Image Praxes 2 | MARCELL JANKOVICS

Curators: Réka Fazakas, Mihály Medve, advisor: György Szemadám

 

István Orosz: A Walk with Jankovics

Where does this arbour of falling leaves,
to which city of which century
does it lead?
And in which parchment-dry riverbed
will you meet me, you lonely traveller,
kicking dry leaves as you bend ahead?
Say, against what wind are you leaning
standing still as you take step after step?
And how long has it been blowing?
Goths, Lombards and Alans
leant against this wind, and
it has still not quieted perhaps...

When they said “that’s Jankovics over there,” I had already known him.
I saw him in the mornings walking and reading. He was going towards Hűvösvölgy and I towards Zugliget, so we shared paths on a stretch. He took long steps and buried himself in a book. The wind was blowing the fallen leaves, traffic in our ears, cars, mopeds, buses, and the occasional tram 56 rattling past. Back then we wrote the number 56 in pencil, so it may be erased if necessary, but it no longer matters. Since then I have seen him read in cafeterias, on a presidential pulpit and even in a swimming pool. Immersed, passionate, enigmatic.
“…his arms strong, his gaze desirable, his face like a lion’s, the abundance of moral uprightness was proclaimed by his physique born to rule.” Perhaps the prominent sculptor and academic, Pál Kő, was prompted by this intro of Jankovics’s series of animated legends when he asked him to sit for the Robert Charles sculpture he was working on. What a huge king! said the bluestockings swooning; nota bene: Jankovics was far more modest than that: in his animation he much rather identified with the scribe and illuminator, lending his features to this character. Of course it is fitting as he himself was a graphic artist, book illustrator and story-telling man of letters in one person. And so much more. There is an anecdote in which a schoolboy is called on by the teacher to talk about Jankovics – after all, those assembling the national curriculum are keeping up with the times – and he asks in good faith only this: which Jankovics would you like to hear about?

There must be many other people in this country who believe there are several Jankovicses shining like stars in the firmament of Hungarian culture. Some know Jankovics the animator, the Kossuth Prize-laureate director of the feature-length animation John the Valiant, and have seen The Tragedy of Man – the colossal film named ‘the film of all films’ – several times. Some others know Jankovics, the cultural historian and ethnographer, who can speak about the connection between myths, folk tales and the starry sky with such naturalness that people understand and even believe everything he says. Museum-goers know him as a graphic artist, book-lovers as an illustrator and there are those who even remember him as a cultural politician, one of the co-founders of Danube TV and the president of the National Cultural Fund doing his best to help the cultural sphere at the time of the democratic turn. Of course those who have made the effort to look into his entire legacy (a complete study of it would be a hopeless endeavour; what is more, it would be a ’Sisyphean’ task, as the title of his first masterpiece – nominated for the Oscar by the way – warns us with a bit of sarcasm). In any case, those who have sampled Jankovics’s oeuvre soon found out that the many Jankovicses know each other rather well. He draws on his experience of history and ethnography as a film director – we could say that experience ’turns him on’ (he never signed on to the sweet and idle fashion of ’turning off’). The ’stills’ of Jankovics the fine artist effortlessly preserve the dynamism of the frames of his animated films; underlying the flow of the texts written by Jankovics the author is the professionalism of Jankovics the dramaturg, who honed his skill by making hours and hours of film and worked with more than one hundred scripts; finally, when he has to represent the interests of practicing artists and scientists as a member of cultural committees, he cannot find it too difficult since he himself is an artist and a scientist. Encyclopaedias do not fail to mention that Jankovics is self-taught. Although the level of education he received at the Benedictine boarding School in Pannonhalma was close to that of a university, he had little or no chance to take the next step forward, especially being the son of a father who was given a life sentence and then released from prison in 1956. In retrospect, it can be assumed – and Jankovics himself more or less admits – that inbetweening at the Pannonia Film Studio, which was on the lowest rung of the ladder of hierarchy, was the best of available options, or the least bad one, if one thinks back to the opportunities available for someone with his background in the Kádár era. It was not a calculated move, however, but rather a lucky twist of fate that took him in this direction.

