Comics in Post-Communist Hungary
Comics and communism haven’t always mixed. While Chairman Mao’s China pumped out millions of lianhuanhua, palm-sized propaganda mini-comics with one panel per page, Hungary was one of several East European nations to forbid comics as capitalist Western trash, apart from their own worthy, wordy graphic novelisations of classic novels, and obviously imports of Vaillant, later Pif Gadget, published by the French Communist Party.
After the change of system in Hungary in 1989, activists formed the grand-sounding but since disbanded Hungarian Comics Academy, while the free underground arts and literature magazine Roham encouraged experimental, self-expressive comics. It was in its pages that András Baranyai published his first forays into the medium, drawing on influences from his country’s fine art, illustration and graphic design from the past to conceive his own daring visual narrative constructions.
Baranyai’s distinctive aesthetics have also been welcomed into the art world, notably in a collaboration with muralist Richárd Orosz to transform the Chimera Project Gallery in Budapest into the immersive installation Renaissance Now (watch him painting it in the video above). “Our idea was to create a playful, illusionistic space using axonometry, and ‘space within space’ effects from Renaissance murals. We translated the title texts, integral to the murals, into Esperanto, an artificial, modern but quasi-dead language and a funny paraphrase of Latin.”
Born in Debrecen, Baranyai is currently working with Memento Park, one of Budapest’s more surprising recent attractions, which has re-sited monumental statues from the communist regime into an open-air museum. “The park’s director commissioned me to collaborate on a picture book for children (but I hope it will be enjoyable for adults too) to present the real history of communism.” Close to a graphic novel in spirit, its release later this year will coincide with the 25th anniversary of the political changes. So ironically it’s comics that will bring communism to life for Hungarians, some not old enough to have experienced it.
Now aged 39 (“I’m a late bloomer!”), Baranyai has many memories of that era. This perhaps explains the undercurrent of paranoia running through his circular, cyclical Strip created for ArtReview magazine, You Are Here (below), about state surveillance and neighbours spying on neighbours. Communism may be history in Hungary, but like those imposing communist monuments, it still casts a long shadow.
Here’s Baranyai’s full answers to my email interview with him:
Discovering your comics art from your exhibition and talk at the Lodz International Comics Festival in Poland last October was one of the big revelations for me at the Festival. It deserves to be much better known. Can you tell me about the current comics scene in Hungary - how has it started and developed, what are its activities and publications, who are the main activists?
The comics market in Hungary is narrow. We should call comics here a peripheral genre that is kept alive by enthusiastic creators, alternative publishers, collectors who are fans first of all. I can’t give you exact datas about it, but there are a few new Hungarian comic books published each year, most of them via alternative distribution, like little comic shops, festivals, the internet and a few years ago in the main bookstores. The creators don’t make a living by creating comics. Most of them work in different areas, as a graphic designer, illustrator, cartoonist, art director or copywriter.
To understand the current situation, I have to look back to the past. Before the change of system in the Communist regime, comics and graphic novels were generally adaptations of literature. There were great masters of that, like Ernő Zórád and Pál Korcsmáros, but the panels were heavily packed with texts, and the sort of independent culture of comics, like in Western countries or Poland or Yugoslavia, didn’t become reality. The sort of traditions of typical comic heroes and stories were missing, because the system considered it to be Western cultural trash. They did support Western comics published in Hungary, such as Pif Gadget obviously because that was the youth comics magazine of the French Communist Party. Apart from this, a huge number of graphic novels adapting literature were published, so we could call it a Golden Age of Hungarian comics. After the system changed, publishing of Hungarian was much more limited.
In the past ten yen years or so, some enthusiastic creative groups started up with different ambitions and concerns and the comic scene became more vigorous. The major player of this scene is the Hungarian Comics Academy. This community’s name name is ironic, but they tried first to revitalise the classic Hungarian comics and published their own comic stories and created their own comics characters. They produced and published their anthology titled Pinkhell, organised exhibitions and events in Hungary and abroad, founded the Alfabéta prize to award Hungarian authors each year. Later in 2010 they merged into the Hungarian Comic Association, which involves authors, publishing companies, collectors and fans. This association organises the comics life in Hungary, works to increase the reputation of comics in this country through events like the annual Hungarian Comics Festival, Comic Exchange Market and Hungarocomix. Some authors among them are Dávid Cserkuti, Zoltán Fritz, and Miklós Felvidéki. When I speak about the revitalising of Hungarian comics, I have to mention Antal Bayer, who is evidently an indispensable player in this scene. He is a translator, editor, organiser and researcher of the history of Hungarian comics and worked for the renaissance of the Hungarian comics life.
