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From cave to cathedral –
and back

Ladies and Gentlemen,


I wanted to begin my speech by saying that despite the fact that we – architects and sculptors – exhibit on the same walls and sit together at the symposium, it seems that in the second half of the twentieth century, the gap between architecture and sculpture is ever widening. And the small number of architects present proves that despite our unilateral effort, the depth of the abyss is not getting any smaller, and that it is high time to ask the question about the reasons behind that.

And a sub-question to go with the question: is the sculpture, which has come off the building and stayed down, in the right place in the slightly out of place, secondary spaces where it still exists, e.g. under housing-estate blocks and sky-scrapers, and in green corners? In fact, is it any good that sculpture has slowly lost all its architectonic determinacy, and is forced to create relations with the vegetative environment, giving rise to the illusion that the few sickly saplings are in need of being humanised by the sculpture instead of the surrounding concrete jungle?

In the formal sense, of course, there is an explanation. Today, the volume of buildings has grown to such an extent, their articulation has so outgrown the human scale that the proportional relationship that existed in the historic styles between the structural elements of buildings and the sculptural elements, the identity of scale no longer obtains in the architecture of the 20th century.

The traditional building, built by the placement of stone upon stone, recorded a transparent order within simultaneous time. The tectonic structure, unfolding in time, always created a focal point of some sort – the capital of a column, a console, a keystone – which inherently offered itself to the drawing of sculptural conclusions, namely ornamentation, and that gave rise to figurative representation, the climax of a linear process, almost by itself. Yet, despite its apparent independence, the sculpture maintained its close relationship with the building. Because, due to its character of being carved or cast from a single block, it represented plasticity in contrast to the composition of parts, the tectonic, and in its fine forms approximating nature, the organic, but only in contrast to the cold and geometric.

Even disregarding scale, the architecture of the 20th century does not facilitate that complementary relationship between building and sculpture. It has been divorced from tectonic structure by creating large masses at once, lost the rhythm of temporal unfolding, the stops and starts. Due to the technology of casting concrete, it has itself become sculptural, and, although it is usually geometric, it lacks the possibility of sculptural continuation (this applies to the building as sculpture version, not to mention its opposite). Therefore sculpture, not finding a suitable surface, came off the building, which was heralded as a triumph by art historians at the time, and then stayed very much down.

l think it is not only bored and cold in the spaces where it was banished, but, lacking support and scale, it may even feel unnecessary at times. It is only an inverted gesture, a sign pointing, rather anachronistically, from the organic to the geometric.

The formal reasons explain today’s distance between architecture and sculpture only superficially. Modern sculpture has invented a number of ways to bridge that distance. Abandoning figurative work, the large-scale treatment of form and even the assumption of tectonic structures are possibilities, and their failure shows that the phenomenon has a more substantial reason behind it, more related to cultural history. In my opinion, that reason is that in the 20th century, culture and civilisation have become so distant that they are unable any more even to appear together.

“Man also creates in accordance with the laws of beauty.” That “also” was to become sculpture, the bearer of traditional culture, while buildings, as products of civilisation, the product of the technical and engineering sciences, is rather the symbol of man irreversibly separated from idyllic nature and alienated. And he tries to compensate for that forbidding reality, solidified into steel and concrete, in fine arts. It is no accident that at the very beginning of this century, Einstein’s theory of relativity and Freud’s psychoanalysis, which opened a path for the soul back, towards our being as more archaic and natural, instinct – driven creatures without the shackles of social inhibitions, were born almost exactly at the same time. That almost mutually exclusive distancing of the psyche and awareness was further exacerbated by psychoanalysis, which uncovered further, ever deeper layers. The work from which we took the title of our exhibition, the drawing entitled “Gates of Spirit”, is the powerful metaphor it is because it is not only the concept of gate that is such a rich, multi-layered concept, as shown by Béla Pomogáts and Balázs Feledy, but also the concept of spirit, the other element of the metaphor. It has a part that can be broken down yet into several layers, namely the actual psyche, the mortal soul that may be sickened and healed, but also the spirit, which is the ethos of a larger community, and which therefore has ethical content: which is immortal.

The English language expresses this very well. The Office translated the title as “Gates to the soul”. This features the soul that is mortal, the everyday soul, to be spelt with a lower-case initial. I, on the other hand, translated it as “Gates of Spirit”, with capitals. That is the immortal spirit, which creates, and which is always trying to take us over to eternity, the higher, transcendent world, or which actually exists there.

