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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Place, Memory, Propaganda: The 1930 album Justice for Hungary!

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