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). 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. 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. Returning from Rome, Aba-Novák painted a number of frescoes, but these, I blurted out, are rather clumsy compared to his other work.
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.
It is August and the family gathers in the summer house located in south Moravia. We start discussing current affairs in the evening and the obvious topics of Czech and British politics dominate as usual. This is followed by the inevitable complaints about the state of the motorway between Prague and Brno which has been in constant repairs for years and the end is not in sight. Someone suggests that perhaps a crew of guerrilla builders should finish the repairs on the motorway overnight. This is a reference to a guerrilla cleaner who recently, of his own accord, removed an illegal graffiti from the Charles Bridge in Prague. The National Heritage Institute had put together a several week long plan for the removal work which for them required a careful and laborious work under close supervision. Instead, one morning the graffiti is simply gone, cleaned by high pressure steam by a Mr Černý, an independent contractor. Continue reading
On 6 May 1928 the ceremonial unveiling took place of a monument to Ferdinand Lasalle in Vienna. Located in the north-eastern suburb of Brigittenau, and placed in front of the recently built Winarsky Hof, a communal housing project built by the municipality, the monument commemorated Ferdinand Lassalle (1825-1864). A native of the German city of Breslau (now Wrocław, Poland), Lassalle had no obvious connection to Austria. He was, however, a leading figure in Socialist politics in the 1840s and 1850s, having been imprisoned for his support for the 1848 revolution. It was in recognition of his commitment to socialist politics that in 1863 he was appointed the first president of the General German Worker’s Association, forerunner of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD). It was for this reason that the monument was erected to him in Vienna some 60 years later, for Vienna city council was dominated by Social Democrats, whose social and cultural policies earned the capital the name of ‘Red Vienna.’