Artwork of the Month, March 2021: The Gate of Heroes in Szeged (1936)

One sweltering Budapest summer, many years ago, I was a university student taking an exam in twentieth-century Hungarian art. The friendly visiting lecturer smiled encouragingly as I summarised the career of the painter Vilmos Aba-Novák (1894–1941).[1] Soon after starting to train as an artist, Aba-Novák was drafted into the army. After the war, he resumed his studies in printmaking, while also practising painting. Around this time he belonged to the circle of István Szőnyi (1894–1960), a group known for their idyllic compositions of nudes outdoors.[2] Also interested in rural subjects, he frequented artists’ colonies such as the one in Nagybánya (Baia Mare) and – more importantly – in Szolnok. For 1928–30 he received a scholarship from the Hungarian state to study in Rome. The purpose of the Rome scholarships introduced by Minister of Religion and Education Kuno Klebelsberg (1875–1932) was to encourage artists to develop a new monumental style fusing tradition and modernity, so they would be well equipped to fulfil state and ecclesiastical commissions.[3] Returning from Rome, Aba-Novák painted a number of frescoes, but these, I blurted out, are rather clumsy compared to his other work.

Gate of Heroes Szeged

Móric Pogány, Éva Lőte and Vilmos Aba-Novák: The Gate of Heroes, 1936, Szeged, city centre – photo: Wikimedia Commons/Batomi

I felt confident about this verdict. Not long before the exam, I had spent a few days in Szeged, where I had been profoundly struck – and not in a good way – by Aba-Novák’s frescoes decorating the Gate of Heroes, the city’s First World War monument. The message was aggressive and militant, the figures distorted and grotesque, and the whole composition seemed to exude bathos, rather than serenity. My lecturer was, however, not impressed. That is unfair, he said. As art historians, our job is to step back and analyse artworks in their own context – and if you do that, you will see that Aba-Novák created a new kind of modern monumentality.

I knew what he meant. At university we were trained to be detached: to not let our personal judgments of good or bad art get in the way of analysing why that art looks like it does. In the case of the Gate of Heroes, I had been put off by its political message, while also observing a discrepancy between content and form. Aiming to understand an artwork despite these instinctive reservations is a compelling art historical task. This article will employ a number of approaches to contextualise the Gate of Heroes: the building, its frescoes, and its sculptures. It will look at the gate as a war monument, a political statement, an artistic experiment, a multi-authored project involving a woman artist. Finally, it will arrive at the thorniest question. The Gate of Heroes is not an autonomous artwork, but a public monument, and as such invites us not to be detached. What, then, can it mean today?

The Gate of Heroes

Located in southeastern Hungary, near the Yugoslav and the Romanian border, Szeged saw a flurry of building activity in the interwar period. The government planned to develop the city into a cultural hub rivalling Budapest, and hence encouraged its transformation. Cathedral Square in Szeged belongs among the most ambitious building projects in interwar Hungary. It encompassed new buildings constructed to house Franz Joseph University, which had relocated from Kolozsvár (Cluj) to Szeged after the former city became part of Romania. Not far from the square a new teacher training college was to be built facing an older school. The road between the two was to become one of the city’s main avenues. According to Klebelsberg’s vision, the avenue would open under a monumental gate that would also serve as a bridge connecting the two colleges. In 1930 the architect Móric Pogány (1878–1942) was commissioned to design the teacher training college and the gate. Construction was completed in 1936.[4]

In parallel with these events, the municipality of Szeged was planning a monument to the First World War elsewhere in the city centre and had run a competition for the sculptures.[5] The winner was the sculptor and applied artist Éva Lőte (1906–1966). Before the monument could be realised, however, Mayor József Pálfy decided to merge the two projects. Hence, the gate became a war monument, and its decoration was devised with the commemorative function in mind. Two statues from Lőte’s design were to be placed on its facade, while Aba-Novák was commissioned to paint its frescoes. The work was finished in October 1936.

