When Béla Gruber died at the age of 27, he was still not a fully matured artist; actually, he died before he had been able to finish his diploma piece. In spite of its brevity, his lifework is, however, quite impressive, even in its volume. An exhibition dedicated to his memory was held in 1964, only one year after his death. Twenty-three of his paintings and sixty of his drawings were shown at the exhibition, when in fact not all of his works had been recovered. In any case, quantity is never a major issue in art. If Gruber had painted nothing else beside his half-finished diploma work "Painter's Studio", he would still occupy a prominent place in the history of Hungarian painting.
Béla Gruber: Selfportrait (1958, Indian ink on paper, 16x10 cm)
There has not been since Nemes Lampérth a Hungarian painter who worked so hard for every single brush-stroke. The painting of every patch of colour required from him agonizing deliberation; he regarded painting more than just a profession — it was self-realization, the only possible form of self-expression, the only possible form of existence, even. Since human passion is directly manifested in the composition of his paintings, they display an extremely high intensity.
Despite the fact that he only had a few years to paint, his oeuvre has periods, distinguishable both in theme and in style. The first period, which consists of his studies at the college, marks the years of preparation. The second period is associated with his main picture, the unfinished diploma work "Painter's Studio", together with the numerous studies accompanying it. This painting is in the focus of Gruber's art, not only because this is his most comprehensive work, but also, because this is the one in which he summed up his artistic beliefs, and, therefore, all other paintings, whether he produced them before or after painting "Painter's Studio", can only be judged in relation to that composition. The third period comprises the works created during the last year of his life: self-portraits, some of which were still painted in parallel with "Painter's Studio"; still-lifes and landscapes painted in the mental hospital.
The years of preparation
Gruber studied under Aurél Bernáth at the Art College. This fact determined his artistic origin and direction. Unlike the large number of other Bernáth-followers, however, who associated themselves with the late, transparent post - Nagybánya style of their master, Gruber revived the style that had characterized Bernáth's art during the 1920s, in this way returning to the great forerunner of modern art, Cézanne. This he was able to do all the easier, since right until his master's change of style in the mid 1930s, Bernáth's art had several links to Cézanne's artistic approach. The layered spatial structure of his works painted after "Riviera" essentially followed the logic of the spatial structure of Cézanne's aquarelles, while his luminous and fully saturated colours, István Genthon described well as being "deep-coloured", combined to make up an individual variation of the inner glow and emaile colours of Geoffroy's portrait by Cézanne Gruber's one or two figure studies painted at college are examples of Cézanne's interpretation of tonal values, and serve to illustrate the theory of modelling; some of them are characterized by the application of massive forms in the composition, while others show a more glazed execution. The colouring of these studies already testifies to the influence of Cézanne and of the early paintings of Bernáth, with their deep hues dominated by lilac and blue. Nevertheless, the true value of these studies is that they prepared the way for one of the most ambitious works in the history of modern Hungarian painting: the "Painter's Studio".
Béla Gruber: Still-life with leaves and grapes (1963, Indian ink on paper, 30x21)
The 'Painter's Studio'
The technique used for the enormous, 200 by 300 centimetre canvas is a mixture of oil and tempera, with a few collage applications added. The numerous and large studies — still-lifes and figural studies — are mostly made using tempera, and in their case the collage technique is given an even larger role to play. The compositional work in the picture can be regarded as complete, although the painting in some cases hardly went beyond the stage of undercoating. Despite the incomplete details (the paintress in the left corner of the picture, the lady sitting by the sitter — Gruber's mother —, and the barely outlined figure in the far right) the painting reaches the stage, both in composition and in colouring, that makes it an individual aesthetic entity, and thus can form the subject of analysis.
