Struggking to live - Judit Kemény (1918-2009)
© Bretus Imre

“I am old enough to see behind the curtains drawn aside carefully.” - Judit Kemény

In the history of 20th century art it is not unusual that for a variety of reasons a few artists were neglected in the decades after 1945. Judit Kemény is also one of those talented, independent-minded artists who were forced to live in almost complete isolation in the most important period of their lives.
This book undertakes the introduction of Judit Kemény’s course of life, it examines her fate in neglect, how she could walk a rich and creative path despite the isolation and how the influence of the European School[1], which was fully prohibited by 1948, could get incorporated into her art.
After 1948, the first time Judit Kemény had the chance to introduce herself at an individual exhibition was in 1966. She had to wait until 1984, until the age of sixty-six for her first retrospective exhibition. The problem never lay in her art, qualities, intellectual performance or talent; the silence surrounding her originates from a number of other reasons. One is that the current regime always found an excuse to ignore her art either because of her middle class origins, or because of her commitment for the left-wing. The other is that in the second half of the 1940s she counted to the abstract artists, which sealed her fate for many decades. Other reasons include her father’s left-wing activities from the 1910s, and the political climate of the fifties and sixties. Indeed even in the 1970s, cultural politics have not left any room for her ambitions. In order to understand the life-work of Judit Kemény, her personality, the era she lived in and the peculiar fact how the brutality of the 20th century affected her fate have to be approached from different angles. The Kemény sisters – Katalin[2] and Judit – received for the course of their lives and its directions defining instruments from their father, Gábor Kemény.[3] The value-based, democratic, humanist educator placed the burden of his scale of moral values and the weight of responsibility and obligation of the reasonable and creative people on the shoulders of his daughters. Gábor Kemény never made compromises in this field, his entire course of life and pedagogical credo was the confirmation of this scale of moral values. From 1935, Judit Kemény was affected by intense mental influences due to the intellectual salon that gathered around her father; this was the time she committed herself to becoming an artist for good. An important thread in understanding Judit Kemény’s oeuvre is her relationship to her sister, writer and literary translator Katalin Kemény, and to her husband – writer, philosopher, essayist prohibited after the Second World War for political and ideological reasons – Béla Hamvas.[4] The intellectual performance, the circle of friends of Béla Hamvas and Katalin Kemény permeated the art and thinking of Judit Kemény. In 1945, she had a joint exhibition with Erzsébet Forgács Hann,[5] Margit Anna,[6] Mária Modok[7] and Júlia Vajda.[8]8 She kept in touch with Ferenc Martyn,[9] Árpád Mezei,[10] Ibolya Lossonczy,[11] Tamás Lossonczy,[12] Sándor Weöres,[13] Iván Dévényi,[14]  Dr. Kálmán Tompa,[15] László Baránszky-Jób.[16] Due to the ties of family and friends she was often surrounded by the suspicion of the decision makers, notwithstanding the fact that in her naive commitment she joined the Communist Party of Hungary[17]17 in 1945, though she was excluded in 1948 because of her middle-class attitude. The prohibition of her brother in law also inevitably affected Judit Kemény’s assessment in cultural politics and art history as well. The political regime acting by fair means or foul and consolidated by 1948 and the ideological model that on one hand softened after 1945, but on the other remained unchanged in structure and filled with preconception, did not prefer the domestic art trends that had been organically growing until 1948. After the takeover of the communist party, the Soviet Union became the exemplary model in all fields. In 1949, in the opening speech of the Soviet art exhibition held at the Art Hall, the ideologist of the Hungarian Workers’ Party, Minister of Culture József Révai pointed out: the example to be followed by the Hungarian painters is no longer Paris, but Moscow. The political shapers of the new type of man and spirit brook no opposition: anything that was non-compliant with the system was undesirable. Following the revolution of 1956, the political situation appeared to become more refined. The legacy of the communist regime, however, obliged those in power, so there has been no fundamental change. An excellent example for this bitterly grotesque conception of the system – therefore, discussed in