Cemetery photos by János Major

2013.10.18 - 11.15

János Major (1993-2008) began taking cemetery photographs in the early 1960's. He took notice of the unusual funerary sculptures that are crowded into the cemeteries of Budapest while taking strolls there. He made careful studies of tombstones that he found interesting; photographing them systematically from different angles, over several decades. Tombstone motifs appear in his etchings of the 1960's and from the beginning of the 1970's he started to exhibit cemetery photographs and integrated them into concept-art pieces.

In the course of photographing he attempted to capture the visual and emotional impressions the sculptures made on the viewer. His attraction to funerary sculpture was not solely based on their aesthetic qualities but also his interest in the local history of ideas and social history. In an interview he said the following about his habit of photographing in the cemeteries: "I collected  unusual, unique images, those with funny contradictions […] I found some very interesting tombstones. And how does such a tombstone come into being? The client had to have played a major role in it. The really interesting ones were not invented in the sculptor's studio but by the client. There are some very extreme ideas, for example the epitaph reads `your life was like an unfinished symphony´ and a strophe of the Unfinished Symphony is carved under it. […] My feeling is that the cemeteries of Budapest are unique in the whole world in this regard."

Through Major's photographs we get a glimpse into the unique iconography and the chaotic heterogeneity that is typical of the cemeteries of the Hungarian capital. They make visible the possible avenues of research this subject offers in various fields such as ethnography, art history and the history of ideas. In certain times, only an artist could undertake the task of making visible these possibilities.

János Major was an enigmatic and difficult to classify member of the Hungarian neo-avantgard artist community. He begun his career as a graphic artist and undertook technical and stylistic experiments in the traditional medium of etching. He was among the first artists in post-war Hungary to problematize the issue of his Jewish identity. Official cultural censors and his environment were unable to figure out what to do with some of his highly provocative works. The authorities labeled his important pieces pornographic and anti-semite and in connection with these he was harassed by the police. In the beginning of the 1970's he also started making text based concept-art pieces, and a performance art piece with other artists at the chapel exhibits of Balatonboglár. In the mid 1970's he destroyed most of his artworks and because of his mental state was unable to continue working for a decade. He began a new chapter when, from the mid 1980's, he started experimenting with the traditions of erotic and grotesque art. Some of these also return to the familiar scenes taking place in the cemeteries. Like his earlier work, these also aimed at provoking collective morality, but were overall characterised by a turning in on himself and thematized his private life. He passed away in 2008, leaving behind the majority of his works in his studio. Research into his oeuvre is under way. In the last year his works have been presented in small scale thematic exhibitions.