Curators: Zoltán Rockenbauer, Kálmán Makláry
Zoltán Rockenbauer: “The painter of light” – François Fiedler (1921-2001)
François (born Ferenc) Fiedler is a member of the generation of Hungarian-born artists who, having already gained a certain amount of training in their homeland, left Hungary before or not long after the Second World War, and found their own voice in France, where their art came to fruition. Several of them successfully carved out a place for themselves in the contemporary French art scene and earned international acclaim. The earlier generation had typically found their niche after returning to Hungary following a few quickly earned successes in Paris and a shorter or longer stay abroad. This was the case for József Rippl-Rónai, István Csók or Béla Czóbel, while there are only a few examples of artists from this cohort – such as József Csáky or Alfréd Réth – who remained in Paris and were inducted into the French canon.
Historical reasons – such as the Iron Curtain resulting from the post-war bipolar world order – clearly played a part in the fact that Victor Vasarely (Győző Vásárhelyi), Nicolas Schöffer (Miklós Schöffer), Simon Hantaï (Simon Hantai), Judit Reigl and François Fiedler (Ferenc Fiedler ) all chose to settle permanently abroad. This, however – as earlier experience also seemed to show – was an essential (but not the only) prerequisite for an artist to have a successful international career. Those who returned home, or who simply did not play an active enough part in the life of the ‘City of Art’, drifted out of the mainstream. Another consequence of the cold-war divisions following the Second World War was that, although these artists were acclaimed in their adopted countries, news of their success was not widely reported in the land of their birth for a long time. During the international ‘thaw’, partly as a result of domestic political wrangling, the by-then world-famous Nicolas Schöffer and Victor Vasarely were ‘officially discovered’ in Hungary too. The names of Hantaï, Reigl, Fiedler and Rozsda, however, only became well-known to art lovers in Hungary after the collapse of communism.
Ferenc Fiedler was born in Kassa (Košice, Slovakia) a good six months after the border revisions made under the Treaty of Trianon, so shortly afterwards the family decided to move to Hungary. He was brought up in the town of Nyíregyháza, and due to his frequent illnesses he spent a lot of time in the solitude of his room. Perhaps it was because of this unpleasant experience that as an adult master he painted almost exclusively in the open air. As a child, however, this imprisonment had the beneficial side-effect of prompting him to focus so intensively on drawing and painting. Although we do not usually talk about ‘child prodigies’ when it comes to fine artists, the expression is no exaggeration when used in relation to the young Fiedler, who showed astonishing talent at a very young age. At the age of five he was working with oil paints, and soon started copying the pictures of Leonardo and Caravaggio. At ten his works were exhibited along with those of adult artists. The local press reported on his exhibition at the Benczúr Circle as follows: “The drawings and pictures of the ten-year-old Fiedler show the secret signs of a great future to those who can see them. On the tables, the delicate miniatures and the plaster figures of a young, richly inventive young sculptor with a lot to say leave the viewer enthralled.” His portraits of Rákóczi and Horthy were displayed in public offices and, while still a child, he was commissioned to decorate the altar of a church in Košice. At that time, religious images attracted him the most; he immersed himself in the search for how to perfectly reproduce the light of redemption shining from the Christ’s eyes. After several attempts, he finally settled on the shocking solution of piercing the canvas at the pupils. We could regard this as an adolescent whim, but in light of the religious faith that Fiedler maintained throughout his life we should see in that gesture a courageous artistic act, the echoes of which can be detected in the techniques by which his later abstract pictures reveal an inner light.
His tutor at the Hungarian Royal College of Fine Art was István Szőnyi. He began his studies in the same year as Teréz Dávid – who later became an acclaimed maker of animated films under the name of Tissa David – and Judit Reigl, who would also go on to make a name for herself as a painter in France. He worked very actively during the ‘forties, and the Hungarian State purchased several of his works. These figurative pieces enrich the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts and National Gallery to this day. In the autumn of 1947, he took part in a joint exhibition at the Fórum Club in Budapest with Judit Reigl, Simon Hantai and two other young artists. The art critic of daily newspaper Népszava commented that “Ferenc Fiedler’s vocabulary of form is perhaps the broadest of the three, his instinct for movement carries him all the way to the baroque, for example in the image of a Greco girl’s head. His landscapes, in a closed structure, glitter with colours and light; in perspective, elsewhere, they are characterised by expressive colours and naive forms.”
