Semper excelsior – on the paintings of Ágnes Kontra

I’ve been monitoring the career path of Ágnes Kontra since the start of her career at the beginning of the millennium and I have been witnessing a steady shift from the physical world on the ground toward the realm of the sky. From the very beginning, she has been creating art that has been in the orbit of abstraction, even if the works have been influenced by a tonality of certain landscape tendencies.

In her 2006 series titled Stairs and Roads, it might have appeared that she had been painting the subject matter in the title, yet the essence of the works was already in the realms of the invisible, the in-between, the medium, one might even say that even then she has been depicting the content of her internal vision. The title of the 2006 exhibition was Countryside Memories – Spatial Concepts, thus the painting of a realistic landscape was already not the objective. The title of the paintings – Spatial – signified the artistic intent. There, the medium tone patches, the faded earthy colors, browns, ochre yellows, greens, and the occasional sky blue typified the paintings, executed by a thick layer of paint showing off the movement of the hand. Even at this point in time that peculiar aspect of her work that is a fundamental, life-giving pillar of her talent has made its presence felt: she paints in such a way that it is impossible to determine which side of abstract and figurative painting she is on, or that the image is in the process of appearing, or in the process of disappearing. The visual element shifts into the form of the painting, while we identify the form of the painting as a depiction of the physical environment.

This style of painting is a distant relative of lyrical abstraction and abstract expressionism, a style which has had significant Hungarian practitioners as early as the 1960s, such as Sándor Molnár, Imre Bak, István Nádler, and Pál Deim, who have been inspired by the visual imagery of the Prisian School of the 1940s and 1950s. It is not unjustified to bring up the stimmungsmalerei and mood painting of the previous turn of the century in connection with the painting of Ágnes Kongra, just as Endre Lehel Paksi has done so at the opening ceremony of the Fészek Klub exhibition in 2016. The mood or emotion expressed on her paintings is never subjective, however; it does not derive directly from the psyche of the painter, but is rather transferred onto the canvas as a condensed form of the same, as a painting element.

During the broadly defined recent decade, natural motifs – such as branches, leaves, flowers, and clouds – became gradually distilled into pure painting motifs. This is how clouds become „Layers” or in the current collection „Shift”, „Designated Space”, and „Part and Whole”. An abstraction comes into being that is a relative of Béla Hamvas’s „tremendum” concept, in which a dialogue is induced between the painting and the spectator, over the course of which the artwork reveals a spiritual reality to the viewer. This spiritual reality does not just shock the spectator in its sensation of horror, but rather whisks him/her away from the medium of the real world to the regions of color, light, and in the end, of the soul. The ethereal, never rugged palette of the sky can be truly observed with a purified soul, thus it is possible to accept it, yet nonetheless: viewing it moves one in the direction of spiritual peace.

Ágnes Kontra’s art proceeds in the direction of the spiritual; it belongs to the spiritual style of abstract painting. She is clearly cognizant of the fact that it is the journey itself that is at the heart of it all, there is no competition, one need not aim for an earthly goal. Its main subject matter is change itself, including its formal-visual terrain, the infinite series of atmospheric phenomena.

It is well known that the first abstract painter in Europe was a woman – indeed, it was a woman painter, Hilma af Klint (1862-1944), a graduate of the Stockholm Academy of Arts, who had started to paint abstract, non-figurative paintings approximately 15 years prior to Kandinsky and Malevich, yet she has never exhibited those paintings during her lifetime. As a member of the Theosophy Society, her main inspiration was the depiction of the creatures from beyond, of a higher reality. Naturally, I am not referring to the formalistic impact of Hilma af Klint, but rather about the idea of continuous spiritual ascent that can be implemented via abstract art – Semper excelsior – meaning purification, the idea that the universe shall be undergoing an eternal transformation; this is what the Hungarian painter shares with her Swedish predecessor from a century ago. Closer parallel to Kontra’s art is Mark Rothko’s chapel in Houston, where the sheer color, the monochrome, yet not impersonal color reproductions also metaphorically absorb the spectator. The basic characteristic of Ágnes Kontra’s paintings is a personal touch, most easily witnessed in the appearance of the hand movements, in the delicate tremors of brushwork, thus providing a counterweight the the seemingly reductionist system of forms. In her latest series titled Designated Space – certain pieces of which she has been exhibiting since 2016 – Ágnes Kontra also enhances the effect through sheer size, in that on the painting surface that is composed of layers of paint and worked over with minute brushstrokes, composed of a single, or just a few colors, the spectator perceives something monumental, even from a distance, while from close up one can experience a peculiar „floating” sensation by stepping into the „space” of the painting.

Ágnes Kontra’s art does not belong to the real of radical and monochrome art, yet it is nonetheless close to the color painting of Marcia Hafif, because she has made a decision to choose painting in spite of everything, because for her, the work of painting, of engaging in the concentration, this is important to her. The painting panorama appearing at the 2002 Hall of Art international group exhibition, titled Colour – A Life of its own forms the background of Ágnes Kontra’s art, providing a proverbial outline of her art against this backdrop.[1]

                  The detailed development of the paintings requires a great deal of time; often, the large canvas sizes also transform the process of painting into a meditative activity, transferring the painter into a concentrating state of mind that is different from the ordinary. On the barely differentiated foundation of the painting - barely qualifying as a background – the painter occasionally designated a given circle motif, of which she states the following: I am designating my own world in an endless universe. At the same time, these circles never appear in the picture field in a static manner, due to the asymmetric picture composition and fuzzy painting technique, but rather always appear to be floating.  

In conclusion, I would like to bring up an idea about the viewing of paintings: It is my experience that these paintings should be viewed – as an exception to the rule – not merely with the „scan” of the usual quick, minute eye movements, but rather we should observe them in their entirety, with eyes „wide open”, as optical phenomena (Please give this a try at this exhibition!). This special static-dynamic tension also contributes to the power of the aesthetic-visual experience. This means that these paintings are particularly suitable for presentation in an enclosed space, as they amplify the nature of the environment, meaning that they exert a powerful pull on the spectator.

Miklós Sulyok, Art historian

Translator: András Balázsy


[1] A szín önálló élete, Colour- A Life its own, exhibition catalogue, Hall of Art, 2002, Budapest, edited by Marianna Mayer 

©2019 - Kontra Ágnes