On Quarters, Werk ohne Autor and What the Choir Overlooks

As I had started to learn the names of periods, movements or styles in art history, I was soon conditioned to obligate myself to associate innate values and qualities to the works I looked at thereafter. The most consistent and decisive part of my education consisted of walking in the city, looking at facades and analyzing them with my mother and on a few occasions with my grandfather.

An art deco stairwell, commented my mother, as we passed by a house in Budapest’s prestigious quarter Lipótváros and I felt it’s the assessment of good taste to adore the elegance of the marble, the refined bend of the lobby and the illustrious people who inhabited the building. The neighboring district Újlipótváros is known for its relatively uniform Bauhaus architecture. There I was told about the social impact of functionality, and from these conversations a vague, chaotic image of egalitarianism, interwar Jewish life and the redefinition of protestant restraint in style and consumption started to take shape in my mind. Later, I wondered about the world in which I had never lived, when the distinguished beauty of Breuer Marcell’s chairs could represent accessibility and modesty.

I’ve always had a strong affection for what I identified as socialist art[1] in sculpture and architecture. The different reputation, the lack of self-evident worship was just as clear and perceptible as the contrasting esteem in the former examples. Only in one specific circumstance, in the case of anti-fascist monuments, did I hear approving remarks from my grandfather, who began his career in art at a time when resisting the expectations of socialist realism was an act of self-liberation. Given his outlook, these remarks were never truly connected to the artwork, which was merely the backdrop to a story about the heroic victory of the Allies.

(A grandiose memorial by Makrisz Agamemnon, facing the Danube.)

(A Raoul Wallenberg memorial, originally by Pátzay Pál, in one of the beloved parks of my childhood, the guardian of the ruthless football matches that took place behind it. Wallenberg being a persona non grata in Stalinist Hungary, the original 1949 statue was displaced to the countryside on the night of its unveiling and utilized there as the symbol of a pharmaceutical company. This is the 1999 remake of the original statue. The park was home to a statue of Hungarian philosopher, Lukács György until the anti-communist municipal government ordered its removal in 2017. A soulful partisan memorial, the work of Kovács Ferenc and Szász Smiedl Ferenc survives, hidden by the trees around it.)

For more art-related discussions I had to wait until my mother got the opportunity to move into a studio for half a year, which was part of an immense atelier house, located in the middle of Budapest’s traditional proletarian district. At the age of 15, this was my introduction to the purpose of rousing class consciousness and transcending social determination. Researching the past of the atelier house and its working-class neighbors, to gather and record an oral history of acquaintances, friendships and mutual influences would be a noble endeavor for someone to one day undertake. At the moment, I can only speak for myself: the formative months I spent there in awe of the 1957 building and a nearby fountain from 1961 helped me to deconstruct a hierarchic order of styles. That was the process of naturalizing my appreciation: for the first time in my relationship with Budapest, works from the time of the one-party state didn’t appear as inconsiderate interference to the organic development of the inner city; I saw them in constancy and coherence which enabled a curious and responsive gaze.

(relief by Madarassy Walter)

(work of Vedres Márk)

Despite a growing attentiveness to state art in the Eastern Bloc on society’s part,[2] serious and unbiased conversations about the period are still rare. It’s both too obscure a topic for mainstream film critics to address, and the elitist writers, who are driven increasingly away from the guiding principles of modern art, are just as likely to ignore it as well.

In this regard, I found the reception of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Werk ohne Autor symptomatic.

I understand the sentiments concerning the artificial and commercial-like reimagining of Dresden and the camera entering of the gas chamber, but the film’s intensity and unusual (anachronistic) robustness won me over.

In my opinion, the most conflicting directorial decision was the opposition of Professor Seeband and the NKVD officer – obviously the opposition of a stylish highbrow with a commitment to preserve Western culture and the animal-like barbarian who came to destroy it. Whether it was an unlikely moment of blindness or von Donnersmarck’s conscious concept to foreground a Nazi’s perverted self-presentation, this foolhardy step was so implausible that it made me more curious than alienated.

With all the criticism and Gerhard Richter’s disapproval in mind, my liking of the film has not diminished since I first saw it back in 2019. Now, I only deal with one particular instance of injustice that was omnipresent in the reviews. I reduce my focus because much more than expressing my general fondness, I would like to emphasize the perspective-defining power of personal backgrounds. This seems to be trivial but takes a backseat to the surrender to uniformity.

While many objected to the unserious depiction of the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, the treatment of the East German art scene was mostly neglected or only discussed from the viewpoint of Richter’s own self-curating (in fairness, this brought valuable references into consideration such as Margret Hoppe’s fascinating series, Verschwundenen Bilder).[3] Other than that, it seems as if the unimportance of the period was preconceived in the critical understanding, as if any engagement with its filmic portrayal was inherently worthless. One critic decided to express his dislike by saying that below the artistic level of Richter’s masterpieces, the film shares the quality of his socialist-realist daubs. This popular misjudgment overshadowed the unprejudiced kindness von Donnersmarck showed to the professor of the Dresdener Kunstakademie, whose profound belief in communism and art without individualist objectives was respected and dignified by the film. In this case, von Donnersmarck’s instinctive ability to avoid scorn and mistrustfulness was destined to remain overlooked because of the unquestioned indifference for the subject of his elevating empathy.

This is not to say that the film would romanticize the professor or fail to perceive that he was imposing the orders of a dictatorship on a reluctant and unhappy student. If that justifies ignorance, I am uncertain if contemporary art is worthy of discussion in light of the binding prescriptions and censorship of the artworld.

As to the film’s relation to the artworld; it essentially belongs to an outsider. It is formed without the intention or intellectual dedication to obtain a thorough comprehension of the difficultly accessible artworks. The skeptical ridiculing in von Donnersmarck’s view of the apparently insubstantial artistic experiments is the puzzled reaction of a stranger. He identifies with the insecure visitor who doesn’t want to feel silly for not seeing the emperor’s new clothes but he does this with enough self-doubt to recognize a potential oversight. In comparison with The Square (Ruben Östlund, 2017), a more seriously debated and prized film, this generalization is easier to forgive than the “critique” of a self-satisfied cynic who relies on festival inbreeding and verifies his commentary with the stamp of internal knowledge.

The well-meaning and likable simplicity is revealed best in the personality of the other professor who is based on Joseph Beuys. Not without mannerisms or an intuition for scintillating demonstrations, in a memorable scene he still comes off as the most matter-of-fact and responsible character in the film, encouraging introspection and concrete ideas, opposing the unfathomable obscurity associated with the genius-cliché.

Kurt Barnert, the film’s protagonist, acquires useful expertise during his time in Dresden. The mural he is assigned to paint is an overwhelming, heartfelt tribute not only to the working class but to his own talent. Because even commissioned art, even in a despised style can tell a lot about the creator. The minor lessons of an oversized film.

[1] Which includes socialist realism but it would be imprecise to use the term. Different styles intertwine in the artworks I refer to and the uncompromised statuary of Berlin, Sofia or Moscow is barely present on the streets of Budapest anyway.

[2] I especially recommend this undertaking by Katharina Roters: https://rukkola.hu/konyvek/209783-hungarian_cubes

[3] Cited by Hungarian aesthetician, György Péter: https://www.artmagazin.hu/articles/archivum/a_megfoghatatlan_gerhard_richter