The next year, he exhibited again with Simon Hantai at the Hungarian Academy in Rome, then travelled to Paris on a scholarship; but in the increasingly tough political climate of the time, the scholarship was withdrawn. Instead of returning home, Fiedler but chose to become an emigrant. This was when Hantai also emigrated.
Precisely what caused the radical change that occurred in the young Fiedler’s art around this time can only be guessed at, but we know that in Paris he almost immediately gave up figurative painting and turned towards abstraction. Unlike Hantai, Judit Reigl or Endre Rozsda, he did not join the third generation of surrealists, even temporarily: he began to show an interest in Tachisme and gestural painting. At the beginning of 1949, he joined the Union d’Arts Plastiques, and in the summer he contributed a picture to the Grand Palais of Paris and to the 4th Salon des Réalités Nouvelles. “The most preeminent and modern exhibition opened a few weeks ago at the Rélaités Nouvelles, where I too exhibited”, he wrote home. “Indeed, I was selected to join the society. This is the second artistic association of which I am a member, but it is by far the most forward-looking and the highest quality of all the art associations of Paris.”
His art at this time showed similarities with the gesture painting of Leipzig-born Paris resident Hans Hartung and the works of the Canadian abstract expressionist Jean-Paul Riopelle. His canvasses were characterised by rich surface formation, textures crafted with splattering, dripping and scraping techniques, streaks of light glimmering through the dark. In the following years he studied the cave drawings of Lascaux: He was interested in the surface of the cave wall as the substrate of the works, the “artistic collaboration” of man and nature. In the same year, 1950, he got to know the Catalonian surrealist master Joan Miró. Miró had seen one of his works in the shop window of a picture framer, and it made a great impression on him, so he took the “painter of light”, as he called Fiedler, under his wing. He brought him together with such artists as Alexander Calder and Marc Chagall, and introduced him to the renowned gallery owner Aimé Maeght. From then on, Fiedler became an exclusive artist of the Galerie Maeght, which afforded him access to the upper echelons of French modernism.
The next year, Aimé Maeght held an exhibition in Saint Paul-de-Vence for Wassily Kandinsky and Alberto Giacometti, where he introduced the young Hungarian painter alongside Eduardo Chillida, Saul Steinberg and Pierre Tal-Coat among the gallery’s young talents. Fiedler made friends with Giacometti, whom he felt to be something of a kindred spirit as they liked to create their art together in “creative silence”.
He polished his tachist style of painting until the middle of the nineteen-sixties. Although his painting matured in around the post-war (second) École de Paris, the ‘all-over’ painting style – which eschews hierarchy, giving equal weight to all parts of the canvas – makes his art akin to that of the American abstract expressionists (Jackson Pollock, Mark Tobey). The French art critic Pierre Descargues wrote of his paintings: “Here there are agonising, slashing, screaming brushstrokes. There is nothing in his works that makes an effort to be lovable or pleasant, although there are nuances: sometimes the brushstroke wounds, but at others it is full of gentleness.” In these years, Fiedler did not give his works any special titles, mainly just marking them as “Painting”, since it was not a narrative, but a purely visual problem that he was committing to the canvas, so he did not want to prejudice the viewer by providing a title.
From the early ‘sixties his works made by dripping, the technique famously associated with Pollock, became increasingly typical. “I don’t use an easel,” he said. “When I work, I lean the canvas against a wall or lay it on the ground. I’m not fond of the palette, it creates a delay between me and the canvas. The canvas itself is the palette. Besides the traditional painting tools, I use chisels, scrapers and nature itself. To create a painting, I summon the assistance of the sunlight and the wind.”
Fiedler essentially developed Pollock’s picture-making method further. In contrast to the works of the American master, where the substrate can be glimpsed behind the net of dripped paint, François Fiedler created a thick, bark-like facture. For the foundation he used plaster, and dried it out to create a cracked structure, onto which he applied the paint thickly, by squeezing it straight out of the tube. He scratched and gouged the surface thus created, in places dismantling it, eroding and deconstructing it, also revealing the covered, lower layers, imbuing his works with a kind of glimmering, inner light. His paintings were made in the open air, not because they were ‘landscapes’; for François Fiedler, the mimetic painting of natural objects had long ceased to exist. Rather, he used the forces of nature to form the surfaces of his pictures: the sun, the wind, and sometimes even the moistness of mother earth. “The seemingly paradoxical practice of plein air abstract painting reveals that his art did not mimic nature, but existed within it in the strictest sense”, concludes Ágnes Berecz. Fiedler’s intricately devised method retained the role of randomness in the creative process, but deliberately constrained and directed this arbitrariness. His works were thus the product of a kind of ‘regulated automatism’.
