Prints and Politics: The Mako Graphic Artists' Colony

Updated: Aug 31


By Krisztina Uveges | Certain forms of expression burgeoned throughout the 1970s Hungarian art scene despite a political climate that restricted personal freedom. Within the small city of Mako, photography and industrial printing became the key munitions to arm a creative revolution: the Mako Graphic Artists’ Colony.

Mako, a southeastern city close to the Romanian border, experienced a cultural boom oriented towards modernity already in the 1920s. The famed composer of modern music Bela Bartok and classical pianist Annie Fisher performed concerts in Mako, while leading painter and printmaker Gyula Rudnay led an annual summer school. However, it was not until the 1970s that the city became an epicenter of photo-based printmaking experiments. Every summer for over a decade, curious painters, printmakers, photographers and conceptual and performance artists tread along the freshly constructed avenues of industrial offset and screen printing.

THE CULTURAL AND POLITICAL HISTORY

Starting in the late 1950s, the Fluxus movement introduced events and happenings into fine art pursuits, and the documentation of such groundbreaking actions survived only thanks to photographs and video footage. Conceptual artists took to the camera to record actions and research structure, movement and temporality. Parallel with the international trends of the 1960s, Hungary became a contemporaneous canvas for conceptual tendencies as outward-oriented independent artists and groups (e.g. Surnaturalists and the Iparterv Group) gradually broadened the boundaries of the local practice. The use of photography, both as a fine art medium and method for performance documentation, spread as well, a phenomenon first explored in the 1976 exhibition Exposition: Photo/Art1 at the Hatvany Lajos Museum.

Coincidentally, as the new genres emerged, a transition in the government’s political and economic policies occurred. In the second half of the 1960s, the New Left movements and the New Economic Mechanism2 introduced reforms in Hungary that relaxed many strict regulations on the cultural field. Such shifts transpired as the state provided better living conditions and increased accessibility to consumer goods in order to compensate society for the lack of democratic institutions.3 Ideological control persisted along with limitations on international travel.

The cultural policy of the Hungarian Socialist Workers' Party in the early 1960s redefined the social function of art as a tool to educate the population and shape their taste.4 To propel visual culture, the state funded new works of public art, such as mural paintings emblazoned on buildings,5 and attempted to modernize clothing and interior design.6 These policy changes largely affected the role of artists’ colonies, which had previously been considered as remote, tranquil refuges where artists could work in recluse. The state began to perceive the colonies as beneficial and directed local councils to fund them. As such, city museums commonly acquired the artworks produced in government-supported colonies, thereby enriching public collections and spaces. In the case of the Mako Graphic Artists’ Colony, the city was obliged to organize three exhibitions per year in the local museum to vivify the community’s cultural life. The provincial newspapers contributed as well by regularly publishing articles on the Colony’s events and interviews with the artists.

The redesigned colonies’ programs were attractive for artists around Hungary. While personal home studios and technical equipment did not always have the capacity to execute certain works, local factories involved in the programs enabled artists to create in large spaces and provided them with free materials. Due to the industrial cross-pollination around the year 1970, artists’ colonies sprouted throughout the country; one in Bonyhad made use of an enamel factory’s space and resources, whereas in Csepel, the metalwork factory granted access to sculptors.

THE NEW TREND OF PHOTO-BASED ART: 1960s–1970s

During the 1960s, Hungarian artists had several opportunities to encounter innovative trends in photo-based art, including printmaking. International journals and biennial catalogs that made their way into Budapest—available in few locations such as the library of the Hungarian Fine Art Academy, the Polish Institute and the Feszek Club—published news about foreign venues’ events. One pivotal European exhibition was documenta III (1964), which premiered multiples as works of art (both objects and prints) in Kassel, then West Germany. Pieces by Hockney, Dine, Kitaj and Tilson were displayed in one room of Galerie van der Schoene Aussicht, while another space presented prints by Oldenburg, Warhol, Rosenquist, Lichtenstein, Rauschenberg and Wesselmann.7 Despite the ongoing travel restrictions, some Hungarian artists were allowed to go abroad. Their visits to the Venice Biennale and other shows in the West immensely impacted their creative development. When Rauschenberg’s print Accident, a lithograph featuring photographic reproductions, won first prize at the 1963 International Biennial of Graphic Arts in Ljubljana, Slovenia, it helped diffuse awareness of photo-based printmaking across the Eastern Bloc. Artists Sandor Pinczehelyi and Ferenc Veszely also mentioned the influence of Jan Dibbets’ works on the Hungarian art scene.8 The Dutch artist’s conceptual prints, featuring images of deconstructed landscapes rebuilt through a photographic technique, were the first of their sort that came directly to Budapest.

