Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Very well then, I shall wear it... Imre Ámos

Imre Ámos Man and Woman (Fugitives) 1943

The following is part of a review I wrote for The Hungarian Quarterly of János Köbányai's, THE HAGGADAH OF THE APOCALYPSE: Imre Ámos and his times (together with his Szolnok Sketchbook in facsimile). Miklós Radnóti is the great Hungarian poet whose notebook, with the last great poems, was found in a pocket of his overcoat after he was shot on the forced march from the work camp at Bor. A facsimile of that notebook could be bought in Budapest. Imre ámos also died in the war, and a biography together with a facsimile of his last sketch book was also published. The status of such facsimiles is interesting. Somewhat like religious relics they are reproductions of numinous objects.

...Though self-definition is a luxury, the joy of life lies in an intense and endless sophistication that survives the individual who embodies it. The greatest paradox is that human life is the measure of all values and, at the same time, it is practically worthless. So, when we read the poems of Miklós Radnóti or gaze at the paintings and drawings of Imre Ámos, this paradox is brought to our attention with peculiar force. The sense of tragedy suffuses the work: it transforms it utterly so that the smallest detail appears fated. The works are embodiments of fate, beyond the life itself, and that is why they serve as interpreters for the rest of us. Nothing is accident. Maybe it was the comprehension of this proposition that drew both Radnóti and Ámos towards their far from inevitable deaths. Both could have taken opportunities to avoid dying: neither did. In this sense their lives were worthless, but in the opposite sense they became the measure of all values...

Ámos’s war experience was that of many male Jews: a sequence of demanding, often murderous labour camps, followed, at the point of exhaustion, by execution. It is true, as Köbányai says, that substantial work remains to be done on Ámos’s archives. It is certainly true that when I consult my Oxford Companion to Art I find a long entry on Chagall and nothing about Ámos. It may also be true that the suppression of Radnóti's Jewishness may have helped him to achieve national and international stature (I am not convinced of the effectiveness of the suppression) while the overt declaration of Ámos’s might have been a disadvantage to him. There are certainly some pretty dark passages in the history of Jews in Hungary. It may of course be simply that Radnóti is greater in his sphere than Ámos is in his. It is possible that the decline in Chagall's reputation has an effect on Ámos too (but how wonderful, vigorous and humane the early Chagall was!) It may be that Hungarian artists generally seem to have occupied peripheral places in European painting - unless they left Hungary.

Imre Ámos Green Divan, 1935-36

Much is possible. It is certain that Ámos was a striking and tragic artist, who was driven by “the spaciousness and grace” of Apocalypse to assume a role that transcended the busy commerce of art and art production. There is greatness in him, but it is complicated. I have a slight unease about the facsimile, about its role as relic, as commodity, and as politics. I don’t think artists and poets set out to be prophets and martyrs, and I worry about using them as such.

This is not a matter of some moral high-ground or even of rational wisdom but of irrational feeling. It is the feeling that alters the mode of perception: the prophet sees by feeling. It was irrational for Radnóti and Ámos to walk straight past the last open door of opportunity. They did it by feeling. “I strove only to show how a man, called upon to be a prophet, progressed towards the angelic state of being” says Köbányai. I prefer to imagine the poet blinded, uncalled, feeling his way forward towards one clear sound, of whose meaning he himself is utterly ignorant. It may be, that in this case, someone had dropped a dark hood on his head. Very well then, says the poet. I shall wear it.

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