|Julian Bell and Tom Walker look back at the links forged between artists|
|Lewes’s brief career as an east-west artistic entrepôt in the post-Cold War world lasted some three years, from 1995 to 1997. Our principal dealings during that period were with the town of Veszprém in Hungary and with artists from Minsk, the capital of Belarus; we also brought a Slovak woodcarver to exhibit in our town. The contrasts between these various ventures serve to show what an unsatisfactory category
‘Eastern Europe’ had always been.
Our relations with Veszprém – the most important aspect of Lewes Links art activity – were initiated by Paul Busby. It was he who laid before Tom Walker the opportunity of showing his work before the utterly unfamiliar public of a largish provincial town a thousand miles from Lewes. Tom was excited at the possibility of thus exporting his visionary pastels when I bumped into him early in 1995: excited by the notion of inspecting some Baroque frescoes I’d been reading about, I fraudulently offered to accompany him as his Hungarian interpreter. A few months later, after a fund-raising gig at All Saints in which Tom heroically improvised with his pastels in response to jazz played by Paul Busby and colleagues, the two of us set off in his camper van, sardine-tight-packed with 50 framed exhibits – me frantically trying to cram a Magyar phrasebook as we tonned it down the Bavarian autobahnen. We liked the idea of crossing the erstwhile Iron Curtain at the peaceful, pastoral-looking spot on the map named Szentgotthard: big mistake. Peaceful spots are boring for petty officials, who like to take it out on greenhorns with unusual cargoes. Nine hours’ kicking our heels, swearing and trying to phone the admin at Veszprém were only concluded with a signed undertaking to resubmit all the exhibits – all Tom’s hoped for revenue – to customs on our way back home.
But that was it for hassles. Veszprém was overwhelmingly good to us. It is a bigger county town than Lewes, but with a certain affinity – its skyline straddled between an historic castle and a sixties local governmental brutality, nonetheless a temperate, well mannered, modestly prosperous place. It would be nice to think that the county admin of East Sussex was equally proactive and imaginative, particularly when it came to supporting the arts. Vera Timár, whose role this chiefly was, had laid on a wide-ranging programme for the two angolok; pushing us equally towards interesting possibilities for exchange with Hungarians and to sheer touristic pleasure. She and others made sure that the launch of the exhibition went off with a swing, and that sales were made. (Like the Magi with Herod, we slipped the borders by a different route.) Our duties included visiting, at the headmaster’s behest, a school specialising in English language: reporting to his office at 9 a.m., he felt we needed preparation to meet the pupils: a bottle of dodgy brandy was emptied into three tumblers – “Down ze ‘atch !”; by the time we reeled out, the pupils had all vanished, but there was still local wine that needed politely to be appraised ….
Our week wasn’t all like this. The most significant aspect (apart from discovering some astonishing past masters of Hungarian painting) was getting to meet our contemporaries in the visual arts. We found ourselves in some ways rather envious of them. The State (as was) had provided studios – good ones, too – and committed itself to a certain level of purchases all round per annum (provided, presumably, you had made whatever the grade was). A district artists’ association had got itself together for a highly professional promotional brochure: the way Veszprém did things altogether suggested an enlightened, arts-positive attitude. Though in fact the talk was already that this was going to change – a new market-paid-up government was due to put a stop to such handouts. (They had been voted in as ‘socialists’. Maybe Britain and Hungary do have affinities.)
|Zsa Zsa’s shop
painted by Julian Bell
in Veszprém, 1995
Ten months after Walker and Bell’s very rewarding visit, Serena Penman followed the trail. The emerging links between the two European counties had prompted an invitation for East Sussex councillors to join those of Veszprém in celebrating a millennium of Hungarian nationhood in March 1996. Having won a travel prize from the Royal Watercolour Society, Serena joined the party, along with her fellow artist Lucy Willis. With no remit to exhibit in Hungary, merely to spend the hours of daylight responding to its topography, they were nonetheless staggered by the inclusive generosity of the welcome they were given.
There was thus a wealth of goodwill to receive the Hungarians who brought, by way of return, a vanload of exhibits to Lewes’s Star Gallery in August 1996. Pat Cooper, running the Star, was extremely positive in her willingness to take on this out-of-the-way venture – as she would prove again in later enterprises. The procedural politics of the arrangement meant that we could promote the four-artist show we had arranged with at least three-quarters conviction. The fourth exhibitor was senior, nationally revered through Hungary, friendly with the Veszprém organisers and – with her twinkly pietistic silver-spray madonnas – terminally aesthetically untranslatable, to put it politely.
|The selling point, we ourselves felt – and East Sussex County Council confirmed it by buying from her – was the tapestry work of Edit Lugossy. Edit was a virtuoso artist, both highly ambitious and magically skilled: she wove on a giant scale, kindling and fanning abstract motifs which developed astonishing textures: she had little English, but it would have been a pleasure to bring work of that quality and originality to people anywhere.|
Her husband László sculpted quasi-figural forms in steel and chrome. Both they and the other painter, Tibor Kádár, were in fact Veszprém-based exiles from the Hungarians’ lost land of Erdelyi – now Romanian Transylvania – and the arts of the two men were each pitched on an ethos of endurance, memory, witness. You could describe them as classically disillusioned European existentialists.
