For centuries, the still life was considered as the least prestigious of artistic genres, dismissed by critics as undemanding because it only depicted lifeless objects. Yet, there was always more to still lifes than what immediately meets the eye. Allowing unexpected connections between seemingly unrelated objects, they lent themselves to symbolic compositions; they were well suited for referencing the work of other artists or for creating commemorative images. Rather than just ‘copying’ nature, artists often used the genre to intellectually reflect on the possibility of ‘lifelike’ representation. From the late nineteenth century onwards the still life became a preferred genre for the formal experimentations of avant-garde artists. This article will explore a still life by the Hungarian artist István Dési Huber as an expression of his artistic credo. Enclosing works by two contemporary artists, Käthe Kollwitz and László Mészáros, into its pictorial world, Still Life with Liebknecht Print reflects Dési Huber’s views on artistic tradition, the autonomy of art, as well as the artist’s social role.
This is what it looks like, my child, this world, that is what you have been born into, there are those born to shear and those born to be shorn. That, my child, is what it looks like in this world of ours and that of other countries, and if you, my child, do not like it, then you will just have to change it.
Set above a busy photo-collage of a newborn baby surrounded by newspaper cut-outs, these words call out for action in a world of political tension. Together with the images below it, they show a violent and turbulent world in which the baby seems already lost in its first moments of life. Forming part of a series of six photo collages created in Vienna in the early 1930s, This Is What It Looks Like gives a glimpse into anti-fascist photographic work in interwar Austria.
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.
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.