(1934 - 1983)
painter, animation film maker, writer
Kovásznai primarily saw himself as a painter, who practiced the art of painting both on canvas and the cinema screen. His experimental animation films are attempting to “animate” the art of painting – which was an approach entirely different from mainstream animation during Kovásznai’s active years. As he once put it: “Perception in terms of movement, in terms of a series of non-isolated phenomena, is a life philosophy”.
One of Kovásznai’s trademark animation techniques was painting and drawing directly under the camera – which gives his work a vibrant, constantly changing, virtuosic visual quality. He also used a method called “anima verité” that aimed to translate the surrounding reality captured by a documentary film camera into the language of fine art. His filmography consists of 25 short films, a six-part television series called This is just Fashion! and his only feature film Bubble Bath.
During his lifetime Kovásznai had no opportunity to exhibit his work and his films were only accessible in cinemas for brief periods of time. However over the past two decades his oeuvre has been rediscovered and now he is regarded as one of the most significant Hungarian animation film makers and fine artists of his time. The first large-scale Kovásznai retrospective exhibition was held in the Hungarian National Gallery in 2010, which continued with a groundbreaking show featuring William Kentridge together with György Kovásznai at the Budapest Museum of Fine Arts in 2011. In 2016 the lifework of Kovásznai was on view at the Somerset House in London and his short films were screened together with contemporary video works at Art Basel Miami Beach. The restored 4K version of Bubble Bath was shown at the Classics program of the Annecy Festival in 2021 and the film returned to the Hungarian cinema screens for the summer of 2021 (41 years after its initial release)!
György Kovásznai' Films
Bubble Bath (1979), György Kovásznai’s only feature film, was made for adult audiences, thus it was in sharp contrast with mainstream Hungarian animation of its time (which was dominated by children’s films based on literary classics.) Bubble bath is an experimental animated musical, which uses bold character animation mixed with documentary elements and it still inspires animators today. It is a stunning achievement in visual madness, using the skeleton of a banal love triangle as an excuse to deploy a mind-boggling variety of animation styles and strategies.
The film (set in the late 1970s Budapest) depicts the problems and worldviews of the youth of the time – which are universal and feel very current today. A neurotic interior decorator, Zsolt, finds himself getting cold feet on the day of his nuptials. He takes refuge in the apartment of Anni, an acquaintance of Klári, his bride-to-be. Klári is meanwhile enjoying the wedding party too much to care about her absent groom…
The 4K restoration of Bubble Bath took place in early 2021 and its global online premiere was on 15th May 2021 (what would have been Kovásznai’s 87th birthday.) There is a huge international interest in the re-released film. Bubble Bath has been featured in a whirlwind of screenings and events and it is now available for online streaming on the Filmio platform in Hungary and on MUBI worldwide.
Mirror Images starts as a dog and a cat enter the modern art gallery which is filled with paintings of dogs and cats oddly identical to themselves. Music is an integral part of the film, as the images move in time to Géza Berki’s finger-snapping jazz compliation. At one point the heads of the dog and cat morph into a man and a woman, lest we forget that this film is aimed at us! We who go in search of ourselves in museums, we who so love to see ourselves reflected back at us from the high, white gallery walls. Through the non-threatening personas of the canine and feline, Kovásznai draws a neat little narcissistic triangle between the viewer, the museum and modern art.
In 1965 Mirror Images won 2nd Prize at the Miskolc Film Festival (a city in the northeast of Hungary), while another one of his films, Metamorphoses, won 1st Prize.
This is Just Fashion!
In 1976 György Kovásznai made a six-part television series called This is Just Fashion: A Musical and Dancing Picturebook of the Fashions of Yesteryears. This mouthful of a title is both descriptive and flippant, and belies the seriousness of his aim which was characteristically ambitious. With this series Kovásznai aimed to present a broad survey of the history of fashion in the West for his audience. Furthermore he interpreted fashion in the broadest sense possible, referencing a sprawling range of styles and key historical events which he links together in ingenious and often humorous ways. This is just fashion! is above all an animated, social documentary that pushes the boundaries of the genre, as it did the tolerance of the censors.
