Péter Menasági: Melancholy
Melancholia, which denotes the state of despondency and depression, is one of the four temperaments, known since Hippocrates. Previously considered the most dangerous and adverse mood, resulting from the excess of black bile, melancholia was reinterpreted by the Neoplatonists following Aristotle, who described philosophers, poets and artists as melancholic, and they emphasised its positive aspects. They considered melancholia a dangerous but privileged gift of artists.
Albrecht Dürer’s complex series of copperplate engravings, Melencolia, also captures this state, which is introspective yet opens up a unique perspective. The alchemical-philosophical knowledge the master’s works convey explores this state in greater depth and inspires us to further contemplation. This melancholic state of being is therefore necessary for artists and thinkers to produce works derived from ancient, transcendent knowledge. Péter Menasági’s art has always been characterised by a similar, sublimely melancholic but often extremely difficult state, reflecting the popular and oft-quoted rhyme that the poet Attila József chose as the motto for his volumes: “He who wants to be a piper, to hell he must go / It is only there he can learn, the bagpipe how to blow.” This archaic folk verse contains everything that shamans or artists need to experience to fulfil their calling. The art of Menasági, inspired by his personal experiences, addresses existential issues as deeply as a descent into hell, the imprint of which is discernible in all his densely textured works.
While the sculptor initially created non-figurative, geometrical, meditative works with a reduced language of form and rich in sacred symbols, he displays figurative works at this Műcsarnok exhibition. He made the first sculpture of this kind for a public competition: a monument to the hero of ’56, Péter Mansfeld, inaugurated in 2004. The full-length architectonic bronze sculpture erected in the Buda district of Rózsadomb stands between granite blocks and depicts the martyr locked up in the prison of repression. His figure is an allegory of unfair treatment and personal suffering. It is the very prison where the naturalistically depicted young man with a perfect body is confined that becomes his shrine. The motif of eternal confinement evokes the tragedy of Mansfeld, made timeless by Menasági’s work.
The three works displayed at our exhibition, which are more abstract than his previous pieces and can be seen as a coherent whole, were based on the artist’s public works. The new works are linked by a common title, Melancholia, and the literary texts chosen as their subtitles. There is a resemblance between the lines quoted from János Pilinszky’s poems and the dense fabric of Menasági’s sculptures: they express the tragedy of human fate, the abandonment of the individual and the state of sadness felt over existence. Each of the three dark grey figurative sculptures appears enclosed in or standing on a geometric metallic block, also of a dark tone. The spatial positioning of the figures is intentional and has a particular significance in each case: they are positioned in the sphere below, the sphere above and the sphere in between these two, thus symbolising the trinity of these worlds. The unworldly state is defined as a kind of in-between position on the borderline between life and death, outside and inside, above and below. The passage between the worlds is possible in an individual way but it can also be achieved spiritually, through the collective unconscious.
The first sculpture in the Melancholy series, subtitled Falling, in which we must fly (Pilinszky: Temptation – excerpt), is a male nude standing on a blade-like diagonal, dominating the exhibition space with the dynamics of moving out of the space. The state between departure and arrival is captured by a defenceless figure standing above eye level, akin to the Ecce Homo image of Christ. The body awaiting judgement is exposed, waiting for its fate to unfold. The work captures a state of tipping out of balance, a moment when everything is still open, anything can happen, and it is up to the viewer to predict the outcome. Thus, the work expects active thinking and participation from the audience.
The second work of the series, subtitled “However wide creation / It is narrower than the barn” (Pilinszky: Enough – excerpt) is a full-figure sculpture showing a reclining male nude at eye level, in a metal slab protruding from the wall. The floating figure symbolises the in-between state of existence, reminiscent of the primal state in the womb, but it could also capture the moment before passing. As with Mantegna’s Dead Christ, the viewer can only see the body of the sculpture in foreshortening, unable to make contact with its – closed – eyes, just like in the case of the previous sculpture above us, standing on the diagonal.
In the third work, subtitled “You left the light on in the corridor” (Pilinszky: A Four-Liner – excerpt), the figural element is a concrete head sculpture, enclosed in an illuminated, partially open iron box, waiting for the viewer to stop in front of it. Passing along the corridor-like path, we enter an interim space, which may symbolise the road to birth and death. Arriving at the head, the visitor tries to face the sculpture, which is oddly impossible. The sculptural-technical brilliance of Menasági is the creation of ‘the gazeless eye’, which conveys a kind of emptiness but at the same time an eternal sight exalted to a sacred dimension. Confronting these sculptures inspires us to engage in a spiritual encounter with ourselves, enabling us to contemplate and appreciate the values of life with melancholic awareness. The three sculptural figures of the Melancholia series capture a state of existence that is expanded into infinity and goes hand in hand with living through the difficulties of life, acknowledging the warning of memento mori and embracing the philosophical contents associated with it.
Réka Fazakas, curator of the exhibition
He lives and works in Gyermely.
He graduated in sculpture from the Hungarian University of Fine Arts in 1999, under the supervision of István Bencsik and Zoltán Karmó. In 2009 he received his DLA from the Faculty of Arts at the University of Pécs, where he habilitated in 2021. He has been teaching as a senior lecturer since 2010 and as an associate professor since 2017. He has headed an independent class at the Department of Sculpture at the Hungarian University of Fine Arts. Since 1996 he has regularly exhibited his work at domestic and international exhibitions and participated in symposiums. His most important public sculptures are: Péter Mansfeld Monument, 2004, Budapest; Locked Door, National Monument to the German Minority of Hungary, 2006, Budaörs; Portrait of Dr. Ignác Szabó, 2018, Tatabánya. He represents a dominant trend in Hungarian art with his autonomous non-figurative and figurative sculptures. Balancing on the border between the sacred and the profane, his works explore fundamental questions of existence. He mainly uses traditional techniques, rendering them in a contemporary way. In addition to his small sculptures, his monumental public sculptures also demonstrate a distinctive and original path. His work has been recognised with numerous awards, including the Munkácsy Award in 2018.