The Gate of Heroes in 1938

The Gate of Heroes in 1938 – photo: Fortepan/Fortepan

A follower of the architects Ödön Lechner (1845–1914) and Béla Lajta (1873–1920), Pogány was known for marrying modernism with ornamental forms regarded as ancient Hungarian. In the Gate of Heroes, he nevertheless opted for an unadorned simplicity. The gate has three arches: a larger central one and two smaller ones on the two sides. Above the arches the bridge consists of three storeys marked by rows of rectangular windows, except for the central seven windows of the middle storey, which are larger and rounded at the top. With these rounded forms, the gate echoed the style of Cathedral Square, a modern reconceptualisation of the Romanesque style.

Above the main archway, the central window opens onto a pulpit-like balcony. Under the balcony, a sculpted ribbon displays the inscription: PORTA HEROUM 1914–18. The inscription around the arch reads: HŐSI HALÁLT HALT HŰ FIAINK EMLÉKÉT ŐRZI AZ ÉLET (The memory of our loyal sons who died a heroic death is preserved by life). On the two sides of the arch, corresponding to the two parts of this inscription, stand the two statues by Lőte: the Dead Soldier and the Living Soldier. The other side of the gate – visible if one is heading towards the cathedral – proclaims: HALADÁS ÚTJA DICSŐ MÚLTBÓL DIADALMAS JÖVŐBE VEZET (The road of progress leads from a glorious past towards a victorious future). Aba-Novák’s frescoes decorate the insides of the three archways.

Vilmos Aba-Novák, Gate of Heroes, Allegory of Faith

Vilmos Aba-Novák: The Allegory of Piety and Hope, Gate of Heroes, 1936 – photo: Wikimedia Commons

In the middle of the ceiling of the central arch, a frontal representation of Christ in Judgment confronts those who pass through. The group of figures to Christ’s right represent an allegory of Piety and Hope: priests and monks consoling women and children mourning their loved ones.[6] Beneath them soldiers’ graves can be seen, together with an empty helmet and in it a red exclamation mark: the missing face of the Unknown Soldier. The text on the ribbon floating in front of the group reads: AZ NEM LEHET, HOGY ANNYI SZÍV HIÁBA ONTA VÉRT (‘It cannot be that all in vain so many hearts have bled’), a line from the 1836 poem Appeal by the romantic poet Mihály Vörösmarty (1800–1855): a national anthem narrating Hungarian history as a series of tragedies.

Vilmos Aba-Novák, Gate of Heroes, 1936

Vilmos Aba-Novák: Christ and the Allegory of Action, Gate of Heroes, 1936 – photo: Wikimedia Commons/János Kozma

The allegory to the left of Christ is that of Action. Here, living soldiers are encouraged by angels holding the inscription MAGYAROK! HŐSEINK ÁLDOZATOS VÉRE KÖTELEZ! (Hungarians! Our heroes’ sacrificial blood obliges us!). They are led into battle by Regent Miklós Horthy (1868–1957), who is looking back at them while charging ahead on a white horse.

Vilmos Aba-Novák, Soldiers with Their Graves, Gate of Heroes

Vilmos Aba-Novák: Soldiers with Their Graves, Gate of Heroes, 1936 – photo: Wikimedia Commons

The side arches contain religious motifs – for instance depictions of Saint Barbara and Saint George – accompanied by inscriptions referring to the future awakening and heroism of Hungarians. The most grisly composition shows a choir of angels and the bleeding hands of Christ above a group of ghosts: dead soldiers, some in gas masks, hovering towards their graves. Other images refer to specific events of the war. In one scene, soldiers carry a monumental cross. The text behind them details the battles the Szeged regiment had fought. The last sentence compares those who survived to Christ bearing the cross, as they begin their journey as prisoners to Siberia. Another image represents a legendary event from the history of the Szeged soldiers. In Montello, the soldiers had supposedly huddled under a tree, which caught all the bullets aimed at them and gradually withered away.

