Interview with Dénes Ghyczy
by Fabian Faltin for PerfectDay magazine, issue 2, 2008
Formerly a factory for sanitary equipment, the Aqua Butzke building in Berlin now plays host to studios and workshops of every description, as well as a shared canteen. Spaces are vast, ceilings high, and it’s a long and steep climb just to reach the second floor. The studio I’m visiting is light-filled, clean and calm. On the walls hang two oil portraits in a ghostly state of incompletion. Masterminding these painterly spectres is Dénes Ghyczy, who pushes back his sleeves and bids me to sit on a rolling sofa by the windows. A tourist balloon can be seen hovering over Potsdamer Platz, at some distance. We proceed to talk.
Fabian Faltin: Does working in Berlin make you more self-conscious as an artist?
Dénes Ghyczy: It’s been an awakening. In Budapest, nobody knew about what was happening. It’s a very small, confined, introverted art-world. There’s a blindfold over it.
FF: Is this why you looked at your subjects through optical devices and milky glass filters?
DG: There wasn’t any conscious decision to leave out information. The optical filters had more to do with a general feeling of detachment from reality and also society. A sense of isolation, which I wasn’t conscious about either. I was actually insulted when people said, ‘you seem to be living under a glass bowl.’
FF: Just like the so-called ‘savants’ you’ve been painting autists who have a very narrow talent and are extremely focussed on one thing, such as drawing, maths, or memorising telephone numbers…
DG: The savants actually absorb everything. Some of them are autists, though not all. The problem is their lack of a filter, also a kind of social filter, telling them what is important and what is not. So they try to communicate by concentrating on one particular talent and channelling all their feelings and emotions into it.
FF: But in their mind they are everywhere.
DG: Yes, and they are unable to abstract. They would see all the trees in a wood, but not the wood. And we might see the wood, but not the trees.
FF: As an artist, you are very open, but focussed on the very narrow field of portraiture. Might the remarkable concentration and technical complexity of your works be the result of becoming a savant yourself?
DG: Maybe, though I wouldn’t like to see myself as an autist. It’s necessary for me to narrow myself down to particular issues. I could open all doors, have a look inside, but then you have to make a choice. You confine your emotions inside a straightjacket and move within these boundaries.
FF: Is that why you maintain this utter order and cleanliness in your studio and your flat?
DG: Control is a key issue. I need to gain a certain control, as well as putting a kind of protective shield between myself and the viewer. I’m interested in art that has a particular kind of distance and coolness. The emotion is always present anyway.
FF: What exactly is it you are controlling?
DG: I think I’d feel completely lost if I were to stand in front of an empty canvas and just started painting. I need to walk along a particular line that I’ve defined for myself. I always find back to this rope in the dark.
FF: And what is it like being in the dark?
DG: It would be like loosing myself. Some people say it’s good to loose yourself, so why don’t you go ahead? But I’m not interested in this kind of therapy-thing.
FF: Don’t we all have some kind of therapy-thing going on, which is considered acceptable, as long as you don’t talk too much about it? One’s private spiritual and bodily engagements are always a potential public embarrassment. But doesn’t the artist have a license to publicise what otherwise stays private?
DG: You decide for yourself what freedoms you have or don’t have. I feel like I’m sometimes embarrassing, but that depends on how you look at it. People might also like you for being embarrassing. If that’s your choice.
FF: In the paintings also?
DG: No, in the paintings probably less. They are how I would like to be – maybe I would also like them to talk instead of me. But I wouldn’t say that I am hiding behind my paintings.
FF: I’m struck by the way your paintings, in spite of their impossible, digitally designed structures, uphold an almost academic sense of composition…
DG: I’ve often asked myself why my compositions are always so simple. One person, someones head in the center, identities – a continuation of a thousand-year old tradition. The semi-profile, which is classical renaissance language. It´s what I like, but I was also influenced by growing up in an old castle in Holland, full of traditional baroque paintings.
FF: And always portraiture?
DG: It would be a different thing if I had two persons in a painting. This never happens. Even where I’ve hybridised two different faces, my work is never narrative. I am always looking for a direct interaction with the viewer. Just like in these old-fashioned photographs, where people sit still or stand straight for five minutes. They look at you with a certain dignity. A kind of old-fashioned eternity, common to all photogenic people.
FF: Is the ideal face a stereotype?
DG: I never take people who just smile stupidly. I don’t like these white-toothed smiles, because then you’d have to do something ironic with them. So now I’m looking for pictures of people who have the aesthetic appeal of the renaissance. The grace, dignity and harmony of something going way back. The ideal face is a bit like Björk – sixteenth century, with an Asian touch.
FF: We get lots of white-toothed smiles in today’s glamour-world.
DG: But what is beauty? It’s different for everybody, and in my vision it’s definitely a kind of peace. In the old-fashioned, renaissance ideal of beauty, I find inner balance and a kind of silence. Or just light. Not loud or colourful beauty. It can have colours, but in a silent, harmonious way. It’s a meditation.
FF: Is that how you’d like people to interact with your paintings – in meditation?
DG: That would be nice, if people took time with the paintings. They shouldn’t be sudden, or loud, or overwhelming. A slow indirect process, that gives a kind of sustainability – to use a new, fashionable word. So the paintings last and maybe even renew themselves.
FF: In a spacious setting?
DG: A spacious setting with high ceilings. Like a castle. I always see my work in a castle. That would be the ideal setting.
FF: Could a certain timeless beauty really cut through the networks of the present?
DG: I don’t want to go back in time and make something reactionary. I wouldn’t prefer any other era to the one that we’re living in. It would be a mistake to make art to escape the world we’re living in now, and which I’m totally conscious of. But searching for an independent language doesn’t mean destroying everything that has been done before. A work with roots can have a long lifetime and thus find a place in the future.
FF: Can you uncritically accept society, its stereotypes and fashions, along with its history and the established medium of painting – yet still speak your own language?
DG: I’m not necessarily considered autonomous. I’m socially critical, of course, and aware of the position I’m living in now, but it’s not necessarily my aim to show this in my art. My work is actually apolitical, in that it reaches beyond the now. I’m trying to get the bigger view.
FF: In fact, critical artistic practise often feels quite closed and trapped.
DG: It’s now. There’s nothing to say against that.
FF: Now is Berlin?
DG: Venice or Paris would just be too much beauty. Too perfect. Here there is this nice contradiction. Berlin is actually quite ugly if you look close – and in winter the ugliness is unavoidable. But within this modern ugliness is a silence and slowness that gives a real quality of life. It’s a luxury to have time to sit in the park or in a café. Not in the bright sun, but in the shade, with a little sun coming through. That’s beauty.
Dénes Ghyczy was born 1970 in Diepholz, Germany, subsequently living in the Netherlands and Hungary. In 2005, he moved to Berlin.
Fabian Faltin was born in 1980 in Vienna, Austria. He is a writer and musician based in Berlin (2008).