Ákos Birkás, The Books, 1978
Ákos Birkás: A Human Being Is Always Interesting
Nov 28, 2023 – Jan 26, 2024
Vintage Galéria
Budapest, Hungary

A concise part of Ákos Birkás’ oeuvre, which came to the end with the artist’s death in 2018, is on view for the first time at Vintage Galéria, selected by the Ákos Birkás Art Foundation. The joint aim of the foundation and the gallery is to research and introduce the oeuvre of Ákos Birkás to the Hungarian and international public, the current exhibition is also part of the work in progress.

The subject matter may seem obvious to an audience familiar with the oeuvre of Ákos Birkás: the exhibition is organized around the motifs of the face and the head, and the genre of the portrait. With a total of ten works of varying techniques and sizes, we provide an overview of Birkás’ artistic practice from the late 1960s to the 2010s, highlighting the correlations between the works and the changes. Of course, we can only glimpse the artistic experiments and questions that the artist raised picture by picture through series consisting of a large number of pieces, but the works shown are significant on their own, representing an era, topic and type of image. Throughout his career spanning over five decades, Ákos Birkás’ interest in the fundamental questions of painting, including portraiture and human representation, remained unchanged. The broad intellectual horizon and contemplative attitude with which he questioned the role and social significance of the artist and art from time to time emerges through the works.

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The critical attitude towards painting and his own art led to radical, yet consistent steps in Birkás’s practice. He received the greatest conspicuousness when he turned again to figurative painting at the end of the 1990s, now incorporating the outcomes of the “technical image” (photograph, press photo, film, etc.) into his art. Between 1999 and 2001, he created a series of double portraits, in which he juxtaposed two different panels, creating a single portrait from the faces of people of different genders and personalities painted with bright colours and light brush strokes. The models are close and dear acquaintances of the artist, but the subject matter remains the relationship between the two halves of the picture: the people looking at the camera, at the painter and the viewer, the opposition or the possible unity of the two faces, the dividing line between the two personalities and the resulting visual and emotional tension, as in this case between the very similar, yet different Anna and Lenke Birkás (O.T. (23.1 A-L), 2001).

Birkás’ “populist” self-portrait (The Populist Odalisque, 2014) is one of those candid pictures, of which the artist has painted several since 2014, that are not without self-irony, depicting the male body undisguised. In the series, we can see bodies hugging each other in intimate situations, while sleeping, exposed to the viewers gaze and to the camera, often in dark or low light, couples connected to each other in strange situations. In case of the exhibited painting, Birkás appears twice: in the foreground of the picture while sleeping, in bluish night light, and in the background in the pose of Matisse’s famous odalisque, awake, looking at the camera (Odalisque in Red Pants, 1921). The pattern of the background, painted in bright colours, is also reminiscent of Matisse’s late paper cutouts made in the 1940s and 1950s. In his late figurative paintings, Birkás is primarily interested in the concentration and painterly availability of the scenes – the looks, the movements, the general human states of being, emotions, and situations conveyed by them, which rise above the narrowly interpreted reality and daily politics.

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