details in this volume – is the Spring Art Exhibition in 1957 in which Judit Kemény also participated. In the decades following 1948 Judit Kemény invested great energies to lift the silence surrounding her art. The seemingly pointless fight broke her by the 1980s. On January 26th, 1981 she wrote in a letter to Ferenc Martyn: “I am old enough to see behind the carefully drawn curtains.” This volume is primarily built on the ample documentary material collected and preserved in the legacy of Judit Kemény. The letters, personal notes, contemporary catalogues, exhibition invitations, some press releases, artwork listings, photo documentation have enabled the life-work to be processed. Other valuable documents and objects used in this volume are preserved in Hungarian public collections. Since the author of the volume could not know Judit Kemény personally, during the processing of the source material lots of useful information on her personality came from Antal Dúl theologian, assignee of Béla Hamvas. These sources will allow us to make a picture of the life and characteristic periods of the artistic career of Judit Kemény. I hope I could demonstrate how politics and cultural politics encroached on her life, and thus how her art was forced into the background. I am convinced that her fate was encumbered by the sensibility residing in her personality, attitude and artistic commitment, and the uncompromising, inflexible and stubborn commitment to her principles. The determination of its identity, the strengthening of transatlantic ties, its domestic correlation and its representation has always been and remain essential for Central and Eastern Europe. In this sense it is important that the intellectual and artistic processes that took place in Western Europe inspire the national medium. However, this type of parallelism does not necessarily reflect the region’s real mental processes; they rather show the echoes of how social and artistic issues are interpreted here. The Central and Eastern European region must think as soon as possible about its mental processes from the aspect of which thoughts, life-works are valuable not because they are built on correlation but for their local, yet universal tone. Not provincial attitude but high level intellectual performance will lead out of provinciality; this is the only way of integration. The exploration of local high-class performances and the introduction of such life-works to the public may be the starting point. This kind of unique intellectual background provides the value of Judit Kemény’s (she deceased in 2009 at the age of ninety-one) life-work, wrecked career and the rich creative path she walked despite of neglect.

[1] A progressive, heterogeneous, intellectual creative workshop founded on October 13th, 1945. The founders were: Imre Pán, Árpád Mezei, Pál Gegesi Kiss, Ernő Kállai, Lajos Kassák, Béla Hamvas, Miklós Szentkuthy, Margit Anna, Jenő Barcsay, Endre Bálint, Béla Bán, Lajos Bart , Dezső Bokros Birman, József Egry, Erzsébet Forgács Hann, Jenő Gadányi, Dezső Korniss, Tamás Lossonczy, Ferenc Martyn, Ödön Márffy, Ernő Schubert, Piroska Szántó, Júlia Vajda, Tibor Vilt. In addition to exhibition programs, they also published academic booklets and organized lectures. In 1946, non-figurative artists have left the group and created first the group Duna-völgyi Avantgárdok [Danube Valley Avant-Gardists] and later the Elvont Művészek Csoportja [Abstract Artists’ Group]. In 1948, the group ceased its activities.
[2] Katalin Kemény (Torda [Turda, now Románia], 1909 – Budapest, 2004), writer, literary translator, from 1937 writer, philosopher Béla Hamvas’s wife. Studies: From 1931: Pázmány Péter University, Faculty of Humanities, major in Hungarian and French. From 1947, she wrote short stories, essays, and publications. From 1968 together with Antal Dúl, she took care of and redacted the written legacy of Hamvas. From 1988 until her death, she published essays on art history. Since 2000, a Member of the Hungarian Academy of Fine Arts. Main works: Erdelyi emlékírók [Transylvanian memoir writers] (1932), Alain, a moralista művészetfilozófiája [Alain, the art philosophy of a moralist], Élők és holtak [The Living and the Dead] (essay, 1946), Forradalom a műveszetben [Revolution in the arts]. Absztrakció és szürrealizmus Magyarországon [Abstraction and Surrealism in Hungary] (with Béla Hamvas, 1947), Labdajátek [Ball Game] (Mystery, 1988), Az ember, aki ismerte saját neveit [The man who knew his names]. Annotations to Béla Hamvas’s Carnival [Karnevál] (1990), ...de a sivatag [...but the desert]. Levelek a halott baráthoz [Letters to the dead friend] (novels, essays, 1993), Sztélé nagyanyamnak [For my grandmother, Stele] (2002), A hely ismerője [A place the knower knows] (essays, 2006).
