This is the first time a work by Lajos Kassák (1887–1967) features as our Artwork of the Month, but many of our previous articles have mentioned the artist’s name. This is due to Kassák’s uniquely central position in early-twentieth-century Hungarian avant-garde culture. He was not just a visual artist, but also a writer, poet, editor, organiser and thinker. Artists as important and diverse as Sándor Bortnyik (1893–1976), János Mattis-Teutsch (1884–1960), or Lajos Vajda (1908–1941) all belonged to Kassák’s circle before continuing on their separate paths. The significance of Kassák’s periodicals and collaborative projects is so great that they can easily steal the limelight from his individual artistic output. This is how Kassák became a recurring background figure on this blog, and it is high time for him to come into focus.
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.