Béla Gruber: Two Woman in the Studion (1961, mixed technique on paper, 125x200 cm)
The painting is a multi-figural composition. It shows people standing and sitting in a painter's studio: a paintress, sitters at rest, and at the centre on an easel an unfinished painting depicting floating barges. The composition presents a rich tapestry of spatial movements, realized with the help of colour and volume. The composition is built around the strongly emphasized central axis. Its line is composed of the seated woman, also stressed with the help of the vivid red of her jumper, the incomplete painting behind her — more precisely, the small male figure at the centre of the painting — and the vertical of the top of the easel. The woman in the red jumper is situated at the centre of not only the two-dimensional plane of the painting, but also of the three-dimensional spatial structure of the composition, since the equally spaced motifs of the central axis also help to produce layers of spatial segments. The easel, the standing and the seated figures further back, and the squared wall at the back of the studio are all placed in the spatial segment behind the central figure, while the spatial segments of the foreground are layered more or less at equal distances with the help of the stool placed at the foot of the central figure, the reproduction, another figure seated in the right corner, and the still-life composition in front of it. The latter group of compositional elements are all presented foreshortened, in a system of linear perspective, drawing the viewer's attention towards the central character. Therefore, the central figure not only forms the central axis, but it is also in the focus of the three-dimensional space, at the point where the foreground and the background meet. Such a role of the central figure is further emphasized by the contrast between the vivid colour of her jumper and the plein-air landscape behind her. In spite of the distinctly noticeable central axis and the focal point, and despite the almost symmetrical arrangement of the left and the right field of the painting, the composition is extremely dynamic both in colour and in space. This intrinsic dynamism is generated by the rhythmic grouping of the figures, the dynamically contrasting colours, and the perspectival foreshortening of the still-life details, deliberately arranged so as to point in opposite directions.
Gruber Béla: Uszályok (1961, pasztell, 122x226 cm)
The formal components of the composition — the spatial arrangement of the figures, the rhythmic alternation and the partial overlapping of the spatial segments, the continual correlation between the spatial layers and the thoroughly moving space of the painting, the dynamism of the colours, the balance between the strict consistency of the composition and the arbitrariness arising from the abundance of the details — are, therefore, interconnected elements, building a dynamic and closed world with its own laws. This closed microcosm does not merely result from formal arrangements and the academic composition, neither does it result from the artistically rendered motifs into an ordered structure. At the same time it is the pictorial manifestation of the young painter's microcosm, of his world, the cross-reference of the motifs which attract one another like magnets, the furious infatuation and the painful bond of elements which are also the projected self of the painter who created a world for himself separate from the elements of reality with furious passion and through much pain.
The title "Painter's Studio" only refers to the primary iconographical meaning; the painting is more than that, it is the world of the painter, not only in the physical sense, but also in the spiritual sense. For Gruber the studio is all that exists, everything that is beyond its walls belongs to another world: it has no meaning for Gruber, except to the extent that it becomes part of the studio, to the extent it fits into his autonomous world. From this it evidently follows that reality as manifested in the material world, in the figures and in the painting placed on the easel, is also the equivalent of the painter's inner world, and as such, is his only available channel for both self-expression and self-realization.
The painter's studio has been a favourite subject in modern painting, especially in the case of Dutch genre painting. Mostly, such works were simply genre paintings; sometimes, however, they also carried allegorical and symbolic meanings, as in the case of the classic example: Vermeer's masterpiece. These paintings usually depict the painter during work: the studio is the workshop of the painter. Following the Romantic period, during the nineteenth and twentieth century, the genre elements in the works of the truly great masters were gradually overshadowed by the personality of the painter shown in the creative process, whose features began to resemble those of the actual painter himself. For this reason, most of these paintings can be interpreted as the ars poetica of their creators. Usually symbolic elements were referring to the goal, the worldview, and the social background of the painters, as in the case of similar paintings by Courbet, Munkácsy, or Derkovits. In certain cases the self-analysis is done in an ethical sense, as in a late self-portrait by Hollósy, showing him in his studio; in other cases the picture of the studio serves to sum up the painter's artistic programme, as in the case of Károly Ferenczy's "The Painter and his Model", or of István Csók's self-portrait in his studio. In other cases, most notably in Daumier's works,the subject is used to refer to the conflict that exist between the painter and his audience. In the case of Picasso's familiar series of drawings, the artist reveals, sometimes in an ironic, sometimes in a tragic vein, the desperate struggle for the artistic capturing of reality. In the above examples the emphasis is on the personality of the painter, and the studio environment is used more like an indication only.
