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The open and closed line in the art (drawing) of Dezső Bokros Birmanand József Somogyi

The 1990 sculptural drawing biennial was probably the fi rst opportunity the interested public had to see – among others – the drawings of these two masters together, at the same exhibition.

Both lent status and encouragement to our initiative, Dezső Bokros Birman as part of a selection honouring and propping up the whole forthcoming series of events, and József Somogyi as the doyen of contemporary visual art.

At first glance it is hard to find any similarities, or even common reference points – other than the sculptural perspective – between their two drawing styles. But if I nevertheless attempt to do so, this is primarily for personal reasons. Because both of them were my mentors, and a few of their lines were carved, at the moment of their inception, into a material even softer than wax… I could legitimately quote the poet Attila József: “they guide my pencil”, and if I were a subjective sculptor that would be enough for me to give voice to my memories of being their student.

At the present, jubilee exhibition, the two masters are once again both displayed on the same wall. This time they take their deserved places among our sculptural drawing masters as members of a pantheon spanning from István Ferenczy to Tibor Vilt. And thus, in this system of interrelationships linking the past with the future, it is revealed that, my own personal bias aside, D.B.B. and J.S. are of interest both because of their similarities, and because of their differences, which mark out the two poles of Hungarian sculpture.

Different starting points, different careers.

Somogyi took his lead from the generous and elevated sculpture of the Mediterranean. Like the Renaissance artists who mingled in the Medici courtyards, and Mestrovic, who dined with kings, he is a representative personality of his era.

Bokros Birman, charged up with archaic and mediaeval flavours, arrived in the present as the sculptor successor of the Low Country masters, and went on to become the most authentic depicter of the common man.

More important, however – at least for me – are the similarities.

Although they both have a different take on the outlook on life, the alienation, that defined the 20th century, they both avoid the customary response, the use of deliberately alienating effects – role-playing and compensation (Zádor Tordai) – that we tend to encounter all the way from Dada to the present day. They preserved the gravity of their art, the expressiveness that provides an emotional charge, and does not shy away from overflowing. And this is manifest not only in their – sometimes smooth, sometimes gnarled – treatment of form, which is nourished from different sources, but also in their drawings, this other important arena of the expression of their personality. In the open or closed line, which by its barely controlled nature gives the most credible account of the artist’s emotional, mental and nervous state, recording the spontaneous movements of a superbly confident, or perhaps neurasthenically faltering hand. It would be tempting, in the manner of a graphologist, to unravel the artist’s character, culture and career from the microcosm of the line – the continuity or interrupted nature of its path, the direction of the loops and curves, etc. But this, especially where sculptors are concerned, would lead to misapprehensions.

Because they draw not only on the plane, but in space, in the process of modelling.

And these two types of line – the relatively arbitrary and the highly evolved – are in a complex relationship with each other. For example, Bokros Birman’s early “pseudo-Egyptian” statues (in my opinion Sumerian, while Máriusz Rabinovszky believes that they refl ect a Hittite infl uence) are made up of uninterrupted, closed lines. His drawings (Job series), on the other hand, are built up from interrupted, so-called searching lines.

One of the reasons for the apparent duality could be, for example, that the young sculptor actually learned to draw from Van Gogh. During his stay in Paris, he copied the graphics of the painter, who had already died by then. In his modelling, on the other hand, he followed the French school that he studied in particular on the statues of the outstanding portraitist Despiau. With this method of patterning and modelling, the sculpture was built up from the application of clay balls that decreased incrementally in size, resulting in a closed-lined, dense overall form and a living, breathing surface. As Rodin also taught him: the sphere grows radially towards us, constantly gaining in vitality.

It is peculiar, but inevitable that this pattern, which despite modelling the method of the antique granite carvings in reverse, is not the valid drawn equivalent of Wölffl in’s “linear” and “haptic”, but something different: the “painterly” and the optical. Because the spacial and the planar line differ in their character. Similar to other spherical bodies, every projection – contour – of the globe is a planar figure lacking in spatial handholds. Without a cast shadow, or at least without form shadow, its situation is uninterpretable. The beginnings of curves, laid out in strands, however, are situated at the meeting point of countless intersecting planes, levitating them solidly in space without a support.

Even without this Van Gogh-esque example the young sculptor would have had to arrive at the typical open, searching line structure, as this was self-evident as the drawing equivalent of the Despiau method.

