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“I Don’t Consider Art to be Work; It’s a Lifestyle”: Interview with Hungarian Artist Zoltán Fodor-Lengyel

Fanni Kaszás 2019.01.24.

While many artists often have to wait for nearly 60 or 70 years to hold an exhibition in Paris, Zoltán Gábor Fodor-Lengyel opened his first in Paris when he was just 20 years old. The former Mayor of Paris, Jacques Chirac, even bought one of his paintings at the event. Since then, he has held over 200 exhibitions around the world, owned his own gallery and, despite living in Madrid for 40 years, created a series of Hungarian-themed artworks. Earlier last year, Hungary Today had the opportunity to sit down with the artist and discuss the inspiration behind his work, his opinion on Hungarian contemporary art and Hungary’s place in the international art world. 

This interview has been edited for concision and clarity and translated from the original language of Hungarian.

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Why did you choose to be an artist?

An artist or creator works to show his art, to give his thoughts to the audience, to the people. The process of creation does not end in the studio. It must be shown and promoted. I do not paint for myself, but to tell something to others. If art was only about the creation, it would be a terrible thing; the artist would be very egoistic. People should see the created art piece and receive the artist’s message.

How could a young Hungarian become a world-renowned painter during the time of the communism? How did your career begin?

It started very early and all of a sudden. When I was twenty years old and still in school at the Sorbonne, a Parisian gallery came to me and offered an exhibition. At first, as a young painter, I said, “good, I’ll see my calendar.” But, of course, I accepted it. It’s a huge thing; some people wait for an opportunity like this for 60-70 years. It happened in a world where true artistic knowledge and talent was the most important factors, not connections. All of my pictures were sold there. The first was sold to Jacques Chirac — the Mayor of Paris at the time. The owner of the gallery even offered me a contract and began my European management. In the 1980s, I had 10-15 exhibitions a year. Once I even had exhibitions in Paris, Berlin and London at the same time. During that period, my job was just to paint. After a few years, I bought half of the gallery. This helped me to better get to know the art world and how it works. For a foreigner, especially a Hungarian, it was all a huge opportunity.

How was that world different from the one at home?

At that time, there were no private galleries or art management available in Hungary. While away, I realized that a gallery’s purpose is not just to hang pictures on the wall and invite 50 people to come eat cookies and drink wine. It starts there. There is a lot more work that goes into it, such as inviting guests, promoting the exhibition, informing the press, negotiating with clients, collectors and museums and, obviously, getting the artist the greatest response possible.

photo: Friends of Hungary Foundation

 

And why did you leave the Center of Arts, France and the gallery?

I didn’t love Paris like before; it changed. The atmosphere was different and the art life was diluted. When the gallery’s co-owner died in 1991, I sold it because I always considered myself primarily an artist, and I wouldn’t have had the capacity to direct an entire gallery. At that time, galleries didn’t offer me enough space to convey my thoughts; I preferred museums and larger showrooms in which I could reach tens of thousands instead of just hundreds of people. And, of course, this meant greater recognition. But the main reason I went to Spain is that I married a Spanish woman. I moved to Madrid and entered the market there and they welcomed me warmly. I had already received the Goya prize by then and had a name in the art world, so I had no problem with integration. I lived in Spain as a child because my father was a diplomat there. The Spanish concept of life, the rhythm and the whole style and vibe of the country were really close to my heart. It was natural for me. Even when I lived in Paris, I always missed Madrid. It is of no coincidence that my girlfriends and wives were all Spanish. I felt at home there.

You’ve had fewer exhibitions in Hungary than in the international art scene.

I had a number of exhibitions in Hungary, but obviously, less than I did in other countries because I don’t live here. However, when I have an exhibition in Hungary, it always attracts great interest from the Hungarians and the press. Earlier, I made a statue for the Judo World Championship which stood on Széchenyi Square for two months and got great coverage. Right now, we are preparing for my oeuvre exhibition—which will take place in three cities: Budapest, Madrid and Paris—where I will present the works I have in the country. We’re talking about 150-200 pictures, so we’ll definitely need a larger museum space for it.

Zoltán Fodor-Lengyel with his statue made for the Judo World Championship (photo: the artist’s private collection)

Do you consider Hungary, Spain or France your home?

