Bringing the margins to centre

by Julia Secklehner (PhD student)

Organised by the Courtauld’s Professor Sarah Wilson, ‘Drawing on the sidelines’ was a conversation between the South African artist William Kentridge, the art historian András Szántó, the Director of the Animation Academy at Loughborough University Paul Wells, and Professor Wilson, about the the Hungarian painter and animator György Kovásznai (1934-1983) in particular, and the role of political artists in marginalized and isolated societies in general.

The parallels between Kentridge and Kovásznai’s works, an attention to mining movements as creative inspiration and a sign for political action for example, provided intriguing starting points to the discussion. Is it possible that societies which operate under heavy censorship and limit civil liberties are the key to artistic freedom? This was one of the questions the discussion centred on. As Kentridge explained, when his native South Africa was internationally boycotted, the Johannesburg art scene was nonetheless thriving. Why? Because he and his peers were not under the pressure to create something that related to the international art scene and their ‘great artistic forefathers’. Rather, they could fully focus on their own ‘emergency of making’, reacting to the restrictive world they lived in without having to worry how their work would be perceived in the wider cultural community.

William-Kentridge-in-conversation

One particular way this development manifested itself in East Central Europe, Wells argued, was through animation. While the medium today is largely known through pop-culture giants like Disney, Wells pointed out that animation, as is slowly being uncovered, was also used in the fine arts, particularly in East Central Europe. Next to Hungary, where Kovásznai lived and worked, there was a surge in puppet theatre in socialist Czechoslovakia for example, which could operate as a critical force of culture and class consciousness within the popular sphere. Particularly in reference to caricature, animation has a longstanding relation to the fine arts, Wells highlighted, not at least considering cubist experiments. Humour, in animation as in caricature, can function as a means of ventilation in oppressive societies, and for precisely that reason was not always as strictly censored as may be assumed – thus affording artists a greater liberties of expression through the ambivalence inherent in ‘a good joke’. Animation as a form of ‘marginalised fine art’ could operate in those oppressed societies of the 1970s and 1980s as a new form of expression among artists, articulating their own social utopia.

Another, unpredicted, aspect was Kovásznai’s use of gender in his work in reference to a brief piece of animation about the artist, which was shown at the beginning of the discussion. In the film, a number of women with large breasts were shown, which provoked the question how and why the female body was used as a means of mediation for political issues, poignantly highlighted by Professor Tamar Garb (UCL). To a large part, this issue remained unexplored, highlighting the fact that, when uncovering ‘forgotten’ artists like Kovásznai, basic frameworks first need to be established before considering their wider significance in society – including gender. There clearly was a shift towards the erotic in critical works created under oppressive regimes, which some art historians, like Martina Pachmanová in the Czech Republic, have begun to uncover – making it only a matter of time until Kovásznai’s work will also be taken under the lens of gender politics…

The gender question highlighted the crux of the conversation on the whole: there is an entire Central European avant-garde, which still remains to be explored. As Wilson emphasised, Central Europe is so close by, yet remains a ‘riddle to be opened’. As a region of so much cultural and linguistic variety that has long been marginalised for its ‘political otherness’, its ‘rediscovery’ through the likes of Kovásznai and the recent attention paid to fine-arts animation at Loughborough paves the way for a more inclusive art history and may just change the way we perceive those societies on the whole.

The exhibition ‘Kovásznai – A Cold War Artist. Animation. Painting.’ is shown at Somerset House 3-5 March 2015.