[3] Gábor Kemény is one of the defining theorists of modern Hungarian pedagogy in the 20th century. Throughout his career in education – in contrast with the authoritarian approach of the Prussian school system – he was a follower of the educational model, which focused on the strengthening of the children’s capabilities.
[4] Béla Hamvas (Eperjes [Presov, now Slovakia], 1897 – Budapest, 1968), philosopher, writer, literary translator. Between 1948 and 1951, he took out a farmers’ certification and lived in Szentendre. Between 1951 and 1964, he worked as a warehouse keeper, utility worker and janitor at the Power Plant Investment Company in Tiszapalkonya, Inota and Bokod. A defining figure of the 20th century universal intellectual community.
[5] Erzsébet Forgács Hann (Budapest, 1897 – Budapest, 1954), graphic artist and sculptor.
[6] Margit Anna (Borota, 1913 – Budapest, 1991), painter.
[7] Mária Modok (Ráckeve, 1896 – Budapest, 1971), painter and wife of Béla Czóbel.
[8] Júlia Vajda (Trencsén [Trenčín, now Slovakia], 1913 – Budapest, 1982), painter, wife of
Lajos Vajda.
[9] Ferenc Martyn (Kaposvár, 1899 – Pécs, 1986), painter, graphic artist and sculptor. Between 1918 and 1919 and between 1923 and 1924 student of József Rippl-Rónai and István Réti at the Hungarian University of Fine Arts. Worthy, excellent, Munkácsy Award-winning artist, Honorary Citizen of Pécs. He lived from 1926 to 1940 in Paris, was a member of the Abstraction-Création group of artists. He lived between 1940 and 1945 in Budapest, then until his death in Pécs. He was a determinant and organizer of the South Transdanubian art scene for several decades. A permanent museum exhibit opened in Pécs from the works he bequeathed to the state.
[10] Árpád Mezei (Budapest, 1902 – Glastonbury, Connecticut, USA, 1998), art writer, art philosopher, art psychologist. Together with his brother, art writer and poet Imre Pán he was a founding member of the European School. Mezei left Hungary in 1975. He had friendly ties to Katalin Kemény, Béla Hamvas, Judit Kemény and her husband György Máthé Iván as well. Several letters with a personal tone written by Mezei can be found in the legacy of Judit Kemény.
[11] Ibolya Lossonczy [Ibolya Schwartz] (Nyírbakta [Baktalórántháza], 1906 – Budapest, 1992), sculptor. Her sculptural art was characterized by Béla Hamvas as a pearl awakening in the depths of a shell in 1947.
[12] Tamás Lossonczy (Budapest, 1904 – Budapest, 2009), painter, since 1934 a member of the group of Socialist Fine Artists. Between 1945 and 1946 member of the European School and then from 1946 to 1948, member of the Abstract Artists’ Group.
[13] Sándor Weöres (Szombathely, 1913 – Budapest, 1989), poet, writer and literary translator. He had friendly ties to Béla Hamvas. He dedicated his five-part poem cycle A teljesseg fele [Towards Entirety] of 1944–45 to him as his master.
[14] Iván Dévényi (Budapest, 1929 – Esztergom, 1977), teacher, art writer, art collector. He published in the journals Vigilia, Műveszet, Jelenkor, Latohatar and Eletunk. He wrote monographs on Lajos Tihanyi (1968), Károly Kernstok (1970) and János Thorma (1977). In his collection the artworks of Barcsay, Bálint, Borsos, Berény, Bernáth, Czóbel, Csontváry, Derkovits, Egry, Ferenczy, Gadányi, Kassák, Kondor, Koszta, Márffy, Szőnyi, Tihanyi, Uitz were to be found.
[15] Dr. Kálmán Tompa (Székelyudvarhely [Odorheiu Secuiesc, now Romania], 1897 – Budapest, 1978), physician and art collector. In 1967, his private collection got merged into the material of the Modern Hungarian Gallery of the Baranya County Museums. The collection of 180 exceptional pieces of art represents the most important Hungarian directions of art and artists. The pieces of the collection include Csontváry’s work Romai hid Mosztarban [Roman bridge in Mostar], masterpieces of the Nyolcak [the Eight] and the Activists and the works of János Vaszary, Szőnyi, Rippl-Rónai and the artists of the Szentendre Art Colony and the European School as well. Ferenc Romváry: A modern magyar keptar tortenete [History of the modern Hungarian gallery]. Uj szerzemenyek I [New Acquisitions I] In: A Janus Pannonius Muzeum Evkonyve [Yearbook of the Janus Pannonius Museum], 1967, 219–232.
