childhood Memory – turns for help to moments of history which, for him, afford a reconsideration of his experiences rather than remembrance ceremonies. As the title of two of his 2016 works, dedicated to the memory of 1956, attest: with respect to what might happen to us in the future, consciousness of the events of the past and the present and our common causes and lessons is the Decisive Moment.

text by Ernő P. Szabó 

curator: József Szurcsik

2017. January 18. - February 19.

Kunsthalle, Budapest

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