—from the Éva Körner Collection—
“Most professional operation I have worked with. The very best”
Éva Körner (1929—2004) is one of the key figures of Hungarian art history writing, its 'dramatic heroine'. Though she was not the bookworm type, she wrote a series of key works on art history, such as her candidate dissertation on the oeuvre of Gyula Derkovits (1957), her volumes on the inter-war period (Magyar művészet a két világháború között, 1963; Szentendre és a Kelet-európai avantgárd, 1971), her portraits of her contemporaries (Lajos Kassák, Dezső Korniss, Gyula Pauer and others), and her studies analysing the differences between Eastern and Western art. Her career began in the Budapest Museum of Fine Art, then she worked at such publishing houses as Corvina. It was due to her influence that books on Rodchenko and Tatlin could be published—volumes ground breaking even in an international context. Éva Körner did not only research 20th century Hungarian art, but contemporary Eastern and Western tendencies as well.
The main topic and key concept of her oeuvre was avant-garde art. Through the exchange programs of the Hungarian Artists' Association, she visited the Soviet Union several times between 1969 and 1981, where she established a close relationship with the contemporary underground art world. After the official daily programmes, she visited the secluded studios. With the help of the art writer and collector Tatyana Alexandrova Kolodzey, she entered the closed circles of the Russian underground movement of the 70's. In the works of Jankilevsky, Kabakov, Bulatov, Vassiliev, Steinberg, Rabin, Infante and their fellow artists, she found the kind of art that had its roots in the great Russian tradition spreading from Gogol to Malevics, yet also reacted sensitively to Soviet everyday reality. 'She created such a unique symbiosis of the grotesque and the tragic that could not have been produced at any other time'—as Ildikó Nagy, the author of her portrait sketch put it. Though Éva Körner did not speak Russian well, she managed to establish a most personal and confident relationship with the contemporary underground art world, the members of which—though they were struggling for survival in far-away cellars at the time—have achieved world fame since then, under such labels as 'Moscow non-conformism/conceptualism'. In the meantime, she also charted the treasures of the classical avant-garde, she smuggled pictures out of the Soviet Union for the Hungarian publications, and saw the original construct of Letatlin, guarded at a secret military base.
The Körner's collection have preserved numerous letters, photos, documents and artefacts from these journeys to Moscow and Leningrad, which draw a map of her intellectual and personal affiliations. The archive disappeared from the sight of Hungarian professionals for a long time, yet years of research made it accessible for the Hungarian public once again. The debut exhibition of the gallery ART+TEXT Budapest presents a selection of the most exciting pieces for its show at the Budapest Art Market.
Eva Körner's collection includes works by people who were soon to become the most prominent Soviet artists of the time, including Ilya Kabakov, Erik Bulatov, Oleg Vassiliev, Francisco Infante-Arana, Ivan Chuikov, Eduard Gorohovsky, Eduard Steinberg, Vladimir Jankilevsky and Ulo Sooster. Among the most notable works in the collection one finds four original drawings by Ilya Kabakov, made in the 1970s. Other prominent works include drawings by Vassiliev, Chuikov and Bulatov. The Soviet kinetic art and the neo-Suprematism are also represented in the collection. The clandestine relationship between Soviet artists and the Hungarian art historian demonstrates the strong bonds between the art circles, which makes the collection an invaluable source on the history of Eastern European art.
October 9—October 12, 2014
Art Market Budapest
'It may sound terrible for someone who knows the situation, but I was actually happy and free in Moscow. There surface life was wonderfully distinguished from the cellars and the attics, and life had much greater dimensions in general than in Hungary. The first journey was an official mission in 1969, (…) I found János Mácza, whose address I had received from Kassák. They were happy because they finally got their apartment – before that they had rented a flat together with a former convict, a man sentenced for armed robbery and murder. They were the ones who introduced me to the widow of Rodchenko. Later it was the Rodchenkos who introduced me to the younger artists, to Yankilevsky and Kabakov, who, in turn, introduced me to the others. All this happened in an instant: it was an amazing, wireless transport system.'
—Layerings – An Interview with Éva Körner by István Hajdu. Balkon, 1999/3–4.
Kinetic happening-game 'Snow and flames', 1968, black and white photograph, 20.7 x 29.7 cm, enitled, signed and dated in Cyrillic on verso
Sketch for the Chrystal environment, 1972 , black and white photograph, 18.2 x 23.7 cm, enitled, signed and dated in Cyrillic on verso
Éva Körner's collection includes works by those who at that time were just to become the most prominent Soviet artists, including Ilya Kabakov, Erik Bulatov, Oleg Vassiliev, Francisco Infante-Arana, Ivan Chuikov, Eduard Gorohovsky, Eduard Steinberg, Vladimir Jankilevsky, and Ulo Sooster. They are not unknown in Hungary as well: works by some of them are in the collection of the Ludwig Museum in Budapest, as there is a whole section of 'Moscow Conceptualism', which contains works by Chuikov, Steinberg, Jankilevsky and several others. Although there are some photographs of the works by the nonconformist artists from Saint Petersburg in the collection, it is obvious, that Körner was mostly in touch with the Moscow-based Soviet artists.