[16] László Baránszky-Jób (Újpest, 1897 – Bp., 1987), aesthete, private university professor. One of the founders and executive vice president of the Society of Aesthetics in 1935.
[17] Communist Party of Hungary. A party formed in October 1944 when the Soviet troops marched in. Between 1948 and 1956 the sole political force in Hungary, named the Hungarian Workers’ Party.

Judit Kemény (1918–2009) - Biography

• Judit Kemény was born on March 31, 1918 in Torda (now Romania).
• Her father, Gábor Kemény was a teacher, organizer of the Transylvanian Civil Radical Party, and at the time of the government of Mihály Károlyi in 1918 the Lord Lieutenant of Torda as well. Her mother, Aranka Aurélia Kertész was a central figure in the public life in Torda. Her sister, Katalin Kemény, was a translator of literary works, and in 1937 became the wife of Béla Hamvas.
• Gábor Kemény was arrested after the Trianon process − that had ended the First World War – when the Romanians took over power, and soon he was expelled from Transylvania together with his entire family.
• They moved to Békéscsaba first, then to Budapest in 1923. They received temporary lodging with a room and a kitchen in Pongrácz building estate in Kőbánya, Budapest.
• Judit and Katalin had an opportunity to travel to Holland for half a year within the framework of an organized charity of the Child Welfare League. Judit stayed with a family in Hilversum, 30 kms from Amsterdam.
• Judit Kemény started her education in the elementary school of Pongrácz Street, Kőbánya, Budapest. She attended the Girls’ Lyceum of the Hungarian Royal Public Erzsébet Women’s School, then from 1934 she studied at the Zrínyi Ilona Women’s School, and she finished her studies there in 1936. In the summer of 1935 she travelled to Graz through Vienna and she studied there for two months.
• In 1935 the Kemény family moved from Kőbánya to Erzsébet Királyné Street in Budapest. The exceptional pedagogical and public activities of her father became accomplished during these times. The family had frequent guests, mainly from circles of young left-wing intellectuals, prominent figures of the scientific, public and literary life of the day, and many artists, as well.
• In the 1930s Judit started her arts studies at the painting school of Vilmos Aba-Novák. She studied at Béla Iványi-Grünwald, and later in 1936–37 in the drawing school of Álmos Jaschik. She contacted Zoltán Borbereki Kovács. Their friendship remained unbroken even after his emigration.
• Judit Kemény published fashion designs in various magazines from 1939. Pesti Napló reported her costume designs on a regular basis. From 1943 the magazines: Uj Idők (New
Times), Otthonunk (Our Home) and Színházi Magazin (Theatre magazine) published her designs. In this period she made textile designs as an applied graphic artist for Magyar Pamutipar (The Hungarian Cotton Industry).
• Beside her work she was continually developing her drawing skills and she was consciously preparing for an artistic career, but still she was not accepted at the University of Fine Arts due to the left-wing views of her father.
• On March 31, 1941 she got married with the son of a doctor-art collector from Košice, Iván György Máthé. In June the same year they moved to Zugló, into a studio apartment on the top floor of a building on the corner of Ajtósi Dürer Street and Ilka Street.
• She had her first public exhibition at the age of 25 on June 20, 1943 at the summer exhibition of the 18th National Salon. She started experimenting in the abstract in the same year.
• In 1945 she was accepted at the University of Fine Arts. Ilka Gedő was a student of this class, as well. Her master was Pál Pátzay.
• In 1945 she joined – by the persuasion of her father and husband − CPH, the Communist Party of Hungary. In 1948 she was expelled from the party at the first general member control because of her middle class attitude (she imagined all homes with high quality art). Between 1945 and 1948 she was a frequent participant of events of the European School, established on October 13, 1945. At this time she made a deep and decades-long friendship with Ferenc Martyn. From 1945 abstract was in the centre of her art. In 1945 she joined the Művészeti Dolgozók Szakszervezete (Trade Union of Artistic Workers).
