From Disintegration to Silence: Drawing the Hungarian Revolution

Although the revolutions of 1989 are commemorated as marking the fall of the Soviet Union, many consider that the beginning of the end was 33 years earlier, in 1956. At the start of that year, on 25 February, new Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev delivered the ground-breaking speech “On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences” to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. What became known as the Secret Speech condemned Stalin for brutal mass repressions and accused the late dictator of having distorted the ideals of Communism for personal gain. By early June the full text of the Secret Speech was leaked by the CIA to the world’s media and broadcast into the Soviet bloc by Radio Free Europe, setting off a chain of rebellions among citizens of countries remotely controlled by the Kremlin.

The most dramatic of these rebellions was in Hungary, where protests raged from 23 October until 10 November 1956. The contents of the Secret Speech had inflamed an already smouldering power struggle between Mátyás Rákosi and Nagy Imre, who had enraged the old guard and inspired a younger generation with his liberal reforms. The spirited student uprising that initiated the Hungarian Revolution rapidly transformed into a nationwide revolt. But after nineteen days, it was cruelly crushed beneath Soviet tanks, leaving thousands of demonstrators dead and leading to the exodus of up to 200,000 Hungarian citizens. These events would provoke and inspire Hungarian and international artists both in 1956 and for years to come.

One such artist was József Jakovits, a modernist sculptor born in Budapest in 1909. In 1945, Jakovits had been one of the leading Surrealist sculptors to found the Hungarian avant-garde group, the European School. But when a repressive Communist government took power in 1948, this and other modern art groups were banned, as the Soviet artistic policy of Socialist Realism was imposed on Hungary’s artists. That same year, Jakovits’s studio was confiscated and several of his statues were destroyed by the authorities. In 1953, in the aftermath of Stalin’s death, Jakovits made clear his disgust at Soviet influence in Hungary in his ribald effigy Dove for Peace (Stalin’s Dove of Peace).

Three years later, during the heady days of the Hungarian Uprising, Jakovits produced a series of ten pencil drawings, entitled Revolution. Using his distinct style of biomorphic abstraction, Jakovits chronicled the revolutionaries’ fight against the encroaching Soviet army.

Art historian Gary van Wyk of the Alma on Dobbin gallery in New York has described the progress of the series as follows:

“In the first few images of the Revolution Series, a unified biomorphic form coalesces but then fractures into an image of fratricide, Brothers Fighting Brothers [top row, middle]. The identity of the opponents takes form in Battle between the Devil and the Angel [top row, second from right]. Poet Stefánia Mándy described the scene in Before the Tanks [bottom row, left] as a horned “hero” or “totem”, representing the revolutionaries and “the universal power of the human spirit”, confronting rows of tanks. In Soul of Heroes [bottom row, middle], an ominous black force evolves as the dead revolutionaries vaporize. In Last Breath [bottom row, second from right], the evil victor becomes a bird of prey, gets the upper hand, and imposes a rigid order. In the final print in the series, Silence [bottom row, right], this bird is hieratic, its wings reduced to a closed circle, charged with zigzagging lines like an electrified circuit. Now, however, the bird appears to be possessed by one of the beings it has subsumed. Its panoptic eye, surveying all, is also the artist’s eye, a motif that recurs in Jakovits’s self-portraits. From the eye of this apparently electrocuted being emerges a tear so large that it reads like a tear in the paper.”
[Ref: Gary van Wyk, ’56: Artists and the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 (New York: Alma on Dobbin, 2015)]

Under Hungary’s new puppet regime, Jakovits was informed that his art would never again be publicly exhibited in the country. After toiling in obscurity for several years, the artist was finally granted permission to emigrate to New York in 1965. There he remained until 1987, when Hungary finally began to break free from Soviet influence and Jakovits was invited to resettle in Budapest. Upon his return, Jakovits used his revolutionary drawings from 1956 to produce a portfolio of lithographs which served as a timely reminder of one of the Soviet Union’s most shameful moments just prior to the nation’s dissolution.

Images: József Jakovits. Upper: Dove for Peace (Stalin’s Dove of Peace) [Békegalamb (Sztálin békegalambja)], 1953. Aluminium, 44.5 x 32 x 24 cm; Lower, top row, L–R: Disintegration [Bomlás], Unfolding [Kibontakozás], Brothers Fighting Brothers [Testvérharc], Battle Between the Devil and the Angel [Ördög és angyal harca], Warrior [Harcos]; Lower, bottom row, L–R: Before the Tanks [Tankok előtt], Conquering the Devil [Ördög legyőzése], Soul of Heroes [Hősök lelke], Last Breath [Utolsó lélegzet], Silence [Csend]. Each 1956/1989, etching on white paper, 32.2 x 22.3 cm. All works courtesy Müller-Keithly Collection of Hungarian Art, New York.