Béla Gruber: Painter's Studio (1962, oil on canvas, 200x300 cm)
In the other type of studio representation the studio itself is given a larger role to play, to the extent that in many cases the artist is not even shown in the picture. While in Courbet's work the artist is depicted, although even here the studio environment is of equal importance, in the other major studio representation of the nineteenth century, Seurat's "Models ", the painter is not shown. And while Courbet's painting, entitled "The Workshop of the Painter: A Real Allegory Summarizing a Period of Seven Years of My Life as an Artist", was the visual articulation of the ars poetica of Realism with the help of an allegory, it basically revealed a Romantic attitude. The world of the painter, who is placed at the centre, unfolds around him in the sense of Zola's "mes haines ". The focus is on the correlation between "self and reality ", the nude being the symbol of the pristine source. To his right there are his friends, his intellectual environment. To his left there are the models, the allegories of real life who represent society. The painting has, therefore, a central importance: it is the allegory of the conceptually analyzed relationship between the "self and the environment"; it is Courbet's interpretation of reality and nature, an encyclopaedic survey of the world surrounding the artist. Seurat's picture is the direct opposite of Courbet's Romantic symphony. In this painting, too, models are shown, but in this case, revealingly, they are the representations of the same nude model in different poses. As in Courbet's painting, here, too, there are no relations, physical or psychological, between the models, but there the relationship of the models with the painter brought them into a spiritual unity. In Seurat's painting the only reference made to the artist is a detail taken from his main work, "Grand Jatte", and included in the composition. To this extent he rendered his own world into the composition, but he did this in an objective way, concentrating his powers on the clarification of formal relationships. What he said of his above-mentioned main work, equally applies to this painting: "...I put my method into practice. That's all." Carrying to conclusion the principles of Divisionism in artificial light, the relationship between the plein-air execution of "Grand Jaffe" and the studio atmosphere, the decorative contrast between the enhanced tonal values of the still-life elements and the models, and the yellow wall: these formal problems concerned Seurat when he painted the studio scene, so the motifs primarily suggest aesthetic meanings, formal meanings par excellence.
In contemporary Hungarian art larger compositions depicting studios were painted by Róbert Berény and Endre Domanovszky, both artists primarily being interested in the work carried out in studios, more specifically in the activities of young art students and, therefore, these paintings basically remained within the genre-type interpretation. Formally speaking, Gruber's interpretation of the studio is related to Seurat's; the subjects of his painting, too, are models and the material surroundings of a studio. Even though there is a student painter among the figures of Gruber's painting, it is not a portrayal of himself. Nevertheless, Gruber's "Studio" is also related to Courbet's similar painting, without the latter's Romantic and allegorical features. In Gruber's case, too, the studio is represented as the artist's own world. This surrounding is identical with Gruber's studio in the College of Art where he prepared his diploma work. Yet, it bears no relation to the genre-type approaches of the same subject. Models and paintresses, his fellow-students at the College of Art are paraded here, but not as the participants of a specific activity, as it had been the case with Berény's and Domanovszky's paintings. Similarly to Seurat's composition, here too no activity of any sort is carried out, no contact of any kind between the figures is established. The models and the paintresses paraded are all passive, and in the case of both the painting woman and the model holding food in her hands, the possibility of an activity, rather than the activity itself, is depicted. The figures convey a mood, thus giving the impression of a still-life; the postures, and in the case of the characters where the face is actually drawn, the facial expressions suggest introspection and introversion. The composition of the entire painting, which is characterized by self-containment, is manifested in the female figures living in their own world, who are existentially bound more to the surrounding material world, and thus to the painter, than to each other. Their role and interpretation are, however, different from those deriving from the allegorical parading of Courbet's friends and models. The essence of these figures is found not so much in their being models, otherwise in their representing the external world and serving as objects to be painted, but in their being the mainstay and the constituents of the painter's world, the crucial elements of his life, the plastic symbols of this unique world and self-contained existence, the Parcae of his destiny, the memento-like members of the mute choir of the studio that forms the stage of the painter's life. This is why in this case, and unlike Courbet's painting, it is useless to seek for an allegorical interpretation of these models, the same way as it is impossible to assign to them a merely formal meaning, as it had been with Seurat's models, since their meaning is defined in their relation to the painter: they are the media of self-realization.
