Livia Dragoi, art historian: Béla Abodi Nagy. Transylvanian Art, in Bánffy-palace, Cluj (Kolozsvár), 2004.

Béla Abodi Nagy is an outstanding figure of 20th century Romanian culture. The artist, teacher and gentleman lived this century full of tribulations intensively and expressed it during more than six decades in his art. His art and the development of his personality were never calm or straight - this itinerary reflects the dramatic turns of the history of our latest age that brought us little freedom and long dictatorship. The artist did not withdraw, but got directly into the flow of events. As a witness of his age he raised its contradictions to the surface, and reconstructed through his works the history of his otherwise contradictory attitude. The ideological orders of dictatorships and the strong drive of his consciousness belong here - the latter felt violated in its innermost human dignity. Therefore putting the work into a period might only be an attempt, as it often occurs that certain problems arise and then disappear, the artist denies them and then discovers them again, enriching them with new references every time. The background of the works is the constant quest for humanity, which is always present.

To understand the artistic view of Béla Abodi Nagy, it is necessary to study the social, political and cultural contexts that defined the life of the artist.

He was born in a village and spent his childhood in the countryside, in villages all over Transylvania, which preserved ancient traditions in their architecture, national costumes, everyday customs and rhythm. He grew up with respect and appreciation of the villager and the Transylvanian Hungarian village, and never stopped thinking about this “lost paradise” with nostalgia, as the endowment of beauty, order, cleanliness and truth, and tried to recall it later in his art. So it is not accidental he participated at a study tour where he studied wooden sculpture in Csík, and issued a report about his research results.

He started his art training in Bucharest, as a student of the excellent artist Camil Ressu. He has been hallmarked by “moderate modernism”, and the results of this period will be recognisable in his painted and drawn art for a long time. In Budapest István Szőnyi directed him towards restrained realism bearing traces of the plein-air painting of Nagybánya, while Vilmos Aba Novák encouraged him to acquire the monumental sight of painting.

The tribulations of captivity, which he depicted on hundreds of drawings (unfortunately only some of them survived) developed his perception and urged him to dense his graphical expressivity. This experience later strongly affected his book illustrating activities. The intensity of experiences remains the artist’s own, and it arises in his art as a turn towards the language of expressionism.

He became familiar with success very early. His start in Bucharest in 1940 was quite positive, followed by successful exhibitions in Budapest and Kolozsvár (Cluj). His popularity protracted in the fifties as well, when his composition The capture of Fónagy was welcomed by the communist regime gradually gaining strength, and he was given the respective “State award” in 1954. In the scope of the same ideology his other painting Criticism (1954) was also awarded, however Separation (1955) caused a break. This painting is the negative reaction of the painter to the destruction of villages via forced collectivisation, and the painter was started to be criticised, first only furtively, which made him leave the first line of socialist- realist artists approved and supported by the government. However, he was hired to illustrate many books. The character of the books mostly for children and young people, except for the adjustment to the text, provided him relatively large freedom in graphic expression. The same freedom characterises the paintings evoking his childhood. The harmony of his own family life, the bringing up of his four children helped him to approach childhood with understanding, smoothness and joy.

In 1949 he was appointed to teach at the Ion Andreescu Academy of Art, where he was head of department at the painting department between 1951- 1957 and 1970-1983 (when he retired). During this long period he spent much of his energy on his teaching activities, pursuing it with punctuality, systematic approach and respect towards his profession, always aiming to provide a wide cultural spectre to his students.

In the sixties - and mainly in the first years of the subsequent decade - his art is characterised by the easing of ideological pressure, and this is when he re-discovers visual traditions and connects them to modern trends. In parallel with the canvases with characteristic titles of the age, celebrating winning socialism (the cubist-constructivist origin, apparently modern, but slightly rigid language of these paintings was also general in the age) he painted many compositions of cubist impression, in where composing skills are coupled with the daring exploitation of the expressive and constructive role of colours. From the seventh decade on, but mainly in the seventies (getting

further away from the noise of public life) the artist created an alternative world in his atelier, filled with anguish, fear and disconcerting anticipations; his art approached another style at that time, characterised by expressionism, and which will also define the tone of his dramatic visions in the nineties, in the toughest years of dictatorship.

