Modern folk: home-made Constructivism in rural Hungary

How do you turn a typical Soviet dwelling into an artwork? Simple. Blast it with mind-blowing Constructivist patterns. German-born artist Katharina Roters stumbled on this decorative phenomenon when she moved from Düsseldorf, where she had studied at the Kunstakademie, to the Hungarian countryside. Her photographs of what locals have nicknamed ‘Kádár cubes’ (after Communist president János Kádár), have been published in Hungarian Cubes, a fantastic document showing what a simple lick of paint can do for a building. “What particularly drew my attention were the simple geometric patterns, which on occasion look like abstract paintings,” explains Roters, who took the photos on a medium format analogue camera, on and off over ten years.

Afterwards, using digital post-production, Roters emphasised the patterns by removing satellite dishes, power cables and other details that obscured them. “In this way the ornaments are transformed into pure signs, and form their own specific typology”, says Roters. There are undoubtedly parallels to be drawn with the masters of Constructivism, such as Alexander Rodchenko or El Lissitzky. But these decorative schemes weren’t the work of an individual artist, or even a group of artists, in the service of the state. They were produced by the buildings’ residents, placing them in the realm of vernacular art. Unsurprisingly, the Soviet authorities had few kind words to say about the Kádár cubes. As they were outside the official canon of Soviet art and architecture, the artists were seen as ‘botched workers’ or ‘peasants’, and their handiwork – a mix of painted schemes and etched pebbledash – was described as ‘superficial slapdash’ and ‘kitsch potpourri’.

Today the artwork, first created in 1960s and 1970s, is a little faded, and the cubes are still held in scant regard. “From the perspective of the rural population the buildings are simply no longer up-to-date,” explains Roters. “In keeping with their residents' financial means, they’re either being completely torn down or at least renovated, insulated and consequently newly plastered.” The photographs, however, will remain as a testament to the inspiring inventiveness of the non-state-educated artists of that era.