In the fatefully closed world of this studio, without an allegorical meaning, the painting placed on the easel represents the external world. In pictures showing closed milieu, a window or a painting as a symbolic substitute can often suggest a symbolic meaning; the emphasized contrast between interior and exterior, or between near and far, can at the same time mean a spiritual contrast between one's feeling of being stranded and one's yearning to take off, one's prospects and one's desires. As it has already been pointed out when analyzing the composition from a formal point of view, the painting inside the painting takes up an important place in Gruber's picture as a result of its central position, and also, by emphasizing the perspectival forms, the layered space-segments, and the contrast between light and dark colours. Furthermore, the subject of the "painting inside the painting" at first sight even seems to contrast with the closed world of the studio interior, since the boat and the river are, as it is well-known from psychology, the symbols of leaving home, of action, and of movement. Yet, in spite of everything that has been said, the picture organically fits into the inner world of the painting; it does not break up the closed milieu of it. The motifs of the boats and the barges, shown partially covered and squeezed up, suggest the same unbreakable cohesion, as do all the other elements of the studio; on the other hand, the colours of the painting with the barges keep bouncing back from the colour scheme of the surrounding. Also, the role of the "painting inside the painting" in defining the spatial segments within the system of linear perspective links it with the spatial structure of the overall painting. In fact, the painting of the barges does not suggest a breakout from this closed milieu; quite the opposite is true: it suggests the inviting of the external world in the microcosm of the studio. Before enrolling in the College of Art, Gruber was employed in the shipyard of Óbuda as an unskilled worker; it was in fact there that he began painting, with his first subjects being boats and barges. For this reason, boats and barges were the only possible motifs for the "painting inside the painting", as anything else could have been an arbitrary choice, a mere exercise in form for Gruber, and as such, it could not have become a part of this closed microcosm, the projection of the artist's personal world. It is precisely for this personal aspect that the unfinished painting completes the closed microcosm; it bridges the past and the present, the memory and the studio scene frozen in time.
The third component of the studio environment, beside the female figures and the picture of the barges symbolizing the segment of the external world that became part of the painter, is the exuberance of still-life elements. In the formal sense, these are the most complete parts of the painting, giving grounds for presuming the quality of the incomplete parts.
