Continuing its series of exhibitions featuring important figures of Hungarian art, this year the Hungarian National Gallery is staging an exhibition of the life-work of one of the most significant figures of Hungarian modern art and the avant-garde, Endre Bálint, on the 100th anniversary of his birth.
Bálint is one of the most enigmatic artists of our time. The explanation for this lies in his many-sidedness. He was a painter and a graphic artist, but he made objects, photo-montages, collages and monotypes too, as well as writing poetry and an autobiography. This original and diversified oeuvre was last seen by the general public in the Palace of Art, Budapest in 1984.
Among the 350 works in the exhibition there are several pieces that are new to the general public, having been hidden in private collections. The works are displayed according to various phases or in thematic units.
In the first hall are Bálint’s early works and those accomplished while he was a member of the European School that was later forced to break up. These were the years when he was searching for his own style, when the influence of Picasso and Braque as well as his countrymen Béla Czóbel and Lajos Vajda was most apparent.
The next bigger section centres on works showing a deepening of the surrealist vision of the 1950s, and the paintings linked to the time he spent in Sárospatak and at the artists’ house in Zsennye documenting the development of his characteristic language – in other words, the pictorial formulas and shapes recurring regularly in his compositions.
Alarmed by the situation after the revolution in 1956 – as well as having problems in his private life – Bálint left Hungary in 1957. In the course of his five year stay in Paris his art was enriched by new subjects, new motifs and new genres. He gained fame in 1958 when his illustrations for the Jerusalem Bible were published by the Édition Labergerie. Apart from the special edition comprising 45 coloured, whole-page illustrations and 1,250 black and gold illustrations within the text, numerous sheets of his original graphic work as well as Marc Chagall’s biblical illustrations are on display in a separate grouping.
The Catalan National Museum in Barcelona has lent the exhibition an exceptionally valuable work of art. Painted on a narrow beam, this piece from the thirteenth century has never before been loaned to a museum abroad. These unique medieval paintings inspired Bálint for a lifetime. He had the feeling of “déja vu” when he first saw them in Barcelona, and on his own narrow shaped paintings the inspiration of medieval Catalan art is clearly visible.
We can get an idea of Bálint’s years in Paris from a reconstruction of his Paris studio based on archive photographs. It was here that he worked on collages and photomontages which are also displayed in a separate unit.
For a while after Bálint returned to Hungary his pictorial work became more austere, and it was at this time that he discovered the world of objects. One of the most spectacular sections in the exhibition is the group of his objects, in other words, the artworks reinterpreting worn, broken and shabby objects arranged in an altar-like way. One can sense Bálint’s attraction to folklore in these simple everyday objects, often treated as rubbish, but even so revealing a personal fate. After the summers spent at the artists’ house in Zsennye and his six months’ scholarship to Berlin, his painting reached a colourful, monumental stage. At the same time, because of the poor condition of his lungs, he was forbidden to paint any longer, which meant that he went back to the genre of collage for the rest of his life.
Among the paintings, collages, monotypes and objects on display, many works have been brought back to Hungary from foreign collections – mainly in Paris. Apart from his own works, Bálint’s artistic periods are recalled by showing art from his contemporaries both Hungarian and foreign (Lajos Vajda, Béla Czóbel, Georges Braque, Marc Chagall, Pablo Picasso and Max Ernst) as well as documents, photographs and films, together with his creative milieu, evoked by his Paris studio and the description of the famous flat where he lived in Budapest at Rottenbiller Street no. 1.
Based on comprehensive research a new monograph has been written for the exhibition which includes so far unpublished documents, photographs, biographical facts, memoirs and a number of un-reproduced works.
The curator of the exhibition and writer of the Bálint monograph is art historian Marianna Kolozsváry, chief museologist of the Hungarian National Gallery.