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The Financial Times - Animation: György Kovásznai stars at Miami Beach

A film by one of the most significant of Hungary’s Cold War artists graces the Art Basel Miami Beach film programme

NOVEMBER 25 2016 Next week, one of the films projected on to the giant outdoor wall of the New World Center by the Miami Beach Convention Center, as part of the Art Basel Miami Beach film programme, will be Memory of the Summer of ’74. It is a poignant and painterly animated work by György Kovásznai, a little-known Hungarian artist whose work had hardly been seen outside Budapest until this year.

Kovásznai, one of the most significant of Hungary’s Cold War artists, was born in 1934 and died in 1983. His works then disappeared from view, many hidden in a remote farmhouse, others suppressed by Soviet-controlled authorities. The recent swell of international interest that has brought him to Miami Beach gained pace in March this year, when Somerset House in London hosted a three-day show, Kovásznai: A Cold War Artist. Animation. Painting. Freedom, a phantasmagoria of his colourful art works including paintings, drawings and short animated films.

David Grynn, the ABMB programme’s curator, saw the “eye-catchingly seductive” film work at the Somerset House show. Created in 1974, it is a whirling reminiscence of the summer of 1968, with the hedonism of Budapest’s relatively gilded youth — shown bathing, dancing, flirting, eating ice cream — overshadowed by the USSR’s brutal crushing of the Prague Spring the same year, suggested by a careering, windowless train and an intrusive cockroach.

The animated film, in which every frame is a separate painting, is set against a soundtrack of 1960s and 1970s Hungarian pop. As Grynn puts it, “This has a magic I have not encountered before.”

Grynn is not the only admirer. The London show was accompanied by a weekend symposium which included the South African artist William Kentridge. It was mounted by the Kovásznai Research Center Foundation, set up 15 years ago by Kovásznai’s daughter and a group of the artist’s friends. In 2010 they took over a wing of the Hungarian National Gallery for a major retrospective.

The next year, alerted to Kovásznai’s work by friends and colleagues, and recognising a fellow outsider using the medium of experimental animation, Kentridge participated in a joint exhibition of their work at the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest. Kentridge said at the time, “What felt very familiar was the impetus and the essentialness and the emergency of making [in Kovásznai’s work]. That it felt like an emergency … There was kind of a collegial fury of creation that I got from him.”

The sense of emergency that Kovásznai felt came largely from his experiences in the political turmoil of postwar Hungary. Admitted to the Budapest College of the Fine Arts, he left in 1954 to spend 18 months working as a miner, before returning in 1956, only to be ejected before completing his diploma. From 1958 until 1974 Kovásznai wrote for and edited the Hungarian arts and literary journal Nagyvilág; he also began holding semi-illegal artistic gatherings at a friend’s house, which continued over the next 10 years. He was unaware, however, that the friend was informing the authorities on this “dangerous literary hooligan”.

Refuge was provided by the Pannonia Film Studio, Hungary’s main animation studio, where Kovásznai worked from 1961 until his death; his superior there, György Matolcsy, is to be thanked for the preservation of his work.

On show in London, as well as film, were luscious paintings in a variety of Modernist idioms, echoing Cézanne, Kirchner, Picasso and Matisse, but with their own partly surreal, partly romantic energy. There were pencilled sketches and philosophical cartoons, surrealist collages and dramatic paintings in mixed media of miners worming through tunnels. There was a series of vivid sexy paintings of Marianne, a cartoon version of Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People”, seen alongside multiple portraits, in thick oil on paper, of Danton, Marat, St Just and Robespierre, those fallen heroes of the French Revolution.

And there were the short animated films, which put together this material in kaleidoscopic sequences, with eclectic soundtracks including bird song, pop songs, voices and mechanical sounds. Their mood is by turns joyful and raging, lyrical and defiant.

Today, their energy exerts a direct appeal. As the academic and journalist Andras Szántó said earlier this year, “Kovásznai is a message in a bottle. It’s an extremely prescient voice that seems absolutely contemporary.”

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