Judging from the numerous sketches made for the "Painter's Studio ", as well as from paintings made parallel with it, still-lifes occupied an outstandingly important place in Gruber's art. Similarly to the pictures painted during the preparatory phase of his career, his still-lifes, too, show the influence of Cézanne, although in a different way: Gruber revived certain elements of the painterly problems of still-lifes as defined by Cézanne, but he did it in such way that some of the lessons learned form Van Gogh's art and the results of the artistic approach of those Hungarian painters who were Cézanne's followers — especially József Nemes Lampérth — also became incorporated. The fundamental principle of Gruber's still-lifes is related to Cézanne's "réalisation": the creation of matter from a visual sensation and the colours, the obsession with the real world. This is so, even if the other element of Cézanne's art, the attempt to surpass the matter, otherwise the transcendence of the duality of the material and intellectual spheres by spiritualizing matter is lacking from Gruber's art. Gruber, who evidently took a material view of painting, did not know what to do with Cézanne's technique of modulation; nevertheless, he did not return to the traditional methods of rendering plasticity which is the representation of the subject by modelling through light-and-shadow type of transitions. Gruber was not interested in the problem of tonal values, something that was taken over by Cézanne from the Impressionists. Consequently, he did not follow Cézanne's practice of creating matter from the shades of colours in changing light-conditions. Gruber was not concerned with the process whereby the real world experienced as a visual sensation is transformed back into matter through the creative processes of perception; rather, he concerned himself with the solidity of the objects, with the internal dynamism of materialization, of the transformation into matter. His ambition was to create matter from colours and paint. Therefore, he was seeking the absolute materiality of the objects, and so the painting of still-lifes for him was always a brutal fight, similar to the fight of Balzac's Frenhofer, or of anybody else who wanted to compete with Nature in the creative process. This was why Gruber did not know what to do with tonal values, with the deep colours of his master Aurél Bernáth, or with the transformation, by abstraction, of the motifs into plastic signs. His plastic reality was identical with the reality of the material world; the meaning of the objects for him meant the same as their material substance. It was not by chance that he was able to use the collage technique in such an unaffected manner. To him, as to Van Gogh or Nemes Lampérth, colours were material reality, rather than a superficial visual element separated from the bodily existence of things. It was Kurt Badt who wrote, when discussing Van Gogh's use of colours, that the artist interpreted his colours as physical reality, like a goldsmith using jewels or precious metals; similarly, Gruber interpreted colours as plastic substances, and used them to build and to form his compositions. For this reason, his method of modelling was related not so much to the method used in classical paintings, but to the one employed in sculpting. He experienced the real world not merely as a painter, but also as a ceramist or an artist specializing in reliefs; his thickly coated canvasses give a tactile sensation coarser and more primary than that usually associated with paintings: a rustic feeling, similar to the one experienced viewing Romanesque stone carvings.
However, an immense cohesion works between the substantially interpreted objects, and in that Gruber, again, reached back in some ways to the achievements of Cézanne, viewed through the eyes of Van Gogh Similarly to Cézanne's still-lifes, which were dominated by a desperate attraction between the objects, by their state of being determined by one another, and in which the weight of the objects, or the gravitation acting on them, represented the principle of interdependence and counter-balance, with the aim of achieving classical simultaneity, or harmony; in Gruber's paintings, too, the objects attract each other like magnets. It is almost as if the painter was horrified by the empty space: the objects are depicted in physical contact with one another, without allowing any "breathing space" for them, so to speak; the objects of the material world, like the liana of the jungle, are all interlocked, and the resulting network constitutes an intricate spatial field. The rhythmically layered space segments are interwoven with the cobweb of the material world; the painting becomes the dramatic stage of the attraction and interaction of objects and masses living their own lives. The intensity of this exuberant material world is fuelled by the artist's compulsion to paint everything; by looking at this world we are able to understand how painting was for Gruber the only possible form of self-realization. It is only through such an overabundance of the material world that the studio scene, as the visual expression of an attitude that regards painting as the only possible form of existence, can acquire its full meaning. Just as the picture of the barges representing the experience of his youth, and the depiction of the women surrounding and influencing his life, the tiniest and the seemingly most insignificant objects of his surrounding were incorporated in the painting to become the necessary parts of his self-realization by self-expression. Similarly to Van Gogh and Nemes Lampérth, who escaped from the devils inside them to the world of objects and to the coarse reality of indestructible matter, Gruber, too, projected all his passion and tension onto the drama of matter becoming objects, onto the act of creation by painting, and also, onto the struggle of proving his worth, both as a human being and as a painter. This also explains why in Cézanne's case a still-life was the formal equivalent of the "solid" and "durable", therefore, of the stability and constancy of the world, while in Gruber's case the world of objects representing the existence, in its deliberately arbitrary arrangement, also suggests the eruption of existence, and the struggle between desire and the inability to fall into order. From the viewpoint of the whole, the individually represented material realities live a fragmented existence. Their physical contact and their desperate cohesion are the results of their excruciating desire to reach a state of consummation. While the spatial arrangement of the figures and the rhythm of the space- segments seem to construct a totally closed world, the inability of the still-life motifs to fall into order breaks it up; in other words, the studio represents the total self-containment of microcosmic completeness only in relation to the outside world, and within the microcosmic circle outlining the artist's life the battle between the desire for order and the inability to fall into order, the struggle to organize the fragmented existences into an organic unit, unfolds. The real action takes place in the tragic agony of the world of objects, rather than within the brooding and inactive figures. For this reason the active element in the microcosms of the "my studio my world" is the still-life motif; this is what radiates the real self of the artist, this is what becomes the true self-portrait of the artist, who is not shown in person in the painting, and this is what becomes the primary medium of his passions and of his struggle with his devils.