One of the most important intermediators between the West and Hungary was painter Laszlo Lakner, who attended the 1964 Venice Biennale and witnessed Rauschenberg's Pop Art win first prize. Inspired, Lakner incorporated screen printing into his practice. His screen prints exhibited in 1969 at the Gallery of the Institute of Cultural Affairs in Budapest resonated deeply with the Hungarian fine art scene.9 Another local artist’s trip to the West significantly affected printmaking culture back home; while in Belgium on a pottery commission in 1972, Imre Kocsis, the visionary behind the Mako Graphic Artists’ Colony, stumbled into a printmaking workshop, encountered the process of screen printing and learned the procedure on the spot.10 He consequently printed Music Machine and the Camera series that year. In 1975, Kocsis published a thorough article introducing readers to the photo-based printmaking procedures—methods almost completely unknown in Hungary at the time.11

Image: Laszlo Lakner, Celan (Black Milk), 1986, offset print, 11 7/8 x 16 3/4 inches (30 x 42.5 cm), edition of 75, photograph by Diana Jamalia, courtesy of Arpad Toth, Neon Gallery, Budapest. Post-modernist thinking led to reinterpretations of semiotic awareness, which turned artists’ attention to signs and symbols. Laszlo Lakner (b. 1936) grew increasingly preoccupied with Paul Celan’s poetry; amazement with the author’s threading of “Schwarze Milch” (Black Milk) into the Holocaust-themed “Fugue of Death” prompted Lakner to transform the meaning of words and numbers by associating them with material characteristics, thereby helping the viewer come closer to the verse by re-reading the image (Celan (Black Milk), 1986).

Screen printing was still not easy for Hungarian artists to come by in the 1970s. The method was neither the part of the nation’s education programs nor inherent to its printmaking practice. Although printmaking students could train at the Academy, scant resources limited their opportunities. Professional graphic designers were able to exploit industrial screen printing at work, but otherwise, chances to find and test the technology outside of academia were rare. One of the few venues that offered screen printing as early as 1971 was the Pecs Workshop. Its members exercised assorted conceptualist approaches, and some of them, such as Karoly Halasz and Sandor Pinczehelyi, visited Zurich and Paris in the early 1970s.

THE MAKO GRAPHIC ARTISTS' COLONY: 1977–1990

In 1971, the Cultural Affairs Committee of the Mako City Council founded the Marosmenti Art Colony. Officials intended to communicate to residents via art while simultaneously resurrecting the 1920s tradition of Gyula Rudnay’s summer painting.12

Councilmembers initially invited local artists and educators working in printmaking, painting and textiles. However, their artistic production did not meet the standards expected by the city officials, who decided to reorganize the Colony. To that end, Imre Kocsis was appointed artistic director in 1976. Kocsis was born in Mako and had worked as a professor at the Faculty of Graphic Art at the Hungarian Art Academy since 1969.

Offset machine operator Istvan Arnoth (on the left) and printmaker Adam Keri in the print shop of the city of Mako, 1980. Photograph by Ferenc Veszely. Courtesy of Arpad Toth, Neon Gallery, Budapest.

A prolific printmaker acquainted with screen printing, Kocsis executed a decisive overhaul by inviting a new circle of artists to rechannel the Marosmenti Art Colony’s program. Under its director’s visionary leadership, Mako metamorphosed into a laboratory for experimentation with printmaking in which conceptual, photo-based artworks appeared next to the traditional narrative approaches.13 Artists spent three weeks at the Colony every July free of charge; the city also paid for the costs of the raw materials. In the beginning, the Colony was not well equipped for the new methods. Although a small screen printing machine existed, proper equipment and tools were unavailable. The challenge prompted artists to work with homemade screens and other items they fabricated. Moreover, the clichés (metal plate casts duplicating original matrices for photomechanical reproduction, also known as stereotypes) were produced in an adjacent town Totkomlos while the films were developed in the nearby city of Bekescsaba. But thanks to Kocsis, a photographic laboratory and a sheet film camera were set up at the Colony, allowing opportunities to employ photography. A Romayor 313 offset machine was later installed in 1977 with a 12 x 16 in (30 x 40 cm) printing surface. More importantly, Kocsis initiated the cooperation between the artists and the local industrial print shop. The staff introduced the Colony members to an industrial offset printing machine, an apparatus never before used for creative purposes. Interesting dynamics flourished within the print shop as the two parties crossed into unexplored fields.14 Despite some technical inconveniences, the domination of screen and offset printing that characterized the Colony’s program allowed artists to foster the first significant works representing the novel approaches...

[This article appears in full in the print and digital edition of Celebrating Print, Vol.3, No.2.]

