Their Safe Haven: Hungarian Artists in Britain from the 1930s: Book review

Their Safe Haven: Hungarian Artists in Britain from the 1930s contains a striking chapter on the graphic designer and illustrator Klara Biller (1910–1989). Pete Biller, the artist’s son, recalls the house he grew up in, enumerating its references to Hungarian culture. Living in a bungalow in Stanmore, Middlesex, Klara decorated the interiors with Hungarian folk textiles and pottery by Margit Kovács (1902–1977), a folk-art inspired ceramicist who was hugely popular in Hungary. Klara also owned a few Hungarian paintings, by Pál Molnár-C. (1894–1981) and János Kmetty (1889–1975), but – as her son explains – the art books she bought herself were all on international art, in particular, Paul Klee (1879–1940) or Frans Masereel (1889–1972). Bookshelves in the house were also heavily populated by books on Hungarian history, many discussing the Treaty of Trianon – but these books belonged not to Klara, but to her British husband, Victor Biller, who had developed an interest in Hungary years before he met his future wife in the 1930s. In fact, as Pete Biller’s sensitive account explains, his father nurtured a fascination with interwar ‘official’ Hungary, which must have been alienating to his mother, who was of Jewish descent and had to leave behind her country of birth precisely because of the increasing anti-Semitism that was part and parcel of that official culture and eventually led to genocide. Yet, this issue was never discussed in the family, and although Klara eventually told her sons about their Jewish heritage, she never informed Victor. Her relationship with the culture of her country of origin must have been highly conflicted, but it was a conflict she negotiated silently, within herself. And perhaps with her mother and sister, whose visits after their own emigration in the 1950s prompted Klara to turn towards Hungarian cooking and stock up her kitchen with paprika.

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Artwork of the Month, December 2019: Hričov by Ferdiš Duša (1933)

Our December Artwork of the Month features a haunted castle: the castle of Hričov (Hricsó, Ricsó; today in Slovakia) as represented by the artist Ferdiš Duša (1888–1958). Born in Frýdlant nad Ostravicí in Moravia-Silesia, Duša undertook a number of study trips to Slovakia in the 1920s and 1930s, producing, amongst many other things, a series of wood engravings narrating a journey along the river Váh. In doing so, he drew on a pictorial and literary tradition that reached back to the early nineteenth century and encapsulated the multi-ethnic character of the region. His prints transferred the spectres of this past into the interwar period, a time defined by new national borders and the idea of modern, exclusive national identities.

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Monuments on the Move: The Past and Present of Budapest’s Kossuth Square

Monuments are intended to be permanent, but their lives are often cut short by the turbulent events of history. In Central Europe this is a well-known phenomenon. Political change in this region tends to involve a transformation of urban scenery, such as the removal of Communist public sculptures after 1989 or the toppling of Prague’s Marian column in 1918. For whatever reason it happens, the defacement, destruction or replacement of monuments is integral to their function. They are not aesthetic objects that invite contemplation, but political ones that participate in public discourse, and consequently the response to them is also political. The destruction of the Marian column was a spontaneous act of the revolutionary crowd; in other cases, it is the government that directs the removal of old monuments and the setting up of new ones. In the course of the last hundred years, each political regime has imposed its own memory politics on urban spaces. Some city squares, those with a greater symbolic importance, underwent many transformations as the decades passed.

Budapest’s Kossuth Square is a case in point. Situated in front of the Neo-Gothic Parliament building designed by Imre Steindl (1839–1902) and flanked by other governmental buildings, it is a prime location for the self-representation of the state. For the same reason, it also attracts anti-government demonstrations. Throughout its 120-year existence, it has been home to various different public monuments, which came, went – and sometimes returned.

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Artwork of the Month, July 2019: Family by Gyula Derkovits (1932)

When we look at an artist’s work, we see it through a glass, darkly: whether we like it or not, we are influenced by its previous interpretations. After they die, some artists are turned into icons of artistic, social, or political movements and become entangled with them to such an extent that it profoundly affects the way their works are seen. The Hungarian artist Gyula Derkovits (1894–1934) is an especially complex case. Derkovits was the son of a cabinetmaker and began training in that profession before taking up painting; after finishing three years of primary school, he never gained a formal education. Despite making a name as an artist and finding a number of patrons, he struggled to make a living from his art and had dire money problems by the last years of his life. Furthermore, as a committed left-winger, he was involved with the Communist movement – illegal in the interwar period – and depicted the struggles of the working class in his paintings, while satirising the bourgeoisie. Thanks to all this, Derkovits was easily appropriated by the Communist regime from the 1960s onwards. His pictures were everywhere, and so was his name: among other things, a state-run art gallery, a housing estate in the town of Szombathely, as well as a grant for young artists were named after him.[1]

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Place, Memory, Propaganda: The 1930 album Justice for Hungary!

When we think of history, we think of it as unfolding in time. The historical events we remember sit somewhere in a chronology, and we think of them as having causes and effects, laid out neatly in the timeline. History also has a spatial dimension: the locations where the events took place are integral to their memory; but, paradoxically, this often means that their geographical reality dissolves into an abstraction. Mohács, for instance, was the scene of a battle between Hungarians and the Ottoman Turks in 1526. In the nineteenth century, the disastrous defeat suffered by the Hungarian army came to be seen as a singular national tragedy, which led to the subsequent Turkish invasion of a large part of the Kingdom. ‘Mohács’ became a metaphor. Although the town had its own local commemorations, the battle was essentially remembered in the same way everywhere in Hungary. Its physical location played no role in its national remembrance; the main thing was that it was part of the great national timeline – the national narrative of history.

The standardisation and centralisation of historical memory was part of the nineteenth-century process of nation-building. After 1867, the now semi-autonomous Hungarian state promoted the ideas of continuous Hungarian statehood and the legitimacy of Magyar hegemony in the Carpathian Basin through paintings, murals, sculptures and public monuments across the Kingdom. Monuments were sometimes erected to mark important historical locations, but at other times their locations were not relevant to the historical events they commemorated. It did not matter: all of these places, whether historical or not, were part of the country. They were in a synecdochical relationship with what was seen as most important: the nation, its territory, and its history as one integral whole. But what happens to historical memory when that integrity is suddenly broken? Continue reading