Animation professionals keep emphasising that we should think of the soul (anima) when hearing the word ‘animation’, since they breathe soul into their drawings (animam inspirat alci). Let’s get emotional for a second upon reading this, even though this explanation might well be a bit syrupy when translated and over-explained. No wonder, therefore, that the less ambitious names of the genre, such as cartoon, puppet film and trick film are also in use. But if it is anime, let it be anime. Who would dispute that pencil-drawn lines moving, twisting, rolling into a ball, growing feet and starting to walk are given a soul? All animators know the spiritual experience when seeing the drawn sequences of movement joined together. We were all enthused after the screening of animation opuses and we suspect that a different approach is taken to this by young people who go into animation after completing their studies in graphic art, film and the humanities and by someone who decides, off hand, to enter the world of animation working as material handler at a socialist company called LEVERAGE. Or did it happen differently? Was he perhaps chosen by animation? Animation chose him, patted him on the shoulder encouragingly, ruffled up his hair a bit and put him in a nice big yellow house where a team of young men and women wet behind the ears had already been sitting. They were the animators and the house the animation film studio.

The Pannonia Film Studio (Pannonia for short) was like a remote island not only in the Hungarian context. Since for a long time cartoons were seen by cultural policy makers as a form of babbling to children, they forgot to impose on it the rules that dealt a blow to ’adult art’ – perhaps even the infamous system of the supported/tolerated/banned categories of art was not applied to cartoons. As a result, ’declassed’ people like Jankovics tended to end up in Pannonia, located in the Hűvösvölgy district of Budapest. Later, when the equation between animated cartoons and children’s stories no longer applied, the studio found itself in a distinguished position because of its successes at international film festivals. This shop-window role of the studio led to a paradox: some films, directors, trends and perhaps even entire eras were better known abroad than in Hungary.
To return to the sculpture made by Pál Kő, Jankovics the filmmaker seems to have been born in full armour. He is a clear-sighted and confident artist, and in this sense he is the opposite of his more experimental contemporaries such as Kovásznai, Reisenbüchler and Szoboszlay, who sought to reform animation. He walked a straight path, even when looked at in retrospect. His occasional detours into different genres only modify the picture by making his path into a ’straight labyrinth’ to borrow a phrase from a poem by János Pilinszky. His Bible, which remained a torso, fits in with the mainstream like a missing element from Mendeleev’s periodic table. (Let me sadly add between parentheses: it could have been the culmination of his oeuvre.) Not only his mature works follow a consistent order, providing a clear picture of their maker’s intention, but Jankovics himself has been consciously building the mythology hallmarked by his name. Perhaps we could go as far as calling it a philosophy. A bonmot comes to mind which I heard from Zsolt Richly, who should be mentioned in connection with Jankovics since they helped each other in several joint projects: “we give different titles to our projects but it is the same film we are making throughout our lives”. The relatively early (1977) opus, titled Strugglers expresses a similar idea in the language of animation. It is a three-minute film about a sculptor sculpting his statue but the stone also grabs a chisel and starts sculpting the artist: it sculpts back! For those who for some reason do not realise that both the sculptor and the statue represent Jankovics himself and that the drawings also bear his features – his face, hair and beard – for at least a moment (only for a brief time since the animation is further complicated by the play of time linked to aging and growing young), let me quote a short excerpt from an interview to help: “The artist (…) wants to live on in the work he creates, but the work itself also affects him, wanting to make the artist similar to itself. It is a fierce struggle (…) I had the opportunity to experience it myself.”

