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On István Nádler

István Nádler is perhaps the most outstanding artist-creator of late-twentieth century Hungarian painting. His career took off in the Sixties — a markedly anti-artist era in Hungary. Politics invaded the territory of culture in a way unprecedented for this country. Nádler was a co-founder of the neo-avant-garde artistic movement that kicked off during the mid-Sixties in Hungary. His painting was at once affiliated with Lajos Kassák's historical, Hungarian Constructivist avant-garde and contemporary universal neo-avant-garde. Nádler is a painter who embodies the re-creation of continuity in the oft-interrupted course of modern Hungarian art. From lyrical abstraction and through Kassák-style Constructivist traditions he hit upon a monumentally dramatic painting that was integrative in its aspirations. As befit his time, Nádler went through the rigorously structural hard edge school, while at the very beginning of the Eighties he returned to the more lyrically sentimental and more serene painting of his early career. And all the while Nádler preserved his special individual tastes and colours, thereby significantly contributing to the individual and Hungarian solution of a universal problem in painting.

Over and above painting’s own challenges, there were, and perhaps still are, two factors that have had the greatest impact on shaping Nádler's art: music and landscape. Obviously, both only determine his art in a rather indirect manner: in relation to his painting it is more appropriate to talk about intellectual connections. The music of Béla Bartók brought Nádler closer to understanding folk music, and thereby to a pure system of ancient, elemental forms. This was an extraordinary step particularly around the Sixties and Seventies since the official cultural policy of the time held that neo-Constructivism in Hungary was synonymous with imitating the West. Therefore, to Nádler and his associates it seemed extremely important that as they connected with universal art's  tasks of the day and movement they should also bring to this step special Hungarian connotations. In Nádler's case this was lifting the petal and Avar (a peoples living in the Carpathian Basin at the time of the Great Migrations) motive into his painting.
“Critical reviews of the exhibition in Stuttgart in 1968 are unequivocal about this differentness. One piece went for a slightly journalistic title: “Hard Edge as Paprika”, indicating that within hard edge we were doing something entirely different than what German or, say, American, artists were engaged in within the same trend. In the 1968 period colours acquire an emotional charge the hard edge problem does not, generally speaking, inherently carry in itself. Thus, a characteristic momentum was added on to this general problem in painting. Through the music of Bartók, I came to better access the form world of folk art, and thereby archaic art. A search for deeper roots such as the Avar motive arises. This is very important for me, since through this motive I came to sense archaic man’s creative dimension, wherein the essence of things is not conceptual but, rather, experiential, and dramatically summating in its expression. Energy of the highest level surges to the surface in this way. Line and colour are what one must help bring to the surface from similar depths, and this is why one cannot deceive with colour, that lying is not possible, for it is therewith we discover genuine ability, the kind of inner reserves a person possesses. For me, colour and line are tools that carry and communicate spiritual qualities, of the ilk form does not possess.” - said Nádler in an interview.

Steve Reich's minimal music, on the other hand, created the great opportunity for Nádler of spontaneous painting and free composition. In the seventies, this period also gave rise to the birth of a  major independent musical series.

“I had doubts concerning the homogeneity of geometry and the need for change arose. Towards the end I felt that I was showing too beautiful a picture of the world and of myself, that all was too homogenous, too pretty this way. I used three kinds of white, and the ocean sand blended into it provided the boundaries for form. Amid the forms floated in this white space it was easier to hit upon the other, for which I had been waiting. It was at around this time that I became familiar with Steve Reich's music, and through him with minimal music. This automatically and spontaneously brought with itself the gestures mediated by this music. Indeed, the first images were not even images but, rather, graphics, and the first picture was already based on the experiences of these, with colours very gently appearing on a white foundation. This musical period concluded with a symbolical series: with pictures revolving to the sound of music. As the sun is to the sunflower, for me it is music I and my problems revolve. In practical terms, this meant that I actually placed the picture on the floor horizontally and painted the actual picture as I walked around listening to the music.”

As an impacting and inspiring influence, landscape is likewise a rather derivative constituent element in Nádler's art. It is more appropriate to speak of the forms and colours of nature, of moods and feelings rather than  of landscape painting per se. Nádler works in the Káli Basin, possibly the most beautiful region of Hungary with its conical mountains, rolling hills and gentle slopes fringed by vineyards. All of this is present on his canvases and on paper in such a remote fashion that its origin can hardly be traced. The pictures are light, cheerful and virtuoso, exactly as might be expected of a Grand Master such as he. Behind every stroke of the brush lies knowledge and talent, with colours and forms evoking summer, light, the rolling Hungarian hills, fiery wine and raging nature in an indirect way.

