Whitehot Magazine

Avatars of Alterity: The Empathic Art of Balint Zsako

Balint Zsako, 'Courtship' (2008) ink and watercolour on paper (16'' x 12''). All images courtesy Galerie Robert Poulin

By JAMES D. CAMPBELL, March 2020 

“All the lives I could live, all the people I will never know, never will be, they are everywhere. That is all that the world is.”

— Aleksandar Hemon, The Lazarus Project [1]


The art of Balint Zsako is celebratory of the human presence. His art is a radiant evocation of our intersubjective reality even as ‘social distancing’ in the wake of  ongoing contagion is reshaping aspects of our interactions with others. His treatment of human relationships is consummately whimsical and subversive. He straddles different media and subject matter with aplomb, demonstrating an unbridled imagination, disarming facility and unerring technical skill. His depictions of human figures pivot between empathy, humour (frequently black humour) and governing ambiguity. The reduced but suggestive and fecund narratives that anchor his creative language are fraught with psychological, sexual, mythical, psychic, spiritual and physiological meanings. He is a painter of intersubjectivity first and foremost and is, not surprisingly, an empath of no lesser persuasion.  

His works are like slender palimpsests that layer emotional states of being with hieratic postural schemata. They enjoy a weird amplitude. Zsako reminds me of Oskar Schlemmer (4 September 1888 – 13 April 1943), the German painter, sculptor, designer and choreographer associated with the Bauhaus school. There is something in the choreography, if you will, that similarly entices. Indeed, take Schlemmer and a more recent arrival on the scene, Marcel Dzama (b. 1974), and collide the two and they mark out the radius of a mnemonic backdrop for an appreciation of Zsako’s achievement.

The single or multiple figures depicted in his watercolours are shown in activities that run the gamut from the quotidian to the quixotic and everywhere in between. But while the human figure is frequently depicted, nature, whether in the form of animals, plants or trees, rules the surreal landscape as an enduring theme. Zsako’s band of outsiders seems like encrusted figural gems in the landscape, acting out strange dramas. 

His works on paper contain multiplicities and convergences everywhere within them, and at all levels -- from their extravagant insides to their outer reaches -- and the intensities running through them are almost palpable. He is a polymath and a devout adept in a wide range of media including watercolour, collage, painting, sculpture, drawing and photography. But his ongoing series of works on paper, a selection of which are exhibited now at Galerie Robert Poulin, bring to a high and even feverish pitch his preoccupation with human interactions in their channelling of psycho-sexual karma and socio-psychological intensities. Zsako invents tiered rhizomatic playgrounds, as it were, in which his figures act out and iconographically erupt like somatic semaphores in the space of composition. 

Zsako is an inveterate picker through the hinterlands of the culture. He uses what he harvests from a wide range of sources. Indian miniatures, garden-variety anatomicals, scenes on Grecian vase folkloristic illustrations, Indian Ledger drawings, Medieval illumination, Hieronymus Bosch, Brueghel and Inuit art -- all these and more come to mind. The artist seeks the unforeseen sparks that things throw off when brought into intimate juxtaposition.

The artist typically commences a work by copying the pose of a figure from a vintage photograph or an old master painting. He will then add objects and other figures later as he sees fit to grow the plot. Memory is often a trigger but objects-at-hand also play a role. This laid-down postural model becomes a sort of template. He then works out what precise direction the narrative will take. He builds his compositions like a gifted bricklayer and colours them with the resolute palette of a veteran abstractionist. 

Zsako dilates on themes of bodily functions, identity issues, human interactions, sex and death. Indeed, his works have a decidedly sexual ethos. They may be profane but they are never pornographic. The erotic is amplified in figural play ignited by pure swatches of colour which lends the work a powerful sense of carnality and jouissance.

Zsako was born in Hungary into an artistic family. His mother, Anna Torma, is a noted textile artist, and his father, Istvan Zsako, is a noted sculptor. He says: “I have been making art and building things from a young age, and I was surrounded by my parents’ artist friends, so a life in the arts seemed natural.” [2] 

Balint Zsako, 'Cons with Birds' (2008) ink and watercolour on paper (16'' x 12'')


Zsako’s watercolours on paper are wondrous and wildly unforeseen things. But they did not emerge Eureka!-like from the forehead of Zeus. The seeming spontaneity of his work is belied by long preparation, reflection and incubation. During his college years, he worked relentlessly in thick journals that documented everything he did, including drawings, paintings, photography, and filled the contents of various sketchbooks with devotion and industry.  