All that applies to the moving pictures is also true for most of the still images, namely that besides the telling (illustration) of a story, they also include philosophical tenets. While the Danto citation – according to which the artistic impact of an artwork decreases to the same extent as the amount of theories accumulated in it – might not throw us into a panic (nota bene, we might not really believe it), it should be admitted that this method is somewhat of a burden. Even animators who do not want to go beyond the line alone feel this burden but their situation is also helped by the creativity and at times humour they can add to the images and their movements, and of course the playful tool of personal ’asides’ also makes their job easier. Jankovics has never given up on educating his viewers, to ’raise his own’. Of all the film-makers I know, he is perhaps the most interested in drawing a certain ’magical circle’ around the artists and the viewer and thus transforming the reception of a film into a real experience. In his book titled On Visual Education, Jankovics calls attention to the equal importance of the left and right hemispheres of the brain; if you take a closer look, you will discover that he mostly gives examples from his own life. In this book the words sign, image, see and eyes are set in bold letters. I can no longer remember if King Matthias assured him or Leonardo about the primacy of sight... I do not at all intend to revive the famous Renaissance paragon debate here; I would much rather return to the other self-resemblance, the codex illuminator in Legends from Hungarian History, who was lent the visage of Jankovics, as well as to the traditions linked to the distant past. I only once heard Jankovics fired up (it is not really characteristic of him), when he talked about a line – “erase the past for good” – in a then popular hit song. He does not believe it is anything to be ashamed of that the world did not begin with him. Is it his humility as an artist or the self-awareness passed down to him by his ennobled ancestors that makes him assign tradition such importance that he is willing to stand up for it as a value even in the face of the trendiest trends? It does not really matter at the end of the day. I do not think he will protest if I trace his history back to the Hertuls. As this essay is written for an exhibition, I feel I should emphasise the line of fine artists in his family. Let the story begin thus: Master Hertul, Miklós, the son of Hertul, Miklós, the son of Miklós, who was the son of Hertul... The man who King Charles Robert commissioned to illuminate the Hungarian Anjou Legendary is the first member of the Hertul family we know by name. It was a book for children, we could say, since the tempera paintings were made to educate the royal children about the lives of the saints who were the most important for the Anjou. As payment for his services Master Hertul was given an entire village, Meggyes, with a house, serfs and livestock, which I only note here hoping that the remuneration of today’s illustrators might be modified one day. But let us focus on Meggyes. Miklós, son of Hertul, is also referred to as Miklós of Meggyes; he is the author of the Illuminated Chronicle, which was commissioned by King Louis the Great. He also received a village as payment for his work, which happened to be Meggyes, (as the border shifted here and there around Sopron, it was later called Fertőmeggyes and Mörbisch) since his father had made calculations and decided he would be better off if he pawned the village; but it is far from me wanting to examine the pockets of the ancestors, I merely wanted to get to the Illustrated Chronicles somehow, which, as we know, is a seminal work, an absolute starting point when it comes to talking about Jankovics. Marcell, son of Miklós, who was the son of Miklós, son of Miklós, who was the son of Hertul… At the time of the Hertuls pictures played a far more important role as only a few people were literate and there were many who ’read’ the stories and history from the pictures of the illuminations. In those days, I said, but Jankovics insists that reading is in deficit again today so illustrations and films have to take on their old role nowadays too. Let me quote him: “When we are writing, we are engaged in a linear activity aimed at unambiguous clarity. But reality is complex and has more than one meaning. The linear nature of writing means that the writer is forced to expound on his views moving forward from one word to the next, while feeling that he should express his thought vertically too, in more simultaneous dimensions in order to convey to readers the overlaid strata of meaning inherent in words, metaphors and passages and that by writing down one word the reader would understand more than merely the first meaning.” Jankovics probably became a polymath to be able to deal with this apparently hopeless situation. Images coupled with writing, graphic art and illustrations already introduced a shift into another dimension, into the afore-mentioned vertical direction, while film animation was another method to achieve the same. And there is the who knows now how umpteenth Jankovics who expounds his arguments at academic lectures and the uttered words combined with body language, emphases and pauses are also suitable to add that certain vertical dimension. For him it is child’s play. As a doctor pictus he is actively looking for ’trouble’, although he tends not to interpret it as trouble when those interpreting his works built with many layers, strata of crystal mountains, drew their final conclusion by only sampling one little layer. He disregards the ’maxim’ of the era, according to which whatever genre he chooses to work in as an artist his job is to entertain and help people ‘unwind’. He even believes that folk tales are meant to ‘wind people up’ connecting them to their respective communities. For example, to their own nation. The thing is, Jankovics thinks big and is not afraid to address the whole, aiming for completeness. He spreads out the 1:1 scale star-map even when he sketches only a split second of an animation film, and he rolls it forward and backward on his drawing table, his own illuminator’s pulpit, fitted not only with a peg bar but also with computer ports these days. But once I returned to illuminators of codices, it is easy to see how profoundly Jankovics makes himself part of his oeuvre: he is not only building it but is also its protagonist. Panting and heaving in the arduous Sisyphean labour, he carries on the Tragedy of Men as once Kepler did (of course he would choose an astronomer for his next alter ego). It might be possible to write the history of contemporary art without knowing the artists themselves, but this would not work for the chapter on Jankovics. I am not even certain now if I should call him contemporary. The ten years of age difference between him and I (almost to the minute, mind you he is still a Libra and I already a Scorpion) is a trifle, but his jacket was braided, his boots shined and his high cap feathered by different centuries. When we shake hands I feel that he passes on the handshake of Miklós Zrínyi but at least a pat on the shoulder by Imre Madách.