Madrid is my home. I travel a lot, but I go home to Spain. I spent most of my life there, and my lifestyle and thinking reflect the Spaniards. But it is very important for me not to lose my Hungarian identity. For those of us living abroad, of Hungarian descent and proud of it, Budapest will always be our home. You have to live with this ambivalent emotion. I am very proud of my Hungarian origin and that I can represent my country through my art.

What does your creative process look like? How do you paint? Do you plan every detail ahead of time or do you work out of inspiration?

Picasso said that “Inspiration exists, but it has to find us working.” I agree with him. My work form is different from many artists because I, as the critics say, am an intellectual artist. I never paint only one picture at a time. Instead, I paint a series. This can be a collection of 20-30 or sometimes even 80 creations. Of course, this must be planned ahead. Whether I start working with canvas, sculpture or paper, it is preceded by many months of preparatory work. I learn a lot, read, listen to music, travel, talk, meet people and write down what I want to say with my art. Then I determine what I want to pass on to my audience and in what form and I also work out all the technical details. When I start working on the real art piece, I already know what I want. The painting itself, however, is instinctive and improvised, and I cannot tell why I pull the red line into one corner and not the other. If I tell the story in 30 images, I finish all of them on the last day because I work in parallel. This is my work style. I don’t paint for eight hours a day for 12 months, but I am creating a lot.

photo: Friends of Hungary Foundation

You mentioned eight hours a day…You don’t consider painting work?

No. When I received the Order of Merit for Labor, I just stood there scratching my head because I feel like I haven’t worked for a minute in my life; I’m painting and sculpting. I don’t consider it work, it’s a lifestyle. And as I said, I’m not just working when I’m in the studio. I also work when I’m sitting in a cafe and talking. I’m thinking and storing experiences that could tomorrow, or in two weeks or ten years, potentially become an art piece.

You have many works in connection with Hungary and Hungarians abroad, such as the Puskás painting in Madrid or the 1956 monuments. Are they made for order or are you so attached to the country that you chose to make them?

I made them for order. I have not lived in Hungary for nearly 40 years, but regardless, I am in the lexicon of Spanish contemporary painters and among the Hungarian contemporary painters. Everywhere I go, I emphasize my Hungarian descent, and when I receive orders for Hungarian-themed works, I am very proud. I’m glad I am able to show my country through my art. When the idea of the 1956 Memorial in Madrid came up, I was really happy because it’s a very important topic. I have personal experience with it as well through my family. Then, the portrait of Puskás Öcsi, which I painted for Real Madrid, was important to me because not only is Puskás a huge icon of the twentieth century, but I also knew him personally.

Zoltán with his Puskás painting. (photo: the artist’s private collection)

What is your opinion on Hungarian contemporary art? Do you follow the events in Hungary, emerging artists, exhibitions?

Of course, I follow it. I’m a member of the Hungarian Academy of Arts and I have connections with Hungarian artists. When I travel home, I always observe the changes that have taken place over the past decades. In the 80s and 90s, the Hungarian world of contemporary art was still in its infancy. I’m not talking about artists or works, because who am I to criticize them? But—and I always say this— there are great shortcomings in the contemporary world. After the change of regime in 1989, a process began with the appearance of private galleries and it seemed to work. Galleries opened one after another, trying to borrow elements from the trends of the western world. But, it somehow came undone in the typical Hungarian manner: there is a great idea, but only half of it gets accomplished because they either don’t have enough ambition or money to follow through. In addition, many galleries didn’t deal with contemporaries, so a healthy contemporary market was unable to develop in Hungary.

What would be the solution for this in your opinion?

Unfortunately, there is no Hungarian contemporary museum to date. I was outraged two decades ago when I spoke to the head of the National Gallery at the time, and he complained that the museum’s storage was packed with contemporary works, with no place to exhibit them. Shortly afterward, the Palace of Arts was built along with a museum that should have become a contemporary one. Now, instead of becoming a Hungarian contemporary museum, it is a venue for a private German foundation. It’s a shame that Hungarian contemporary artists are unable to exhibit their works in a Hungarian contemporary museum. It’s important for the current leadership to put a little more emphasis on this by creating a space to accommodate these works. There are very talented artists and young people who deserve to have a space in which to share their art. Another problem is that the presentation of Hungarian art abroad is still in its infancy. Most of the time, it’s not even represented, and when Hungary appears at international art exhibitions, it doesn’t get the market’s attention and unfortunately, the country lacks both private and institutional support to be more successful.

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Reporting and translation by Fanni Kaszás

Photos: Friends of Hungary Foundation