Of course the world of instinct, the subconscious was already trying to establish some connection with the supernatural in ancient times, a supernatural that was more the realm of the dead hiding deep in the guts of the Earth, from whence, along a sort of inverted Jacob’s ladder, demons and other dark forces travelled upwards. The title of my essay, “From Cave to Cathedral – and Back”, refers precisely to those two extremes of the spirit, the encountering of transcendence by the subconscious and the superego, and the artistic shaping of the stages of those meetings, as well as the modern attitude to life, which flees from some cosmic jeopardy to the primitive, the childish, the ancient.

Having grown bored with the tyranny of right-angles, today architecture, that par excellence Apollonic art, itself begins to exhibit the characteristics of caves with its homogeneous spaces, curved or arched surfaces, and the sculptures that stand orphaned in the patches of green spared by the concrete jungle remind me of some kind of Palaeolithic inheritance. In the imagination of prehistoric man, the solitary cliff standing erect in the jungle, the knotted tree standing in a clearing represented the demon, a being of the underworld, of which he was afraid, which he was forced to worship or appease. Those found objects, quasi- sculptures were later developed in the direction of the phenomena seen in them, just as the cracks and curves of the walls of the cave, which accommodated the sensuous play of shadow and light were turned thereby into excellent images of animals. Those holy groves, with the statues of gods anthropomorphising the natural environment, survived until the Greek and Roman age, as temples, marked places. Those sculptures preserved the projective method of creation for a long time, precisely on account of their ceremonial character, and those idols were only exchanged for works of art in the classical sense later. That is why l think that today a sculpture placed in nature is anachronistic, unless it performs some cultic task, as, for instance, portraits or monuments do, but even then it requires some sort of architectural delimitation, demarcation of templum, or it becomes architecture itself, as, for instance, fountains and abstract sculptures do.

For the real existence of sculpture is related to ages of construction, the appearance of confined and overcrowded cities. if the sculpture of the Palaeolithic is a timid step from terrible nature towards the constructed, safe world of man, for a city dweller of old a sculpture could well be the expression of longing for nature. In the clay and stone jungle of a Mesopotamian or Mediaeval city there was no real room for plants, animals, anything organic. The building, just as its inhabitant, expressed its nostalgia for nature, by then tamed to the point of being idyllic, by sculpting, by fine modulations gesturing towards organic life. And as the environment changed, the transcendental world ruling over it also underwent a fundamental change. Walls were erected to worship the new enemy, the benevolent heavenly father cultivated from the evil and vindictive demons. It was in those cathedrals that man turned to the higher power for protection, and his immortal soul also wished to be elevated into the sacred atmosphere of the godhead.

However, like the human voice rising in an orchestral setting, at the emphatic points of the Apollonic architectonics, purified entirely of instincts, sculpture voices the content that the building itself, as a technology, is unable to express in suffi cient detail. Whether it was the soul desiring to be with God that elevated the latticed walls and groined, counterbalanced arches of the Gothic almost to the skies, or whether it was the science of builders that allowed the soul to soar, whether technical civilisation carries human culture or the other way round, is questionable. But it is certain that sculpture, and the fine arts in general move the building in the direction of humanity. lt mixes something natural, something ancient, something Dionysian in the Apollonic voice of pure logic and elevation. The instinctive, the demonic, the erotic hides behind the representation that may be grasped by concepts, it is easier to notice in the details, the treatment of forms and lines. And as it is repressed emotions that raise the soul to the heights of creativity, sculpture, burdened by contingencies, exhibits the perfect geometry of the architectonics that supports it, and the technologies of individual periods are filled with content by the human returns of tradition and rite.

The harmonic cohabitation of culture and civilisation has reached a crisis in our century in both society and the work of art. While thinkers and artists were daydreaming about shepherdesses and innocent savages, science developed unrelentingly, opening the threatening and inhuman, by no means idyllic microcosm and macrocosm of nature.

And while the civilisation of the 20th century itself became a prisoner to the forces of nature revealed, humanity, culture kept retreating in time searching for a postulated golden age, an oblivious, natural life. And therefore the man of our age, in the double – experienced and real – bind of nature, is just as vulnerable as his troglodyte ancestor once was. And as accepting the unconditional rule of nature is a sort of materialism, I advance the thesis that materialism has been the dominant world-view twice: for a few hundred thousand years in the Palaeolithic age, and for one hundred in the twentieth century. In the meantime, a few thousand years passed in which man was building his cathedrals with proud confidence.

(Gates of the Soul. Symposium of the 5th International Sculptural Drawing Symposium, 28 November 1998, pp., 39–48.)