László Lakner: Seamstresses Listen to Hitler’s Speech (1960)

- 30 June 2011 – 15 January 2012

Hungarian society under the regime of János Kádár was yet to face up to the repressed trauma of the Holocaust. This artist – very young at the time – defied the collective amnesia, and his provocative painting posed uncomfortable questions and urged reflection on the past, challenging the responsibility of the individual – it touched on issues that had been swept under the carpet of public social discourse. Hungary has still not dealt fully with these suppressed traumas, and the potential threatening consequences of this have an effect even on today’s society. This makes Lakner’s work all the more relevant, being not merely a depiction of the age of the Holocaust, but also a graphic representation of the way people must live in totalitarian societies and the mechanisms of power that dictatorships employ: the mass psychosis of the frenzied, propaganda-manipulated crowd, and the menacing atmosphere generated by this schizophrenic state of mind.

Rejected by the official jury, and even only accepted with uncertainty by his more progressive colleagues, the painting was bought in 1970 by an Italian married couple of biologists, and only made its return to Hungary this year; the owner, Roberto Tosi, has very generously loaned it on long-term deposit to the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts.Lakner presents this to us in a documentary way: his dispassionate, inexorable work was at once a painterly and a political statement. If regarded as the earliest example of a medium-conscious, self-reflective use of photography (based on a photograph accompanying a 1937 article in a German magazine) – presaging and preceding by many years the advent of hyperrealism – it is much more than just a technical innovation, by virtue of its radical interrogativity and its political richness. Even in this early work, Lakner presents the Holocaust as the universal experience of existence by twentieth century humankind, as a modern condition humaine (as in the artist’s later paraphrases of Celan). If this painting had been displayed to the public at the time, it would have caused a total upset of the illusory idyll of the age that was founded on collective forgetfulness, since in addition to referencing the past, it also held up a distorting mirror to the contemporary reality of the Kádár period, just a few years after the suppression of the revolution.

The two-language catalogue published to coincide with the exhibition, with more than 100 pages illustrated with numerous lesser-known early works by Lakner, describes the eventful and fateful history of the painting, its context in the history of art and the iconography, its “pictorial rhetoric” and its relationship with classical art. As expressed by the famous German essayist, Manfred de la Motte: László Lakner is not just the “classicist of the avant-garde”, he is also the “avant-gardist of the classics”: this early painting of his is rich in classical allusions and art historical references, which are further accentuated by the “auratic” galleries of the Museum of Fine Arts (as has been shown by previous showcase exhibitions of his work in this museum). The white lace collars of Dutch group portraits and Van Eyck’s boldly executed convex mirror are all saluted in the painting, though the idyllic beauty of classical painting and the luscious pathos of traditional portraits of seamstresses (on display in the neighbouring showcase) turns into something nightmarish at the end of Lakner’s “surnaturalist” brush.

Lakner has emphasised several times that the spirituality of the demonic visions that he painted at the start of the sixties has an affinity with the spectral works of Francisco de Goya. “The sleep of reason produces monsters,” is the Spanish master’s oft-heard quotation, but frequently what we experience after waking up is more absurd than dreams – this is the experience of both Franz Kafka and László Lakner, and it never ceases to be relevant.

Dávid Fehér

László Lakner biography

1936 – Born 15 April in Budapest

1954-60 –Studies at the Hungarian Academy of Fine Arts, Budapest, under Gyula Pap and Aurél Bernáth

1963, 1964 – Study trips to Italy, visit to the Venice Biennale

1968 – Grant of the Museum Folkwang, Essen; one month in West Germany and Switzerland; participation in the first “Iparterv” exhibition, Budapest

1969 – First Solo Exhibition in the Institute of Cultural Relations, Budapest

1972 – Four months in guest house of Folkwang Museum, Essen; participation in the exhibition “Grafica d’oggi”, Venice Biennale

1974 – DAAD Scholarship, Berlin Artist’s Programme; settles in West Germany, moves to West Berlin; solo show in Ludwig Museum, Aachen

1976 – Award of the Paula Modersohn-Becker Stiftung, Bremen; participation in the Venice Biennale, International Pavilion

1977 – Deutscher Kritiker Prize, participation in Documenta, Kassel

1979-80 – Guest Professor at the Freie Universität Berlin, Department of Art History

1980-81 – Grant at P.S. 1, New York

1982-2002 – Professor, Folkwang Universität der Künste, Essen

1990 – Participation in the Venice Biennale, “Ambiente Berlin” (Central Pavilion)

1998 – Kossuth Prize of the Hungarian Republic

2000 – Acquisition of “Self-Portrait with Auto-Timer” (1970) in collection of the Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

2004-2005 – Retrospective exhibition in the Ludwig Museum, Budapest Lives and works in Berlin

Curator of the exhibition: Dávid Fehér

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