Contexts of Gyula Pauer’s statue “Miss Hungary” (1985)
The Miss Hungary beauty pageant was the centre of attention in 1985, as the ceremonious election of a beauty queen was the first of its kind to be organised in Hungary during the socialist era. The meanings of the words ‘beauty’, ‘queen’ and ‘election’ had changed fundamentally in socialism: these concepts had either become empty, or conversely, loaded with lewd undertones. No wonder (that) the occurrence of these three concepts in the same context raised attention, and a veritable crowd, more than 2200 girls applied to participate.
News of the beauty pageant also tickled the imagination of the sculptor Gyula Pauer, and – to quote Annamária Szőke – “he decided to document the entire event in the frame of a Beauty Action by means of sculpture. The prevailing technique to carry out this action had always been the preparation of a plaster mould as a method of documenting reality, and it was no different in this case.”
A sculpture to be modelled on the winners was announced at the awarding ceremony as one of the prizes. This is considered by critics as the first attempt in the Hungarian art world to deliberately use the media as a means to an end. The privileged position Pauer gained beyond increasing his popularity by using the mass media is, however, benevolently left in obscurity: as his activity was legitimised by the organiser, the Hungarian Media, he seemingly became the officially commissioned sculptor of the contest. The appearance of officiality thus created came with the practical benefit of not having to woo each contestant into participating. By appearing to be an integral part of the competition, Pauer’s enterprise made the aspiring beauty queens feel obliged to automatically, unquestioningly place themselves at his disposal. As expected, Pauer took advantage of this beneficial situation. To illuminate this, it is worth to bring up an action plan of his from a later period. Further developing the idea of picturing archetypes of beauty in 1992, he wanted to make plaster moulds of the body of Olympic medallists. This time, however, the aegis of apparent officiality was missing. The letter addressed to the Olympic champions contained a sentence implying free choice and the legitimate option of rejecting the offer: “If you would like to have a place in the FIRST MODERN-DAY OLYMPIC PANTHEON, please indicate your intention as soon as possible, in view of the great number of applying Olympic champions.” Although according to Annamária Szőke, the action was prepared “to a considerable extent”, nothing came out of it, and even the letters were never sent.
Owing to the manner in which the “prize” was announced, the winners of the contest believed their participation to be an obligation entailing their contractual agreement with the Hungarian Media, and they even had to act happy throughout the entire mould-making procedure, which made them feel even more being a subject.
This brings us to the fundamental questions of the artist-model relation, a delicate issue regarding the use of models in fine art. The inequality of the artist-model relation often masks asymmetrical power relations and is difficult to disconnect from its negative implications. Unequal nudity almost always expresses power bias, the supremacy of the robed over the denuded.
By the ‘80s, this realisation had been maturing for a while in art discourse. Just recall John Berger’s momentous 1973 essay. He interprets the considerable part of European art as works created to satisfy the voyeuristic and possessive desires of men. The problematic nature of the artist-model relation had been thematised by a number of artists, who made this criticism part of their artistic praxis. If I am to cite only one example, it should be Orsolya Drozdik’s 1977 performance The Nude, which is worth mentioning here because such men gave their name to it as Miklós Erdély or László Beke – who were on close terms with Pauer.
Of course, Pauer cannot be brought to book for not representing the above outlined artistic position in the course of making moulds of the beauty pageant winners. However, to some extent, Pauer did sense the controversial nature of using civilian-contestants-turned-public-figures as models. Premiered in 1987, the documentary Pretty Girls by László Hartai and András Dér also attests to the unpleasant situations the winner of the second prize, Judit Kruppa got into in the course of having her mould made, which was topped off by the sculptor handing her the cash that was the models’ due. Pauer gave one thousand forints to his models at the time with the condition that they could not make any subsequent claims. However, the contestants of a beauty pageant are not traditional models. They put their own bodies on the line, they can be identified and named based on their sculpted likeness. Pauer said that he felt awkward about giving money to the beauty queen, Csilla Molnár. Instead, he promised that he would make a portrait of her that would eventually be worth ten or twenty times more. We do not know whether this gift was ever completed, but so much is certain that the model of the alleged portrait could never enjoy its increasing prestige as she committed suicide a few months later.
