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In conversation with …

 

 

... is a series of first-person encounters with Canadians and their links to Hungarian culture, things, and ideas. It presents an eclectic mix of conversations with people of all ages and from all walks of life. Each conversation will be presented as a readable article that will also contain audio clips.

 

In Part 2: In Conversation with … Oliver Botar – Connecting the Strands we pick up the story of Oliver Botar’s return to Canada and his integration of the discoveries he made in Hungary with his research and teaching here in Canada.

 

Here is the link to Part 1: In conversation with … Oliver Botar - a child of ’56.

 

In Conversation with … Oliver Botar – Connecting the Strands

 

November 5th 2015

 

Kevin Burns

 

 

Some background:

 

Oliver BotarLate in 2014, we posted an article about an exhibition of the work of László Moholy-Nagy that was curated by Dr. Oliver Botar, a professor of Art History at the University of Manitoba. The exhibition, Sensing the Future: László Moholy-Nagy, the Media and the Arts was about to move from Winnipeg’s Plug In Institute of Contemporary Art to Berlin’s Bauhaus Archiv Museum für Gestaltung. In July 2015, Kevin Burns, a contributor to the CHEF website, tracked down the Winnipeg based art historian Oliver Botar for a follow-up conversation about his work in art history and how became interested in the work of Hungarian artists of the 20th century.

 

He recorded this conversation under a clear blue summer sky on the deck of a cottage in Grand Beach, about an hour’s drive to the north-east of Winnipeg. He wanted to learn more about Oliver Botar’s life as the child of two 56ers and also how growing up in an immigrant family helped to shape the career he would eventually follow.

 

In Part Two, we hear about the Oliver Botar’s return from Hungary and the teaching, researching, and curating paths he now navigates. It’s a journey initiated by family history.

 

“My father told me that when he was a child at the family estate in western Hungary, he heard one of his great-uncles speak about his father’s stories about the Napoleonic wars. Oral history in the family. None of my friends had experiences like this in Edmonton. This always fascinated me and I wanted to find out more about this. I also became aware about how complex, contradictory, disputed, and often horrific Hungarian history was. And I think that because my parents had lived through so much I wanted to understand this. For me, understanding this was a way of coming to understand myself and my dual identity.”

 

A key influence in Oliver Botar’s change of direction from Urban Planning to Art History was professor Robert Welsh at the University of Toronto. Taking an art history course from him changed everything. “He was interested in the avant-garde and I wanted to know more about that, to learn more about that, because I was interested in cultural history, and art history was the closest way to get there. What’s important about Robert Welsh is that his approach to art history was what was known in Vienna in the early 20th Century as ‘Kunstgeschichte als Geistesgeschichte’ – that is: the history of art as the history of ideas. And that’s what turned me on.”

 

It was looking at art as the realization of ideas that brought Botar into the world of the Hungarian-born avant-gardist and Bauhaus teacher László Moholy-Nagy (1895–1946).

 

“The more I looked into the work of Moholy-Nagy, whose work was always of the moment, the more I realised that what he was interested in was not, in fact, in making art, but in making the world a better place. He was very utopian and those utopian values are kind of evergreen, aren’t they? They have to do with our sensorium. They have to do with our bodies, our perceptions, our understanding of the world. The more I look into Moholy-Nagy, the more I find of interest. And this is very peculiar. He is not like most other artists who go to art school, create a body of work, and you research that. With him, looking at him, opened up a world of the history of ideas. But I had to be trained to see that, to see his work as one of many portals into the history of ideas.”

 

Clip One – Oliver Botar explains how it was looking into a “hole in the history of art” that brought him closer to understanding the work of Moholy-Nagy

Click here:
Runs 1:39

 

Oliver Botar’s shift from urban geography and planning to looking at art history as the history of ideas was not a calculated action-plan. It was the result of some unforeseen circumstances, of being open to new ideas, and of being aware of all the influences of growing up as child of parents who, in 1956, fled Hungary in order to make a new life for their family somewhere safe. Oliver Botar describes how “all these things came together”:

 

“In order for me to understand Moholy-Nagy the way I do, it had to do with a set of strands, some of which I had come by accidentally, and others which were part of my background. I believes it’s both serendipity and awareness that allow one to approach a given body of material from a different perspective, perhaps a perspective that no-one can approach it from because they don’t happen to have that bundle of experiences and knowledge and languages. I’ve always felt that my interest in Moholy-Nagy, for example, grew out of an effort on my part to understand my own background. But it went way beyond that. It went towards an effort to understand the world. The environmental crisis, for example. It’s that same love of nature that was instilled in me, and my brother, by my mother. All these things came together.”

 

Oliver Botar is now working on an exhibition of early photographs by the Hungarian-born photographer André Kertész, an exhibition from the collection of the art collector and former U.S. ambassador to Hungary, Nicolas M. Salgo (1914-2005), and on a study of Modernism in the city where he lives, Winnipeg.

 

Moholy-Nagy is never too far away. Oliver Botar is now working on what will be a definitive work about the artist: the catalogue raisonné of Moholy-Nagy. In a way, Moholy-Nagy is something of a mirror reflecting back Oliver’s own search for meaning as it is expressed through creativity. This child of 56ers began a search, tentative at first, one that set him on a path to international scholarly acclaim because of the way he is able to link “here” with “there”, and “then” with “now”, with great ease and insight.

 

Oliver Botar explains what makes Moholy-Nagy’s approach a model for art making today.


Click here:
Runs 2:35

 

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