Vilmos Aba-Novák, Tree of Montello, Gate of Heroes

Vilmos Aba-Novák: The Tree of Montello, Gate of Heroes, Szeged, 1936 – photo: Wikimedia Commons/János Kozma

It is obvious even from this brief description that the Gate of Heroes was not just a monument dedicated to a bygone war, but also an instrument promoting a certain politics in the present. After 1945, these political references came to be viewed very differently. That year, the figure of Horthy was painted over, and by the 1950s all the frescoes were covered with lime. They were gradually restored in the 1990s, and today the gate can be viewed in its original state.

A monument to the Great War

The imagery of the Gate of Heroes was specific to Hungary and Szeged, but in other ways the building resembled the numerous First World War monuments erected across Europe. Like the gate, these memorials referred to local fallen soldiers, and often listed them by name. Far from being abstract signs, they provided the inhabitants of the town or village with sites to mourn their individual dead.[7] At the same time, they also placed those deaths into a narrative. While that narrative was often political, it sought to give individual, senseless deaths a higher meaning.[8] In the Gate of Heroes, the inscriptions make this aim particularly explicit.

Such narratives are, of course, easier to construct for those who won, than those who lost. What was the point of a lost war, especially if the Empire in whose name it had been fought has since ceased to exist and no longer evoked loyalty? In Czechoslovakia, this ambivalence lay behind the popularity of the figure of Švejk, the reluctant soldier. In Hungary, too, initial enthusiasm for the war had faded quickly, and by 1918 the general attitude was one of horror and grief, rather than a celebration of heroism. The pieces of war art that would become emblematic in later years were poignant visualisations of pointless suffering, such as László Mednyánszky’s (1852–1919) In Serbia (1914) or János Vaszary’s (1867–1939) Soldiers in the Snow (1916).

In many ways, Aba-Novák’s depictions of soldiers follow this tradition. His distorted figures reflect the same realisation: that there is no beauty to be found in war. Indeed, one of Aba-Novák’s achievements as a muralist was the reimagining of those broken, tortured soldiers – represented by Mednyánszky and Vaszary in smaller, more intimate compositions – in monumental form. His soldiers huddling under the tree differ from Mednyánszky’s in their more dramatic, expressionistic gestures, but the message of ultimate despair is the same. The solemn procession of the soldiers carrying the cross echoes the ragged march towards a dark fate in Vaszary’s painting.

Aba-Novák, Soldiers with Cross, Gate of Heroes, Szeged

Vilmos Aba-Novák: Soldiers Carrying the Cross, Gate of Heroes, 1936 – photo: Wikimedia Commons/János Kozma

Yet, this comparison also reveals a fundamental difference. In Vaszary’s painting, the suffering of the soldiers has no higher meaning. In Aba-Novák’s, by contrast, it is compared to the Passion of Christ. Like Christ, the soldiers are making an ultimate sacrifice, but like Christ’s sacrifice theirs too will bring resurrection. This is the encompassing theme of the gate, embodied most succinctly by Lőte’s Dead and Living Soldier. What exactly is meant by resurrection is made clear in the central arch, where Horthy leads a new cohort of living soldiers into a new fight. In the Gate of Heroes, the remembrance of the First World War is co-opted to promote the Horthy regime’s militant irredentism.

The political message

Szeged had played an important role in Horthy’s rise to power. In 1919, during the Communist Council Republic, it was here that he had joined the emerging counterrevolution and quickly became its leading figure. Having organised his own military force, in November 1919 he rode into Budapest on a white horse. The image of Horthy on a white horse became central to his iconography during the ensuing years of authoritarianism: the Gate of Heroes is just one of countless examples where it appears. The ride into Budapest had an additional meaning too: as the ‘sinful city,’ the centre of the Communist regime, Budapest had to be conquered. Szeged, by contrast, became a symbol of counterrevolutionary virtue.

For this reason, interwar cultural politics focused much effort on Szeged, which was to become one of the pillars in achieving the regime’s central goal: the revision of the Trianon Peace Treaty in Hungary’s favour. In Klebelsberg’s view, to prove Hungary’s historical right to the lands it had lost in the Treaty, it was necessary to prove Hungarian cultural superiority. To achieve this, the institutional framework of Hungarian culture and education had to be strengthened. The Rome Scholarship Aba-Novák had won was itself one element in this wider scheme, and so was the redevelopment of Szeged.