The spherical form created through additive patterning is approached, but never perfectly achieved, with millions of little planes (Ludolph van Ceulen and π), like the broken contour that encompasses the atmosphere.

While this clay-ball modelling method and the technique of drawing with tiny lines was used by Bokros Birman – along with other methods – until his death, nevertheless when he turned to the long-past archaism another, par excellence open line, the straight, took on an important role in his art. Despite being only a one-dimensional abstraction, the straight line – paradoxically – carries more spacial information than a two dimensional arc, because it is always the line of intersection between two planes, which is the third dimension. Bokros Birman found a new application for the straight line exuding the stifled calm of the statues of the Ancient Near East, one that diverted the expression towards constraint: the so-called broom handle effect. In other words, he placed his figures – starting with that of Don Quixote – on a vertical frame, literally a broom handle; and this, in defiance of anatomy, was the axis of symmetry for the supporting foot, the trunk and head simultaneously. And thus the straight line emerged as a third possibility alongside the Ancient Greek convex axis studied by Rodin and the concave axis of Michelangelo.

The straight line, as an (exclamation) mark, which beyond its role as an axis and boundary line, represented the more direct opportunity of expression, also manifest in gestures. By stacking it up, the volume opened and the space poured in, in the form of shards of light and dark contour ravines pointing to infinity.

In this way, the surface of the sculpture, clapped together with ten mauled and broken pieces of baton, became the vital imprint of the artist’s creative struggle.

On the plane, however, the sculptor had to find other means of expressing his emotions. Space loosely woven from casually sketched straight lines – from the academia to cubism – is more suited to the depiction of supercilious security than tortured anxiety.

More infernal substance is contained in a line that is tacked together from curves and straights, but is uninterrupted and closed. The plane figures, in themselves flat like shadows, but stacked on one another by the emotion, as amorphous but very telling spatial sections, seem to have constructed a virtual, yet expressive third dimension around themselves.

And this is what they have in common: the combined use of the open form and closed line, the meeting between the two drawing sculptors, Dezső Bokros Birman and József Somogyi, who started out a generation apart.

Somogyi, as a student of Novák Aba – yet another painter – probably moved beyond the stages of academia and archaism, that had concerned the sculptors of the beginning of the century, during his years at college. Following his mentor’s example he was interested in the other, peculiarly sculptural application of the other monumentalist tools of form and line, from frescoes of the middle ages to cubism, but not without renaissance and baroque fl avours either. And he found the simplest form, one that is symmetrical and diagonal, static and dynamic, subjective and spatial at the same time. The cone, and the sphere and cylinder that can oppose it or be linked with a taught plane, are geometric elements that Cézanne regarded as basic forms of nature, looking forward, but especially summarising the past, the art of the museums.

The searching breakdown these solid forms (closed and open line) hide a strict logical inevitability under the delicate surface. The reduced subjugation of the spectacle, and the uninhibited sidelining of the picture element. And if Somogyi, with his legendary bayonet, does something like this to a several- hundredweight clay figure; that is, if by breaking up the pure volume he creates new visual interrelationships from the superficial arbitrariness, then he is not thinking of Cézanne or the cubists, but just yielding to a compulsion of form.

Somogyi is also driven by this logic, which comes from within but can nevertheless be described as dramatic, or perhaps even more so, when he draws. A free-running, closed line drawn with an assertive hand; with as many expressive details as it can bear. The corrections and incidental drawings, just like a page by Raffaello, suggest the experience of space and movement. It is only when the plane sections, projected onto each other, do not provide suffi cient spacial-subjective reference that some smudged tone, disregarding the contours, shows through. Like in Rodin’s ink wash drawings, to which Bokros Birman also referred so often.

With the humility belatedly learned from my mentors, the lesson of all this appears at first glance to be fairly meagre: sculptors draw differently from how they model. But behind this lies the struggle with the material for picturehood, and with the plane for subjectivity.

The constantly renewed attempt to bring these two fundamental principles into balance, both in the drawing and in the sculpture. And if the tried and tested solutions of the related arts are of no assistance, the sculptor often strays onto new paths, as the connection between the drawings of Michelangelo and Rodin and synthetic cubism shows, for example, giving a foretaste of new style trends that will only flourish later in other genres.

(Unpublished text, originally intended to appear in the symposium catalogue entitled “Adventures and conversions. 6th National Sculptural Drawing Biennial, Vigadó Gallery, 16 November – 3 December 2000”)