The self-portrait cycle
The "Painter's Studio" as the scene of Gruber's self-realization, its microcosmic isolation, the introspection, the contemplation characterizing the figures, and the confusion manifested in the inability of the still-life motifs to fall into order, together with the desire to surpass this confusion and to force it into order: these elements at the same time outline the range of problems of Gruber's entire oeuvre and what is in Gruber's case inseparable from his entire life. He was able to transform the entirety of these problems into an artistic reality, without relying on any kind of illustrations or superficial psychological effects. The autistic isolation of the "Painter's Studio" from the external world, together with the struggle going on inside, recorded an actually existing condition, namely the social position of the young painter, his relation to the outside world, his introverted character and internal struggle. The psychical analysis of this condition was carried out in the self-portrait cycle. In the "Painter's Studio" Gruber's personal world was exteriorized in the world of objects and in the choir of women; and while these represented for the painter the real world therefore, their meaning did not merely concern plastic relations, but also involved the painter's own person, yet the desire to introduce order into the microcosm was exteriorized in the objects that existed separately from the painter. In the self-portrait cycle, however, the artist's person necessarily became the medium for the introduction of order and the creation of form. And while in his great composition the artist's person could be projected onto the plastic meaning of the world of objects, here similarly to the self-portraits of Rembrandt and Van Gogh, or in Hungarian painting, of Gyula Derkovits and József Egry, the psychical meaning dominates. The internal conflict of the "Painter's Studio", the duality of the contemplating, and the emotional elements form the psychical meaning of the self-portraits, with the aesthetic problematics also resulting from an attempt to hit the right balance between these, or to be more precise, from the attempt to give a painterly expression to the search for balance. Although the subjective element obviously takes precedence in these paintings, in a characteristic manner the world of objects has such an important role in Gruber's oeuvre that even in the most outstanding pieces of the self-portrait cycle a number of motifs of the surrounding material world, elevated to the rank of symbols, emerge as compositional counter-points. This way the self-portraits, beside the psychical analysis, also continue the problematic of the "Painter's Studio", which is the desire to put things in their places within the artist's own world, otherwise the struggle for order. The stages of this process are marked by the two major pieces of the self-portrait cycle, the "Self-Portrait with a Sculpture", painted in 1962, and the "Self-Portrait with a Mirror", painted in 1963. These two paintings reflect, even in their forms of expression, the progressive stages of Gruber's art. The first one, which was the closing accord of the preparatory phase, represents the more constructive style: one that has a plasticity which is closer to modelling as understood in the traditional sense. The second makes the transition from the form of expression used for the diploma work to the last stylistic phase of Gruber's art. The self-portrait with the bust is built from large masses, and is a classically balanced composition, one of Gruber's most harmonic works. With their arrangement forming a rhythmic sequence, the masses of the book, the collar, the head, and the bust constitute a solid structure for the composition, underlined with the use of light colours; the placing of the figure and the sculpture also helps to balance the composition.