Vilmos Aba-Novák: Saint George Slaying the Dragon

Vilmos Aba-Novák: Saint George Slaying the Dragon, Gate of Heroes, 1936 – photo: Wikimedia Commons

Klebelsberg’s idea of Hungarian cultural superiority was no doubt chauvinistic, but, at least, it was peaceful: it posited a diplomatic solution to the territorial disputes. The minister had resigned in 1931, and by the time the Gate of Heroes was created a more militant version of anti-Trianon activism – irredentism – was becoming prevalent. It is this that is represented in Aba-Novák’s frescoes: not just in the picture of Horthy’s army, but also in other, less obvious images, whose intended meaning is revealed by the inscriptions. The text above Saint George Slaying the Dragon reads: ‘This is how the horse-riding [Hungarian] people will subjugate their enemies’. The one accompanying the figure of Saint Stephen (King Stephen I) declares the reason behind the impending military conflict: ‘Let the realm of Saint Stephen be, again, how it once was’.

A woman sculptor

The references to Trianon positioned the Gate of Heroes as a national memorial, but it also had a specific local significance. For this reason, the appointment of a Budapest-based architect and painter caused some tension in Szeged. The sculptor was, nevertheless, a local. Éva Lőte was the daughter of a professor of medicine, who had relocated to Szeged from Kolozsvár/Cluj with the university.[9] Despite her interest in sculpture, she studied at the School of Applied Art – a decision probably related to her gender. Her subsequent public commissions include the Heart of Jesus altar in the Pasarét church in Budapest (1934) and further altarpieces, religious sculptures, tomb sculptures, and world war monuments. She also designed a figure of a rider for the Herend Porcelain Manufactory, and her work was featured in the Hungarian pavilion at the 1937 Paris and 1939 New York world’s fairs. Her husband, György Brinzey, was a high ranking officer in Horthy’s army, and in 1948 the family emigrated to Venezuela.

Éva Lőte, The Dead Soldier, Gate of Heroes

Éva Lőte: The Dead Soldier, Gate of Heroes, 1936 – photo: Wikimedia Commons/Mister No (detail)

It was rare for a woman sculptor to gain such a monumental public commission, and it is conspicuous how the national press often only mentioned Lőte as an afterthought, while highlighting Pogány and Aba-Novák as the artists of the gate.[10] Yet, although the statues of the Dead and Living Soldier had been designed for the originally planned war monument, they form an essential conceptual entry point to the overall iconographic programme of the gate. Given how seamlessly the statues were integrated, it is possible that the unrealised monument had been the originator of the gate’s basic theme: the juxtaposition of death and new life. The static appearance of the statues corresponds, at first glance, with the serene classicism of many war memorials. They seem to embody the calm, heroic masculinity that Aba-Novák’s frescoes replaced with an agitated expression of both despair and resolve. However, a closer look at the statues qualifies this observation. While the Living Soldier is a fairly conventional representation, the Dead Soldier’s ghostly face subverts expectations of heroic beauty, prefiguring Aba-Novák’s eerie composition of the ghosts of soldiers.

This detail draws attention to the issue of shared authorship of the gate: although the three artists did not work collaboratively, neither did they work in isolation. Furthermore, it highlights the central artistic statement of this public art: that in representations of war, the monumental has to include the grotesque, the distorted, and the horrifying.

A new religious art – a new official art

The message of the Gate of Heroes was expressed in the formal language Aba-Novák had developed through ecclesiastical commissions. The most important precedents were the murals of the church in Jászszentandrás, a village in northeastern Hungary. In the apse, behind the altar, Aba-Novák depicted Christ and his Passion. On the arch separating the apse from the nave, the artist painted the Last Judgment. In its frontal, wide-eyed figures and linear compositions, the entire cycle drew heavily on early Christian and Byzantine art. The Last Judgment was especially traditional. On one side, it grouped the saints and the blessed in neat rows. On the other side, the damned tumbled down into hell in a chaotic whirl.

