Contested histories: monuments, memory and representations of the historical past

In Austria-Hungary, images of the historical past had immediate political relevance, whether they promoted national independence or imperial unity. The historicist mindset behind the production of these images was rejected by early-20th-century modernists, and the dissolution of the Empire made their political meanings obsolete. Consequently, interwar representations of the historical past are often treated as anachronistic and equated with official art.

But was the break really so decisive? The new nation-states often drew on what one might consider superseded imagery to promote official narratives of national history. In Prague, monuments celebrated the same historic figures – King Wenceslas, Jan Hus and Jan Žižka – that had inspired romantic nationalists of the previous century. In Hungary the painter Vilmos Aba-Novák was commissioned to paint murals in 1938 in the medieval capital of Székesfehérvár for the mausoleum of King Saint Stephen, Hungary’s first monarch.

Historical imagery was not restricted to official commissions. Alfons Mucha’s monumental Slav Epic (1910–26) was a private undertaking. Furthermore, history could be used to express radical opposition; in Vienna, the Lassalle Monument (1928) commemorated the city’s leftist social history, while in the same year the left-wing Hungarian artist Gyula Derkovits produced a set of prints on the Dózsa peasants’ revolt of 1514. Other artists used the historical past to create a nostalgic dream world; Surrealist collages, such as those of Toyen or Karel Teige referenced Czech history, albeit in novel ways.

The theme thus examines how artists in the interwar period continued, transformed or rejected the motifs that dominated the historical imagination of nineteenth-century Austria-Hungary. It also investigates attitudes towards the material artistic legacy of the Empire, looking at the fate of pre-1918 monuments in the newly formed states and at the afterlife of 19th-century history paintings in the interwar period.


Gyula Derkovits: György Dózsa on the Castle Walls, 1928 – image: Wikipedia