Artwork of the Month, August 2021: To Arms! To Arms! by Róbert Berény (1919)

In 2018 the Kassák Museum in Budapest staged Everything Is Ours!, an installation by artist Ádám Albert (*1975) that pondered on the visual propaganda of the 1919 Hungarian Soviet Republic. The small, meditative show was suddenly thrown into the limelight when it was ferociously denounced in the right-wing press for supposedly promoting Communist ideas and violence. The controversy is seen to have led to the resignation of the director of the Petőfi Museum of Literature (the mother institution of the Kassák Museum) not much later.

These events suggest that the Soviet Republic constitutes a highly sensitive and prominent memory site in Hungarian culture, but the ‘scandal’ was in fact something of a surprise. Although the short-lived 1919 Communist regime remains controversial, its memory is much less pivotal today than it was in the first seventy years after its collapse, when it was undoubtedly a cornerstone of political self-identification. In the interwar period, the right-wing Horthy regime held it up as the manifestation of all evil, while under state Socialism it was celebrated as a venerable antecedent. Today, by contrast, right-wing anti-communism has a more immediate counterconcept in the post-1948 regime, while for left-wingers the Soviet Republic’s excess and violence precludes it as an object of identification. Indeed, the most uncomfortable, and at the same time most intriguing aspect of the Soviet Republic is how progressive ideas and a genuine will to bring about positive change, which drew in some of the best – not necessarily Communist – minds of the time, coexisted with unrestrained brutality and diehard dogmatism. The latest study of the events emphasises their chaotic, sometimes accidental nature, and the widely varied ideologies, aims, desires and ambitions of the individuals who made them happen.[1]

To Arms! To Arms! Poster by Róbert Berény, 1919

Róbert Berény: To Arms! To Arms!, 1919, Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest – photo © Museum of Fine Arts, 2021

How was this diversity reflected in the arts? One of the most iconic artistic products of the Soviet Republic, the poster To Arms! To Arms! by Róbert Berény (1887–1953), was commissioned by the propaganda branch of the state to encourage men to join the Red Army. At first glance, the red flag, the shouting figure, the composition’s suggestion of energetic forward movement, all associate the picture with Communist imagery and with the left-wing avant-garde of the 1910s. Yet, in its formal language the image is in many ways traditional, and certainly not in the vein of abstract experiments by contemporary avant-garde artists such as the Hungarian Activists. Hence, the poster encapsulates the tension between accessible, but traditional representation and ‘progressive’ modernity that haunted not only the art of the Soviet Republic, but the art policies of Socialism and Communism for many decades to come. This article will discuss how Berény’s image was transformed into a Socialist Realist icon under state Socialism and into a versatile meme after the fall of the Iron Curtain, and how these different readings continued different strands of the artistic culture of the Soviet Republic, a culture riddled with inner contradictions and vicious disputes. In this way, the image can be seen to embody not just the contradictions and chaotic nature of the Soviet Republic itself, but also its unsettled and contentious remembrance.

Róbert Berény and the Hungarian avant-garde

Born in 1887 into a lower middle-class Jewish family in Budapest, Róbert Berény first studied painting at the Hungarian Royal Drawing School in 1904, but the next year he travelled to Paris and enrolled at the Académie Julian.[2] He was fascinated by the art of the Fauves, who first exhibited together at the Salon d’Automne in the year of his arrival. Inspired by what he saw, Berény adopted a new palette made up of pure, bright colours, and experimented with bold gestures such as green shadows on human bodies in the manner of Henri Matisse (1869–1954).[3] He stayed in Paris until 1911, but spent the summer each year in Hungary. Together with some fellow Hungarians of the Julian Academy, he played a leading role in transmitting the lessons of French modern art. In 1909 they formed the group Nyolcak (The Eight), whose three exhibitions, in 1909, 1911 and 1912, stirred up the Hungarian art world. The Eight were not a particularly close-knit group, and neither was their artistic credo very strictly defined. Their reference points included the Fauves, the Cubists, as well as Paul Cézanne (1839–1906), while contemporary critics also pointed out similarities with central European artists such as Oskar Kokoschka (1886–1980).

Berény’s interest in combining the lessons of the avant-garde with artistic tradition was apparent in his work in the early 1910s, but his efforts were cut short by the war. Serving in the army did not completely hinder his artistic pursuits, but he largely set his avant-garde experiments aside to focus on drawings and etchings in a Renaissance mode and on portraits he created on commission, in a nineteenth-century, academic formal language. Following his discharge from the army, he set up a private art school in his home.