Although we should treat the style fluctuations of an artist’s life with reservations, we can say that this is quite normal in a life which lasted for seven decades, especially when the century in which these works were born has been characterised by perplexity and contradiction, and the artist himself is a perplexed character too, always looking for artistic and intellectual identity. Beyond the fluctuations never denied by Béla Abodi Nagy, his art is also characterised by constant features. He was always committed to pay attention to the peculiar problems of his ethnicity, he was always interested in portrait painting, always expressing his energetic temper, resulting in dramatic expression. He always bore in mind reality and its depiction in its objective environment (many depictions can be related to the idea of “New objectivism”). His imaging is characterised by disassembled and reconstructed, monumental constructions with cubist-constructivist impressions, which never deny objective visual logic either.

The first works of the artist subsisted from the times of his studies in Bucharest: nude studies (The three graces, In the workshop), figure studies (Roommate), portraits (The portrait of composer András Szőllősy), some of them with composition need (The friend, The comrade), figured compositions (Icaros, Winter), stills (Still with lemon) and landscapes (Parties, Landscape of Hója). So the artist pursued all the styles which he used later on (with various frequency during the various periods). The main objective of the paintings was to study realism (simplified reality, deprived of artistically superficial details), which we can relate to the trend of the age wishing to return to general realism, following the classical lecture of Cézanne.

The young painter puts away the modelling of forms based on light and shade and builds them up with colours, keeping the colour on a moderate scale, with many rural colours and cold accents, which were characteristics of classicising realism. Colours are only warm on the Portrait of the artist’s fiancée, painted by Béla Abodi Nagy in Brassó (Brasow), because of the complementary contrast of red and green. His first self-portraits come from

this period as well - later on the artist made a series of it. (The self-portraits painted during his whole life do not only allow following the changes of the artist’s stout face, but also the development of his style). Of course, the student of Camil Ressu is also interested in the world of villages (The portrait of the old villager, 1939), as it formed one of the central themes of his art. On the Portrait of the old villager we can discover the traces that the painter is prone to increase and exaggerate the expressivity of the human figure, which is an expressionist characteristic, which will become even more obvious later. The clown is also an expressionist motif, and occurs in Abodi’s art on various occasions (Composition with harlequin, 1938, Still with clown, 1971).

On some of his paintings, the expressive effect comes from the sadness of the depicted figures (Portrait of the artist’s wife, 1942; Portrait of the artist’s grandmother, 1943), while on other paintings (Newsboys, Collective, 1942; and mainly in In church, 1943) the style itself is expressionistic. The indifferent figures, whose faces are grotesquely distorted by secret, unknown and obscure desires, participate at the mass indifferently (In church). The spectator is a witness of the superficiality of these beings, the speechless existential drama of their wasted life, two-facedness and nonsense. The sad and dense colours following the distorted lines energetically increase the dramatic weight of expression.

We can discover certain interface with expressionism on the painting Sunday afternoon, painted in Kolozskovácsi in 1942, when he was appointed to be drawing teacher in the school. In a picturesque, rustic landscape the artist condensed several scenes, which to a certain extent are narrative; however the colourful shapes unite the figures, houses and mountains in the same organic buoyancy, raising a vitalised, expressionist feeling of the universal circulation of energies in nature. Paradoxically, the paintings painted in accordance with communist ideologist expectations, which were inspired by the recent past of the triumphal fight of the communist party, also contain traces of expressionist elements (The capture of János Fónagy, 1953; Trial, 1957). The selection of the theme itself had already considered the dramatic nature of the scenes, which allowed the painter to over-depict movement, gestures and acting, the usage of dramatic light effects on these paintings, which can be read and interpreted immediately and stick to the reality of the image.