The economically concise composition lacks the internal dynamism and the conflict present in the diploma work; the constructive arrangement of the objects serves to prove the sovereign artistic approach and compositional skills of the painter, just having been put through the disciplines of the art college, and in this sense this is, in fact, Gruber's diploma work. The same is suggested by the somewhat strained posture of the figure holding the hook. At the same time, the modestly characterized face, the dark and deep-set eyes, and the powerful features of the bust, which in a way duplicates the self-portrait and which somehow reminds the viewer of a skull on account of the deep shadows and the roughly sketched features, introduce a contemplative and lyrical element in the semantic range of the painting, in order to contrast the constructive spatial structure built of massive elements; the deliberate composition combining the contemplative expression, the open mouth, radiating hesitation, the mysterious and skull-like head of the sculpture, and the book, together with their symbolic interpretation, unavoidably evoke in the viewer the questions explored by Hamlet. The magic of the painting is due in no small measure precisely to the irritating contrast between the strict composition, its solidity, and the lyrical, meditative, and psychical meaning. However, it also indicates that at the time of painting this self-portrait, Gruber was still not trying to express the conflicts tearing him apart from inside. Therefore, the carefully constructed order of the composition in this case only suggests the artist's commitment to art; the easel shown on the left, the modelling stool, the bust, and the book all represent the attributes of art, announcing a programme, rather than reflecting the struggle accompanying the artist's life and the real-life process of self-realization, of the artistic metamorphosis of matter.
Béla Gruber: Selfportrait (1963, oil on canvas, 60x50 cm)
Béla Gruber: Selfportrait (1963, pastel on paper, 43x32,5 cm)
Béla Gruber: Selfportrait (1963, oil on canvas, 68x55 cm)
The attitude and the form of expression of the self-portrait with mirror is different. Here Gruber painted himself during painting, with brush and palette in hand. His eyes, like the eyes of those who are looking into the Sun, are squinting, with his lips stretched in a grimace. The whole painting conveys anxiety. The brushwork is brutal, and the contours outlining the forms are achieved by way of grooves carved underneath the surface. Just as in Nemes Lampérth's similar paintings, the light-and-shadow effect is substituted for by the contrast between dark and light colours, with the white colour returning as a barbaric rhythm, being primarily responsible for the inner restlessness of the painting. The white patch flashing on the palette, the collar, the frame of the mirror, and the small white frame reflected in the mirror fill the composition with nervous rhythms. The small white frame forms the focus of the painting; its over-emphasized confinement further increased by the closed frame of the mirror is a projection of the painter's psychosis: the psychically defined symbol of the state of shock and autistic introversion. The continuously returning and restless rhythm of the white, the anxiety of the concentrating face, and the brutal facture of the brushwork radiate essentially the same tension that was glowing between the eruption of the still-life details and the figures of the contemplating women. The painterly technique used in this particular self-portrait series, too, is related to the technique used in the "Painter's Studio", although new elements can also be observed. In these self-portraits Gruber assimilated the principle of simultaneous contrasts in his individual style.
The colours of the paintings, like enamels, give off brilliant light, and are, once again, interpreted as material substance. In the selection of the adjacent hues not only the decorative contrast of the so-called complementary colours is taken into consideration, but also the principle of optical mixtures. In the case of Gruber, who was so attached to the real world, the question of immaterializing the motif in the spirit of divisionism, or of reviving the sensation of the massiveness of the real world only on the retina, could never really arise. He continued to emphasize the massiveness of objects served by the continued use of the facture's plasticity, yet in arranging the compact rays of colours next to one another he also took into account the potentials of simultaneous contrast for increasing the intensity of the colours. In Hungarian painting, such a glowing colour scheme had been almost unknown before Gruber's arrival on the scene; this colour scheme far surpassed the harshness of the Fauves, yet it is entirely free of decorative effects, beside being a substantially interpreted radiation coming from within, rather than a superficial glitter. It also follows from the thickness of the facture that the colour is not simply applied to the surface; it becomes a property of the matter. Somewhat similar passions were at work in the paintings of Nemes Lampérth and Kosztka, but they reduced this only to the relationship of a limited number of colours, and Kosztka in fact subordinated the colour contrasts to a more primary contrast: that of dark and light. In Gruber's case, however, all the colours of the rainbow are treated as equal, each featuring in an ultimate orgy of colours. In this respect the series of self-portraits is different from the "Painter's Studio", a painting built on the contrast between blue and red, besides surpassing the primary contrast between dark and light colours. The thick and uneven coat of paint sends vibrations across the surface of the picture, making the colours resonate and thus adding to the heavy masses an irritating movement, as a dramatic element. The result is that, like the still-life elements of the "Painter's Studio", in this series, too, the massiveness and the emphasized substantiality conceal a dramatic tension, rather than giving a feeling of tranquility and stasis. The intensity of the colour scheme, the excitement of the facture, and the contrast between the heavy masses, therefore, suggest the same as the psychical meaning of the painting.