In the meanwhile, Hungarian politics were in turmoil. In the wake of the Aster Revolution of late October 1918, a liberal-left-wing government was formed with the lead of Mihály Károlyi (1875–1955). At the time, parts of the former Kingdom of Hungary were under occupation by Czechoslovak, Serbian and Romanian troops, and the Paris Peace Conference was debating the final borders between the new states of central Europe. Unable to avoid having to cede new territories to Romania in Transylvania, the Károlyi government resigned on 21 March 1919. It was replaced by the Soviet Republic, a self-proclaimed proletarian dictatorship which emerged from the union of the former Social Democrats and the Communists, and was headed by Béla Kun (1886–1938). Many intellectuals from the progressive circles Berény had associated with before the war took on positions in the new system. The artist himself became a member of the Art Directorate, where he was responsible for overseeing painters. However, his aim to involve the painters’ union in decisionmaking soon led to disagreements with those in favour of more radical centralisation, leading to Berény’s resignation on 20 May.[4]

The Council Republic only lasted for 133 days, and when the counterrevolutionary Horthy regime was established, officials of the Communist government had to flee the country. Berény emigrated to Germany and lived in Berlin until 1926, when amnesty was granted to political émigrés and he was able to return. By then, his art was changing. Abandoning revolutionary, avant-garde ambitions, he painted still lifes and domestic scenes in a decorative post-impressionist style. He was an important member of the so-called Gresham Circle, a group of artists which included István Szőnyi (1894–1960) and Aurél Bernáth (1895–1982) and congregated in the Café Gresham by the Danube.

The Cellist by Róbert Berény, 1928

Róbert Berény: The Cellist, 1928, Hungarian National Gallery – photo: Museum Digital CC BY-NC-SA

The lack of avant-garde fervour, however, does not automatically mean a decline in artistic quality. Indeed, it was in this period and this style that Berény painted his best-known masterpiece: The Cellist (1928). The elegantly composed painting – one of the most-loved works of art in Hungary – shows that the young Berény’s fascination with the expressive potential of pure colour was not a fleeting love affair, but a long-standing, central tenet of his art.

Besides his work as a painter, Berény was also successful as a graphic designer. In the 1920s and 1930s he designed commercial posters for products ranging from soap to cigarettes. Although they can be seen as continuing the track set by To Arms! To Arms!, these posters differed fundamentally from the earlier example in their colourfulness, cheerful visual humour, and a formal language of straight lines and geometric shapes that veered towards the abstract, and was hence, ironically, more related to revolutionary, Constructivist art than the poster Berény had produced in support of the Revolution.

To Arms! To Arms!

In the months of the Soviet Republic, Berény lived and worked in a house in Városmajor Street, in a leafy area of Buda, where his art school – now nationalised and state-funded – was also based.[5] According to his one-time pupils, he was working on a composition of about 2 × 6 metres, showing groups of nudes: ‘men with baroque muscles and women rendered in somewhat calmer forms, and with paler skins’.[6] Judging from its monumental size and apparent allegorical-symbolical subject matter, this work was probably an official commission, although its purpose is unknown. By the time the Soviet Republic was coming to an end, Berény was working on a mural for a nearby children’s home, a project he had to abruptly abandon when the regime collapsed.

Berény received the commission for To Arms! To Arms! from the propaganda branch of the People’s Commissariat for Education in May 1919. The task was to design a poster to encourage young men to enlist in the Red Army as the state prepared for a military campaign against Czechoslovak and Romanian advances. The counteroffensive, which began on 20 May, was successful at first: several cities in the northern region were recaptured, even leading to the declaration of the Slovak Council Republic in Prešov on 16 June. These successes were, however, short lived, and could not be repeated against Romania. On 1 August, following a series of failures, the government resigned, and in the next days the Romanian army advanced virtually unobstructed to Budapest.

In May, however, hopes were still high. Berény aimed to capture the enthusiasm and urgency in a shouting figure, interpreted by most commentators as a sailor.[7] His mouth is wide open and his face distorted into one big cry; his left hand holds up a red flag, which streams behind him, flowing out of the frame of the image, while his right hand is clenched into a fist. The slogan, typed out in clear, modern, unadorned lettering, is placed between the figure and the flag.

Judging from the descriptions of the artist’s works made in 1919 and the few studies that have survived, it seems that, at the time, Berény was mainly interested in representing the human body. His compositions of nudes in landscapes signal a return to a classical approach and subject matter, but instead of classical beauty, the focus was – at least in the case of male figures – on the structure of the body, the expressive representation of musculature. This was a fairly new theme in Berény’s oeuvre, but it was not unknown in the work of The Eight: the sinewy nude young men in Károly Kernstok’s 1910 Riders on the Shore or the somewhat bizarre, all-muscle figures in Bertalan Pór’s 1911 The Sermon on the Mount could have provided him with inspiration.