• On October 14, 1945 Judit Kemény exhibited together with Erzsébet Forgács Hann, Margit Anna, Mária Modok and Júlia Vajda at the exhibition organized at the Magyar Nők Demokratikus Szövetsége (The Democratic Association of Hungarian Women).
• In the summer of 1946 following her successful first semester, all her exams were annuled, so she could not continue her studies at the University of Fine Arts.
• In 1948 she had an exhibition with József Breznay and Ilona Tallós at Művész Galéria (Artists Gallery). In her exhibited works the progressive views and spiritual influence of the European School could be recognized.
• In May 1948 her adored father died.
• Because of her abstract artistic solutions, her autonomous thinking and far too middle class attitude her career came to a standstill in 1948. She even considered emigration with her husband.
• She took part in minor exhibitions, but she became more and more isolated. In 1949 she still participated in a collective exhibition organized by Képzőművészek Szabad Szakszervezete
(Free Trade Union of Artists), where the works of the art colony of Püspöknádasd were shown, and later in 1952 at the Graphic Exhibition of Baranya county. In 1965 she had a debut with Ferenc Martyn and Gyula Takáts at the Rippl-Rónai Múzeum in Kaposvár. Between 1949 and 1966 Judit Kemény had an opportunity to exhibit exclusively with the contribution of Ferenc Martyn.
• According to an announcement on July 11, 1955 her membership at the Művészeti Dolgozók Szakszervezete (Trade Union of Artistic Workers) was annuled.
• She had an exhibition at the Spring Art Exhibition in Budapest.
• In 1959 a tender was called for sculptors. Judit Kemény also competed for it, but her plan was not accepted. In spite of the failure she made a whole series of sculptures about flying.
• In 1958 she applied for membership at the Képzőművészeti Alap (Fund of FineArts). She did not even receive an answer for 4 years. She became a member in 1962.
• In 1966 her solo exhibition was opened, she had no opportunity to exhibit her sculptures,
• In the 1960s she made a storyboard and script, entitled Tanc az ujjhegyen (Dance onfingertips). She was writing tales, making dolls, and documented the stories of her tales using photographs.
• Iván Dévényi, art collector and critic pointed out in the July 1972 journal Művészet (Arts) the main reasons for Judit Kemény’s unfair neglect. Dévényi compared her to sculptors of Italian avantgarde (Minguzzi, Cappello, Teana, Franchina) and to the non-figurative athmosphere of their plastic art.
• On April 24 1978 the members of Építők Műszaki Klubjának Művészetbarát Köre (Circle of Friends of Arts in the Builders’ Technical Club) could meet the 60-year-old Judit Kemény.
• In 1979 she applied for acceptance at the sculptors’ department of the Képző- és Iparművészek Szövetsége (The Fine and Applied Arts Association).
• On May 4, 1979 an exhibition was organized in Szentendre, in the reading room of the Library of the Culture Centre of Pest County, showing exclusively her graphic work. Shortly after, between June 6 and July 6, 1979 this material was also exhibited in the Világfa Gallery of the library of Kossuth Lajos Katonai Főiskola (Lajos Kossuth Military College).
• Her sculpture, Flying man was exhibited in the permanent collection of Magyar Közlekedési Múzeum (Hungarian Museum of Transportation).
• As part of the legacy of the collector, Kálmán Tompa three of his graphic works, Female Nude and Self-portrait, and her sculpture, Girl wih Jug got into the collection of Baranya Megyei Múzeumok (Baranya County Museums).
• Between June 6 and June 23 her life’s most complete exhibition was opened, provided with a catalogue, as well.
• In the autumn of 1982 she had an exhibition in the British Commonwealth Institute, and in November the same year she participated in the BBC External Services Art Exhibition. She had sent for this exhibition a sculpture design in mixed technique with grandiose effects, dated 1970. Her plan made for a public square sculpture became part of a London collection. Several of her works were bought by an art collector from Bologna. Her sculptures show parallels with the fluttering, flying, kinetic works of the American artist, George Rickey.
• After 1989 she was not able to take part in artistic life following the change of the political
system, nevertheless in 1992 she became a member of the Magyar Alkotóművészek Országos Egyesülete (National Association of Hungarian Artists).
• On July 1, 1997 her husband, Iván György Máthé died.
• Judit Kemény passed away on March 5, 2009.

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