Featured Artist: Stefan Constantinescu

The Romanian Revolution from 16 to 27 December 1989 swept Nicolae Ceaușescu from power and brought an end to 42 years of communist rule. While 25 years have now passed since that tumultuous fortnight a number of Romanian artists continue to explore their country’s struggles in the aftermath of revolution. Once such artist is Ştefan Constantinescu.

Born in Bucharest in 1968, Constantinescu experienced first hand the daily grind of life during Ceaușescu’s regime. He trained as a painter but has since worked predominantly in film. Much of Constantinescu’s work is autobiographical, such as his darkly ironic pop-up book The Golden Age for Children. The book interweaves text and photos from the artist’s biography with historical details of the so-called ‘Golden Age’ of Romania under Ceaușescu.

In one of his video projects – The Last Analog Revolution, a Memory Box – Constantinescu also led other artists in combining their personal experiences with episodes from Cold War history. The project brought together works by artists from Eastern and Western Europe to explore how technological developments in the twentieth century was both a catalyst for revolution and a means of uniting the divided continent.

Between 2009 and 2010 Constantinescu used his training as a painter to create a series of 22 paintings entitled An Infinite Blue. The artist appropriated the Soviet artistic style of Socialist Realism, which was also mandatory in communist Romania, and sourced content from propaganda images produced in the 1960s. In these canvases Constantinescu sought to convey the nostalgia felt by many Romanians for the pre-revolutionary era which they retrospectively regard as a time of economic stability and superior quality of life.

You can read more about how Romanian artists including Ştefan Constantinescu and Adrian Ghenie have confronted their country’s difficult past and present in the article Remnants: Socialist Realism in Contemporary Romanian Painting.

Images by Ştefan Constantinescu, courtesy the artist. Top – The Golden Age for Children, pop-up book, 2008. Bottom – Biology Laboratory, oil on canvas, 2009–10.

Iraq’s Modernist Monument to the 14 July Revolution

On 14 July 1958 a secret military group of Arab nationalists, known as the Free Officers, staged a coup d’état in Iraq. The revolution aimed to eliminate the Hashemith monarchy and the last vestiges of British colonial rule in the country. During the coup 23-year-old King Faisal II and his family were assassinated, removing a key ally in the West’s attempts to combat Soviet influence in the Middle East. Following the pattern of so many post-revolutionary countries, the Republic of Iraq rapidly descended into a militarised state controlled by an oppressive regime, which gave rise to the brutal dictatorship of Saddam Hussein.

In 1959 the famous painter and sculptor Jawad Saleem was asked by the Iraqi government to design a monument to commemorate the 14 July Revolution. The El Haria (Liberty) Monument in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square is today one of the city’s most iconic landmarks and has overlooked many dramatic scenes during the republic’s turbulent history.

The frieze, which blends neo-classical design with modernist flair, comprises 25 human figures together with a horse and a bull, cast in bronze and welded together against a marble background. Although Saleem’s death in 1961 prevented his seeing the final construction, it remains a lasting tribute to Iraq’s history as a centre for modern art.

Images: Baghdad’s Tahrir Square by Ahmed Al Jrah

What & Where: Nixon Gets the Stalin Treatment

Several years before the Watergate scandal brought Richard Nixon’s presidency to an undignified end, a grateful Hungarian émigré artist memorialised the politician in an altogether more favourable light.

Nixon at Andau was painted in 1970 by Ferenc Daday, who had emigrated to the United States along with many of his compatriots after the failed Hungarian Revolution of 1956. The painting recalls Nixon’s visit that year to meet displaced Hungarians in an Austrian refugee camp. As vice president to Eisenhower, Nixon had fought to relax immigration rules to allow Hungarians to move to the United States after their uprising was crushed by the Soviet Red Army.

NixonThe painting now takes pride of place in the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, in the statesman’s birth town of Yorba Linda, California. As Daday was trained in the official Soviet artistic dogma of Socialist Realism, he depicted Nixon in the heroic style that was normally reserved for communist leaders such as Stalin and Lenin. This cultish portrayal of Nixon as ‘prophet and peacemaker’ has led the painting to be derided by some. Yet the monumental ten-by-six-foot canvas is a fascinating historical record of an alternative view of a divisive Cold War leader.