The horrors of hell and the distorted features of the tortured damned had provided artists with imaginative subject matter for centuries, but in Jászszentandrás Aba-Novák’s reinvigoration of old traditions was not well received by everyone. A local Franciscan named Father Odilo was particularly incensed, and began to agitate against the frescoes.[11] He decried all figures, including those of Christ and the saints, as distorted and lacking true religious feeling. Worried that this might imperil the frescoes, local notary Tibor Futó asked the art historian János Jajczay (1892–1976) for a counteropinion. Jajczay was – so the notary – ‘delighted to hear’ that locals had fainted upon seeing the frescoes: this meant that they had a profound effect.[12] Indeed, most contemporary viewers, whether they liked the frescoes or not, described them in terms of effect: terror, disgust, shudder. This was the goal of the new ecclesiastical art: to revive the effect such frescoes had once had on medieval crowds.

Aba-Novák’s church frescoes formed part of international efforts to create a new Christian art. In 1934 designs for the Jászszentandrás frescoes were displayed at the Second Exhibition of Ecclesiastical Art in Rome and garnered lavish praise from Italian art critics. Finally, they were purchased by no other than Benito Mussolini.[13] The episode highlights the wider political connections and implications of the new monumental art. For the Horthy regime, fascist Italy was a crucial diplomatic partner whose support for the revisionist cause they seriously counted on. This had already been an important factor in the Italian orientation of Hungarian cultural politics in Klebelsberg’s time. By 1936, when the frescoes of the Gate of Heroes were painted, Prime Minister Gyula Gömbös (1886–1936, in office 1932–36) had forged close alliances with Mussolini and Hitler, openly embracing fascism.

The Gate of Heroes in Szeged in 1937

Harvest procession at the Gate of Heroes in Szeged in 1937 – photo: Fortepan/Uj Nemzedék daily

It is important to highlight here that the Italian orientation of the new official art not only meant drawing on sources such as early Christian frescoes, but also the reception of modernist tendencies such as Expressionism, Futurism, Surrealism, or – in architecture – Rationalism through the lens of Italian art.[14] Traditionalists such as Father Odilo objected to this even if they agreed with the underlying politics. To them, the loud, expressionistic forms of Aba-Novák’s frescoes were unsuited to representing religious piety. In the Gate of Heroes, Aba-Novák exploited this dissonance to create a fitting modernist formal language for the representation of the first mass-industrialised war. Those who commissioned him must have agreed with Jajczay that all effect is good effect. Even if that effect was revulsion, it drew attention to their political message. But dissonance is difficult to harness and can easily turn into its opposite, as it once did for twenty-year-old me. It is also through this dissonance that we can attempt to reinterpret the frescoes for our own time.

Controversial heritage

When the frescoes of the Gate of Heroes were painted over, the reason was the new Communist government’s opposition to the previous regime, but this does not negate the fact that the images constitute a piece of controversial heritage. They represent an open call to war over territories that today – as in 1936 – belong to neighbouring countries. Horthy’s Szeged activities and his subsequent ride into Budapest – events recalled by his figure on the white horse – cannot be discussed without mentioning the White Terror that accompanied the birth of the Horthy regime: the savage murder of Jews and persons suspected of Communist sympathies by paramilitary troops. As the leader of an authoritarian regime that aligned itself with Mussolini and Hitler, justifying this with the very irredentism promoted by the gate, Horthy bears responsibility for Hungary’s war catastrophe and the Hungarian Holocaust.

Despite these considerations, the restoration of the frescoes in the 1990s garnered broad support across the political spectrum.[15] It was seen as the rightful salvaging of a piece of artistic heritage that had been obliterated for political reasons. But public monuments are never purely artistic; they form part of public political discourse. If decisions about their demolition are political decisions, so are decisions about their preservation. The tension between political message and historical or artistic value has to be negotiated in each and every case and each and every context – there is no one-size-fits-all approach to its resolution. Regarding Aba-Novák’s frescoes, it would not be hard to argue that an open call to territorial war is best covered with lime. Still, I am not inclined to do so.

