János Major is not a well-known artist outside of Hungary, but within Hungary there is a resurgence of interest in his work. Not much of his work has survived, so I was excited to have a chance to see Taboo Subject, an exhibition at tranzit featuring prints of Major’s related to Jewish identity. Major deals with himself, his body and Jewish identity, in ruthless caricature. Firstly it is remarkable to do so at all given the repressive post-Holocaust, Socialist context in which he began dealing with these themes, and secondly in the freely pornographic and self-loathing manner in which he channels anti-Semitic stereotypes through his own image.
I first became aware of Major through two contemporary artists’s projects: Crew Expendable by Little Warsaw and Vasarely Go Home by Andreas Fogarasi. Both touch on his oeuvre, but little has been done in terms of art historical work. Interestingly there has been a lot of recent interest, with this show and another at the University of Fine Arts this past year. It’s representative of the lack of documentation and scholarship on the Hungarian neo-avant-garde (making up for Socialism again) that he hasn’t been dealt with much before. On the other hand, he is also a difficult figure to place; he was a graphic artists who made prints more similar to Hogarth or Goya than anything else and yet he was also a conceptual artist and key figure of the avant-garde.
The two prints above, dating from the 1970s, have one key difference: in the lower print, the text is blurred out. The text in the higher version refers too overtly to conflict in the Middle East and Jewish politics to ever have been shown. The mystery to me is where either version could have been shown in Hungary in the 1970s.
In conjunction with the exhibition, Marcell Eszterhazy created an installation using the double windows of the front room to create peepholes into transparent images of typically Jewish imagery. A layer of opaque white is in front of the images over glass looking out on the street behind. Certainly Major’s works make one aware of the covert nature of dealing with Jewish topics, and this installation in which Jewish signs and symbols are screened from direct gaze perhaps refers to this. The Budapest environment in the background is not so different than when Major first began working, and an intended question of the exhibition is whether 20 years after Hungary became a democracy real discourse is yet taking place about Jewish identity.