Cultural migrations in art: Sam Havadtoy at Fondazione Mudima

On the occasion of HOMAGE. Cultural Migrations, the Hungarian artist offers original insights regarding the contaminations triggered by cultural migrations through the iconic works of eleven 20th century artists.

Hungarian artist Sam Havadtoy is 72 years old, but he seems to have lived multiple lives. His latest solo show HOMAGE. Cultural Migrations, on view until April 9th at the Fondazione Mudima in Milan, condenses many of these parallel existences and the influences that have informed his experience as a man and artist in 27 recent works. Havadtoy explores the theme of cultural migrations in art and the contaminations they can generate by referring to his personal experience dominated by nomadism. Born in 1952 in London to a Hungarian family, Havadtoy returned to Hungary in 1956, where he was forced to remain until the beginning of the Seventies, when he emigrated illegally to England via Yugoslavia. A year later he settled in the United States, where he became close friends with Yoko Ono, John Lennon, David Bowie, Andy Warhol, Keith Haring and many others, and in 1978 he founded the Sam Havadtoy Gallery and Interior Design Studio. As an artist and gallery owner, he is credited with being among the first to exhibit contemporary artists such as Andy Warhol, Agnes Martin, Cindy Sherman and Robert Mapplethorpe in Eastern Europe, immediately after the fall of the Wall, in his Galéria 56 in Budapest.

Living in Europe since 2000 between Hungary and Italy, with this exhibition Havadtoy decides to celebrate and pay homage – as the title of the exhibition suggests – to eleven migrant artists of the 20th century who are also very well known to the public for their ability to blend their origins and influences with the social and cultural fabric of the countries that welcomed them. Mark Rothko, Andy Warhol, Alexej von Jawlensky, Max Ernst, Victor Vasarely, Piet Mondrian, Marc Chagall, László Moholy-Nagy, Max Beckmann, Pablo Picasso and Tamara de Lempicka make up a hypothetical international football team in which everyone metaphorically occupies a strategic position; Chagall goalkeeper, Rothko left wing, Ernst right midfielder and so on. To pay tribute to these extraordinary artists, Havadtoy has faithfully recreated an iconic work by each of them by drawing from his own stylistic signature.

Sam Havadtoy, Homage to Mark Rothko, 2023 - Lace and acrylic on board, 121x161cm

The artist has in fact ingeniously applied lace, his signature material, both to his personal works and to the reproductions on display, thus altering some of their features. For example, the new texture enhances the roughness of Rothko’s work, one of his famous oil paintings from the 1950s in which large monochrome patches are joined by thin stripes of color, while it provides depth to Mondrian’s abstract work and softens the harsh geometric lines of the face of Dora Maar’s portrait by Pablo Picasso. The second element that refers to Havadtoy’s typical language is the use of infinite colorful dots that, if seen from afar, faithfully outline the subjects of the original works, while if observed up close they create a colored constellation that fragments the compositions. The evocative power of lace unfolds also through the succession of voids and solids, that cover but at the same time allow glimpses of what is underneath; this is why many people from Eastern Europe use it to cover corpses on their last journey.

The whole exhibition revolves around the possibility/willingness of seeing or not seeing. Of each work, Havadtoy has created a second version equipped with a sliding screen, that visitors can move as they wish, revealing or hiding what happens behind. It is a conceptual operation that further fragments the image, this time on a different and even more intriguing level; the wings, which at times reflect the color palettes of the originals and at others deviate from them, hinder the fruition of the viewers creating impactful visual contrasts. Aware of having chosen a sensitive and politically divisive topic – that of migration -, Havadtoy plays with our morality by metaphorically putting us in front of a decision: open the sliding screens and face the reality head-on or avoid the vision of an uncomfortable truth.

Sam Havadtoy, Homage to Tamara de Lempicka, 2023 - Lace and acrylic on board, 76x111cm

Much of the exhibition is in fact developed on the level of symbolism: from the contrast between classical embroidery and modern subjects and techniques, to the materialization of a modern veil of Maya that the observer can decide whether to tear or not. Meanwhile, Havadtoy’s lace also acts as a “layer” to shyly cover his identity, or allow some glimpses of its contours, as in his 2023 self-portrait, where the artist’s young and smiling alter ego writes on a piece of paper “Nobody knows that I am gay”. Likewise, the underlying meanings of the works and the inner world of their creators emerge forcefully. This is what happens, for example, with Marc Chagall’s violinist, a metaphor of the nomadic life of the Jewish people, unstable like that of a musician who plays while balancing on the roof of a house; or with Max Ernst and his visceral attraction to birds, so much so that he claimed to have been born from an eagle egg that his mother had placed in a nest. In the book that accompanies the exhibition, Havadtoy also becomes a verbal narrator of the paintings, thus becoming the twelfth ambassador of that cultural, aesthetic and value richness generated by migrations and contaminations between peoples, as old as the history of mankind.

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Agnese Torres
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