In emphasising the muscles in the sailor’s contorted face, as well as in his hands and arms, and in not shying away from representing the muscled body as decidedly non-beautiful, To Arms! To Arms! has much in common with these images. Yet, there is a fundamental difference: the sailor is dressed up. This figure is not a heroic nude situated in a timeless idyll, but a working man of 1919 Hungary, hardened by the catastrophic years of the war and agitated by the current struggles for the country’s territorial integrity and its Socialist future. Nevertheless, for all its gritty realism, the figure is rooted in the art of the past. As has been repeatedly pointed out in literature, the image is based on precedents such as the work of Honoré Daumier, François Rude, and most importantly two sketches by Leonardo da Vinci for the faces of soldiers in the Battle of Anghiari, preserved in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest.[8]

Situated within the relatively new artistic genre of the poster, To Arms! To Arms! is in many ways novel. It leaves behind the undulating lines, busy compositions and flowery typography of the Art Nouveau posters still common in central Europe even in war art, in favour of a simple, clear composition and sombre lettering. This did not, however, mean abandoning artistic tradition; instead, the dialogue with tradition is a central feature of the work. As we shall see, this characteristic positioned Berény’s work as antithetical to the aims of some of his avant-garde contemporaries, and hence placed it into the centre of the lively artistic debates of the Soviet Republic.

The Soviet Republic and the Arts

The swiftly-formed government of the Soviet Republic included individuals with diverse backgrounds and intentions.[9] Some had been officials of the former Liberal–Social Democratic government, others were Béla Kun’s Bolshevik comrades, but a medley of additional people from different walks of life also joined up, driven by a newly born interest in political action. Kun, the de facto leader of the regime, was officially People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs. The People’s Commissar for Education was Zsigmond Kunfi (1879–1929), a former Social Democrat, and his deputy was the philosopher György (Georg) Lukács (1885–1971), then a recent convert to Communism. The appetite for change was reflected in the fact that many of the leading lights of prewar modernism were taking on positions in cultural politics. The avant-garde poet and artist Lajos Kassák (1887–1967), leader of the Activists, was involved in the Writers’ Directorate, as well as with visual propaganda. The Art and Museum Directorate was mostly made up of former members of The Eight. Mihály Babits (1883–1941), a well-respected poet known for his modernist classicism, also joined multiple commissions, even though he was not a Communist by any means.

This broad coalition of modernists signals that – in the beginning – the Soviet Republic had no strict policies on artistic style. Political artworks were commissioned from artists such as the Activist Béla Uitz (1887–1972), who drew a number of sketches for never-executed murals in the Parliament building, but artists such as the veteran modernist and master of Hungarian Art Nouveau, József Rippl-Rónai (1861–1927), or the young gobelin artist Noémi Ferenczy (1890–1957), who then worked in a medievalist style, all received state support.[10] Older representatives of academicism such as Gyula Benczúr (1844–1920) were promptly made to retire from their professorships, but the decorations of Budapest’s Heroes’ Square devised for the 1 May festivities included not only paintings by Uitz, but also sculptures by the historicist György Zala (1858–1937).

Nevertheless, the writing was on the wall that this relative openness would eventually cease. The issue that led to Berény’s resignation was that of the Artists’ Registry: an officially sanctioned list of 150 artists who would be salaried by the state. To receive this support, artists had to profess their views on questions such as who they regard as the five best modernists – and were obviously expected to fall in line.[11] Moreover, Kassák and the Activists were eager to implement their Constructivist-Futurist artistic vision as the official art of the Soviet Republic and campaigned fervently for this goal, until they were rebuffed by Kun, who denounced their art as the ‘product of bourgeois decadence’.[12]

Hungarian Soviet republic posters photo

Unknown photographer: Posters of the Soviet Republic in the street, among them Uitz’s Red Soldiers Forward!, 1919, Hungarian National Museum – photo: Europeana.eu CC BY-NC-SA

The difference between Berény’s and the Activists’ approach can be demonstrated through a particularly illuminating comparison. Around the same time as Berény, Uitz was also commissioned to create a poster promoting the Red Army. The figures in his Red Soldiers Forward! are also sailors, but instead of tensing their muscles and shouting in agitation, they are marching on in a calm, orderly manner. They are abstract figures made up of simplified shapes and arranged into a rythmic composition. The determined faces of those in the foreground have an individual character, but a mass of soldiers is lined up behind them, and the group as a whole suggests mechanical, dynamic movement similar to Futurist compositions.