1982, 2010, 2016
Igor Lazin’s short film Reportrait 2010, which summarizes György Kovásznai’s oeuvre in 6 minutes, was featured in the monumental Kovásznai exhibition at the Hungarian National Gallery in 2010. Fine artist and animation film maker Lazin co-directed the film with director Ferenc Török (Moszva tér, Eastern Sugar), applying the same socio-documentarist approach that Kovásznai and Elek Lisziak pioneered in their eponymous film in 1982. The film features the sound recordings from the original interviews, while the interviewees appear via an animated cartoon which seeks to capture the “essence” of their personalities. Lazin’s short film had a 2016 English-language reboot to accompany Kovásznai’s debut exhibition at the Somerset House in London. The 2016 version of the film features renowned international art historians and artists, alongside their Hungarian colleagues praising Kovásznai’s lifework.
“This film is but a painting brought into a single movement. The colours are restlessly and incessantly searching for a kind of harmony that would most truthfully convey the painterly imagination. We intend to depict the characteristic movements of a male and a female portrait while searching for a relationship between them and the surrounding world” – this is written at the opening sequence of Kovásznai’s first metamorphic film painting. The different techniques of classical painting are the film’s point of departure, while the subject is the constant movement of colour and brush – the process of painting itself.
According to the legend, one day Kovásznai asked the director to be permitted to use the studio during a weekend, accompanied by a cinematographer. He did not ask for anything else. He painted the entire film over the course of one day, while the camera recorded every single change on the animation table that had been made on the painting.
Metamorphoses was an instant success and its distribution was not banned by the censors: after winning the prize at the Miskolc Short Film Festival, the film went on to win the Gold Ducat Award at the Mannheim Film Festival in 1965. As a result of this, the Folkwang Museum in Essen invited Kovásznai to go to West Germany on a Fellowship (which he refused to remain in Hungary.)
Diary is a snapshot of a day in the life of three university students killing time in town (Budapest) together. The friends also form a fraught little love triangle, whose tension builds as the day grows long. The narrative heart of this film is driven by the chapter titles, ten parts in all, starting with “Our Endless Loafing” and closing with “Then She Left Us”. However conventional, linear storytelling takes a backseat to the evocation of place and spirit. Kovásznai achieves this through his idiosyncratic combinations of documentary elements (live action, still photography) with his paintings, watercolours and line drawings.
As always, music plays a crucial role in this Kovásznai film as well. The opening song by the Illés band sets the tone with its upbeat rhythm and its lyrics so suited to the random ramblings of the kids through the streets: “I stop on the street corner, where to next? No idea. I take a few steps this way, that, hey, why should I go anywhere?” The ambient sounds of the city are especially evocative as Kovásznai drops them in at key moments: rain, cars and rattling trains are all used to great effect. In the end the girl leaves and the consolation prize for the boys is the river itself, when Kovásznai presents his beautiful Danube paintings to close the film.
The concept of the film Wavelengths is described at the start: “We spin the radio dial and from out of the ether the most diverse sound impressions come gushing in upon us. These randomly selected impulses are fragments yet they resonate within us. The heartbeat of the modern human world with the visual tools of the painter… The creators of this film follow the wavelengths.”
The images in Wavelengths respond to the multitude of sounds spilling out of the radio as if they were dancers moving in time to different beats. The selection is urbane and eclectic, moving easily between pop and high culture. The images leap from the abstract to the figurative, to the bridges and cafés of Budapest, where line drawings interact with gorgeous, tactile impasto paintings. At one point there is an excerpt of a poem by Árpád Tóth (1886-1928) called Soul to Soul which beautifully summarizes the essence of this film. The shared human condition soars over and above time and place, transcending borders, ideologies and oppression, through the wavelengths of poetry, music and painting.