After graduating from the University of Fine Arts I was assigned to work at a School for Special Needs Children. I spent eight years of my youth with children suffering from mental illnesses. At first, I felt that this assignment was a punishment but then I realised that these children unable to think and act independently had the gift of fascinating self-expression, a divine inventiveness, which, used as inspiration, I was able to turn into my advantage. Indeed, ideoplastic representation in the middle stage of children’s mental development is remarkable by itself since children draw what they know about things instead of trying to transplant their visual environment in their drawings. The ‘knowledge’ of mentally disabled people, their visual world, is far more exciting even than this, probably because some of them are stuck at the level of three- or four-year-olds. While are unable to perceive three-dimensional space, I find the forms of their emotional visual expression especially interesting. I can compare their hand drawings to the handprints in prehistoric cave paintings, referred to as Solar Hands, or they could be called Hand-trees, Hand-flowers or, to quote an anonymous author, “Hands of the Hand-god”, which “did not sin so grievously as our heads”.
It is no coincidence that Jean Dubuffet was also fascinated with the works of people with psychotic disorders, since the memories of such sensitive people are multiply filled with divine inventiveness, with the mysteries captured in archaic depictions too. Dubuffet called their works Art Brut, i.e. ‘raw art’ with coarse expression, inherent in which – in his view – is the extraordinariness of art since it is “this very extraordinariness” that makes such works extremely valuable. “Whoever comes under the spell of these, can feel that they are also extraordinary themselves,” writes Dubuffet.
I used this raw form of depiction reminiscent of archaic times more than once in my art, but most significantly in my Hand-heads photo action, where I discovered archetypes, phallic symbols, during my study of the physiognomy of the school children and the hands they drew. Then, I incorporated these readymade elements as ‘fertility flowers’ into my metaphoric work cycle, Dowry, which debuted in 1984, the year my daughter was born. The idea of making a dowry was inspired by folk tradition linked to childhood, according to which, if a girl is born in a family, the parents make her dowry and when she gets married, it will be handed over to the young bride together with a hope chest.
I took the phallic archetypes hidden in the children’s hand imprints a step further and, combining them with flower motifs I borrowed from Sekler furniture painting, I engraved them into lino cuts. During this process I created interpretations of the hand-flower symbols, which were developed together with the mentally handicapped children, akin to appropriation art, a popular genre in the 1980s, with the important difference that my experiments were dialogues rather than copies. I defined my relationship with the children, who were unable to think and act independently, as a mediating role, since upon my suggestions these children ‘with an innately-driven creativity’ produced intuitive visions, ‘transcendental control, something intrapsychic’; had I not used these as inspiration, they would have fallen into oblivion in the recesses of my mind.
I completed the first version of the series with the Table of Fertility in 1988. The embroidery patterns I had cut into lino were implemented in the form of tablecloths only thirty years later, after 2018, when I met Irénke Püski, a highly skilled embroiderer, who I asked to embroider the old designs; thus, I was able to make a new version of my Table of Fertility.
Now, as I am drawing a balance of my life on approaching my 70th birthday, a round anniversary, I have realised that although the hand-drawings that the children made during the years I spent at the School for Special Needs Children influenced my artistic activity on many occasions in the past, they are still a source of inspiration for me even now, forty years later. This is why I revisited my old project, which conveys something entirely different to me than back then, in the prime of my youth. Now it is not the message of birth, love and fertility that I read in them but rather a contemporary cry in protest against the forces of darkness, in other words, I see them as 21st-century manifestation of the hands of the chained prisoners in Plato’s allegory of the cave as they are raised towards the sky in a gesture of warning humanity to stop. I named this new work cycle Solar Hands.
Solar Hands is a commemoration of the mentally ill children I taught, while I also see the motifs of raised hands and protective eye-roses I fashioned from pressed board as a tribute to our cultural heritage preserving the magical tradition of the past. Our ‘perception of reality fraught with danger’ has become an integral part of our everyday lives, and in the name of our grandchildren, with each hand and each destructive portrait made by the school children I want to pray for the protection of our future living space and for mankind’s fortunate coexistence with disasters, as well as for the return of peace and freedom. There is nothing else I can do. In this world fraught with pessimism we can only hope that perpetual change will help replace destructive aggression with love and artistic creation.
László Ujvárossy painter, academician of the MMA