Faced with her own visceral reaction to the murals, my younger self had regarded them as an artistic failure, perceiving a dissonance between their bizarre aesthetics and their intended glorifying purpose. Having examined the work in its context, I now see this dissonance as integral to the artistic effect of the frescoes: it is part of what they, as powerful works of art and as historical monuments, reveal about their time. Their evocation of shock and horror instead of solemn heroism highlights the grotesque contradictions underlying the Horthy regime: the absurdity of calling for a new war even while commemorating the unspeakable pain of the one that had just gone by.

Nóra Veszprémi

[1] The most recent monograph on Aba-Novák is Péter Molnos, Aba-Novák (Budapest, 2006).

[2] András Zwickl, ed, Árkádia tájain: Szőnyi István és köre 1918–1928 [In the land of Arcadia: István Szőnyi and his circle] (Budapest, 2001).

[3] Julianna P. Szűcs, A római iskola [The School of Rome] (Budapest, 1987).

[4] For the history and description of the gate see Attila Tóth, ‘“Egy új, tisztultabb élet felé”: A Hősök kapuja építészeti és helytörténeti jelentősége’ [‘Towards a new, purer life’: The significance of the Gate of Heroes in architectural and local history] Szeged, October 2000, pp. 18-22; Attila Tóth and Kornélia Forrai, A szegedi Hősök kapuja és az Aba-Novák freskók restaurálásának története [The Szeged Gate of Heroes and the story of the restoration of Aba-Novák’s frescoes] (Szeged, 2001).

[5] Tóth, ‘“Egy új, tisztultabb élet felé”,’ p. 18.

[6] See the artist’s description of the frescoes, quoted in Attila Tóth, ‘Mit rejt a vakolat? A Hősök kapuja freskóiról’ [What is hidden under the lime? On the frescoes of the Gate of Heroes], Szeged, March 1993, pp. 30–31.

[7] Jay Winter, Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History (Cambridge, 2014), pp. 78–116.

[8] For examples of the broader symbolism of First World War memorials see e. g. Stefan Goebel, ‘Cultural Memory and the Great War: Medievalism and Classicism in British and German War Memorials,’ in Cultures of Commemoration: War Memorials, Ancient and Modern, eds Polly Low, Graham Oliver and P. J. Rhodes (Oxford, 2012), pp. 135–158.

[9] Emil Szomory, ‘Egy fiatal szobrásznő, aki boldog és egy hajdani istállóban alkotja remekműveit’ [A young woman sculptor who is happy and creates her masterpieces in a former stable], Ujság, 8 April 1928, p. 51.

[10] György Vér, ‘Klebelsberg utolsó opusa … A Hősök Kapuja: Pogány Móric és Aba-Novák Vilmos alkotása’ [Klebelsberg’s last opus … The Gate of Heroes created by Móric Pogány and Vilmos Aba-Novák], Pesti Napló, 30 May 1937, pp. 5–6.

[11] Molnos, Aba-Novák, pp. 60–62.

[12] See Futó’s account in Molnos, Aba-Novák, pp. 60–61.

[13] Molnos, Aba-Novák, p. 62.

[14] One sympathetic contemporary described the frescoes of the Gate of Heroes as lacking ‘the undulating momentum of the Baroque, but not its loudness and endless vitality. They possess the sombre order of Byzantium, but not its cold glimmer. … There is something cubistic about them, but without the abstraction of Cubism, and something expressionistic, but without the randomness of Expressionism.’ – László Vinkler, ‘Aba-Novák Vilmos’, Délvidéki Szemle, January–February 1942, p. 9.

[15] See e. g. an article in a prominent liberal weekly: [Tamás] Szőnyei, ‘Aba-Novák hagyatéka: Freskósors’ [The heritage of Aba-Novák: The fate of a fresco], Magyar Narancs, 20 August 1998.

DOI 10.17605/OSF.IO/D5KGM

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One thought on “Artwork of the Month, March 2021: The Gate of Heroes in Szeged (1936)

  1. Don Sparling says:

    Fascinating article – a brilliant exploration of the tensions that make the gate so grisly and so compelling.

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