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THE HUNGARIAN POST MODERN WORLD OF GYORGY KOVASZNAI

I was not familiar with the Hungarian animator, writer, and painter Gyorgy Kovasznai until I met animation historian and curator Brigitta Ivanyi-Bitter.  We sat on the jury of Animator Animation Festival in Poznan, Poland together last year.  She gave me a copy of her beautiful book about Kovasznai’s life and work.  It is based on her three years of research that culminated in the large-scale retrospective of his work at the Hungarian National Gallery in Budapest in 2010.  Her book is a companion to the exhibition.

Self portrait

Born in 1934, Kovasznai lived and worked from the late 50’s until his death in 1983, one of the most politically charged periods in modern Hungary.  His films and paintings mirrored the disillusion with the People’s Republic of Hungary and its Soviet imposed policies that ultimately let to the 1956 Hungarian Revolution.

Working at Pannonia Film Studio, the animation arm of the Hungarian Film Corporation, Kovasznai translated the bold images and bright colors of his paintings to the screen in cut outs and collage techniques.  In addition to 26 short films, he completed one feature film, Bubble Bath:  A Musical Special-Effect Film to the Rhythm of a Heart Beat He was at work on a second feature when he passed away at the age of 40 from Leukemia.

Kovasznai at work

Gyorgy often worked in collaboration with his friend and fellow painter Dezso Korniss.  In 1963 the pair made Monologue using paper cut outs and collage techniques.  Pannonia Studio had difficulty obtaining permission from the government censors to release the film because they did not understand his work; it didn’t fit into the usual boundaries of animation.  To quote art historian Andras Renyi “Kovasznai’s actual aspiration was to animate painting, which involves a completely different type of work than that of an animation artist in general.”  The film was eventually allowed to premier in Budapest where it was well received by the audience.

The pair worked together again on the 1964 experimental animation Young Man Playing the Guitar at the Old Masters Gallery.  This film was the only animation produced by Pannonia Films to be banned during the Socialist regime.

His 1964 Metamorphoses won the Gold Ducat Award at the Mannheim Film Festival.  He gained international recognition when it won the Festival Prize at the Miskolc Short Film Festival, which helped to ease pressure from the censors.

Kovasznai spent much of his life questioning the situation of the proletariat and moral issues about a career as an artist.  He studied painting for two years at the Hungarian Academy of Fine Arts before dropping out.  He later wrote, “I left because I thought the teachers were untalented and the atmosphere was dull.”  His next two years were spent working in coal mines, to avoid compulsory military service.

Returning to Budapest he worked in a shipyard and, subsequently at a Bakelite factory.  During this period he created The Miner series – Paintings that were eventually used in his 1965 film The Joy of Light Based upon his memories of life at the socialist mine works, the sound track for the film was made from his recordings of the words his fellow miners.

Cell from This is Just Fashion, 1976

In addition to animation and painting, Kovasznai was a prolific writer, leaving a sizeable literary output.  He wrote ten plays, several short stories and two novels, one of which, Times, was autobiographical.  Traveling in the underground literary and artistic circles he presented his writings at reading events organized secretly in private apartments, worked with illegal theatre groups, and directed his plays in private performances as well as taking part in private gatherings to listen to new classical and popular music from the West, all of which were illegal activities banned by the Soviet regime.

Brigitta Ivanyi-Bitter’s book is a must for anyone interested in Post Modern Art and Animation in Hungary.  The 332 page book is packed full of beautiful full color reproductions of Kovasznai’s paintings and film stills as well as photographs tracing his life from childhood to pictures taken of friends who gathered at the Feszek Artists’ Club for the Kovasznai banquet and commemorative evening in 1992.  The English translation is excellent and makes for a very smooth read.  The foreword written by Lorand Hegyi, one of Europe’s foremost curators and art historians, sets the stage for Brigitta’s analysis of the artist’s life and work.

After reading about Gyorgy’s life and work, the 3 DVD’s included in the book bring it all to life.  Included on the Short Films, 1963-1982 are a selection of works, including Young Man Playing Guitar at the Old Masters Gallery, the 1964 film that was banned by the Hungarian censors, and his last film Reportrait, completed in 1982.  A separate DVD contains the 1980 feature length film Bubble Bath:  A Musical Special-Effects Film to the Rhythm of a Heartbeat.   The third DVD contains the 2010 documentary by artist and director Igor Lazin is a formal analysis of the 1992 anima verite Reportrait by colleagues and contemporaries of Kovasznai.  It also contains a CD ROM with all of the digital reproductions from the book.

Twenty pages of appendices include a chronological biography and detailed filmography.  A complete listing of Gyorgy’s writings is divided into plays, novels, poetry and film scripts for easy cross-referencing.  Also included in this section are essays and studies, published criticisms and published essays.  Brigitta has also included a very detailed bibliography of publications that she used in her research.  For me the alphabetical glossary description of friends and colleagues who appear in the book was extremely useful.

For a firsthand look at Kovasznai’s work visit the English language website:  http://www.kovasznaigyorgy.hu/en/ which has a gallery of art work and biographical time line as well as  a section on Gyorgy’s writings  where you can hear an audio recording of his 1959 play in four acts, Conquesting the Mars.

The lovely coffee table sized book is priced at $56.00 USD or 43 Euros >TO ORDER e-mail:  info@kovasznaigyorgy