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Tamás Soós: De l'esprit - Early Works 

The exhibition presents a selection from the rich oeuvre of Tamás Soós (1955), one of the greatest masters of metaphysical Hungarian painting, showing the birth and development of his great motifs through never-before-seen early masterpieces. A journey from Zen to melancholy, from quantum physics to spirit. 


In 1977 Tamás Soós was voted a member of the Studio of Young Artists, an exceptional honour for a self-taught artist. It was at this time that the young artist - who had been studying with Jenő Abonyi Grantner, a marginalised former Roman school sculptor - began his earliest series of paintings, Zen Notes (1977-1978). Soós was interested in both natural science and Eastern philosophies, and in his earliest paintings he combined the recent scientific findings of quantum physics with the ancient teachings of the Zen masters. The gestural system formed from a set of vibrating-pulsating brushstrokes layered on top of each other covers the image surface in analogy to the transformation of particles into waves. Its forerunner is the new world description made uncertain by Heisenberg's relation of indeterminacy, which, by limiting measurability and knowability, undermined the 19th-century materialism of scientific socialism, which formed the solid foundation of the Hungarian People's Republic. Already in this early series, Soós was searching for that which still gives his work its basic character: the answer to the question of the mysterious secrets of existence embodied from resonance. For the Zen Notes, he glued large sheets of cardboard together as a base (as he had experimented with during his compulsory military service in the Vác barracks for propaganda decorations) and then worked on them with all the industrial paints he could find. The disintegrating layers were piled on top of each other like a palimpsest, until a warm, slate gray surface was formed, on which coiling, irregular gestural lines weave. Between the blackish stripes, a colourful line (yellow, pink, blue) also appears, adding colour to the overall effect. The brushstrokes, drawn spontaneously without planning, turn back in a curved or broken way at the top and almost "curl down" at the bottom - their shape recalling the smoke-like form of the human figures of the later Melancholia series. 


A sequel to Zen Notes (1978), born in Vác, grew into the Substances series in the early 1980s. Soós was then already studying at the College of Applied Arts, in the randomly chosen gobelin department, where – suitably for him - he had to think in monumental scales. He bought huge 260×200 centimetre sheets of cardboard from the Csepel Paper Factory so that he could paint at the right scale in his studio. It was then that the first piece of Substances was born: a vibrant weaving of excited brushstrokes. Like monsoon rain on the mirror of a jungle river, the white line scribbles drum on the reddish background. Among the white brushstrokes, spreading like playful graffiti letters, there are occasional flecks of gold, like tiny planets or soul germs crystallized in the infinity of the universe's wave vibrations - elusive yet sublime, wonders to be deciphered. The other piece in the series was made on a giant cardboard of the same size, but here Soós worked with fleshier, thicker, more expressive abstract gestures in pink, red, light blue, lemon yellow and army green. In places, the cracked industrial paint shows off the paper-mache stripes soaked in colour and applied to the surface like solid brushstrokes. The elements of Substances, made in 1983, were finalised by Soós in 1989, who repainted his paintings regularly. 


The other two large-scale works in the same format, also on the monumental Csepel cardboards, are the result of a painterly quest, revealing the great motifs of later paintings in their earliest form. As Lóránd Hegyi, who was well acquainted with Soós' oeuvre, put it, he "sought to express subjective self-images in stylistic metaphors" and "introduced some new compositional elements and symbolic forms derived from cultural history after the improvisational-informel style of painting." De l'esprit from 1983 is composed of wildly scratched graphite pencil gestures on a pale, pinkish, yellowish, gray base created by many repaintings. Two puppet-like forms appear in the grid of lines: figures of later Melancholia figures, eager to take flesh. The striking title inscription, "de l'esprit" ('of spirit'), written in hasty handwriting, evocative of the French Enlightenment, was added in 1989. In the same way, the bold black and white "melancholia" was inscribed on the original painting Melancholia, also from 1983. The familiar hybrid image field of the large-scale cardboard painting, composed of broad, impatient gestures, is pierced by the jagged rhythm of the carrier's ribbed pattern. Soós has applied serpentine-imbued drawings to the rust-reddish-blue surface, the left one recalling the ever-recurring tangles of the later Existence Lines cycle, while the one on the right recalls the grand theme of Melancholia, which thrived in the 1990s. 


