Judit Reigle: A Restrospective

Opening speech by Márta Schneider and Jean-Paul Ameline on Tuesday 4th of October, at 6 p.m.

curators: József Készmann, Kálmán Makláry
consultant: Júlia Cserba Few in her native land – including those of the profession – are familiar with Judit Reigl’s art. The Hungarian public have had only two chances to see her work, at two group exhibitions: in 1982, at Homage to the Native Land she was presented as the expatriate artist; in the spring of 1992, at The Recent Past in France, she was a representative, along with Christian Boltanski, Louis Cane, Jochen Gerz, Raymond Hains, Alain Jacquet, Jean Le Gac, Anette Messager, Francois Morellet, Mimmo Rotella, Daniel Spoerri, Sarkis and Takis, of contemporary French art. Fifteen years had to pass before the first solo exhibition can now be arranged. Put on display in Mũcsarnok, this overview of the oeuvre is of great moment for both the artist and the public. Reigl can at last feel welcome again in her motherland, and we Hungarians will discover the work of an outstanding painter. Though the selection can only point out a few stages of a rich oeuvre, the catalogue enables a detailed account of the development of Judit Reigl’s career. This is all the more important as Reigl’s creative periods are marked by closely related cycles of works, one serving as the foundation of the other. “I work in cycles, like my outstanding paragons, J. S. Bach in music, and James Joyce in literature. Like a spiral, I always return to the starting point, only a stage higher.” The curators of this exhibition sought to highlight this peculiarity of Reigl’s work, and as a result sometimes deviated from a straight chronological order, and contrasted works which may have been created decades apart but are linked by a similarity in form and/or ideas. This is why the surrealistic The Temptation of St Anthony of 1951 appears in the company of New York, September 11, 2001, as both grapple with the problem of weightlessness, levitation.
« Et le meilleur moyen de savoir ce qu’on veut dire, c’est de vouloir dire la même chose tous les jours, avec patience, et de se familiariser ainsi avec la formule employée, dans tous ses sables mouvants. Jusqu’á ce que finalement, aux colles classiques sur l’expressionisme, l’abstraction, le constuctivisme ; le néo-plasticisme et leurs antonymes, les réponses se fassent tout de suit, complètes, définitives et pour ainsi dire machinales. » - írja Samuel Beckett . Reigl too works on a subject – often spending years with a cycle, as with Déroulement – until she can be certain all its potentials have been explored. This point is indicated by the painting itself, when it becomes, unconsciously, the beginning of a new cycle. For an in-depth discussion of the series, see the informed study of Jean-Paul Ameline, curator of the Musée National d’Art Moderne/Centre Pompidou, Paris.
“Like a spiral, I always return to the starting point, only a stage higher.” This time she has returned to the very first starting point, Hungary. Reigl was born in Kapuvár, in 1923. She was three when her father died, and her happy childhood came to a sudden end. She has never been keen on discussing this early phase of her life, but it certainly pressed its mark on the development of her personality, just as it must have steeled her against woes to come. In 1941 she started studying at the Budapest Academy of Arts, to become a teacher of arts, only to switch to painting a year later, under the tutorship of István Szõnyi. At the academy she made friends with Lipót (Poldi) Böhm, Antal Bíró, Simon Hantai and his wife, Zsuzsa Bíró, Sándor Zugor and sculpture student Ádám Sjöholm, who were all in the same year. As several of his friends, in 1946 she won a two-year scholarship to Rome. She spent four months in Vienna waiting for the Italian visa, but despite the indigence and hunger she had to endure there, she has fond memories of this period, as she and painter friends had a chance to familiarize themselves with the museums of the city, and attend cheap but excellent concerts almost every day. She is especially grateful to a friend, violinist Péter Szervánszky, who introduced her to great classic composers. When in Italy, she was less impressed by the local contemporary art than by the art of earlier cultures. She considers it one of the blessings of life to have been able to see – while travelling throughout the country by hitchhiking and on foot, in the company of Antal Bíró, Poldi Böhm and Sándor Zugor – the greatest relics of Greco-Roman, Renaissance and Baroque art, the most beautiful Byzantine icons, the mosaics of Ravenna, Paolo Uccello’s The Battle of San Romano in Florence, Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper in Milan, Piero de la Francesca’s frescos in Arezzo, along with works by Giotto, Masaccio and other great masters. The experience was so profound as to inform her work even decades later. Paintings that have survived from this period, a portrait from 1947 and Hitchhiking Between Ferrara and Ravenna from 1950 (painted after a drawing she had made in Italy two years before, and including portraits of Poldi Böhm, Sándor Zugor and herself, executed in a primitive Italian style) reveal an undisputable influence of what she saw. Of her later work, the Homme series may have suggestions of Signorelli, Michelangelo and Tintoretto, while the falling figures of New York, September 11, 2001 may recall Beccafumi’s fresco in the Palazzo Pubblico of Siena, Marcus Manilius Falls from the Capitol. These are of course not so much conscious links Reigl establishes as the subconscious surfacing of visual memories.