I felt strongly for, with and in favour of Tibor: he’s a painter I really admire. But the fact is that visitors to the Star exhibition, as far as I could gauge, didn’t share my point of view. Tibor’s big brushy gestures and blocks of impasto, László’s metalline angst, struck them as anachronistically naff – they felt these were people trying to do Peter Lanyon, or Lynn Chadwick, or suchlike British post-war types, about thirty years too late. We were, it would seem, meeting up with the cultural fissures effected by the Cold War. Repeatedly, the Hungarians affirmed to us that they belonged by rights to Central Europe, that Budapest and indeed Veszprém and Transylvania were points in a cultural nexus stretching to Paris, Munich and Milan, and that only the misfortunes of modem history had collocated them with ‘the East’. But those mishaps had landed them in the awkward position of looking at once too old hat, and not old hat enough – not so anachronistic in their values as to look positively ‘quaint’ to a blasé post-modern British public. I hope we gave the visitors a good introduction to England, but the success of the venture was rather qualified.
1997 was a particularly active year for Lewes Links where the Arts were concerned.
|Between April 26th and May 5th, the Slovakian wood-carver, Ján eliga, brought his finely crafted figures and bas-reliefs to exhibit at Shelleys Hotel during the Lewes Festival.
eliga, then in his 40s, came from the village of Hrutín, in Orava, a region of beautiful valleys surrounded by the Tatry mountains. He is described by the writer of a book about this region as: … “having the soul of a poet, full of inspiration of the folklore art that is widespread in his home county, he breathes a magic into a procession of wooden figures telling of the Slovak national folklore hero, Janoík, and other characters.”
eliga, whose father was also a wood-carver, gave a demonstration of his carving techniques during the exhibition. It was courageous of him to come, for he not only spoke no English but was also in a state of grief following the death of his son.
The show also provided an opportunity for local artists, Serena Penman, Lucy Willis and Julian Bell, all of whom had visited Hungary, to exhibit some of their paintings of scenes from Veszprém and Balatonfüred.
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In October, a ‘variety’ show was staged at the All Saints Centre to raise funds to bring a group of artists from Belarus to exhibit in Lewes.
Whilst the show was enjoyed by all those who participated, all but a handful of the then 150-or-so Lewes Links membership who had been invited to support this event, failed to attend; a grim disappointment. It is worth saying here that virtually all of Lewes Links’ varied and ambitious projects down the years have only succeeded thanks to the dedication of a very few determined individuals.
So it was that, nothing daunted, Lewes Links went into shoe-string mode just as the artists from Minsk themselves were doing, coming, as they were, from a dictatorship in continual economic crisis where the majority of the population survive on root vegetables.
Whereas the Hungarians had brought their works to England in a state-provided minibus, the artists from Belarus staggered out of the arrivals doors at Heathrow, laden with portfolios, holdalls and improvised packages which proved to contain a rich and varied feast of original art.
With the 4 artists – bearing the works of another 3 who had been unable to make the trip – came their dynamic organiser and interpreter, Zoja Kotovich.
|The artists who came were Anna Balash with her uncanny and beautifully made puppets, in porcelain, leather and exquisitely embroidered textiles; Aleksandr Lubnevskij, following the traditional Russian realistic school in the lyrical naturalism of his landscapes; Viktorija Kulvanovskaja with her visionary images of angels, and Valery Slauk, graphic designer and book illustrator whose fantastical Slavonic grotesqueries have brought him deserved recognition in his own country.|
|With them came the beautifully organised visions of work on the land by Larisa Zhuravovich; Aleksandr Demidov’s luminous oils – reminiscent of Chagall, so far the only artist from Belarus to achieve world fame; and Uladzimir Lukashik’s meticulously drawn studies of bound and fettered horses, offering a contrasting modernistic air of extreme tension.
These determined creators had made the huge effort to bring their works – each of real imaginative power and high technical accomplishment – to Lewes and they were not disappointed by the public’s response. The Lewesians took them to their hearts, their homes and were enthralled and captivated by their Star Gallery show that opened on October 26th for a week.
Pat Cooper, the then curator of the Star, sums up the show thus:
|“…Lewes Links… brought an exciting exhibition of pictures by artists from Belarus to Star Gallery in Lewes. They brought oil paintings, watercolours, drawings, woodcuts, etchings and hand-made puppets. The exhibition was extremely well attended and the public seized the opportunity to buy unusual works of an extremely high standard at, for this country, very reasonable prices.
2 years later, the artists’ co-ordinator, Zoya Kotovich, returned to the Star Gallery with an exhibition of clothes designed and made by Anna Balash and her assistant and model, Katerina. Thanks to (local artist), Peter Gough, the gallery was transformed into a garden bower, with trees and plants and garden benches to show off the clothes. The design of each piece was wonderful and unique; padded jackets trimmed with hand collage embroidery, velvet tunics for evening, shirts, waistcoats and hats all displayed original Russian-influenced design and superb workmanship.
Star Gallery had never been so busy nor had so much fun.”
Those ‘reasonable prices’ made the difference – for most of the artists who sold work – between mere subsistence and a comfortable year ahead.
It was a true pleasure to host these good people from a country we barely know that has suffered so much in war and still suffers, not only from its outmoded power structure but, worse still, from the appalling consequences of the Chernobyl disaster.
That we have been unable to take them up on their invitations to visit their homes, is a cause for regret.