Our first recommendation of the New Year comes from the highly acclaimed illustrator and graphic designer Anna Kövecses. Born in Hungary and based in Cyprus, Kövecses employs bold shapes and a vivid colour palette to fashion worlds of wit, charm and joy; providing a welcome respite to the cynicism and gloom of our current climate. Kövecses vibrant and warm illustrations have been featured in publications such as The New York Times, BBC and Milk X Magazine. We were delighted to chat with Anna about her recommendation: the revered Hungarian ceramicist and folk artist, Margit Kovács.
When did you first come across Kovács’ work?
I think I first heard her name from my grandma who proudly owned and exhibited a small vase in her living room that she believed was a genuine Kovács piece, however I have a faint feeling that it was fake. My grandmother had a really strong and quite eccentric personality. She had a weird sense of humor, collected all kinds of stuff in her apartment that one might call trash, but she truly admired the arts and had this vision of me becoming a ceramist or a painter doing oil landscapes. I was living in Cyprus last year when she became very ill. Since she had no one else but me to take care of her, I moved my entire little family back to Hungary so that I can be with her. She died a couple of months later. And I found myself in my home town that felt like the strangest and unfriendliest place in the whole world. It's a true ugly factory town with huge outskirts of of depressive grey blocks, shitty weather and a small baroque old town. One day I discovered a tiny museum on the top floor of one of the old houses that exhibits the work of Margit Kovács. The lady who sold the tickets seemed to be actually quite drunk and advised me to keep my coat on because there was no heating in the building. Still, this was the most beautiful and inspiring exhibition I've ever seen in my life. When I got home I googled Margit Kovács first thing and when I saw her photo in the Images my heart skipped a beat. She looked like the twin version of my grandmother. And she was born in 1902 in the same town as my grandma and I. I'm usually quite skeptical with anything spiritual, but this whole story seemed so doomed to me.
Kovács is regarded for transgressing genre boundaries in ceramics. Could you explain a little about the different influences and styles of her work?
As much as I understand she was most interested in finding a way to join the genre of sculpture with pottery. She spent her young years studying clay work in many European cities like Vienna, Munich and Copenhagen where she developed her own distinctive style and a technique that involved creating sculpture on the pottery wheel. The results are simple rounded basic shapes and beautiful flowing lines. She mainly worked with terra cotta clay and experimented with matte glazed details in white and blue. I found a beautiful archive video of her, it's actually a documentary, that shows how she shaped her sculptures on the spinning wheel with such love and lightness that makes me insanely happy and hypnotized every time I watch it. While her most popular and well known works are mainly folk art inspired statues of girls doing stuff, like watching birds or combing each others hair, she explored many other perspectives, themes and media as well. I can even recognise a strong Picasso influence on some of her vases and plates with joyful depictions of birds and fish and pretty flowers.
The full video is no longer available on youtube unfortunately :( I could only find a small segment on a Hungarian site with no embedding options: http://mandarchiv.hu/cikk/1104/Az_agyag_poetaja
Considering the religious themes in a lot of her work, how did joining the communist party affect her output?
To be honest, I'm not sure. She did a considerable amount of religious work and yet she was a widely celebrated artist by everyone, even the communist leaders, hence the long list of national awards and the opportunity to create and exhibit freely. I think the key is (although I might be wrong, it's just my theory) that she spoke the language of the people. I mean visually. Her art represented the world of the villages, hardworking farmers and long winter nights spent with making wool yarn. The communist era (design wise) wasn't just about minimalist blocks and bad quality plywood furniture. It strongly celebrated folklore as the epitome of hard work. If you wanted to give a hippie upgrade to your house the best and most popular way was to hang some pretty dried corn cobs on your cupboard, or exhibit a wagon wheel in the garden that doubled as a flower stand. What I mean is that translating religious themes in a folk art inspired language might have come in handy as a cool compromise in lieu of lavish ornamental rococo design. And thanks to this, Margit Kovács got big commissions from the church to create huge reliefs on modern church walls. I don't think the communist party demanded any compromise from her, she was just doing her thing and that's it.
Being woefully ignorant about Hungarian art, is she celebrated/well known by the general public? It seems like she has lots of public works on display in Budapest...
As back then in the communist times culture and education were pretty centralized things, artist celebrated by the state were celebrated or at least known by everyone. I'm not sure if this is still true today, but naturally anyone who's interested in arts will know her name. Before she died, Margit donated her full life long collection of works to a museum in Szentendre (which is a pretty small historic town North of Budapest). Apparently this museum has lent a couple of pieces they couldn't fit anywhere to that other tiny museum with the drunk lady I visited on that gloomy winter...
Do you have a favourite Kovács piece?
Yes- her very impressive, minimalistic sculpture of Jean D'arc (Johanna in Hungarian). It's this massive block of clay shaping her neck and her head, which looks totally upwards. Her blue eyes are glowing almost hypnotically out from her flat terra cotta face. This object is so simple yet so alive that you're secretly waiting for it to blink or say something.
Whilst your style and medium are so different from Kovács, have you been artistically inspired by her work?
She has definitely inspired me to be more intuitive and less rigid or anxious. I love how naturally she treated her subjects and I love how each and every artwork she did holds her soft and also powerful feminine touch. Everything she did has this honest and joyful atmosphere that somehow reminds me of how children see the world, they have a sort of openness around them that really fascinates me. Seeing her work has also encouraged me to step away from the computer screen and get my hands dirty with clay, paint, cookie dough or whatever inspires me to create.