In the same years, on the peak of the proletariat culture he approached the theme of villagers in a naturalist manner too, which often had an anecdotic effect (Pig scalding, 1949), or sometimes gave titles to these paintings which

made them ideologically acceptable (Conquest of the mountains, 1952). However, in the second half of the sixth decade, the folkloristic meaning and the decorative-allegoric characteristics are pushed into the background within this theme. The quest for national traces in the world of villages is made concrete in a firm, peculiarly raw and figural style, where the drawing emphasises the forms, where colours are used in a pastose manner, are vivid and based on contrasts (Wedding, 1958). The embedding of villagers’ figures in nature, which also participates in the act (Separation, 1955) underlines the idea that energies are of common character. In the next periods the artist was searching the constant characteristics of the Hungarian village and his attention is focused on capturing the stout physical appearance of villagers. Béla Abodi Nagy sees Transylvania not only as a geographic, but as a human and spiritual entity too. The captured villager faces are acting like symbolic prototypes (Couple, 1974; Summer, 1974; Double portrait, 1984), and bear the traces of human solidarity, which makes the compositions rhythmic.

In the seventh and eighth decade, besides looking for national peculiarities, the artist concentrates on a very special problem of painting: picture building (Spring, Landscape, 1968; Joy, 1970; Bride, 1972; The snub-nosed girl, 1977; Three women, 1978; Still with flowers and fruits, 1980). Without a programme, he is passionately looking for modern artistic trends (which became art history since then). The works of this period show similarity to cubist and constructivist imaging, analysing forms via geometric shapes (thus we often find waves, right and acute angles), disassembling them to separate dimensions, and regrouping them around new, ray-like centres. The dimensions and surfaces are arranged around power lines, and change according to accented rhythms, in accordance with the architectural and monumental articulation needs of the composition, but not denying visual logic (the motif remains recognisable all the time among the reasonably established framework of the composition). In accordance with his temper, the artist harmonises cubist-constructivist discipline and intellectual approach (which includes editing and also the smoothness of textures) with fouve-like chromatic explosions. He puts daring greens and blues, reds, orange, vivid yellows on his canvas which is impossible to miss; he puts them on energetically, spasmodically, making the impression of a pulsating mosaic. Sometimes he reaches a sophisticated, decorative effect, which pushes the composition towards the abstract, without the picture as a whole leaving the track of figured imaging.

Already from the seventh decade on an expressionistic unrest becomes apparent in his proficiently constructed painting (Lingerers, 1967). This feeling will deepen in the next decade (Conflict, 1972; Farewell, 1975; Height and depth, 1979), reaching its peak in the eighties (Cry, 1986; Portrait of the writer Andor Bajor, Tragicomedy, Family, Blind fear, Loathing, 1987; The yard, In the graveyard, Disaster, Obstacle, Belvedere, 1988; Exhumation, 1989; Where?, 1991). In the eighth decade expressionism, which had been withdrawn so far, became central for Béla Abodi Nagy, as the key to an age of unrest and prophecy. Paintings of the time were born in a heat - they reveal the lies and deceit of communism, showing tragic and loathing reality. Nightmare-like revelations, faces distorted by fear become the actors of an absurd, realistic, tragic play which takes place on an indefinite, bare stage, in cold and indifference: black, heavy skies, bare lands are the scenes. Demonically transformed faces, confused gestures and movements, hostile environment explicitly characterise hatred, hostility and despair. The artist’s message is not only an intense protest, not only judgement from the high seat of the judge, but a painful testimony as well. In the chaos of general misery, the painter discovers himself with shock and is sympathetic towards painful humanity threatened by devastating machinations. He feels in common with the thousands of anonymous sufferers of a constantly painful human fate, threatened by total derangement. The artist warns of the huge risk of madness, who is also part of these pictures and who appears on the dramatic Self-portrait, painted in 1988. Getting to this point, the painter warns and points out; he releases pain, fear and despair through creation, and rediscovers hope on the intimate field of creation as a generous Creator, and in the richness of his Human experience. As a miracle just found, he reconstructs with joy the crystal clear structure of the world of order (We have been and we will be, 2002).

Dr. Dragoi Livia, director general of the Museum of Transylvanian Art in Kolozsvár (Cluj) (Bánffy-palace), art historian


(October-November 2004, Abodi Nagy Béla, retrospective exhibition at the Transylvanian Museum of Fine Arts, Bánffy Palace in Cluj-Napoca)