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The Eight, The Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest
The exhibition space is dark and quiet, in stark contrast to the illuminated and ornately-adorned primary corridor of the Szepmuveszeti, Budapest‘s Museum of Fine Arts. Crossing the threshold into the Eight, the reverence for the group of Hungarian painters for which the halls were erected is overt.
The exhibition stands in solemn homage to a group of painters——Róbert Berény, Dezső Czigány, Béla Czóbel, Károly Kernstok, Ödön Márffy, Desző Orbán, Bertalan Pór, Lajos Tihanyi— aptly named the Eight, who sprung onto the scene at the turn of the century, their progression paralleling and anticipating that of French Modernism.
The Eight, which comes to an end soon, on September 12, provides a complete, exhaustive portrait of the group’s oeuvre by structuring itself around its three concurrent Budapest shows (1909, 1911, 1912), highlighting the founding role of the Circle of Hungarian Impressionists and Naturalists (MIÉNK), Kernstok’s work in Nyergesújfalu and the long series of works conceived in Paris.
The first series of works makes quite blatant the connection between the Hungarian posse and the Modernist trends that were flourishing in Paris, where most of them studied and were thus well-positioned to absorb and interpret the movement themselves. Here you can see Fauvism, especially Cezanne’s perspective from Provence, in Kernstok’s Landscape in Nyergesújfalu, and Matisse’s primitive and broad-brush stroke style in portraits like Keroly’s Nude of a Boy Leaning Against a Tree and Marffy’s Colored Female Nude. (Include the latter below.)
But where the French vanguard’s influence is explicit, so is the distinct deviation from it simultaneously present—and this is precisely what makes the Eight so interesting. While the close aesthetic connection between the Fauvists and the Eight is nearly indistinguishable at times, it can be deceiving and if you don’t look close enough, you’ll miss something really powerful in the images.
The Eight sneakily deceive the audience with its technical virtuosity and institutional niceties—that is, the presence of a clear subject and realism present even in some of the most Fauvist pieces—then dismantle those same expectations and niceties by subtly perverting, in general, the images we maintain of reality, and, in particular, those we maintain of ourselves.
The last hall ,which appropriately features the Eight’s final exhibition, the National Salon of 1912, where the rupture between the more Modernist members (the “Berény Branch,” as dubbed by curation) and the Fauvist ones (i.e. Kernstok and friends) is palpable, epitomizes this effect. This was easily my favorite selection of work: The intermingling of classic Arcadian scenes and Impressionistic portraits fused Cubism gave the complete oeuvre a timeless, contemporaneous effect. Here the portraits simultaneously depict a clear subject, yet drive it to abstraction by blending bodily contours with the fore or background or subtly distorting the image, and by extension, our perception of reality.
Róbert Berény, Nude Sitting in an Armchair (1911)
Take Bereny’s Nude Sitting in an Armchair (1911), which portrays a naked woman: legs bent and curled toward her chest, arms splayed out at her sides, hanging loosely over the chair. Her skin, bathed in an orange glow, contrasts deeply with the bold red of the chair and the soft white of the pillow. It is not the colors, however, that are most magnetic, but her face, or more specifically, her head: It’s deformed.
By presenting us with a “simple” image, i.e. a lounging nude, but then perverting or distorting it, Bereny demands a closer look, a different perspective. He forces us to look at the image anew, more critically, indeed, he forces us to take a new look at our own bodily contours and images of the Self.
Bereny’s Idyll (1911) does the same by presenting a woman—large, vaguely disfigured body and a face covered with loose, brown hair—undressing before a black-suited man who lounges on the grass with his back to us. The scene, rendered as if the woman is sprouting forth from the man’s belly, is almost Biblical or mythic, like a reinterpretation of The Birth of Venus. Bereny, then, blends a smattering of époques and techniques to establish a rather traditional scene, only to subvert it afterwards by disfiguring the image of the woman, as well as creating a sense of one-dimensionality. Once again, he challenges us to look much harder to reconcile the contradictory images and feelings the work instills in us.
The Eight will run Tuesday-Sunday from 10a.m. to 6p.m. and until 10p.m. on Thursdays with special museum programs until September 12. Visit the Museum of Fine Arts’ website to learn more www.szepmuveszeti.hu and www.mfab.hu.
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