Although Uitz himself was not averse to employing classical models such as Michelangelo’s Last Judgement in his frescoes, Activist rhetoric around the time of the Soviet Republic often called for radical renewal through the rejection of all ‘bourgeois’ tradition.[13] Writing in the Activist periodical MA, the critic Iván Hevesy (1893–1966) praised Uitz’s poster as an example of such radicalism, while disparaging Berény’s as ‘a clichéd and trivial idea with little artistic merit’. In turn, the Social Democratic Az Ember (The Human) used the opportunity to strike a blow at Uitz, claiming that Hevesy’s statements were ‘just as disjointed as the legs of the Red Soldiers drawn by editor Uitz, for which the author could rightly be cited before a revolutionary tribunal’.[14] The two posters exemplified two approaches to revolutionary Socialist art: dressing up the message in a well-known, accessible formal language versus a complete renewal in form, as well as content. The tension between the two would drive the art politics of the Soviet Union and post-1945 Communist states with often disastrous consequences.

A versatile image

Even though the memory of the Soviet Republic has faded in Hungarian popular consciousness, To Arms! To Arms! remains a well-known image. It is part of the visual arsenal of Hungarian cultural memory, and with the rise of internet culture it has also provided excellent material for memes. Its enduring popularity is rooted in its simplicity and accessibility, which makes it easy to endow it with new meanings. As its afterlife demonstrates, it is an image that offers something for everyone. Its iconicity means that it can be reimagined in multiple ways, depending on what one aims to emphasise. The memeification of To Arms! To Arms! began long before the invention of social media.

Cordatic, poster for car tyres by Róbert Berény

Róbert Berény: Cordatic, 1929, Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest – photo © Museum of Fine Arts, 2021

The first culprit in this process was Berény himself. The fact that he had created one of the most recognisable images of the Soviet Republic certainly contributed to his need to emigrate. Yet, after he returned to Hungary, it also helped establish his reputation as a poster designer. In one of his 1920s designs, an advertisement for car tyres, he playfully referenced his early masterpiece. The transformation not only meant turning the imagery of radical left-wing politics into that of consumer capitalism, but – even more ironically – transforming a revolutionary, yet traditional image into a modernist celebration of industrial advances that was, in a certain sense, more in line with the formal pursuits of the 1910s avant-garde.

The avant-gardists of 1919 may have snubbed To Arms! To Arms! for its easily accessible formal language, but after the Communist turn of 1948 it was arguably this characteristic that elevated the image in the eyes of official cultural politics. At a time when much of the modernism of the interwar period was rejected as ‘formalist’ even if it expressed left-wing values, Berény’s sailor, with his bulging muscles and everyday appearance, could be held up as a model.

Monument to the Soviet Republic by István Kiss, formerly on Felvonulási Square, Budapest

István Kiss: Monument to the Soviet Republic on Felvonulási Square, Budapest, 1957–1969, photograph from 1970s – photo: kozterkep.hu/Ády CC BY-NC-ND

The canonical status of To Arms! To Arms! in the imagery of state Socialism was confirmed in 1969, when a monument was erected to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Soviet Republic. Created by István Kiss (1927–1997), who had won the competition for the design in 1957, the monument was essentially a reiteration of Berény’s poster in a monumental, sculptural form. Set up in Procession (Felvonulási) Square, the main venue of Communist May 1 processions, the monument was a complex act of memory politics. It stood on the site of the Regnum Marianum church built between 1925 and 1931 to celebrate the fall of the Soviet Republic. Damaged during the war, the church had been demolished in an obviously symbolic act in 1951 to create Procession Square. Kiss’s gigantic statue was, in turn, removed after 1989 and now serves as a main attraction of Budapest’s Memento Park, an outdoor museum of Communist public art.

Stamp issued to commemorate the Soviet Republic, 1963

Stamp issued to commemorate the Soviet Republic, with Berény’s poster and the model of Kiss’s statue, 1963 – photo: kozterkep.hu/Ády CC BY-NC-ND

Yet, if we look at the poster and the statue together, the differences are plain to see. The face of Berény’s sailor is distorted by his shouting – Kiss’s figure, by contrast, appears calm and determined. His shirt is open, revealing his strong, wide chest, and the muscles of his arm are steely and perfectly formed. In these respects, the statue employs yet another formal idiom of early twentieth century Socialist art: the monumental Neoclassicism canonised in the Stalinist version of Socialist Realism.