In his watercolours, Zsako’s interest is not in gorgeous washes of colour but more in the accretive potential of glazes, painting thin layers on top of each other until a certain threshold of density is reached. He leans towards a palette of saturated bright colour instinctively, but he will tone things down as required. 

Zsako’s disdain for making illustrative or declarative works is something of a legend, As he says: “If you look at a Caravaggio you are not excited by the religious content, you are looking at it because of the humanism and the humanism is always complicated. And that is why the question of political art is really interesting to me, because you want to be engaged with things that are going on, but it’s difficult to make something-especially with ink and watercolour on paper-that will change somebody’s mind. So what you do is show what people are and show who people are and that goes a lot further in opening someone’s minds than sloganeering.” [3] 

Zsako isolates his figure(s) in the foreground like an arena for interaction and introduces other players as necessary. Engagingly metaphoric, these works are also profoundly transactional in human terms. They offer myriad physical metaphors for personal interactions. Their status is often left ambiguous. Are the figures working in concert or at cross-purposes, are they lovers or haters or innocent bystanders? Zsako’s palette is a supple imprint for emotions that may remain indeterminate, for we are continually being thrown off guard. A mensurable ambiguity always obtains between the naked private bodies in this work even when the sexual gestalt is at its most intense. 

Surveying the artist’s watercolours over the course of the last many years shows an enviable and progressive formal refinement. Faces take on acuity of expression, and simple bodies pivot with almost balletic grace. The compositions themselves have become more complicated and chromatically auratic over time, as the artist has found sure footing in empathic relational truth and chiasmic dialogue. 

Balint Zsako, 'Pinch and Grab' (2009) ink and watercolour on paper (16'' x 12'')


Zsako’s work offers an understanding of the phenomenology of the social world from the standpoint of an artist grounded in that world, if not willingly subject to – or subjugated by -- all its rules. There is nothing solipsistic at work in the work. This artist’s powers of empathy are considerable, after all. He explores the world of our concrete lived experience with both haunting grace and bravado.

In this regard, the concept of the lifeworld developed by the philosopher Edmund Husserl and introduced in his The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology (1936) seems pertinent. As Husserl said:

“In whatever way we may be conscious of the world as universal horizon, as coherent universe of existing objects, we, each "I-the-man" and all of us together, belong to the world as living with one another in the world; and the world is our world, valid for our consciousness as existing precisely through this 'living together.' We, as living in wakeful world-consciousness, are constantly active on the basis of our passive having of the world... Obviously this is true not only for me, the individual ego; rather we, in living together, have the world pre-given in this together, belong, the world as world for all, pre-given with this ontic meaning... The we-subjectivity... [is] constantly functioning.” [4]

This “we-subjectivity” is the bedrock of Zsako’s work. This is not the “We” of Yevgeny Ivanovich Zamyatin (b. 1884, d. 1937) – this is the world of our concrete lived experiences. The 'lifeworld' as Husserl understands it affords him a robust theatre of faces, bodies and objects variously arranged in space and time, with the horizon that is the "ground" for all shared human experience. 

It’s worth pointing out that the life-world is the grand sum of all our experiences in the sense that it is that background against which all things appear as themselves and meaningful. That backdrop is one Zsako imports as first level perceptual info. The life-world is no static situation; it is as dynamic and unpredictable as human life itself. Zsako’s life-world unfurls in his watercolours with the pellucid logic of dreams, the roiling odour of myth. Indeed, his watercolours can be seen as a series of ever receding horizons with a Husserlian flavour -- and a decidedly Habermasian inflection. Jurgen Habermas is a German philosopher and sociologist like Husserl.

Habermas further developed the concept of the lifeworld in his social theory. For Habermas, the life-world is more or less the "background" environment of competences, practices, and attitudes representable in terms of one's cognitive horizon. The life-world here is relevant to our understanding of Zsako’s work in that it features the lived environment of our culturally grounded institutions and understandings. His watercolours are the living fruit of the artist’s subjective construction of reality.

One of the critical themes of transcendental phenomenology is the notion of intersubjectivity. According to Husserl, it is intersubjective experience that plays an essential role in our self-constitution, our constituting alterity, and, for that matter, the objective spatio-temporal world. 

Intersubjectivity is the human realm made possible by empathy. Intersubjective experience is nothing else than empathic experience. Empathy is the leitmotif of human life and community. It is enacted in the course of our conscious attribution of intentional acts to other subjects, in the course of which we imaginatively project ourselves into the mindset of the Other. A given work by Zsako broaches the intersubjective as the only way forwards, a way of grounding subject in a commonly experienced world, and inwards. 