Jankovics the draughtsman takes seriously and literally the definition coined by Jankovics the scholar, namely that cultures are kept alive by the incessant explanation and re-evaluation of their own myths and ideologies. And for us, who become familiar with or study his films and drawings can honestly say that his complex system of messages affects us even if we have no special training and knowledge of styles and the history of thought. Not only does it affect us, it sweeps us away. Even if we fail to notice the myriad of graphic subtleties of how he joins emblematic and narrative depictions and we decide not to slow our ride with trying to decipher connotative meanings, we become more through his films… and Jankovics is building in us. I could add a passage here about artistic responsibility, which I would only be able to do with pathos and by far exceeding the prescribed length of this essay. Let if suffice to say – and this will be confirmed by those adult colleagues who grew up on the ’Jankovics school’ – that there is not a single gesture, tiny object, item of jewellery or clothing and architectural detail in his oeuvre that is not authentic and whose symbolic meaning as well as mythological and cultural historical relevance is not fully accurate. Even though we are moving away from let’s say the heroic age of chivalry as well as from the objects, customs and superstitions of folk-peasant culture, Marcell Jankovics uses symbols and allusions in a way that those who read his books, watch his animations and view his exhibited drawings are able to follow and understand but at least feel deep down. We might no longer carry the distant past in our genes, but its memories emerge from time to time and primarily through Jankovics’s works it inadvertently seeps into us. It is a peculiar but heart-warming paradox that an object we see in an illustration or an animation often does not feel familiar because we already saw it in reality but vice versa: we see a sabre, a spindle or a hat in a museum and it is familiar to us from one of Jankovics’s drawings or books. Apropos hat: if we want to raise our hat to anyone to keep the national identity alive, Marcell Jankovics is the most deserving candidate.