Another important player of the scene was Roham magazine, where I published my first comics. Their approach and ambitions were different to the Academy. Roham is essentially an underground art and literature magazine. This offered a platform for young writers to publish their novels and for graphic designers, illustrators and artists to illustrate freely, to present their artworks and create comics as a form to express themselves. In this case, comics is a way of artistic expression, experimental and free. The target group of the magazine are not primarily comic funs, rather young adults who are interested in art, and this kind of comics are closer to their interests. Roham magazine is art-directed by two Hungarian artists, Géza Szöllősi and Attila Stark. It was free, distributed in cafés, bars and clubs. The artists who worked for Roham organised exhibitions and events. Later, a Roham gallery and bar existed (above). Besides the two artists mentioned, the magazine published artworks, illustrations and comics by Zsolt Vidák, Tibor Kárpáti, Dóri Sirály and others. Roham and Pinkhell haven’t been published for years, though maybe a new issue of Roham will be published in the coming months.
I was excited to see the video you showed in Lodz about the Budapest gallery project where you transformed the interior into a narrative comics space (above). Please tell me more about this. How does the art world respond to your work?
The project was made for a new conceptual art gallery’s opening event in Budapest, called Chimera-Project. It was a collaboration with another Hungarian artist Richárd Orosz, who is well-known for his murals. The concept of the curators, who are the owners of the gallery (a Swiss-hungarian couple, Boglárka Mittich and Patrick Urwyler) was to cover the exhibition space based on the title “Renaissance Now!”, to visually redefine Renaissance art. Our basic reflection was to create a playful, illusionistic space with axonometry and painted spaces, using “space within space” effects which was a recurring element in Renaissance murals. The titles which are integral parts of the mural are in Esperanto, as an artificial modern, but quasi-dead language and a funny paraphrase of Latin.
What is happening with your ambitious graphic project about the history of Communism? I remember you talked about an amazing park of monuments from the Communist era.
Yes, this is the Memento Park, an open air museum in Budapest. When the political system changed in Hungary, the monumental statues of the Communist regime were removed from the streets and squares to a statue park. The statues of Lenin and the Communist leaders and other monuments collected in one park is now an attraction for visitors to Budapest. The director of the park asked me to collaborate on a book for children (but I hope it will be enjoyable for adults too) to present the real history of Communism. It will be a picture-based book, with the ambition of speaking in pictures about the different ages, historical events and local types of Communism: beginnings in Russia, the years of terror, the hard and soft system in Hungary, the revolutions against dictatorships in Eastern-Europe, Cuba, the Cold War, Berlin, everyday life in the system, etc. That’s an interesting challenge. Our plans are for it to be published in the second half of this year, for the 25th anniversary of the political changes.
Who are some of the writers, artists, poets, painters and designers from Hungary’s past - and present - whose work inspires your own? And why and how?
First of all, I’d like to answer to your question generally, because it’s hard to draw up for me why and how my favourites inspires my work exactly. I think it’s an organic process, far at the back of my mind. If I as a creator like another creator’s art, that obviously affects me and my works in different ways and different amounts. Answering your question,f or example, in Hungary’s fine art past, I like the constructed images of László Moholy-Nagy, Sándor Bortnyik and Lajos Kassák (who is also a poet), whose works belong to the most progressive trends in Europe in the 1920’s. I like that kind of combination of shapes, typography and image elements. I think, Sandor Bortnyik’s posters are among the best in Hungary. From the near past, Gábor Bachman’s deconstructivist installations, objects from the 1980’s-90’s, are inspirational for me. In these works, I love how he integrates an essential Eastern-European character into his art.
What new and future projects are you preparing - or dreaming about?
This year I’d like to make a comic book, I’m planning to create one with a friend of mine, who wrote the script. It’s a surreal crime story, from the viewpoint of different actors, like Kurosawa’s film Rashomon, but the approach is very different. I can’t tell you more about the approach, because it would be a kind of a spoiler alert. Further in the future I’d like to make a pop-up book and tell a story using the characteristics of that medium, but it’s a quite fresh idea.
How do you feel about communism’s influence and legacy, for better or worse, in Hungary today? How do you see comics in Hungary changing and developing in the coming years?
The influence lives on in a lot of people’s minds, even though almost 25 years have passed. In public life and politics some reflexes are still at work, with roots in the previous system. Depending on the state is one heritage of the socialist system. For example, in the art scene, a lot of people are convinced that the state has to support their work. And generally, in a large amount of the mass of the Hungarian society, there is a nostalgia for the Kádár era, because of the disappointment in the change of system.
About the comics, honestly, I don’t know. The verve of the past few years has slowed down or it’s stagnating. As I told you, the market is limited here and broadly stays within its borders, but I hope that the number of comic readers in Hungary will be on the increase. An important aspect is that we are confined by our language, so, if an author wants to reach a bigger public, he has to create wordless comics or publish his works directly in English or another language to get the chance to cross over to a wider scene.Posted: February 15, 2014
This Article originally appeared in ArtReview Magazine, March 2014.