A beauty pageant is a social event, which was why Pauer was proclaiming that he would record its social imprint. However, he failed to reckon with the symbolic nature of the role of the contestants, for the beauty queen is a protected celebrity by role: the sight of her body is freely accessible to anyone, but her physical body is untouchable. This unattainability makes it possible for the winner of the contest to have a symbolic significance: to be an idol for the masses, the subject of their adoration; to serve as a diplomat in politics, contributing to the country’s image, bearing the role and title of ‘ambassador of beauty’ for a year. It was precisely this symbolic meaning that the army of sculptor’s assistants shown in the documentary destroyed with their hands fumbling all over the bodies of the select beauties.
The problematic nature of the artist-model relation with regard to the Beauty Action is mitigated by critics to how the documentary Pretty Girls gave insight into the work taking place at the studio, which gave rise to ambiguous situations that could be interpreted as erotic. Annamária Szőke dismissed the issue with “Pauer was not above a little eroticism”. Éva Körner turned eroticism into a moral issue, and fended off any potential criticism by blaming the prudishness of “socialist virtue” saying “Eros, the fulfilling, invigorating principle became particularly ill-famed in socialist realism.” “…it turned out that true Hungarian virtue and Socialist Virtue with a capital V cannot stand each other.” The problem with these sentences is that whatever “true Hungarian virtue” and “Socialist Virtue with a capital V” may refer to, the beauty pageant and beauty queen election had nothing to do with either
Pauer expressly stressed the non-erotic quality of art, namely that there is no place for eroticism during work in the studio: the model’s body “is a workpiece, and we regard her as such.” No doubt this must have been the case, and yet this is exactly what gives free rein to objectification and sexism.
Let us take as an example Pauer’s 1975 recipe for Pseudo-sculpture, in which the model is not merely a “beautiful” (!) woman who should be “stripped bare”, but who can also be subject to being watched, drawn, painted, and, by a sculptor, touched and groped as well.
The recipe is as follows: “Take a beautiful woman, strip her bare, stand her on a pedestal […] take the beautiful woman, make her stand straight, adorn her, wrap her in silk veil, smooth the silk with clean, wet hands tightly all over her body…” It is not only what he says (viz. “body” can only stand for a female body, and “model” can only stand for a beautiful, naked young woman) that is notable in this recipe, but also the language he uses to say it. The model seems to have already transubstantiated into a sculpture, a lifeless object to whom it is best to refer in objective case as she will passively undergo the entire process. Of course, we could say that the recipe of the pseudo-sculpture is filled with irony to its core, but then this supposed irony will seem rather peculiar in the light of the beauty pageant’s context, which might make that irony a lot less enjoyable.
None of the writings about the statue reflects on the potential problems of objectification or the difference between eroticism and sexism.
Art historian Emese Révész, who witnessed the mould-making still as a high school student, recalls her memories as follows: “I was a teenager when I ended up at the studio in the scope of some social event, and I heard them talking amongst themselves about the work that was going on there. Men were discussing women as sexual objects, which was by far not unusual in this scene, it only seems unbecoming to my adult mind. They were talking about making full-body moulds, and how they could touch those girls at places and in ways no one else could. Is it possible to distinguish between the touch of a man and the touch of an artist? From this perspective, what I heard there, the case was that these girls had been touched not by artists but by boys and men. From what I saw, the way they spoke – again: I was outside the subculture of the art scene – implied that boys and men were talking about chicks, and incredibly hot chicks at that, to whom they had access in a way as others didn’t.”
In our assessment of Pauer’s role as an artist, the erotic photographs that took up ten full pages in the January 1986 issue of the French adult entertainment magazine Lui must be regarded as primary evidence. The photos had been taken in Pauer’s studio with his active assistance and support. The images used the tools of art production, such as racks and canvases, as erotic props, that is, the magazine appropriated Pauer’s entire project along with its attributes, to which Pauer readily assisted.
One of the photos reveals the half-naked Zita Kalmár, with no less than seven male hands fumbling around on her lustrous oily skin. Another image shows a sculptor’s assistant’s hands massaging the ointments required to create the oily lustre into the breasts of the recumbent model. In a third photo, the photographers have Zita Kalmár lie down next to a previously made erotic plaster cast and ‘playfully’ assume the pose of the cast’s model. Owing to the colourful orange-green lighting, there is almost no difference between the sculpted and the living body.
It is not only the artist’s studio and the erotic photo shoot that overlap in this case, but the sculptures are also brought to the same level as the erotic photographs they became subjects of. The explicit exposure of the artist’s studio, the environment of sculpture and fine art in an erotic magazine showed the connection between mass culture and elite culture in an unprecedented manner. This perfectly suits the definition of beauty by Péter György as “the meeting of kitsch and pornography on a dissecting table, that is, in the exclusive publicity of high culture.”
