Árpád Szabados, the Hungarian painter, printmaker and dissident who oversaw the transition of the Hungarian Academy of Fine Arts from its communist doldrums into a vibrant international school, has died aged 73. The son of a Hungarian Calvinist pastor and a Mallaig-born artist who met in Glasgow in the 1930s, Szabados was always proud of his Scottish heritage. In fact, he spoke picturesque English with a Scottish accent all his life, peppered with archaic Scots phrases that his mother passed on from pre-war Glasgow. The combination of strict moral qualities that he inherited from his father alongside the crisp practical outlook upon art that his mother gave him, shaped his personality and career.
Having graduated from the Hungarian academy of Fine Art in 1968, he soon became involved in the dissident cultural magazine Mozgó Világ (The Moving World), which included the novelist Péter Esterházy among its editorial board. When this group were removed from the magazine and a compliant board, more acceptable to the authorities, was installed, the original editorial group would meet every week to play football. Having played on the side of the artists and musicians against the writers, I can vouch for the fact that it was a bruising encounter but there was still a residual sense that, in this game, they were recapturing both the comradeship of their journal and the spirit of creativity that the great Hungarian football team of the 1950s had demonstrated on the world stage.
The association with Mozgó Világ placed other restrictions on Szabados. When an exhibition of his work was held in Edinburgh’s New 57 Gallery in 1976, Szabados was not allowed to travel. Instead, his co-exhibitor Ferenc Banga came to Edinburgh, although he could not speak a word of English. Szabados was also excluded from teaching positions in Hungary but he led the infant art classes in the national gallery which became so successful in Hungary that a TV programme was made on their projects. In the thaw leading up to 1989, Szabados was given a teaching position in the academy, but even he could not have anticipated the speed of change that overtook the country.
In 1995 he was made rector of the Academy. It was a tribute to his integrity that he was voted into this position just a few years after a time when his sole teaching responsibility was restricted to pre-school children. His directorship was a huge success, saving the institution that had for many years excluded him. Szabados acquired new properties in Budapest, expanded the teaching programme, instituted a new degree system, revived the residential summer school on Lake Balaton, and generally looked outward to connect with other institutions. Collaborations and exchanges were set up with colleges all over Europe and North America, including the art colleges in both Edinburgh and Glasgow.
During this period, Szabados’s own work achieved an international reputation, especially in Germany, where his brand of violent and sexy expressionism was popular. His art, however, was very unlike his personality. A quiet and thoughtful man, he enjoyed the company of other artists and writers. Szabados was a great host and his studio house overlooking the rolling fields on the edge of the city was a meeting point for people from across the globe.
He was the central figure, for example, in Michael Jacobs’ 1998 cultural guide to Budapest published by Oxford University Press. At these gatherings, people would occasionally remark that, with his ginger hair and quaint sayings, he was more Scottish than the Scots; an observation he relished because it brought back the memory of his mother.