Here, it is worthwhile to compare Berény’s poster with another image associated with the propaganda of the Soviet Republic: The Man with a Red Hammer by Mihály Bíró (1886–1948). Even though the original image had first been published in 1911 in the Social Democratic daily Népszava and used by the SDP in subsequent years, in 1919 it was repurposed to promote the 1 May celebrations of the Communist regime. Bíró’s image is much more abstract than Berény’s almost genre-like figure. Its heroic nudity and monumental musculature stand in strong contrast with the agitated expressiveness of Berény’s clothed figure. In Kiss’s statue the sculptor seems to have united, but at the same time also effaced these two approaches. The resulting monument obliterated both the ragged Expressionism of Berény’s poster and the innovative dynamism of Bíró’s as it channelled the diverse artistic heritage of 1919 into the solemn Neoclassicism of Socialist Realist monumental art.

Street during the 1919 Hungarian Soviet Republic with posters by Róbert Berény and Mihály Bíró

Unknown photographer: Street during the Hungarian Soviet Republic with posters by Róbert Berény and Mihály Bíró, 1919, Hungarian National Museum – photo: Europeana.eu CC BY-NC-SA

A parallel presents itself between the reinterpretations of Berény’s image and the reinterpretations of the Soviet Republic itself. It seems that, in public memory, this historical event is only able to gain prominence as an icon of either Good or Bad, adapted to the purposes of specific political needs. Yet, perhaps, this well-known and many-faced image can open a door to a wider public understanding of the complexity of the events. At the very least, it serves as a reminder that the ‘internationalist’ Soviet Republic was in fact born from and driven by a nationalist cause; the same one then taken up by the subsequent right-wing regime. In a wider sense, however, the image and its contemporary reception demonstrate the non-monolithic nature of the proletarian dictatorship. Understanding the human dimension of different political regimes, the messiness of the individual relationships that shape them, as well as the role and scope of individual choice under authoritarianism, is crucial to a deeper public reassessment of twentieth-century history.

Nóra Veszprémi

[1] Pál Hatos, Rosszfiúk világforradalma: Az 1919-es Magyarországi Tanácsköztársaság története [A world revolution of bad boys: The history of the 1919 Hungarian Soviet Republic] (Budapest, 2021).

[2] The latest monograph on Berény is Gergely Barki, Berény Róbert (Budapest, 2015).

[3] See Gergely Barki, ‘Róbert Berény, the “Apprenti Fauve,” in Hungarian Fauves from Paris to Nagybánya 1904–1914, eds Krisztina Passuth and György Szücs (Budapest, 2006), pp. 149–166.

[4] Gergely Barki, ‘“A proletárdiktatúra jót tesz az egésségnek”: Berény Róbert 1919-ben’ [‘The proletarian dictatorship improves your healff’: Róbert Berény in 1919], Enigma 94.25 (2018) pp. 121–123.

[5] Barki, ‘“A proletárdiktatúra jót tesz az egésségnek,”’ pp. 102–127.

[6] Berény’s pupil György Fenyő is quoted in Barki, ‘“A proletárdiktatúra jót tesz az egésségnek,”’ p. 103.

[7] Nóra Aradi, A Magyar Tanácsköztársaság művészete [The art of the Hungarian Soviet Republic] (Budapest, 1979), n. p. connects the figure in Berény’s poster to the figure of the revolutionary sailor, an important motif in Communist art which referred to heroicised historical examples such as the crew of the Aurora or the Potemkin battleship.

[8] Nóra Aradi, A szocialista képzőművészet története [History of Socialist art], (Budapest, 1970), p. 99; Barki, ‘“A proletárdiktatúra jót tesz az egésségnek,”’ pp. 113–114.

[9] Hatos, Rosszfiúk világforradalma, pp. 27–76.

[10] Hatos, Rosszfiúk világforradalma, pp. 252–253.

[11] Hatos, Rosszfiúk világforradalma, p. 251.

[12] Szeredi, Merse Pál, ‘A “Mácastílus irodalmi diktátora Lukács György sznob uszályában”: Az Aktivisták a Tanácsköztársaságban’ [The literary dictator of Máca style in the snobbish entourage of György Lukács: The Activists in the Soviet Republic], Enigma 94.25 (2018) p. 144.

[13] Szeredi, ‘A “Mácastílus irodalmi diktátora,’ pp. 140–141.

[14] Both quoted in Szeredi, ‘A “Mácastílus irodalmi diktátora,’ p. 141. On the reception of Berény’s poster see also Barki, ‘“A proletárdiktatúra jót tesz az egésségnek,”’ pp. 112–114.

DOI 10.17605/OSF.IO/E45XG

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