But let us return to the road where we started. To Jankovics walking and reading. (Try to do it after him – the walk-reading – I did and it is hard, to say the least) I do not know what books Jankovics was reading when walking under the chestnut trees along tramline 56 (called Red Army Road back then, today it is Hűvösvölgyi Road), but if we browse through his Soul Writings it is not hard to guess what his favourites were, what he loved, what inspired him the most. When I look at the chapter titled Backwater about his family’s resettlement. Resettlement has been discussed by many as it was the greatest trauma for hundreds of families during the Rákosi era. I do not think there are many of the writers of these memoirs who used the theme of resettlement as an opportunity to make a list of the books he took with himself. Marci (nickname for Marcell) was barely ten years old and though that making a list of his books was the most natural thing to do; moreover, not only did ne note down the titles (one about sexual education, a pulp fiction and an adventure novel) but – and it is more pertinent to this essay – also their illustrators. Imre Sebők, Tibor Pólya, Arnold Gara Arnold. He also jots down Švejk (illustrated by Josef Lada) and the portrait gallery of Hungarian rulers etched in copper. He also had on his childhood bookshelf the bound volumes of the Bavarian political humour magazine Simplicissimus with caricatures by Gulbransson, Lendecke, Thöny, Wilke, von Rezniček and Thomas Theodor Heine, and as he grew older he also read Vaillant comics. The impulses during his most impressionable age should be recorded even if they had not left a mark on his oeuvre, but they can be discovered in his later works, albeit transformed, recoloured, complemented with and filtered through other impulses; Jankovics openly says so and at times brings them up in conversation.
The primary influence of childhood readings on Jankovics’s oeuvre is perhaps the most obvious in his early comics. This segment of a few comics from the beginning of his career (around 1970) is rather small but cannot be left unmentioned since this exhibition is about Jankovics the fine artist and illustrator. The key figure in the world of comics at the time was Tibor Cs. Horváth, whose adaptations of literary works served as the basis for the strip cartoons drawn for various periodicals by Imre Sebők, Ernő Zórád, Pál Korcsmáros, Sándor Gugi and Attila Dargay. Thanks to Attila Dargay, who shared a room with Jankovics at Pannónia, Jankovics had the opportunity to try his hand at comics, which introduced a taste of the West into the visual culture of socialism. He drew comics based on the adaptation of short stories: Oscar Wilde’s The Canterville Ghost, Van Vogt’s The Monster, Stanisław Lem’s The Hunt and Mór Jókai’s Nepean Island. The last one was published in 1971. He could have carried on drawing comics besides making his early animation series (Gusztáv), his short features (Bridge Inauguration, Deep Water, Water of Life, They are Busy) and his starting career as a teacher (at the secondary school of art), but the project John the Valiant required a whole man. A whole man and a completely thought-through graphic vision.
Early animations were hardly more than caricature-films, mainly paraphrases of the successful Gusztáv series. Their graphic implementation was lower quality than that of comics, although the imaginative movements slightly compensated for this deficiency. The real breakthrough both in regard to style and graphic style came with a commercial: Air India. The commission would have originally been given to György Kovásznai, who made painted films at the time and was a dissenter through adopting Western art trends as the graphic editor of the periodical Nagyvilág [Wide World] but he did not want to compromise his name by taking on a commercial project. A young Jankovics and Zsolt Richly said yes and used new visual elements, metamorphoses and cuts that can be retrospectively seen to have prepared the way for Jankovics’s full-length animation titled John the Valiant. Seeing Jankovics’s later aspirations – in his films, graphic works and writings – it is surprising that he did not exploit the opportunities of folklore, even though it was offered to him on a plate by Petőfi’s work, which elevated folklore to literary heights. Graphics and film in the early seventies were dominated by the Beatles film Yellow Submarine (1968). The ’new Secessionist’ style of the German graphic artist Heinz Edelmann, which combined the graphic elements of the hippy era with those of pop art, was in the air. This light and spectacular style left its mark not only on John the Valiant but also on works by other artists in Pannónia Film Studio (Péter Szoboszlay, Sándor Reisenbüchler, István Bányai); mind you, they all soon ’recovered’ from it. Jankovics was perhaps the first to do so. In his book on Jankovics (published in 1987) György Szemadám writes that he decided to turn his attention to ancient, pure sources in his ‘filmless’ period, between 1974 and 1977, urged by his wife, the persiologist Éva Rubovszky, and the advocate of ethno-cultural continuity Gábor Pap. Bartók’s example of drawing from a pure source became a leading, albeit not the only, guiding principle in Jankovics’s career from his second full-length animation, The Son of the White Mare, onwards. The remastered version of this masterpiece is being screened at the Budapest Film Marathon as I am writing this essay, and it is emphasised again that it was selected from among the 50 greatest animated films of all time: not in Hungary but in Los Angeles. It is peculiar that a film based on a Hungarian folk tale was so highly valued in a cosmopolitan city, isn’t it? Let me quote a line by a renowned film aesthete about Jankovics: “He is the most Hungarian artist of international animation, and the most international artist of Hungarian animation.”