The painting made in the hospital
Béla: Gruber: Sorrow (1963, charcoal on paper, 27x19,5 cm)
The latter type of paintings of the self-portrait cycle takes us to the last phase of Gruber's lifework: the landscapes and still-lifes painted in the mental hospital. The objects found in the hospital room, the flowers on the table, the trees and the hospital garden, the dark block of the hospital building at night, with light coming through the windows: these were the artist's subjects in this period. Once again, this was the world surrounding the painter, but unlike in the case of his studio, this world was only his surrounding in the physical sense: he was not consubstantial with it, and the kind of interplay between the objective and the subjective spheres that was represented by the studio did not exist here. This was how a new tendency, stylization, could enter into Gruber's art. This tendency became especially apparent in his pastel paintings: the compactly drawn trees, the footpaths and greens of the park, the still-life with flowers. These could all become part of a decorative rhythmic sequence. This rhythm, decorative and stylizing, already evokes images of Munch or Art Nouveau, except that it has more weight. The passionate determination for self-realization that was typical of his diploma work did not disappear, and behind the stylistic fusing of heavy masses there remained the same desire to put things in order. Gruber never abandoned the dramatic fight waged for the painterly metamorphosis of the motif, not even in painting the hospital series; he was equally attached to the idea of elevating the motif into his own closed world, of materializing his own person, thus incorporating himself in the painting. And while the stylistic composing of heavy forms characterized his pastel paintings, in his oil paintings showing hospital gardens the regular belts of trees and boxwood were joined like metal sheets are by welding: the landscape is melted into a block in a terrible cohesion, the space segments do not give the illusion of real space anymore, since here there is even less breathing space as there was in the "Studio".
This is not a space anymore, but a homogeneous mass, which is overfilled with massive material components, to the extent that this physical materialism leaves no room for anything else. Although the facture remains unsettled, there is no free movement in these pictures, not even the depiction of potential movements, since they lack the pulsating penetration of deep space. Movement and weight have become one. These paintings are already characterized by the consolidation of masses, rather than by the balanced interplay of freedom and determinism. Freedom, even as a potentiality, no longer exists in these paintings, and reality is sealed together in a terrible determinism by the interlocking of all its component parts. The space-time correlation and balance of classical compositions can no longer be found in the composition of his last oil painting; here space and time cease to be the painterly equivalent of the sequence of movements, and the result is a state of absolute consolidation and rigidity, similar to that of metals welded together, where movement between the components, and thus the dialectical correlation of space and time, is no longer possible. This homogeneity is the result of something more than the urge caused by the horror vacui to paint everything ; in this case painting is not simply the means of self-expression, of the representation of the motif; rather, the creation of matter and the compositional arrangement of the space-segments convey the exertion of physical labour. This degree of heaviness already verges on another genre; the tools and the eyes are those of a painter, yet the gruesome materialism of his last oil painting is related to the barbarous emotions of fused sculptures. The struggle with the material world had already been present in the still-life details of the "Studio", but there the roars of the brutal fighting was somewhat lessened by the contemplative attitude of the figures and the rhythmic modulation of the space-segments. There are no segments here, no rhythmic pulsation back and forth, only matter: coarse chips of paint, masses formed from bushes, trees, and grass, in squat consolidation following the dramatic fight of the painter wishing to transform himself into material reality. This is no longer the Cézannian conception; the only works of art related to these paintings are the late canvases of Van Gogh and the Hungarian painter Nemes Lampérth.