Images: Ferenc Daday, Nixon at Andau, 1970. Oil on canvas. Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, Yorba Linda, California. Photos by Jim Steinhart © 2011

The Reclining Lenins of Ukraine

In times of revolution, political statuary often pays the price. Since Ukraine’s latest troubles began, sculptures symbolising the country’s turbulent relationship with Russia have felt the full force of the nation’s anger.

A “statue war” between pro- and anti-Russian citizens foreshadowed the current crisis, with at least 12 statues of Lenin defaced in Ukraine since 2009. One of the casualties was a historic statue in the centre of Kiev, which lost its nose and part of the left hand. Installed in 1946, the statue had long symbolised Russia’s attempts to control of its neighbour. On 8 December 2013 the iconoclasm escalated when the same statue was toppled by protesters. The felled sculpture was attacked with hammers and an EU flag was placed in the remaining pedestal, a nod to the removal of a hated statue of Stalin in Budapest in 1956 (read more about that incident in the ESPIONART post Uprising Against Hungary’s Sculpture).

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Since the attack in Kiev, violence against Ukraine’s Cold War era sculptures has become epidemic, and in a matter of months over 100 figures of Lenin have been destroyed. The statues have now become a battle ground between Ukrainians on either side of the dispute, with pro-Russians camped out below the statues to prevent their destruction.

Images: Statue of Lenin near Bessarabsky Market in Kiev – before and after its destruction on 8 December 2013

When Art Escaped the Cuban Revolution

After 6 years of conflict, the overthrow of Fulgencio Batista as President of Cuba on 1 January 1959 marked the end of the Cuban Revolution and the establishment of Fidel Castro’s socialist state. Sensing the imminent demise of his regime, Batista was careful to ensure his personal art collection would escape intact from the island. The collection was donated in 1957 ‘to the city and people of Daytona Beach’, the area in Florida where Batista and his wife had lived in exile during the 1940s. The following year the artworks were secretly transported out of the country.

The collection formed the Cuban Foundation Museum, now housed in the city’s Museum of Arts and Sciences. The 200 objects, dating from the Spanish Colonial period to the mid-twentieth century, comprise important examples of folk and decorative arts and the largest collection of Cuban paintings outside the country.

Archiaga Cuban FoundationCastro’s government approached the Daytona Beach authorities in 1962 to request the return of the artworks, but the city refused to consider the proposal until such time as there might be ‘a more friendly government in Cuba’. Calls to return the works have resurfaced in recent years, but as yet this rare and valuable collection continues to surprise audiences in one corner of the Sunshine State.

Lorenzo Romero Arciaga, The Cup of Coffee, c. 1940. Courtesy The Cuban Foundation, Museum of Arts and Sciences, Daytona Beach.

Uprising Against Hungary’s Sculpture

budapest 2In the words of then-Senator John F. Kennedy, ‘October 23, 1956 is a day that will live forever in the annals of free men and nations. It was a day of courage, conscience and triumph. No other day since history began has shown more clearly man’s eternally unquenchable desire to be free, whatever the odds against success, whatever the sacrifice required’. One of the most memorable events of that day, the first of the short-lived Hungarian Uprising, was the scene of revolutionaries ripping apart a loathed statue of Stalin in Budapest. By the end of the day only his boots were left, in which were planted a Hungarian flag.

50 years later, on the spot where the statue of Stalin had once stood, the Hungarian government unveiled the Monument of the 1956 Revolution. This formidable sculpture is made up of 1,956 steel posts, initially rusted and scattered randomly, before converging to form a highly-polished sharp wedge, intended to symbolise national unity and defiance against oppression.

Yet an artwork that should have brought the Hungarian people together instead provoked a rift, as the familiar Cold War battle between abstract and realist art was reawakened in 2006. Supporters of the monument speak warmly of its comparison to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, which also divided opinion when first opened but is now widely celebrated. But many veterans of the failed revolution, who suffered vicious reprisals after the Red Army finally overcame the street fighters on 10 November 1956, expressed their dislike for the abstract memorial and favoured a figurative scene of heroic revolutionaries. The debate is still very much alive today.

Images: Top – Destruction of statue of Stalin, Budapest, 23 October 1956, Courtesty BBC News; Bottom – Monument of the 1956 Revolution. Courtesy jaime.silva on Flickr