Painter and Philosopher
The pictorial mythology of Antal Turcsányi
I have been following and writing on Antal Turcsányi’s oeuvre since the mid-eighties. It was then that he withdrew to Zsámbék and worked in seclusion. It was also at this time that Lajos Németh composed his laudation of Turcsányi’s art for the contemporary milieu. However, the winds of exploration rippled in other directions and with Németh’s premature death in 1991 the opinion formers suspended their interest in his work for quite a while. An artist like Antal Turcsányi, who keeps his distance from groups, can easily find himself in a vacuum, especially when he does not wish to resist this. ‘Success’ and Turcsányi’s profound absorption in painting simply do not go hand in hand.
The mural-like work titled Underground, which he painted at the turn of the millennia, has been ‘discovered’ by several art writers and art historians, including Katalin S. Nagy, Albert Kováts and Gergely Barki, and is also anticipated to arouse great interest at our exhibition. Barki described his own discovery thus: “While viewing the retrospective exhibition of the CoBrA group in Rome, one intellectually akin to the European School, the realisation struck me how well Turcsányi’s pictures would fit in this environment, and not only with the works executed by the group directly after World War II but also with some of their paintings from the ’80s and ’90s; so I discovered a kind of parallel.” The art scene at the time was under the spell of the spectacular and the monumental, something which we in Hungary learnt about only much later.
Antal Turcsányi is a seer of universal laws which nobody before him was able to record in writing or painting. In one of the canonised myths about torsos represented in pictures, King Cadmus is ordered by the gods to bring forth his own people: he is to scatter dragon’s teeth upon the earth and his people would sprout from them. A strong people that would protect him. In Turcsányi’s canvases, however, Cadmus is shown to have not devoted enough care to planting the dragon’s teeth since what issues forth from the teeth instead of a protective nation are angels with wings of bone, an ill-fated messenger on arthropod legs, a faceless planter of bombs in a golden helmet, an eyeless and cradle-mouthed demon, a blind Tiresias with compound eyes, a sheath-winged Cipolla Magic Cricket, a Doric style fin, and a wren with crocodile tears. Insect warriors and bare-muscled Laocoons are teeming in resplendent colours and otherworldly reflections. And the hand of the artist – perhaps King Cadmus? – incessantly reaches out from the picture, pointing at webbed Achilles heels crowded and stuck together.
Inscribed in the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo in Delphi was the maxim Know thyself – and, indeed, painting is a spiritual exercise. A friend of mine, a Hungarian master of Eastern philosophy, once explained to me what self-reparation was by using the theory of devolution, and to make a point of the deficiency of rationality he told me that I was his guru. By constructing his bizarre creations from nature, Turcsányi seeks to demonstrate perfection by painting the opposite of what we are familiar with based on evolutionary development. The theory of devolution says that the anthropomorphic evils and ill deeds of the primordially perfect creature crystallise into our human attributes and separate from the originally integral whole; this is how certain species – the snake, crocodile, fox, hare, wolf and the bear came into being. The half-anthropomorphic and half-zoomorphic beings of mythology speak of our human follies. The human condition, relativity and frailty are nothing less than devolution itself.
Turcsányi’s series titled Torso are populated by creatures whose gestures pry apart the compositions, while their cavalcade of colours is built on harmony. By decomposing the facial elements, blue-bearded and wet-behind-the-ear associations of his other series, titled Masks, and re-composing them into new faces, we can see 20th-century psychological tests – and primarily Lipót Szondi’s instinct analysis translated into decorative pictorial architectures. The strips of colour resembling shading in some of his works almost suggest the perspectival rendition of foreground and background.
The senses of human beings are imperfect, but not those of the painter. We have an inbuilt inclination to err and live in illusion but such scholar-painters like Antal Turcsányi are able to perform spiritual excavations through their pictures, presenting us with evidence of an invisible archaeology. Cultural evolution is a spiritual devolution, the projection of the verbally inexpressible aspects of the soul. Turcsányi is a painter and philosopher who through his pictures manages to evade the trap of illusion laid by written texts; he is the master of wisdom through images.
The Situationist Manifesto of the CoBrA Group makes a reference to the conflict of two desires: the rigid world of Kunstkabinets and Wunderkammers, the intimacy of Montmartre, the spirit of meditative contemplation and the sense of ecstasy generated by the media. Following the regal path of philosophy and painting, Turcsányi is not an adherent of a permanent revolution and perpetual reform but rather the instinctive interpreter of slowly eroding wisdom, that of the painterly tradition. For Turcsányi, the maxim of Delphi means this: the gods are within you, and the paintings will be made into your future by your own character.
curator of the exhibition
1 Gergely Barki: Monumentalitás és spontán kontempláció Turcsányi Antal művészetében [Monumentality and Spontaneous Contemplation in Antal Turcsányi’s Art]. Kortárs [Contemporary], 2016/5. 60–64.
2 György Szegő: Média, mágia, művészet [Media, Magic, Art]. Ökotáj [Eco Landscape], issies 39–40. 2008. 62–63.