János Sugár: Thought Sketches (2009)

The uniqueness of Hungarian caricature art is signified by a single era. This period, however, is outstanding in an international context as well; it is unmatched in the world of caricature art and has not been explored sufficiently enough to this day. From the end of the 1950s, for approximately a quarter of a century, an increasing number of world class artists were creating graphics, who, in effect, reformed Hungarian caricature art. What is more, most of these artists worked in the same editorial office. The weekly Ludas Matyi, which was in the second period of its existence with 400,000 copies in circulation, featured at least 60 cartoons per week, basically by the same ten (later more) authors. For reasons still unclear today – but most probably as a result of a series of coincidences – young artists were brought together in this editorial office, who, albeit through various approaches, ended up defining the period with world class artwork. These innovative artists who simultaneously worked together employing ingenious graphic styles included Tibor Kaján, György Várnai, Pál Pusztai, and – until 1959 – László Réber, or the comparatively young István Hegedűs, only to mention the most prominent names. All of them were strong characters who expressed their personal voice in different ways, but in an up-to-date, solid and virtuosic language, thereby bringing a new quality to the genre. László Réber was the first to appear with intellectual, graphically thought-through drawings at the end of the 50s. Kaján is the master of “thought sketches”, whose work, together with Réber’s, has been characterised by a kind of minimalistic intellectualism up until today. The graphic style of György Várnai was quickly and fully established by the beginning of the 60s. He continued to work to this high standard as a master of black humour graphics until his death. The drawings of these artists often work perfectly even without text, as they were able to visually depict absurd humour with ingenious dramaturgy. These artists are philosophers of caricature art. In contrast, the frivolous world of their contemporary, Pál Pusztai, seems to offer the visuality of animation films. It was Pusztai who created the iconic “Ivan and Joe” topos as well as Jucika, who operated in a triple frame format (and was probably a role model for many women of the day). It is a real shame that he did not have the opportunity to work with animations and, in this way, Jucika could not be turned into a Gusztáv (the main character of a popular Hungarian animation series by the same title). I would also like to quickly note here that this was also the golden age of Hungarian graphic animations. Fortunately, Várnai had a chance to also work with animations films. Though her approach was not exactly “avant-garde”, Anna Vasvári represented a uniquely solid language of graphics and humour for a long time. She is to be credited for what often were psychologically refined portrayals of the “female absurd”. A uniquely depressive treatment of lines was the trademark of István Hegedüs’ virtuosic graphics, who was nearly ten years younger than the above mentioned artist. György Fülöp, also a member of this generation, worked in a graphic style that was quite different from that of the others, but was nevertheless very original and solid. His best works were characterised by a kind of plebeian expressivity. And let us not forget that, beside these artists, such classic figures – who were more or less twenty years their senior – were also present at Ludas Matyi as the world famous Félix Kassowitz, Tibor Toncz, József Szűr-Szabó, and Béla Szepes, (Olympic athlete and) sports caricaturist. How incredible! The story of the magazine entitled Ludas Matyi is usually analysed from the perspective of politics. This official humour magazine established by the Communist Party was meant to represent the single-party system for those who “didn’t read any other papers”. It was clearly a tool of propaganda, a kind of company notice board, where things prescribed by management were depicted in a humorous manner. For this, no high quality form of expression was expected; the graphic language and virtuosity of the drawings – that were important in caricature art – were beside the point. There were obvious texts to go with the drawings, and the texts themselves constituted the bottom line. The caricature only documented the situation. All this was changed by the appearance of Kaján, Réber, Várnai, Hegedűs and others. For these artists formulated their own high standard and internationally unique language of graphics. The preceding generation usually came from the area of commercial graphics

and thus appeared on the scene with an already existing paradigm of graphics. (The best example for this is Félix Kassowitz’s work.) Commercial graphics to them was what animation film and pop art are to the new generation. Emma Heinzelmann and László Réber (who later switched over to illustrations) were both prominent representatives of the latter. In the case of caricatures, the simple printing technique that was used also facilitated the development of a new graphics style as it was possible to put the opportunities offered by colour spots and partial colourings to creative use. The freedom to choose topics grew to some extent after 1956. Humour magazines were also less restricted by censorship and, at the same time, the Budapest tradition of bold stand-up comedy shows known as cabarets – ever walking the political tightrope – was also still very much present. (This subject was researched by György Kozma, who, from the 90s on, worked as a caricature artist himself.) The surviving traditions of humour and levity – the Budapest cabaret – which were called for by the historical environment of dictatorship helped formulate the microclimate that lead to the golden age of Hungarian caricature art. In the tiny library of the Fészek Artists’ Club, many important journals and publications of contemporary art – graphic and otherwise – could be found. In 1968, a large-scale national caricature exhibition was organised, which filled the entire Műcsarnok/Kunsthalle Budapest and which aroused great interest. Some of the “objects” that were put on display could even be characterised as pop art. With the passing of time, the list of outstanding artists can be continued: Ferenc Sajdik, György Brenner, István Lehoczky – to, once again, only mention the best – but their numbers were not as significant as before. There also seemed to be a decrease in enthusiasm for intellectual, creative caricature art. The boredom of stagnation took the place of pop art. Then, as a result of changes in political, economic and social circumstances, Ludas Matyi ceased publication in 1992 (just as the English Punch did in 2002 with sixty years of history behind it). Newer, more effective techniques appeared for reaching the growing masses of people who “didn’t read any other papers”. Something similar can be observed in terms of the cabaret genre with its long tradition. The graphics of this period didn’t usually exceed the A4 size. The works drawn with ink, and later with felt-tip pen, on – by now yellowed – drafting paper reveal traces of pencil sketches, erasure marks, scratch-outs, and parts concealed with whiteout. Sometimes we can also read pencilled in instructions to the printers in reference to colouring. All of this follows from the rotational offset printing technique of the period: the contoured originals were usually reproduced without colour tone and therefore could be corrected and written on by pencil. Coloured drawings were only rarely published and were usually featured on the cover. The graphics on the inside pages at best utilised colour layer preprint usually with light, transparent colour spots – all this in the spirit of an increasingly pop art oriented visual logic. The reverse side of the original drawings also reveal a lot. They usually bear the title, the stamp of the magazine and the reduction ratio (this also contributed to the brilliantly executed appearance). Often, marks of pasting are visible at the upper edge of the reverse side: the surfaces that were to be coloured were often indicated on tracing paper. Since few graphic artists asked to have – and kept – the original drawings (luckily, György Várnai’s oeuvre, for example, did survive), most of the original graphics from this period probably disappeared in the bottom of printing storage cabinets and were then lost for good.
János Sugár, 2009.