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The Museum of Fine Arts – Hungarian National Gallery is proud to present the first retrospective in Central Eastern Europe of the life’s work of Sean Scully, one of the most important contemporary exponents of abstract art. His oeuvre combines formal reduction with referential complexity, geometric construction with vivid self-expression. Since the 1980s, Scully has developed his own unique pictorial language, built on a subtle synthesis of apparently contradictory qualities.
Starting with the early figurative experiments of the 1960s and the minimalist pieces from the 1970s, the exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts – Hungarian National Gallery encompasses every major period of Scully’s career: works from the 1980s, based on expressive bands of colour and giving off a sculptural feel (Adoration, 1982); groups of works associated with window and wall motifs (Window Figure, 2002); his unique landscape interpretations (Landline series, Wall of Light series); and his recent – and to many people surprising – turn towards figuration (Madonna series). Without following a strict chronological order, the exhibition displays the most important groups of works in thematic units, showing how Scully ‘opened up’ abstraction to objective references and metaphorical content. One of the most outstanding pieces at the Budapest exhibition is a new painting entitled Black Square (2020), which harkens back to the “pure feeling” painted by Kazimir Malevich in his iconic work of the same title. In Scully’s picture – exhibited to the public for the very first time at the Hungarian National Gallery – Malevich’s motif is wedged into the incandescence of a “romantic landscape” like a black hole, an objectified manifestation of the virtually palpable Nothingness and a metaphor of the contemporary situation, fraught with existential angst. The exhibition features around 110 works by Scully, from monumental paintings to works on paper, as well as a sculpture and a photographic work. Visitors are aided in interpreting Scully’s art by the artist’s own writings, notes and sketches, which are presented on the walls and in glass cases. Scully’s dialogue with the art historical past is crucial for understanding his oeuvre. Separate sections focus on his reflections on such major artists as Vincent van Gogh and Pierre Bonnard. Interpolated into the fabric of the exhibition is a painting by Bonnard, from the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, which further modulates this dialogue with the history of painting.
The title of the exhibition evokes Scully’s Passenger paintings, an enigmatically beautiful group of works in his oeuvre. In these pictures, the ground has another picture inside it – an inset, as the artist calls it –, which in every case is shifted from the composition’s vertical axis of symmetry. It is as though the inset had moved or were still in motion. The insets can be interpreted as lingering moving figures, solitary humans passing across the horizon. To use the artist’s own words, “The inset, or the inside, is a ‘Passenger’ within a bigger structure, that evokes a kind of mother-child association, something being protected or held by something bigger.” The association of the passenger and the mother-and-child turns the relationship between the ground and the inset into a metaphor for life: after all, what Scully deals with in his works is how forms and figures evolve and transform over time, and how their constellations progressively alter. All this is inextricably connected to personal experiences and memories, and there is also a possible hint at the role of travel and emigration in the artist’s life: Scully is of Irish origin but was raised in England, before settling in America, interspersed now and then with stays in Europe.
Over the years, Scully has devised a kind of emotional geometry, characterised by the dynamic of instinctiveness and intellectual reflection. The exhibition examines how Scully reinterprets the traditions and broadens the concept of abstract art: seen from the perspective of Sean Scully’s art, classical artworks and the history of painting appear in a different light.
The comprehensive picture of Scully’s art given by the exhibition is further enhanced by the accompanying bilingual (Hungarian and English) catalogue, with written contributions from the curator of the exhibition (Dávid Fehér) and from several eminent experts on Sean Scully’s oeuvre (David Carrier, Kelly Grovier, Raphy Sarkissian, and Arthur C. Danto). The catalogue also includes a rich selection of the artist’s own writings, many of which have never been published before.
The catalogue for the exhibition Sean Scully: Passenger – A Retrospective can be purchased in the MúzeumShop and online from the MúzeumShop webpage.
Curator: Dávid Fehér
The Major Sponsor of the exhibition is MVM Group.