National Histories, Imperial Memories: Representing the Past in Interwar Central Europe

In the successor states of the Habsburg Empire, official narratives of history tended to downplay the imperial context and highlight the continuous, distinct history of the nation. Nevertheless, while 1918 was undoubtedly a watershed moment, it did not suddenly obliterate the shared past. The built and artistic heritage of the Empire was still present and had to be dealt with, whether through appropriation, destruction, or reinterpretation. The nationalities of the former Empire were in constant interaction with each other, whether politically allied or opposed, and they still lived together in multiethnic territories such as Slovakia or Transylvania. Commemorations and representations of the national past were conceived with an eye on the ‘others’. Remembrance was polyphonic, with different groups forming their own narratives, even if these were not always officially recognised.

The seminar series National Histories, Imperial Memories will examine how visual culture in interwar central Europe engaged with the shared imperial past. It will feature papers on topics ranging from the postwar fate of pre-1918 public monuments and built heritage to  representations of the past in film, and from commemorations of war to idealised depictions of rural life.

The events will take place on Zoom, every fortnight starting on 21 September 2021 and concluding on 14 December 2021. The sessions will begin at 18.00 CET.

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Artwork of the Month, March 2021: The Gate of Heroes in Szeged (1936)

One sweltering Budapest summer, many years ago, I was a university student taking an exam in twentieth-century Hungarian art. The friendly visiting lecturer smiled encouragingly as I summarised the career of the painter Vilmos Aba-Novák (1894–1941).[1] Soon after starting to train as an artist, Aba-Novák was drafted into the army. After the war, he resumed his studies in printmaking, while also practising painting. Around this time he belonged to the circle of István Szőnyi (1894–1960), a group known for their idyllic compositions of nudes outdoors.[2] Also interested in rural subjects, he frequented artists’ colonies such as the one in Nagybánya (Baia Mare) and – more importantly – in Szolnok. For 1928–30 he received a scholarship from the Hungarian state to study in Rome. The purpose of the Rome scholarships introduced by Minister of Religion and Education Kuno Klebelsberg (1875–1932) was to encourage artists to develop a new monumental style fusing tradition and modernity, so they would be well equipped to fulfil state and ecclesiastical commissions.[3] Returning from Rome, Aba-Novák painted a number of frescoes, but these, I blurted out, are rather clumsy compared to his other work.

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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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