In contrast to the concentrated homogeneity and simpler visuality of short films, full-length animation is bound to have a more eclectic style. When someone asked him at an event why the visual world of The Tragedy of Man is constantly changing, he said, laughing: you would have been bored to death otherwise. Let me not start to explain the obvious: why each colour is matched with the artistic style, set of symbols and references, etc. of the era it is linked to… Mihály Zichy could afford to illustrate Imre Madách’s Tragedy of Man using one graphic style since he only had to make twenty drawings for the album. However, a 160-minute torrent of images can really benefit from eclectic shifts in style, and is all the more necessary when we know that these shifts not only serve the purpose of separating different periods of history but are also used to allude to the metamorphous technique of dreams. “Since Madách’s drama is a journey through dreams, I followed the dramaturgy of dreams, which is seemingly chaotic but actually has a very rigorous system. Compression or condensation, which animation is able to do, is a typical technique of dreams. If any filmmaker can be an expert in dreams, I consider myself to be one.”
The Tragedy of Man, this colossal film operating with ideas, ideals and symbols and ’burdened’ by historical, religious and philosophical allusions as well as associations drawn from the natural sciences and art history is likely to be the first endeavour in Hungarian film with an admitted goal of adapting to changing film-viewing habits, namely that people do not only – what is more, primarily do not – watch films in cinemas but on home screens, where they have the opportunity to pause a film, rewind it, watch it over and over again and find their own personal interpretation. The fact that Jankovics believes he has the right to modernise the genre is completely obvious from his Tragedy of Man. Madách’s metaphysical work is not a stage play in essence, even though it has been performed on stage numerous times; it is a drama-book, which genuinely comes to life when the reader pauses, restarts, and turns the pages back and forth. (Why is it that of all books I envision Jankovics reading the Tragedy of Man on his way to Hűvösvölgy?)
When seeing Jankovics’s book illustrations does it really hit home how absolutely at home he is with a wide scale of graphic styles and what a sure hand he has in choosing the one he needs. Anyone trying to analyse his style would be frustrated at this point. Should we regard it Jankovics’s style that he channels the vibrant diversity of styles into his own direction? Or should we not even attempt to start stirring, mixing and sifting his formidable oeuvre until we see an individual pictorial style being crystallised? I think those who want to define a man with a life’s work as encyclopaedic as that of Jankovics with a single, individual style are sorely misguided. At best they might be able to come up with a summary of his styles. Jankovics was interested in innovation and artistic invention to a certain degree only: for him these were never an end but a means. A solo show staged at the Műcsarnok is treated by most exhibition organisers as a summary. In the case of Jankovics, however, it is rather a selection. The old Jankovics who ’wanted it all’ decided to limit himself and probably urged the curators to follow suit. I would exaggerate if I said that I know his oeuvre but having spent decades in his company – those parallel walks! – I can say that I have managed to form an overall picture of the vast expanse of his work. I can draw conclusions about the whole based on knowing the parts. When we look at the work of a man approaching eighty, we could be talking about a nearly complete life’s work; however, given his vitality, ’nearly’ seems rushed. I spare you from listing his works displayed here (you can find that list at the end of this booklet) but let me make a special mention of his last volume, titled Trianon. The author himself calls it “an essay in pictures” and it might not be far from the truth when I say that a new genre might have been created with this piece. This essay is too short to allow me to discuss the political and historical relevance of this album made for the centenary. One hundred years of solitude is not enough to come to terms with a trauma as devastating as Trianon was for our nation. It takes a Jankovics to dissolve the rigour of words through the humour of drawings to make it bearable.
While I am scribbling these lines, Jankovics is shooting Toldi. (He has the more demanding job, I have the tighter.) After József Gémes’ grandiose oil painted animation, this project is a hugely ambitious undertaking. No pictures are exhibited at the Műcsarnok yet but the film is no secret since the first episodes have been screened at various film events. The innovation of the animation is that János Arany, the writer of the ballad about Miklós Toldi (the legendary strong hero of Hungarian folklore) appears in the film as a transparent shadow-figure commenting on the key scenes. A sharp-eyed viewer will easily see that the director borrowed the drawing Sándor Petőfi made of his friend, yet I have a haunting suspicion that it is Jankovics himself who walks with us throughout the story, not only that of Miklós Toldi but also Arany’s entire oeuvre, at times peeking out from behind him and with a wise smile lending emphasis to the last words: “… But that’s not a patch on wealth and gold, might and sway, His heroic fame will live for ever and aye.”

2019. December 6. - 2020. February 2.

Kunsthalle, Budapest

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