Image top: Peter Gemes, Infinity on the Left Side, 1987, offset print, 11 7/8 x 16 1/2 inches (30 x 42 cm), edition of 75, photograph by Diana Jamalia, courtesy of Arpad Toth, Neon Gallery, Budapest. Featured on the cover of Vol.2 Number 2.

Notes

1. The exhibition was organized by art historian Laszlo Beke and artist Dora Maurer at the Hatvany Lajos Museum in Hatvan, Hungary, from October 24, 1976 to January 31, 1977.

2. The New Economic Mechanism, a major economic reform, was launched by the People’s Republic of Hungary on January 1, 1968.

3. Tibor Valuch, “A ‘gulyaskommunizmus’ valosaga” [The reality of the “goulash communism”], National Szechenyi Library 1956 Institute of Oral History Archive, accessed October 10, 2015, http://www.rev.hu/portal/page/portal/rev/tanulmanyok/kadarrendszer/gulyas.

4. The newspaper entitled Art regularly published articles on the general development of public taste. Gyula Xantus, “Tarsadalmi szukseg es esztetikai neveles” [Social needs and aesthetic education], Art, November 1961, 15–16; Imre Domonkos, “Az esztetika everol” [Year of the aesthetic], Art, September, 1964, 3–4.

5. To encourage investment in the arts, the so-called Two Per Thousand regulation was enacted in 1954. It provided directions for the sculptural decoration of residential, public and industrial buildings that followed socialist realist urban design principles. The central state budget funded these commissions until the 1990s.

6. The project was the so-called National Home Furniture Design Competition, launched in January 1959 and linked to the new housing estates in Obuda, Budapest. See: Marta Branczik, “Tipustervek es korszeru lakasok: az Obudai Kiserleti Lakotelep” [Types of layouts and modern apartments: The Obudai experimental residential housing] in Marta Branczik and Markus Keller, Korszeru lakas 1960: az obudai kiserlet [The up-to-date apartment 1960: The Obuda experiment] (Budapest: Budapesti Torteneti Muzeum, 2011), 85.

7. Karin Stengel and Harald Kimpel, eds., documenta 4 1968: Internationale Ausstellung; Eine Fotografische Rekonstruktion [documenta 4 1968: International exhibition; A photographic reconstruction] (Bremen: Edition Temmen, 2007), 12.

8. The 1977 exhibition entitled Hat Holland muvesz [Six Dutch artists] presented at Mucsarnok was the first major show of conceptual printmaking for Budapest. See: Ferenc Veszely, interview by Arpad Toth, 2009 (unpublished research, The Mako Graphic Artists’ Colony Archive, Neon Gallery, Budapest).

9. Janos Brendel, Lakner Laszlo budapesti munkassaga 1959–1973 [Laszlo Lakner’s oeuvre made in Budapest 1959–1973] (Budapest: Uj Muveszet Kiado, 2000; Essen: Niessen Buch- und Offsetdruckerei, 2000), 38–39.

10. Imre Kocsis, interview by Krisztina Uveges, 2006 (unpublished research, The Mako Graphic Artists’ Colony Archive, Neon Gallery, Budapest).

11. Imre Kocsis, “Uj grafikai technikak” [New printmaking techniques], Art, October 1975, 30–33.

12. Istvan Szalma, “A Jozsef Attila Emlekbizottsag titkaranak jelentese” [The Attila Jozsef Memorial Committee's secretary], September 25, 1971 (unpublished research, The Mako Graphic Artists’ Colony Archive, Neon Gallery, Budapest).

13. Istvan Devenyi, interview by Krisztina Uveges, 2005 (unpublished research, The Mako Graphic Artists’ Colony Archive, Neon Gallery, Budapest).

14. Zsuzsa Antal, interview by Krisztina Uveges, 2005 (unpublished research, The Mako Graphic Artists’ Colony Archive, Neon Gallery, Budapest).

A full version of this article Prints and Politics: The Mako Graphic Artists' Colony by Krisztina Uveges appears in the print and digital edition of Celebrating Print, Vol.3 No. 2.

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KRISZTINA UVEGES is an art historian and curator who specializes in photography and performance art. She graduated from the Department of Art History at Lorant Eotvos University in Budapest. Uveges has curated over ten local and international exhibitions, including Miraculous System: Erno Tolvaly Retrospective Exhibition (2014) and her latest project, Image Tactics: The History of the Mako Graphic Artists’ Colony, 1977–1990 (2016), at the Ludwig Museum. She regularly publishes in journals, such as “Forbidden and Tolerated: Photo-based Graphic Procedures in the Seventies and Eighties” in Fotomuveszet [Art of photography] (2016) and others. Uveges works as a curator and librarian at the Ludwig Museum - Museum of Contemporary Art, Budapest.

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