Framed by soft hills and picturesque huts, November’s Artwork of the Month transports us to the countryside of eastern Czechoslovakia in a painting by Anna Lesznai (1885-1967). Born and raised as the daughter of an ennobled Hungarian-Jewish family in Körtvélyes, then Upper Hungary, Anna Lesznai was one of the core female members of the Hungarian pre-war avant-garde. In the context of the Arts and Crafts revival at the turn of the twentieth century, which found enthusiastic reception in late-Habsburg Hungary, her craftwork gained much attention, alongside her poetry and fairy-tales for children. However, Lesznai also produced graphic designs, painted, taught at Dezső Orbán’s Atelier art school in Budapest in the 1930s and successfully participated in a number of exhibitions. Forced to emigrate after the rise of the Horthy regime because of her involvement in the Hungarian Republic of Councils in 1919, Lesznai lived between Vienna and the family estate in Körtvélyes (from 1920 Hrušov, Czechoslovakia; part of Slovakia since 1993). Based on an interest in folk art and peasant culture from the region, which she had begun to study in the early 1900s, Lesznai produced numerous watercolours in the 1920s and 30s which focused on life in the villages surrounding her estate and received enthusiastic reception when exhibited in Vienna.
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.
Artistic concepts tend to travel quickly, but they also change during travel. Moreover, they scatter in different directions when affected by certain historical, societal or cultural conditions. The turmoil after the First World War left the newly founded nation states in Central Europe reeling, especially Hungary, which lost a huge part of its territory after the Treaty of Trianon (1920). At the end of the First World War, a part of the Hungarian art scene moved forward from its post-impressionist traditions and followed a neo-classicist upswing that happened in France, Italy, and all around Europe. Often considered a direct reaction to the chaos in post-war societies, the new classicism in Europe evolved differently in every region and is still not fully explored today.
Erzsébet Korb (1899–1925) started her career in the years of the war. She was born in 1899, as the oldest daughter of the well-known Hungarian architect Flóris Korb (1860–1930). He raised his daughters in an artistic environment and later enabled them to follow their careers as painters or dancers. Erzsébet’s talents in drawing and painting were noticed early. Already in 1916, at the age of 17, she exhibited three works at the National Salon in Budapest. Her paintings were heavily influenced by the new classicism. As a young female painter, she altered those tropes and gave them slight nuances. Therefore, most of her female figures show shorter hair and a rather strong body, while men often appear androgynous. Not meant as a direct critique of societal change, but rather driven by formal developments within Hungarian art, her depiction of naked women express deep, heartfelt mourning over a troubled world.
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.
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