Form is the limit of the body | The sculptures of Botond Polgár
At first glance Botond Polgár’s sculptures speak of beauty: soft bends, delicate curves, smooth surfaces, the idealised beauty of the female body, albeit not without an erotic quality; anatomical precision and gestures following the formal structure of Hellenic culture. As appealing as this approach may be, it raises the question: why does a young sculptor in the first quarter of the 21st century turn so directly to classical art, and thus what makes his work contemporary? A possible approach could be nostalgia: when we were thinking about the title of the upcoming exhibition, Botond Polgár wrote to me: “Nostos / Algos (return / pain) - this is the etymological root of nostalgia... It gives no indication of the visual content of the exhibition but it does suggest its tone. It implies an attachment to Greekness through the genre of sculpture and, not least, the state of mind that to me is the most important fertilising force.” This painful retrospection is thus a fundamental creative approach: the desire to return to an ideal state where the harmony prescribed by the canon reigns, and the pain of this return is impossible.
The sculptor is also bound to the classical formal system by the subject matter itself: the human body and its faithful representation. The body is almost the exclusive subject of Botond Polgár’s sculptures, and the source of this exclusivity, according to the artist’s own testimony, is constant introspection. A constant self-analysis is taking place during the creative process: the sculptor’s own body is the carrier of his memories, feelings and reflections, which are preserved, manifested and take shape in the gestures or perspectives the artist is moulding as body-memories or body-imprints. Alternatively, the process can work the other way round too: an already completed form or visual detail is decoded and recognised as being the artist’s earlier experience.
To quote the artist’s own words, the sculptures thus coming into being are body- quotations. Since specific paintings and sculptures as well as other artistic prefigurations also ultimately become such body-quotations in the process of the artist’s perception and recollection, the sculptures most often end up as paraphrases, even if the act of quotation only becomes clear subsequently, when he looks at the sculpture during the creative process or when it is finished. Four of the five sculptures displayed at the Műcsarnok quote works by Michelangelo, although to varying degrees, while one evokes Courbet. (We leave it to the visitor and reader to discover these quotations for themselves...) However, the frame of reference in which the artist works is much wider: the models and influences he uses range from Renaissance masterpieces through Miklós Ligeti’s Sitting Man and Pilinszky’s poem Aquarium to Orshi Drozdik’s Venus of Medicine and beyond.
The sculptures are therefore also paraphrases: details or moments nipped out from existing paintings or sculptures, and as such, they are by their very nature fragmentary and distorted. For many years, until his most recent work, the Dead Venus (which can be seen at the Műcsarnok’s current exhibition), Botond Polgár predominantly made torsos. His choice of the torso as a sculptural form is influenced by the nostalgia and the quote-like character described above: by representing only the part of the relationship between part and whole he emphasises the unrepresentable or intangible nature of that same whole. At the same time, confining the body between sharp planes or enclosing it in a cube evokes a sense of closure and non-continuability. The title of the exhibition is taken from Plato’s Meno, in which Socrates explains the concept of form to his conversation partner, Meno: “Tell me! Is there something you call an ‘ending’? I mean, for example, the boundary, the edge (...) You too, of course, would simply say that something has a limit here or that it ends here (...) And there is something you call a plane and something else you call a body, for example, geometric shapes? (....) If we take these as a starting point, you will understand what I call form. The answer for all form is: where the body ends is the form. To conclude, I would say that form is the limit of the body.”1 Taking this approach, form - the basic concept of sculpture - therefore implies the notion of boundary, ending, closure, finiteness, and thus inevitably excludes the possibility of completeness. Hence, the peculiarly dual relationship sculptures bear to time. Fragmentation also evokes the notion of abstraction, the dimension of time alongside the dimensions of space, making the torso the visual representation of the passage of time, its translation into matter and space. But as sculptures move away from being pseudo-torsos bounded by surfaces that follow (or imitate) the natural fracture lines of stone, towards body-cut-outs delineated by regular planes and confined in geometric forms - and thus the gesture of excision becomes more pronounced than fragmentation - an increasing sense of finiteness emerges in us: a sense of delimitation, closure and non-continuability: ultimately of being lifted out of time, lifelessness and death.
