György Jovánovics

Curtain to the Ecstatic Marionette

1979

Not on display
Artist
György Jovánovics born 1939
Original title
Elofüggöny az Extatikus Marionetthez
Medium
Plaster
Dimensions
Object: 1317 x 1317 x 95 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased with funds provided by the Russia and Eastern Europe Acquisitions Committee 2016
Reference
T14678

Summary

Curtain to the Ecstatic Marionette 1979 is a large, square sculptural relief. It is made of plaster of Paris and was formed by means of a unique plaster cast constructed horizontally from foil. A wooden box frame is moulded to the plaster with the intention that the sculpture be hung on a wall or other partition. The undulating surface of the pure white plaster, with deep vertical creases, suggests thick folds of drapery. The title of the work further identifies this form as a theatre curtain at the front of a stage. The first word of the Hungarian title (‘elofüggöny’) is a compound word created by the artist, which combines the Hungarian words ‘elo’ (‘pre-’ or ‘forth-’) and ‘függöny’ (‘curtain’ or ‘veil’). However, in contrast with the traditional role of reliefs to present something to the viewer, here the ‘curtain’ conceals the scene of the title and invites the viewer instead to imagine a spectacular puppet show. The ‘ecstatic marionette’ of the title refers to the artist’s creation, in 1976, of ‘Liza Wiathruck’, a life-size plaster puppet of a female figure, clothed in authentic period costume. He recorded her as the protagonist in a series of sixty enigmatic photographs entitled L. W. Holos Graphos 1976–7, in which he explored his intellectual position towards questions of perception and the gaze. Liza was shown engaging with her environment and her image was reflected in the windows and mirrors of the artist’s studio. The photo series would inspire Jovánovics’ plaster works for years to come, with frequent references made to visual components in the photographs.

Jovánovics studied sculpture at the Academy of Fine Arts in Budapest from 1958 to 1960, before continuing his studies at the Academy of Applied Arts in Vienna in 1964, and the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1965. It was during this latter residency that he discovered the technique of plaster casting, and from that point on continued to work almost exclusively in this medium. His earliest works focused upon life-size full or fragmented human forms, depicted fully clothed with careful attention paid to the texture and folds of the fabric. These works alluded strongly to classical sculpture, from ancient Egyptian figures and Greek kouroi, to Renaissance and Rococo statuary. However, Jovánovics’ figures, made in plaster with a rough, unfinished texture, confronted and subverted the principles of classical sculpture in a number of subtle ways. Art historian Márta Kovalovszky has defined Jovánovics’ early work as focused on ‘that vaguely delineated area which lies between the ideas of classical sculpture and cheap material, victorious totality and a fallible fragmentary nature, the organic structure of the figures and the “assembled” character of puppets and idols resembling strange marionettes. The tension inside each early work was maintained by these consciously shouldered, even accentuated contradictions.’ (Márta Kovalovszky, in XLVI Biennale di Venezia 1995, p.5.)

Jovánovics rose to prominence in the late 1960s as part of Hungary’s neo avant-garde movement. He was a participant in the IPARTERV exhibitions, which took place in Budapest in 1968 and 1969. These landmark exhibitions announced a new generation of Hungarian artists who challenged the official principles of art dictated by the state and sought to unite Hungarian art with global contemporary trends. Curtain to the Ecstatic Marionette is a formative piece in the artist’s career, representing the moment of transition from his early practice to his mature style. During the 1970s, Jovánovics’ sculptures became increasingly abstracted and detached from the human figure, although the artist’s fascination with the texture and forms of fabric remained a recurrent theme. As he began to re-interpret his early practice in a more conceptual way, he created plaster casts of individual sections of fabric and objects with the appearance of empty, shell-like drapery, which maintained traces of bodily presence despite the absence of the human figure. It was at this time that the motif of the curtain or veil began to appear repeatedly within his works, suggesting a device to control the flow of interpretation and to enable the concealment of objects and meaning. Curtain to the Ecstatic Marionette marked Jovánovics’ final departure from figuration, with the work’s sole focus on drapery recalling his earlier practice while marking the start of his engagement with constructivism and geometric forms. It was the first in the artist’s new series of plaster reliefs, which would define his output throughout the 1980s. In 1980 a coveted DAAD (Deutsche Akademie Austausch Dienst) scholarship enabled Jovánovics to move to West Berlin for four years. There his plaster reliefs became more conceptual, as he created unique plaster casts constructed of seemingly improvised compositions of materials, including wood, laths and folded plastic boards arranged on a foil.

Jovánovics’ preference for plaster is part of a twentieth-century sculptural tradition in Hungary, with artists including Tibor Vilt (1905–1983), Erzsébet Schaár (1905–1975) and Gyula Gulyás (born 1944) also using the material prominently in their work. Gulyás’ use of plaster had ironic connotations, related to the international pop art movement, and Jovánovics’ early figures have similarly often been compared to those of American pop artist George Segal (1924–2000). Plaster has traditionally been considered a poorer material, used for a mediatory phase of the sculptural process before the final work is completed in bronze, stone or wood. Jovánovics instead highlights the particular qualities and overlooked beauty of this material. His use of plaster casts also enables him to avoid touching the material, ensuring that the resulting shapes have not been manually manipulated, something he considers to result in more natural and realistic artworks. Plaster is also selected for its pure white finish. Jovánovics has commented: ‘White is very important, this is the only concrete thing that I dare raise to the level of the absolute.’ (Quoted in ibid., p.16.) The use of plaster is also related to the artist’s consideration of light as an essential element of the sculptural work. Shadow adds colour and vividness to the ostensibly colourless plaster, accentuating the creases and curves of the form and creating a sense of space.

Jovánovics’ use of plaster is also significant within the historical setting of his native Hungary. By producing works outside the remit of officially-supported art, Jovánovics was at risk of censorship. Two years prior to creating Curtain to the Ecstatic Marionette, Jovánovics’ initial exhibition of the Liza Wiathruck photo series was cancelled by the authorities before its opening at the Club of Young Artists in Budapest. Curtain to the Ecstatic Marionette may therefore be understood as an oppositional gesture, with the fragility of the material reflecting the vulnerability of the artist in Hungary after the failed popular uprising of 1956.

Further reading
Márta Kovalovszky, Jovánovics, exhibition catalogue, István Király Múzeum, Székesfehérvár 1985.
Márta Kovalovszky, György Jovánovics, exhibition catalogue, XLVI Biennale di Venezia: Ungheria, 1995, reproduced p.32.

Julia Tatiana Bailey
June 2015

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