Interview with Edit András on her research in Hungary

In many cases gender representation in the socialist period was marked either by the continuity in or the transformation of traditional gender roles. Could you describe how and which tradition was continued or transgressed under socialism? The re-establishment of nation-states in the 1990s coincided with a return to conservative agendas. How do artworks created after the 1990s address traditional gender patterns?

In socialist Hungary the “modernist lie”-to use Griselda Pollock’s expression-was taken seriously: women were considered equal partners if, in following the unwritten rule, they denied their own gendered experiences and points of view and accepted the “universal” phallocentric perspective. This position was reinforced and corroborated by socialism’s official ideology that proclaimed equality between the sexes. Suppression of gender politics within unofficial art circles occurred in accordance with a need to form alliances with male fellow artists representing the oppositional position, and for the sake of unanimity, giving priority to macro politics at the expense of “micro politics.” The official and unofficial scenes supported this hierarchical structure by reversing their positions in relation to politics: state cultural policy appropriated political art while counter-cultural forces, as a response, identified with “apolitical” modernism and its claims of freedom of individual expression. After the 1990s the business of deconstructing the modernist paradigm still remained unfinished in Hungary and, as such, it was mixed in with addressing questions of inherited gender construction.

Your research shows that in socialist Hungary women artists were confronting rigid patriarchal professional and social structures. In the 1960s and 1970s works by women artists containing feminist messages were often realized in marginal media: textiles (Zsuzsa Szenes, Csilla Kelecsényi), performance art, and conceptual pieces (Orsolya Drozdik, Zsuzsi Ujj, Dóra Maurer, and Judit Kele). Aiming for recognition the painter Ilona Keserü had to change from essentialist, sensual female body representation to abstraction. Could you comment on the position of women artists in the 1970s to1980s and also point out early feminist activities (the Textile Art Colony in Velem)? How would you interpret the merger of issues of gender and political resistance in some of the practices?

Actually, in the late 1960s and early 1970s textiles were not considered a marginal genre, neither locally nor internationally, only retrospectively can it be seen as such. In its heyday textiles attracted not only a number of primarily female artists but also leading male critics, like Péter Fitz or András Bán, even László Beke, one of the main figures of the neo-avant-garde etc. On the one hand it served as a valve, which enabled the unofficial art scene to pulse together with the international scene; on the other hand it provided a platform for experiencing a relative sense of creative freedom of expression, since the field was not as closely monitored as the leading genres, painting and sculpture. So, it was considered marginal and uninteresting only by official cultural policy. Zsuzsa Szenes is a very intriguing figure in that she was constantly mocking and softening the image of her respected and powerful, dissident conceptual artist husband, Miklós Erdély. As far as performance and conceptual art are concerned, I would not consider these to be gender-specific media in socialist Hungary. Practiced equally by male and female artists, any real differences in the works had to do with how the methods and concepts were employed. Csilla Kelecsényi, Judit Kele, and later Zsuzsi Ujj used their own bodies, exposing themselves to extreme conditions, and making references to their own life experiences or to the body of the abused woman. Zsuzsa Szenes and Dóra Maurer are artists of the time whose practices truly interweave gender issues and political resistance. Some of their works clearly show that behind the Iron Curtain, contrary to the situation in the West, “the political is personal.” Zsuzsa Szenes’ knitted booth Against the Cold in General (1978) resists the militant attitude prevalent in the Socialist countries of the Cold War era, adding a special feminine flavor to it through feminine handcraft. Dóra Maurer in her performance, What can one do with a paving stone? (1971) treats the symbol of riot and revolution as a substitute for a baby claiming back the tenderness and affection which was expelled from the equally militant movement resistance. Ilona Keserü’s work has more in common with the work of other Eastern and Western women artists in abandoning a woman’s point of view and experiences in order to receive recognition and acknowledgment.

Since the 1990s issues of gender have become relevant for many artists of the younger generation who critically and ironically expose stereotypes of gender representation (the artist duo Little Warsaw [Kis Varsó], Kriszta Nagy), sexism (Kriszta Nagy, Imre Gábor), division of gender roles and territories (Eszter Ágnes Szabó, Ágnes Eperjesi), and gender power relations (Ilona Németh). Was this partly facilitated by the advancement of feminist theory and gender studies in the 1990s? Is there a correlation between the art practices of women in the 1960s-1980s and the works of contemporary artists?

Although the CEU (Central European University) has had a department of gender studies from its very inception, due to a lack of emphasis on art and art history in its curriculum, as well as being isolated from the local art scene, it had virtually no impact on the scene itself. One could easily say that feminist theory and gender studies had absolutely no influence on the Hungarian art scene. Even artists whose practices, attitudes, stated concerns, and work could be read from a gender-based perspective loudly reject any connection with feminism. In the professional field gender analysis is still not taken seriously. From an art historical perspective it might be possible to trace connections between the practices of successive generations of women artists, but today’s generation of artists hardly knows about or is interested in the practices of women before them. The reason for a lack of communication, for instance, between the still active members of the Velem-based Textile Art Colony and today’s artists who deal with gender issues might be due to a simple gap in knowledge about their diverse activities. An appropriate evaluation and recognition of their activities beyond the specifics of textile art-which, in any case, has not even been properly recognized within our own recent art history-is still lacking and therefore has not received due importance in our art historical writings.

Edit András, Research Hungary

Edit András holds a PhD in Art History and is a senior research fellow at the Research Institute for Art History of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in Budapest. Research areas include modern and contemporary art and art theory in the United States and in Central and Eastern Europe and Russia, art theory related to the transition in post-Communist countries, conceptual art, gender studies, public art, etc. She has published extensively in these fields, among her most recent publications are Cultural cross-dressing. Art on the ruins of Socialism (Kulturális átöltözés. Művészet a szocializmus romjain, 2008), Dancing the Tight Rope. Essays on Contemporary American Art (Kötéltánc. Tanulmányok az ezredvég amerikai képzőművészetéről, 2001). She is the editor of the book Transitland. Video art from Central Eastern Europe 1989-2009 (2009). Edit András lives in Long Island, USA, and Budapest.