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Arts & Culture for Hungarian Artist, Judaism and Jewish Past Lie at Heart of Paintings

May 30, 2003
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A huge portrait dominated the main room of Hungarian painter Laszlo Feher’s most recent exhibition, a major show held this spring at a leading Budapest gallery.

It was a close-up, hyper-realist rendition of a somber-looking man leaning forward, gazing intently out of the picture — and wearing a black yarmulke on his slightly balding head.

The portrait is of the writer Gabor Szanto, a modern Orthodox Jew who is editor in chief of the Budapest Jewish monthly Szombat.

“It is not just a painting of my face,” Szanto told JTA. “In the painting Feher somehow incorporated his own feelings about my Jewishness, about his Jewishness — perhaps about the changes that took place in the 1990s, and even perhaps his feelings about Jewish fate in general and 1,000 years of Jewish history.

“Maybe,” he added, “that’s why I look sadder than I really am.”

Jews, Judaism and the often tragic sweep of Jewish experience in Central Europe permeate the work of Feher, who, at 50, is one of Hungary’s most prominent contemporary artists.

“Judaism imbues my life,” he said in an interview with JTA. “It’s what I am. It’s how I feel. My community is the Jewish community — that’s where I feel my best.”

A short, dark-haired man with a broad smile and black beard, Feher began to explore Jewish issues in the late 1970s, in an attempt to assert and define his own personal and artistic identity.

It was a provocative choice with a deliberate message. At the time, Jewish life in Communist Hungary was oppressed, Jewish themes were considered taboo subjects and memory of the Holocaust was marginalized.

“In the 1970s, it was a closed society here,” he told JTA. “I painted abandoned Jewish cemeteries.”

One of these early Jewish canvases, from 1979, shows a toppled tombstone whose carved Hebrew inscription is almost obscured by shadows and undergrowth, symbolizing both the annihilation of Jews in the Shoah and the repression under the communist regime.

In paintings like this, art historian Eva Forgacs wrote in a book about Feher, “it seems as if the past were not over and the present were not alive.”

Another canvas, from 1982, is a huge, meticulous and surprisingly haunting depiction of a crumbled sheet of matzah. The painting, which measures more than 6 feet by more than 4 feet, is titled “Diaspora.”

The broken matzah served as a powerful metaphor for the shattered and demoralized state of Hungarian Jewry.

“In focusing and enlarging a ritual object,” Forgacs wrote, “Feher has imparted a ritual significance” to his work.

The Jewish references in Feher’s work are both explicit and symbolic.

His paintings include still life arrangements of Jewish ritual objects, portraits of Jewish individuals such as Szanto and scenes incorporating rabbis, Jewish symbols or people at prayer.

Many others make oblique reference to Jewish experience by dealing with memory, alienation, separateness and the legacy of the past.

Feher frequently employs transparent figures drawn in outline, situated like ghosts — or memories — against background scenes that are either realistic or flat black or colored spaces.

A canvas from 1992, called “The Prayer,” depicts the chalk-white outline of a boy wearing a yarmulke, seated against a black background in a synagogue pew and under a clock with Hebrew letters running backward, instead of numbers, to mark the time.

The centrality of Jewish imagery in Feher’s work — and of Judaism itself in his life — is all the more remarkable because Feher was not born Jewish.

The son of a teacher, he grew up in a small town near Budapest. As a small child, he developed a mystical belief in God that soon developed into a deep commitment to Judaism.

“I have felt that I was Jewish since I was 10 years old,” he told JTA.

Feher formally converted to Judaism when he was in his 20s. Today he is an active member of the Budapest Jewish community, and he and his family lead a committed Jewish life.

“It is really fantastic how Jewish life and Jewish education in Hungary have flourished since 1989,” he said.

Feher’s two children attend Budapest’s Ronald S. Lauder Javne Jewish day school, one of a number of Jewish institutions that have opened since the fall of communism.

Feher’s teen-aged son, David, speaks Hebrew, regularly attends services and has won prizes for Jewish studies.

“We brought the children up to be proud of being Jewish,” Feher said, “to be brave and open about being Jewish. We are not from the Holocaust generation, and we should not let fear get into our genetic make-up.”

Feher feels that the continuation of Jewish life in the Diaspora is as important as Jewish life in Israel, but he also feels deeply linked to Israel, where his wife has many relatives.

His first visit to Israel, at Passover three years ago, made a profound impression on him and led to a cycle of paintings about the Jewish state that formed the basis of an exhibition.

“The trip was a Bar Mitzvah present for our son,” he said. “It was a very emotional experience.

“I had been dreaming of making such a trip for years and felt mentally very prepared,” he said. “But then, when we landed, it was unbelievable. I got off the plane, and immediately felt something surge from the depths of my soul. I love this country, Israel.”

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