The centrepiece or summarising work of the Műcsarnok exhibition is the Dead Venus. The sculptures selected for the exhibition are thematically and motivically interconnected, responding to each other and outlining a creative process. The summation of this is the Dead Venus: an attempt to formulate all the problems that the artist is currently most preoccupied with. The artist is pushing his limits in regard to the theme, the formal language he himself had developed and even the technical possibilities of ‘sculpture-making’. This pushing of boundaries is best captured through the tensions that arise from the juxtaposition of opposing qualities: alongside stone, a perfectly solid material, a new fluid medium – water – appears. Due to the different refraction properties of water compared to air and the distorting effect of the glass walls of the aquarium on display, new perspectives and visual distortions are produced compared to conventional perspectives with the usual coordinates of spatiality being shifted. The dead body of Venus floats in the medium of the living, life-bearing element of water.2 And despite being a summarising work, some tension is discernible between it and the other sculptures: the Dead Venus is a departure from the torsos as it represents a full female figure, although fragmentation and distortion are still visually present because of water, glass and refraction.
The title Dead Venus is a paradox in itself since one of the most important attributes of being a god is immortality. Botond Polgár has a keen interest in turning a living, breathing body into a sculpture, into dead, timeless matter: “I tend to be increasingly radical in my conviction (...) that the representation of the body (...) is either connected with Eros or with death, and in some cases perhaps with both. Our astonishment caused by the experience of the body’s transience (...) is deeply embedded in our intention to create an alternative reality of the body from a material that suggests eternity, such as stone.”3
Thus, in a more mindful approach, Botond Polgár’s sculptures are ultimate expressions of confrontation with the finiteness of human existence and man’s never-ceasing will to leave a mark.
Júlia Szerdahelyi, curator of the exhibition
(1) Plato: Meno, English translation: Benjamin Jowett
(2) To take the tension between the dead and the living material to the extreme, the artist’s express intention is to release live fish into the aquarium water during the exhibition as part of a performance.
(3) From the interview of the Műcsarnok with Botond Polgár, recorded on 30 January 2023.
He lives and works in Budapest.
He graduated in sculpture from the Hungarian University of Fine Arts in 2008, where his masters were Ádám Farkas and Zoltán Karmó. During his university years he studied on an Erasmus scholarship at the Accademia di Belli Arti di Brera in Milan and went on study trips to Italy and Spain. He has been teaching sculpture at the Hungarian University of Fine Arts since February 2018. He received a DLA degree from the Doctoral School of the Hungarian University of Fine Arts in 2020. His work has been recognised with numerous prizes and scholarships, including the Diploma Prize of the Association of Hungarian Creative Artists, the Ludwig Award (2004), the Géza Samu Award (2005), the Kogart Contemporary Art Scholarship (2008), the Pro Arte Hungarica Award (2014) and the Zoltán Borbereki-Kovács Award (2019). He was an art fellow of the Hungarian Academy of Arts between 2019 and 2022.
His works can be found in the Kogart Contemporary Art Collection and in various private collections. They were included in the Renaissance Spectacle exhibition at the Hungarian National Museum (2008), the Kogart exhibitions in Budapest and Bratislava and the Parthenon-Friesian Room at the Hungarian University of Fine Arts (2011), the Here and Now National Salon exhibition at the Műcsarnok (2015), the Between Heaven and Earth exhibition at the Várkert Bazár (2017), the exhibition Eyewash in Tihany (2018) and the Műcsarnok’s National Salon exhibition titled Artonomy (2020). His public sculpture of St. Stephen stands in Gyergyószentmiklós [Gheorgeni, Romania]. His reconstruction projects include the allegorical statue of Chemistry on the facade of the main building of the Budapest University of Technology and Economics, the destroyed statue of Déryné by Miklós Ligeti in the Horváth Garden, and the Andrássy monument in Kossuth Square (together with András Engler and János Meszlényi).