Beyond the Iron Curtain

It was around the above date that many people commemorated the thirtieth anniversary of the Pan-European Picnic near Sopron in 1989, a time during which the Iron Curtain dividing Europe was dismantled here, on the Western border of Hungary. Those of us who lived there at the time – whether we were young children or adults – all cherish some memory of the stormy events of that summer. We were affected by our parents’ excitement, took a piece of the iron curtain home with us, saw the masses of East German tourists, watched the television broadcast and it slowly dawned on us that an entire era in the history of Hungary and that of Europe had ended.

But what was this era like? To put it briefly and simply: it was the Kádár Era, the period of the post-1956 political system, the era of a gradually softening communist regime, an era whose art we have not yet found a name for. This period has its art policy and an art controlled by politics, but compared with the works created in literature, drama and film, less political attention was focused on the fine arts. Thus, it is hard to find a piece of fine art that captures the shared experiences and sentiments of this period with a sweeping force. When we look at the Hungarian fine art of the decades that we had left behind in 1989, can we discover a work which virtually conjures up the atmosphere of the Kádár Era, a work that can be regarded as an emblematic piece of these decades? There is one such work for certain: László Méhes’ cycle titled Lukewarm Water, painted in 1970.

László Méhes: Lukewarm Water I, 1970, Oil on fibreboard, 60 × 80 cm, Hungarian National Gallery

László Méhes (1944) as a painter belongs to the sixties. Although he studied under the great Hungarian master, Aurél Bernáth, he already lives in the world of pop art, the neo-avant-garde and photorealism. The experience of reality is supplemented by those of photographs and images about reality. The first piece of his series Lukewarm Water was also inspired by a postcard, which one of his friends sent him from the spa town of Hajdúszoboszló. After this he ordered several other photos from a local photographer who took pictures of the bathers. The dual objective of Méhes’s photographically painted work,  based on a photograph, is to preserve the “objectivity” of a photograph and at the same time, to express the representative character of a painted image. This is not a little photo that gets creased and can be slipped into our pockets, but a real painting to be exhibited in a museum.

It is interesting that many viewers described the bathers in the picture as overweight members of the petit bourgeoisie, flabby and sluggish people, and saw the painting as a “harsh critique” of the soft dictatorship, moreover, they even  “identified” the bathers wearing sunglasses as men of the secret police. In reality, the persons depicted here are rather ordinary in their appearance, not really overweight and they cannot really be described as petty bourgeois. These people are like us and our relatives. There could be hospital directors, sculptors and Kossuth Award laureates among them.

The peculiar tension is created by the portrait-like depiction. With only a few exceptions all the people look in the same direction, as if the photographer had instructed them to look into the lens of the camera. It is the picture of a group but it lacks an important characteristic of classical group portraits, namely the gestures and requisites indicating the connection between the members of the group and, not least, a thoughtful composition. Classical group portraits do not have people with their heads cut off from the picture, or those  “falling off” the edge. What is actually missing in Méhes’s picture is order: a system that would connect the people and designate their exact place. This is a picture of people present in the same place but not one of a genuine group. These people were simply washed together by the waves of the lukewarm water. They have neither individuality, nor group cohesion. Their essence was not changed by the fall of the Iron Curtain either. We can recognise in them our relatives from before 1989 and, let us be honest, we can recognise ourselves too.

21 August 2019


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