The prominent German art historian Hans Belting has noted that in Soós's oeuvre the word Melancholia recurs again and again as a multilingual "cantus firmus", a recurring basic melody. It appears in paintings and sculptures as a changing pair of symbolic signs: pillars of flame or smoke, shapeless astral bodies, Vergilian umbras (otherworldly shadow images), which condense into amorphous human figures, male-female couples, sculpture torsos, archaic totems, carved tombstones, baroque balustrades, turned chair legs, tailor’s dolls or gigantic chess pieces – traversing a wide field of associations. For Soós, the Protean concept denoted by the word Melancholia is not a symbol of despondency and depression, but of the elusive spiritual self-realisation, of finding the soul (as one of his favourite Anglo-German saying goes: "get Geist", i.e. "seize your soul!"). Achille Bonito Oliva, the legendary theorist of the Italian Transavanguardia states that Soós "overcomes the conditioning that a melancholic state produces paralysis and develops the surprising productivity of the self-reproducing forms embedded in the immaterial essence of language". According to Lóránd Hegyi, Soós's Melancholia is a "symbolic form", in the words of László F. Földényi, "synonymous with spiritual tension." In summary: it is the key concept of the analytical "individual metaphysics" unfolding in his life's work, with an elusive, baroquely rich meaning. 


Sculpture was present in Soós' work from the earliest period. His first sculptural works were created during his military years in Vác, at the same time as the Zen notes, in 1977-1978. His early, small-scale works were made of papier-mâché on a wooden base. The artist used acrylic paint to colour the fragile sculptures with their curvy, expressive surfaces. The sculptures, created in a spontaneous process of form-building without prefiguration, anticipate the later major motifs of his mature period, the tangles of the looping lifelines and the duality of paired Melancholy figures. The importance of sculpture in his oeuvre increased again in the 1990s, and from that time papier-mâché works larger than human scale were born, the irregularly embodied and splitting ephemeral totem poles of the soul forms of Melancholia, painted in various colours. Among the baroque, monumental and serious sculptures, occasionally a cheekily frivolous, playful work appears, like the 2016 Colourful Sculpture, made of floating logs and painted with soapy colours. 


Soós's painting does not tolerate strict art historical categories, his cycles often unfold in parallel. After the figurative post-modern canvases of the 1980s, realism re-emerged in his oeuvre in 1997, moreover through more concrete depictions of people than before. In his famous work Realistic Melancholia (1997), a figure of a woman in a white summer dress and sunglasses - the artist's wife - appears floating in a white, empty space. The monochrome figure standing in thin air is a realistic transcript of the ultimate isolation of the individual, the existential loneliness. For his small series from 1997-2000, Soós photographed this earlier work, then cut out the central figure and applied it to canvas. By overpainting the photo and choosing the colours of the background, he tried out different combinations. In one of them (Blue Dress With Text, 2000), a caption completes the composition, placing the series within a life's work that contemplates existence: „the character and Melancholy of the form is the inner play of the existent towards the visible shadow'. Existentialist solitude is ultimately transformed into a serene existence. 


In the oeuvre of Tamás Soós, the New York photo collage series (New York, 1991) forms a separate, island-like unit. The inspiration for the series came from a trip in 1991, when the Hungarian artist visited New York for the first time after a group show in Toronto. In the immediate aftermath of the fall of communism, the American metropolis provided a fresh, new impulse that was hard to process for the young artist socialized on the eastern side of the Iron Curtain. Soós developed the black-and-white photos taken during his stay in New York for just over a week at home, and instead of the pages of a scrapbook, he pasted them onto bases cut out of cardboard and painted with glaze, turning them into art objects. He cut and painted over the photographs in some places. The modernist skyscrapers, art deco buildings and angular street grid of the big city were transformed into the square shapes of the roughly cut cardboard sheets of Eastern European Constructivism, creating a suitable visual frame around the photographs. The pseudo-constructivist order was occasionally interspersed with playful new wave zigzag holes and dot cut-outs; at other times the photographs were given a cheerfully undulating background, drawing out palette-like curves. The final piece in the series is a palm-sized strip of cardboard without a photograph, a geometric abstraction of the metropolis reduced to a schematised tower block. The New York series is a distinct unit of personal memories that recycle and appropriate Soós’s oeuvre, which includes artist's books painted page by page. It is an hommage and a memoir at the same time. 



Gábor Rieder

Translated by: Viktória Popper 

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