Most works in the collection are easily transportable: these are small-scale works on paper (either drawings, prints or sketches) or photographs—including photographs of larger works, such as paintings and installations, used for academic and archival purposes.
The works were received, supposedly, as presents, or collected as a matter of academic interest. Many works contain similar information written in pencil in Cyrillic by the same hand: name of the artist, title of the work. At the same time some artists have put extended notes on verso of their works with the most notable example of Francisco Infante, whose rectangular handwriting is easily recognisable. At the same time we cannot be sure that it was for Körner herself, that Infante wrote all of that. Indeed, very few of works have any particular address to her, excluding works from the Rodchenko-Stepanova archive, presented by Varvara Rodchenko, artists’ daughter, who regularly sent Körner postcards and wrote friendly notes on the backs of some lithographs and photographs.
Among the most notable works in the collection are a few original drawings by Ilya Kabakov, made in the 1970s. Kabakov was mostly making albums up until the early 1980s; each of them consisting of several dozens of drawings and narrating a fictional narrative. The most prominent series is entitled Ten characters and is considered by many to be the very first 'Total Installation' by Kabakov. One of the drawings (Window, 1974) belongs to the Album Looking-in-the-window-Arkhipov.
Three other drawings come from other albums, although one of them (Golikov, 1978) seems to belong logically to the album Sitting-in-the-closet-Primakov. It has never been included in the official version of the album, but further research might bring some new details.
Other prominent works in Körner's collection are drawings by Vassiliev, Chuikov and Bulatov (one by each artists). The most interesting one is a 1981 drawing by Erik Bulatov—Entry/No Entry. It is a sketch for one of his famous painting: he made a second copy of it in 1994 which was sold in 2010 at the Phillips BRIC sales for more than 700 thousands pounds (which almost doubled the high estimate).
The collection also includes a large section of the Soviet kinetic art, artists of the Movement (Dvizhenie) group as well as some others not directly affiliated with it. Unlike others, these artists were not purely unofficial: there is even a catalogue of the Francisco Infante's exhibition held in the early 1980s—an absolutely unimaginable situation for either Kabakov or Bulatov. While all other artists had to illustrate children books to sustain themselves, artists like Lev Nusberg, Francisco Infante and Vyacheslav Koleychuk managed to exhibit their works publicly, in many ways exploiting and developing the futurist science-fictional aesthetics of the Space Race.
In his earlier works Infante was creating drawings and photomontages referring to the theories of 'Russian Cosmism': these are views of space as well as fictional universes and constructed realities. Later he started making photographs of the installation for which he inserted various mirrors of various types and shapes into the environment, making photographs of them from certain points—in order to create an extremely powerful compositional illusions. Körner could not possibly bring Infante's typical prints, which are traditionally 50×50 cm, that is why she had got a whole collection of what looks like a set of postcards, although they have never been used as such.
Besides, there are also some photographs of Infante's early public-art cynetic sculptures, from the times when he was actually collaborating with the Movement group, organised by Lev Nusberg. Somehow, there are two large posters of the Movement group exhibition as well, one of which is marvelously beautiful colour print which demonstrates how Cosmos aesthetic was used to oppose positivist official ideology (it was in this current that Andrey Tarkovsky created his most prominent sci-fi films, including Stalker and Solaris).
The period of 1970s is the time when Russian 'neo-Suprematism' came into prominence: while some Saint Petersburg artists such as Viktor Pakhomkin and Leonid Borisov elaborated the theme, Eduard Steinberg one of the most consistent followers of Kazimir Malevich, Nikolai Suetin and Alexander Rodchenko lived in Moscow and managed to merge the ideas of Russian avant-garde with the poetics of 'Moscow Conceptualism'.
Most Rodchenkos in the collection are lithographs; as they were presented to Körner by his own daughter, there is every reason for us to believe the dating—1919. Her own works resemble very much the works by her renowned parents, but nevertheless they are quite exquisite themselves. She also used some Rodchenko's photographs as actual postcards—but there is unfortunately nothing to prove, that they are vintage or at least were printed during Rodchenko’s lifetime.
Finally, the archive includes several interesting photographs of the nonconformist artists themsleves. While some of them are hardly distinguishable and could only be used in personal way, some photographs are extremely interesting: there are two unknown ones, for instance, depicting Kabakov holding his major paintings, including Beetle and Alley (both executed in 1982).
Körner's collection is a magnificent example of the fact the Eastern European culture has been much more integrated than it is usually thought. The clandestine relationship between Soviet artists and the Hungarian art-historian demonstrates the strong bounds between the art circles, which makes the collection an invaluable source on the history of Eastern European art. It therefore could be recommended for a museum collection either in Budapest or in Moscow.
—by Denis Stolyarov