Perhaps Pauer was not aware of it, but the indubitable fact is that these photos completely blur the relations between artistic model and erotic model, artwork and erotic photo. And he did not just innocently get involved in this situation. The unobstructed blurring of power, apparent officiality and the imperative of art – which I have already outlined above in relation to the mould-making project – is reiterated in Pauer’s act of giving his consent to the photo shoot. The only thing Pauer asked of the photographers – who allegedly had shown up unexpectedly at the studio – was to get the models’ consent for the photo shoot. What were these young women expected to say when ambushed like this, without being prepared? A presumably crucial factor in their awkwardly automatic consent was the fact that they were in the studio of a sculptor. Standing model for a sculpture and for an erotic photo could not be clearly distinguished in this situation. And thus Pauer’s studio, the scene of art, was conclusively rendered into an alibi.
The two photographers, Béla Bacsó and János Fenyő were employees of the Periodical Publishing Company. Little did the beauty contest’s prize winners know that Fenyő was also a regular contributor of the Lui magazine. To be fair, they only learned about the publication of the nude photos after the fact! Therefore, they had never consented to their publication, and this was what rendered the events into a de facto insult. As opposed to the girls, Pauer was ‘naturally’ let in on the secret by the two photographers, meaning that they had asked for his permission to publish the photos. He had no objection whatsoever. The photos in question are above all the ones the two photographers made of Csilla Molnár’s cast. Photos of a sculpture bathed in lascivious blue-red light in front of a homogeneous black background. In the documentary, an art critic as momentous as László Szalma, head of programming at the Hungarian Media, stresses that “what is most important regarding the case is that the magazine published no nude photograph of Miss Hungary. As only the sculptural representation of Csilla Molnár was published as the reproduction of a work of art, she was thus not disqualified from Miss Europe Malta.” In other words, Csilla Molnár would make it to the European beauty pageant while through the backdoor of high art, her naked body could still make its way into an erotic men’s magazine.
The reason the photos published in Lui are key elements in the judgement of Pauer’s role as an artist is that on account of the unprecedented flagrance of the context, they invalidate the attempts to interpret the bronze statue.
Art criticism, however, has attempted to usher the artist’s work back into its safe elitist cage. In connection with the making of the plaster moulds, the authors of texts analysing Pauer’s art almost without exception cite Pseudo, as Gyula Pauer’s trademark, his conceptual invention, which essentially addresses the illusory nature of representation. With special emphasis on the concept and its critical tone. So far, so good, but none of them query how exactly we are supposed to interpret the idea that the sculptor intends to take a sociological sample of society while also blowing the lid off the beauty myth. The writings themselves fail to convince the reader that this almost compulsory, in fact, compulsively reiterated reference indeed has a substantive correlation with the plaster moulds of the subjects. Another query none of them has made is whether the chosen medium was suitable for the documentation of social/sociological phenomena. Nor have they pondered what exactly it was the casts of the winners of a beauty contest blew the lid off. For although it is true that the body of the winner of a beauty pageant does in fact represent a social expectation towards the prevailing ideal body image and conception of beauty, the lifelike sculpture of a body identifiable by a name directs attention at the model’s person and conceals the social processes that give rise to the system of expectations in question. Additionally, it fails to reckon with the political nature of the social attention directed towards the outward appearance of women.
The majority of art historical analyses refer to the piece as an outstanding product of fine art. The bronze statue of the beauty queen does indeed capture some of the contradiction between transience and eternity, but even that is legitimised by the tragedy of death. The contexts cited above present the statue in a more than ambivalent light.
The past few years have seen a certain shift, with some careful voices emerging in the art scene, criticising the enterprise from a professional point of view. I have witnessed scathing criticism in private conversations by countless professionals or people related to the art world, but scholarly literature shows no trace of such critical attitude. I believe it is time to re-examine some remarks that rapturously praise the statue of Miss Hungary, for instance, the one by Géza Perneczky, who thinks “Gyula did not aestheticise, but like a surgeon, buried his fingers deep into the cancerously proliferating tissue of contemporary phenomena.”
I wish to extend my gratitude towards Edit András and András Beck for their helpful remarks.
The full study was originally intended for publication in a printed compilation of lectures held at the conference Reconstruction and Nationalisation on 3 December 2018.
(Translation: Dániel Sipos)