In the brief inventory of Nádler's art a motive from the history of painting plays an important role: a parallelogram form indicative of painting's classic Malevich geometric motive. On Nádler's pictures the form dedicated to Malevich is in actual fact a self-identifying emblem, that is at once a connecting point to universal art and, on the other hand,  a sign perpetually alluding back to private myth' s specific picture entitled “Nike”, which he painted early on in his career.

“I have always liked Malevich's pictures and behaviour, and I believe that among geometric artists it was he who was able to present geometry with the kind of sensitivity that was of exemplary force to me. It was in his honour that I painted a picture in 1994. With Malevich form was more active, and space, supremacist space was passive. I turned this around, and condensed space into a gesture, which pressed the bottom of the parallelogram underneath, and thus a distorted parallelogram came into being. Interestingly, this was so bound up with forms that had emerged in his earlier, geometrical works - plastic diagonal and company - that later on I continuously kept using this sign-like form. This evolved in 1985, and to this day I use it and think in terms of it.”

This signifies the stratum of permanence, around and behind which life and painting occurs, is shaped, changes. The plane of change is subject, consciously and instinctively, to the impact of external influences, moods, joys, dramas, emotions, the world's prosaic events, universal changes in art, in the world. Sometimes, life and art produce extraordinary things, a motive that was already present in one of his early pictures, “Nike”, painted in 1964. And, after twenty years, it has returned to him as it were. Reappraised, re-matured, re-vamped -- incorporating geometric structure into his new, lyrical painting. Obviously, the form of expression changes constantly, even when upon superficial glance a more rigorous geometry had taken the lead in his pictures - for instance in the late-Sixties - yet we are dealing with the same sensuous Nádler as we had early on in his career, or even today.

Motives change: they now become softer, then stricter, presently pictures projecting a more lucid, a more intense internal purity and cheer are predominant. The form dedicated to Malevich is in actual fact a self-identifying emblem, which is at once a connecting point to universal art, and, on the other hand,  a private myth, a specific sign forever referring back to “Nike”. This signifies the stratum of permanence, around and behind which life and painting take place, are shaped, and change. The plane of change is subject, consciously and intentionally, to the impact of external influences, moods, joys, dramas, emotions, the world's prosaic events, universal changes in art, to the world. The key to the mystery probably lies hidden in the equilibrium system of the two constituent elements - the permanent and the changing. This is why István Nádler is capable of being one of the most exciting artists in contemporary Hungarian painting.

The early-Nineties witnessed a growing fullness  and a flowering in Nádler's art. At the turn of the decade his double exhibition entitled Always and Again (Budapest-Feketebács)  - first at the Pécs Gallery and then in Joanneum in Graz - summed up the work of the previous half decade. The recurring theme, painted with great gusto, of the diagonal, Malevich style, together with the use of lively colours, which was perhaps a weaving in of the Feketebács landscape experience, radically transformed his painting. Determined as this transformation was, the title that summed it all up: Always and Again was extremely apt.

Completed by the mid-Nineties, Nádler's two major Italian series, Roman Pictures (1992-1993) take his own painting as their point of departure. The series is quite unequivocally a picture journal. It is not only via dates that the chronology of the birth of the works may be traced -- the works also very precisely reveal how the painter came under the influence of a local motive, form, emotion, colour, or material. His Roman colours took over: dull, reddish-brown, black and crimson, orange and white dominate. The feeling of old marbles, crumbling walls, the green of the Tevere find their way onto his palette.

Then came the Florence Cycle  in 1993. Starting our from his own Nike-Malevich form,  in Rome Nádler built into his pictures new forms and colours. Something entirely different happened in Florence. It was as though Nádler discovered a special form of Neo-Classicism once again only returning to himself. Gone was the tempo of the single movement, to be replaced by a rigorously thought-over form transformed into  geometrical - that is, by definition cool - element. At the same time, previously almost never before used colours: extraordinarily lively yellows, large patches of red, shrill green colour-fields dominate the surface of the pictures. this picture editing is also repeated on the 1993 canvasses made at Feketebács. The difference is, however distinctly marked in the domain of colours--the Káli Basin's far softer and gentler tones have resulted in more delicate pictorial impact.

The next series, Triangles, is the accomplishment of 1994-95.  The following happened: the famous Nike motive was replaced by another new dominant form, the triangle. No one should be thinking of a strict geometrical idiom, not even if in some of the opening pieces (Triangle V. and Triangle A/5) the form emerges from the background with a sharpness of hard edge's determination. On most pictures the strong contour lines have disappeared, more precisely they have been transformed into heated gesture lines that no longer frame, but, rather,  penetrate the field of colour, over-writing and transcribing them. Every picture may be divided into three superseding layers: there is a relatively passive foundation - and here at once it is worth speaking in broad terms because there are canvasses where the foundation is rather dynamic - on which the triangle standing on its base is situated. The triangle motive is quite varied, albeit not in form as much as in colour, depth, space and dynamic. In places it almost totally blends into the background, and in some places it stays coldly and elegantly separate, and still in others its outline becomes fragile like that of a mirage. The picture structure's third layer is the dynamic gesture. With respect to the first few pieces of the series this is like the contour line come to life and broken away, over-writing the triangle as a braid, as a line. On subsequent canvasses an independent cloud motive hovers as if it were above the triangle, creating a sharp contrast with the picture's basic motive. The three threads reveal an infinite number of variations, and yet we cannot speak of series pictures in the sense that each work is a fully  independent, complete whole On more recent pieces of the triangle series (Triangle B/1-3) the painter’s gesture again acquires a greater role, almost flowing before the space behind it.  The basic motive itself, the triangle no longer plays a leading role. Its resonating role, relationship with space, has become more important.