Zsako assumes the “personalistic attitude” in executing his work, namely, the attitude “we are always in when we live with one another, talk to one another, shake hands with one another in greeting, or are related to one another in love and aversion, in disposition and action, in discourse and discussion” [5] 

His watercolours thematize what Edith Stein, in a PhD thesis on empathy supervised by her mentor Husserl (Stein 1917), has labelled as iterated empathy, where I put myself into the other subject's shoes, i.e., (consciously) simulate him, under the aspect that he (or she) in turn puts himself into my shoes.” [6] 

Zsako’s watercolours harbour acts of iterated empathy within the templates he builds for them as a s sort of experimental lab/social arena. As the temperature rises, as it were, these signal a genetic openness and operative ipsiety and, above all, a fertility that speaks of hope, avowal and overcoming.  

Balint Zsako, 'Blood Tears Piss' (2008) ink and watercolour on paper (16'' x 12'')


Critics have noted certain meta-narratives that are characteristic of Zsako’s work, narratives rooted in human relationships. But what does he use to nurture the roots, build the fundament? He has said:  

“I want to take everything I experience or hear and be the filter to turn it into a work on paper, from news to art. I love Matthew Barney’s work but don’t make films, so the question is, what is my version of those types of narratives in the form of works on paper? I look at the world of Frazer’s “The Golden Bough” that examines superstitious or traditional practices from all over the world and how amazing they are and how they make logical sense on their own terms but they are also magical in their thinking. That leads you toward Italo Calvino and Kurt Vonnegut. There are all these rich underlying stories in the world and they come out in my work.” [7]

Zsako is a relentless forager of meaning in the social world. His works are rife with sunken but incandescent storyboards that viewers can peruse upon reflection, wilfully seduced by the artist’s provocative dilation on the social world.  

Labyrinthine storylines and elements culled from primitive fertility rites and various creation stories and legends inform much of the work. His curious protagonists are attempting to negotiate a delicate balance between nature and technics.

The unlikely protagonists that populate his watercolours do not conform to any idealised notion of beauty. Each celebrates its own individuality. “I want to be as broad as possible and show body types as different as possible,” explains Zsako, who views them as strong personalities. “Like in this world, my figures sometimes do good things to each other, some do their own thing, and some are difficult.” [8] 

Zsako’s manoeuvres in watercolour betray split second timing and a gift for exquisite proceedural detail. Each and every detail of a composition is vetted. He often paints the figures without their hands first. Why? This allows him the freedom to name their utensils later. Contingency rules.

Zsako’s formal language tickles our fancy. The watercolours effortlessly seduce the eye and catch us in a web of nameless and ambiguous narratives. They are the inventions of a born storyteller, just as his mother Anna Torma’s textile works are. We might also suggest that he has taken to heart what the painter Alice Neel once said of herself “Whether I'm painting or not, I have this overweening interest in humanity”. Like her, one has the sense that Zsako is analysing his fellow humans constantly, in order to best harvest data for his remarkable work.

As we navigate his fairy tales for grownups, we can see that Zsako has visited the replete history of representations of the human body, from Andreas Vesalius (b. 1514, d. 1564) and the work of other early anatomists to Peter Breughel to Peter Beard to Peter Max and back again. Your first impression of Zsako’s watercolours might be that they flirt with darkness and chaos and governing ambiguity, but your later or last impression might well be one of poetry, reconciliation and light. WM 


1.Aleksander Hemon, The Lazarus Project (New York: Riverhead Books, 2008).

2.Taliesin Thomas, “In Conversation with Balint Zsako”, Artpulse magazine 2018


4. Ibid.

5. See Edmund Husserl in Husserliana, vol. IV, p. 183; Husserl 1989, p. 192). 

6. Edith Stein On the Problem of Empathy (The Hague: Nijhoff, 1964)

7. Balint Zsako Interview, ibid.

8. Balint Zsako Interview ibid.

9.  Vesalius was a 16th-century Flemish anatomist, physician, and author of one of the most influential books on human anatomy, De Humani Corporis Fabrica Libri Septem (On the Fabric of the Human Body). Vesalius is seen as the founder of modern human anatomy.


James D. Campbell

James D. Campbell is a curator and writer on art based in Montreal. The author of over 150 books and catalogues on art, he contributes essays and reviews to Frieze, Border Crossings and other publications.

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