As well as painting, he put a lot of care into crafting his lithographs and etchings. In 1962 he created a series of lithographs for a bibliophile edition of the poems of John of the Cross, and in 1973 he made engravings for the fragments of writing by Heraclitus, the father of dialectical philosophy. Meanwhile he experimented constantly, perfecting his etching technique, which he referred to by the old-fashioned term “eau-forte”, as another way of distinguishing it from the conventional process. He also innovated in his painting. “Since 1970 Fiedler has been discovering a technique of undulation of punctuation of the pictorial texture to the limit of space, the same as the totalizing sideration of the colours, and also a certain counterpoint to the very personal rhythms”, writes the art historian Octave Nadale, perhaps one of the greatest authorities on François Fiedler. “In all these paintings, the action of a subject matter proceeding from its intrinsic elements of colour and freeing its virtualities is already affirmed, supported indefinitely in the space of the canvas like so many other points of departure, springboards or posts. The intensity and the accent of the texture resound with the fulminating beginning of the attack. It seems as if nothing hinders the progression to the margin of the result. This new and sumptuous language of colour is vertiginously maintained in effect.”
By the end of the decade, however, he increasingly withdrew from the public eye, and continued to work in solitude. His life was marred by personal tragedies and illnesses. In the last decade of his life, he fostered a growing interest in rhythm and the musicality of pictures. Even before this, he had regularly listened to music regularly for inspiration while painting; he liked both baroque and contemporary compositions. It was also music that inspired his Divertimento series, created in the second half of the ‘nineties. He died aged 80 in 2001, leaving behind a rich, completed oeuvre.
In 2012, when the exhibition of work by thirteen major artists entitled The Persistence of Pollock was held in the American painter’s former studio in New York to mark the centenary of Jackson Pollock’s birth, François Fiedler was the only European painter among them.
This is not in fact the first time Fiedler’s works have been on display at Kunsthalle Budapest, as he took part in group exhibitions here at a very young age, in 1942 and 1943. Now, however, a good three quarters of a century later, we are showing a selection of representative oil paintings, mostly picked from the artist’s most fertile period in the ‘fifties, ‘sixties and ‘seventies, which we hope will help give the public in Hungary a better understanding of this artist, who was born in Hungary but matured artistically after moving to France.
 The names of artists should always be displayed as they themselves used them, and as they are known in the world. Accordingly, this article refers to the artist as Ferenc Fiedler when discussing his life in Hungary, and as François Fiedler from the time when he became a part of the French art scene.
 Benczúr Circle exhibition in City Hall shows the power and dynamism of young artists. Nyírvidék, 24 December 1931, p. 2.
 Cf.: The famous French painter was born Hungarian and died Hungarian. Interview [with Péter Fiedler]. https://europabelvarosa.hu/cikk/magyarnak_szuletett_magyarkent_halt_meg_a_vilaghiru_francia_festo
 Visual Art. Népszava, 24 September 1947, p. 4
 Letter from F. Fiedler to his family, 22 August 1949. Cited in: Dr. Kádár, Anna – Fiedler, Péter: Biography. In: Berecz Ágnes – Kopeczky, Róna – Nadal, Octave: François Fiedler. Ed: Makláry, Kálmán. Budapest, Kálmán Makláry Fine Arts. 2014. [Hereinafter: FIEDLER 2014] pp. 233–239 (234)
 FIEDLER 2014: 234.
 François Fiedler’s new exhibition in Budapest. Éva Vámos talks to Péter Fiedler. Balkon, 2012. 2, pp. 41-43 (41.)
 Pierre Descargues: The Instinct and Intelligence . François Fiedler. Centro cultural contemporani Pelaires, Palma de Mallorca. 1990. Cited in: Berecz, Ágnes: The Materials of Abstraction: François Fiedler (1921-2001). In: FIEDLER 2014, pp. 23–29 (24)
 As told by Ferenc Fiedler to Péter Fiedler. See: Kádár, Andrea – Fiedler, Péter: Biography. In: FIEDLER 2014, p 234
 Berecz, Ágnes: The Materials of Abstraction. In: FIEDLER 2014. p. 26.
 Cf..: Kopeczki, Róna: Ferenc Fiedler – The Shadow of Light. In: FIEDLER 2014, pp. 43-47 (44)
 Nadale, Octave: Fiedler Ferenc, After Silence. In: FIEDLER 2014. 57–59. (57.)