In the mid-Nineties Nádler staged a one-man exhibition at Museum Kiscell's Church interior in Budapest. Today, the 18th century church is a rather bizarre space enclosed by raw bricks that has been rebuilt several times, and Nádler designed his work expressly to be exhibited here. The vertical predominates this space, with upward-thrusting pillars, and widow arches closing at the top. These “geometrical” endowments, and several decades of Nádler-style experimenting with the harmonisation of amorphous and geometrical forms together created the basic model for the 1995 paintings. Six large pictures (Feketebács/Kiscell I-VI)  were already made with Nádler knowing where they would stand. Three pictures addressed modulations of the relationship between the vertical-horizontal and the triangle. On the wall across from the aforesaid, three of Nádler's pictures explored the relations system of diagonal and triangle.  It was simply overpowering how the simple, basic geometrical form, the light-yellow triangle standing on its apex and floating almost in the void linked up with three, torch-like vertical forms. These upward-thrusting,  bright or dark bands are painted in a way that they almost spin around their axes. Its associate piece is dominated by a dark triangle standing on its base, its boundaries fading into uncertainty, while behind it, by way of contrast, a pale-yellow triangle is drifting away in space. The vertical images on the opposite side are more dramatic: top and bottom form a diagonal, albeit these intersections are mutilated, breaking every now and then, and do not connect. The colours, too, are harsher, with black, blue, orange predominant on the one, mauve, dark red and light blue, and dark blue on the other. Their aspiration is to unite the  two problem areas - the duet of geometric form and dynamic gesture - and at once to break them up-dismantle them. On the other hand, they are dramatic landscapes.

Delicate shifts occurring under the influence of the landscape experience are extremely important. Nádler being a non-figurative painter, this is an unusual phenomenon, and in the meantime all of this is couple with extraordinarily conscious artistic discipline, which processes the influence of lyrical impacts and incorporates it into the picture structure so that it is able to maintain the harmony-disharmony of gesture and structure in a fertile equilibrium.

The second half of the Nineties witnessed the diminishing of the dominant role of dramatic gestures and large motives. Large surfaces homogeneous in colour have come to the fore. The picture surface is determined by a large, homogeneous geometrical form - square, rectangle, parallelogram, trapeze -  in two or three colours. Here, the structure of amorphous lines signify the clash of gestures. The large surfaces are by no means geometrical in style. Rather, they are gently, “freehandedly” undulating forms: one is always homogeneous in colour, while the other (or a third) is steeped in picturesque abundance. It is onto -in front of - this structure, always firmly clashing in its colours, is the very subdued, delicate line system placed, painted at first with lighter, and then with heavier strokes of the brush. This creates an extremely bizarre space dynamic, wherein the front and the back of the picture conduct a picturesque dialogue with one another. Nádler always works in series, painting a painter’s idea that holds his interest many times, in search of the perfect solution. Such cannot, of course, come about since, after all, from all pictorial systems additional opportunities open up. In Nádler's pictures painted in summer 1998 the aforesaid line web has become far more extensive, and in consequence the picture surface has become almost fabric-like.

When István Nádler's career took off in the Sixties, Central Eastern Europe was separated from the Continent and the Western world by a physical and intellectual iron curtain. The generation of this period, called IPARTERV (GENERATION INDUSTRIAL PLAN) after the venue of an unofficial exhibition, comprised the group of artists who first crossed these frontiers, both physically and intellectually speaking, thereafter linking up with and hooking back into the currents of universal art. From the second half of the Sixties on, the situation in Hungary was such as to make it possible for this group to maintain a continuos presence, albeit unofficially, in Europe's exhibition halls, at one-man as well as group exhibitions and collections. In Hungary, the “change of regime” took place earlier in fine art than it did in the political realm. Thus, for instance, as early as 1986 Nádler was able to officially exhibit at the Hungarian Pavilion of the Venice Biennial. Since 1990, there have been  no obstacles to becoming acquainted with his art, and therefore it is a very welcome development that now Riga is given the opportunity to become acquainted with István Nádler's painting.

Péter Fitz

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