While she was in Italy, the political conditions became unstable in Hungary, and in the summer of 1948 grant payments were stopped. Moneyless, the artists who were studying in Italy had to return home, sooner or later. Reigl managed to stay for four additional months, living on portrait drawing, but eventually poverty and hunger had the upper hand, and she decided to go back to Hungary, especially because none of her friends wanted to stay abroad for good. Antal Bíró took to Sweden, whence he would go on, like Simon and Zsuzsa Hantai, to Paris. Reigl was of the opinion that Hungary needed young minds to become a better, juster country, and returned, with a concurring Poldi Böhm and Sándor Zugor, to Budapest. Distressingly, what welcomed them in November 1948 was not freedom but a dictatorship. Stalinist control was extended to culture and the arts as well, “and even then I couldn’t stand interference with my painting.” Two paintings were commissioned from her, but neither was accepted as they failed to conform to official requirements. She was unable to follow orders, comply with the edicts of Zhadonivian socialist realism. She was offered a three-year fellowship to the USSR, but since she would have been barred from seeing Picasso, Matisse and others in the holdings of Soviet museums, she declined. There seemed only one solution to regain freedom of expression, and that was to leave Hungary. Since she did not get her passport back, she tried to flee the country, which she managed to do on the eighth occasion, in March 1950. The no mans’ land between Hungary and Austria was planted with mines, lined with barbed-wire fences. She crawled to the other side on top of a ladder. “I wanted to bee free and I did become free; I didn’t have a passport or an ID, I was penniless and belonged to no country.” She gave a detailed account of the harrowing experience in ArtPress International, in 1978. Her trials did not end on the other side. She endured prison and a detention camp, before she took flight again, and travelled, mostly on foot and by hitchhiking, through Austria, Germany and Belgium to Paris, where she arrived three months later.
She was initially helped by her friends: Antal Bíró shared his studio with her, and when she later had her own room, Hantai introduced her to André Breton. When Breton saw her works, he immediately offered the chance of a solo exhibition, and wrote an introduction to the catalogue (November 1954). What attracted Reigl to Surrealism and André Breton was écriture automatique (automatic writing). Classic Surrealists, however, never went beyond the representation of dreamscapes, and did not exploit the true great invention of Surrealism, écriture automatique, which made Reigl say: “Freud did go behind the dream, but they kept following the Jungian line.” She in contrast strove to attain complete mental and physical automatism, painting that derives from instinct, an endeavour she proved eminently successful in. “I’m at work with my entire body, ‘á la mesure des bras grands ouverts.’ I inscribe the given space with motion, give it rhythm, heartbeat, tempo. This also explains why I have large canvasses.” Her automatism, however, relies on a rich body of experiences in art history, music, literature and philosophy, the knowledge of physical and chemical processes, illustrating, as it were, Descartes’s claim that knowledge and experience do not become manifest through the consciousness but become parts of the body. Note that the Surrealists, who weathered the war years in the US, exported the idea of automatism to America as well, and it was through their agency that Pollock eventually arrived at the dripping technique, the same way as Judit Reigl discovered her own method. Pollock dripped the paint from a perforated can, like Max Ernst a few years before him, while Reigl hurled fistfuls of paint on the canvas. By 1955 she had so departed from what Breton expected of his protégés, that she decided to break with the Surrealist group, only two months before Hantai followed suit in March 1955. The same desire to defend her independence and freedom under all circumstances would motivate her to make a similar move in 1964, when she severed links with Jean Fournier, the leader of the Galerie Kleber.
This uncompromising passion for freedom does in no way conflict with Reigl’s exactingness, the discipline she demands from herself; she in fact seems to live up to Kant’s idea of freedom, which he said one can attain only by setting up constraints on one’s action. To arrive at this freedom, one must travel a long way and pay a heavy toll: to struggle with the world within and without, to be resistant physically and mentally, to accept being misunderstood, and to go on in the direction one set for oneself despite all the hardships of day-to-day existence. Reigl travelled the road of honesty when she abandoned the haven provided by Breton, and then by Fournier, so that she could carry on with her struggle and seek out her own way, ignoring groups and trends. This self-reliance is certainly one of the keys to the high quality of her art.
Julia Cserba
2005. October 4. - November 13.

Kunsthalle, Budapest

2005. September 26. - November 2.
Previous exhibition

Mexican moderns

2005. October 5. - November 13.
Next exhibition

Tamás Losonczy’s exhibition