Thursday, 30 March 2017

Memento Park - Remembering History's 'Dead Ends'

"Dictatorships chip away at and plaster over their past in order to get rid of all the memories of previous ages. Democracy is the only regime that is prepared to accept that our past, with all the dead ends, is still ours; we should get to know it, analyse it and think about it."

- Ákos Eleod, Memento Park architect

Liberating Soviet Soldier by Zsigmond Strobl Kisfauldy, 1947
(torn down by revolutionaries in 1956, then re-erected in 1958)

Statues have extraordinary political and cultural significance here in Budapest. Whether it be the aggrandising memorials to some less-than-heroic figures near Parliament, the controversial monument depicting Nazi occupation in Liberty Square, or the recent decision to remove the sculpture of Georgy Lucács, these (admittedly impressive) effigies reflect many of the ideological battles fought across Hungary for the past two centuries, and which continue today.

Monument to Soviet-Hungarian Friendship by Barna Buza, 1975

Memento Park represents the Hungarian attempt to do exactly as its architect says, and preserve the symbols of the Soviet dictatorship whilst exposing the tools of ideological warfare during the Communist period (1949-1989). When this regime ended, the gargantuan statues the communists had erected were immediately pulled down. Instead of destroying them (and 'plastering over' a tragic and difficult period), a decision was made by the city council to create a thematic statue park on the Tétényi moors outside the city centre. 

Even the competition to design the park was an ideological conflict, perhaps reflecting the Hungarian consciousness about the previous 40 years. One approach envisioned a 'Shame Park', a guilty reminder of how many citizens collaborated with the Soviet occupation. Their opposition suggested an 'Irony Park' that would use the statues to ridicule dictatorship. Ákos Eleod's winning design found a third path, intending to capture what he called the "historical series of paradoxes": that these are historical monuments to a dictatorship, yet also elements of a proud history; that they are works of art yet also symbols of authority; and that they are items of propaganda whose psychological power should be exposed not denied. 

The colossal sculptures - and those more human-scaled - in the park each tell a different story that reflects these paradoxes, often with a typically Hungarian absurdist wit. The statue of Lenin (below), Budapest's first, was created to stand outside Csepel Iron and Metal Works in advance of Khrushchev's visit in the late 50s. The intention was to remind workers of the power of communist ideology. It was swiftly produced in time for the 41st anniversary of the Great Socialist October Revolution and was unveiled on Nov 7th, 1958. However, the materials used were of such poor quality and the construction so rushed that within ten years the statue was riddled with holes. In March 1970, the ironworks recast the statue and replaced the original in secrecy. The indignities didn't end there: in the early 80s someone placed a piece of bread and dripping into Lenin's saluting hand and hung a sign around his neck that read: "Stop smirking Lenin, this will not last forever. After 150 years we didn't become Turkish either!"

"Stop smirking, Lenin..." - by unknown Soviet sculptor

One of the most awe-inspiring effigies is the Monument to the Hungarian Socialist Republic (below). It is modelled on an army recruitment poster by Róbert Berény entitled "To Arms!" and was erected in 1969 at the edge of Budapest's City Park. The political state it is memorialising is again a political paradox. The Hungarian Socialist Republic was a 'proletariat dictatorship' announced by Béla Kun and his followers in 1919. This was after the collapse of Hungary's 'Chrysanthemum Revolution' that finally freed them from Austrian control. The HRC did lots of progressive things: nationalised the banks, factories, transport and schools, and introduced an eight-hour working day; gave the right to vote to all, championed equal rights for women and minorities; and even introduced social security and child protection laws. Unfortunately, they also began to systematically eliminate any political enemies, a purge which quickly spread into their own party. As a result of this - and the opposition of the rest of post-WWI Europe - the regime lasted for only 133 days.

Monument to the Hungarian Socialist Republic by István Kiss, 1969

The statue also became the butt of many locals jokes. Urban myth has it the figure was nicknamed 'The Cloakroom Attendant', who is running after a departing customer shouting "Sir, you've forgotten your scarf!"

Béla Kun Memorial by Imre Varga, 1986

Possibly one of the most artistically impressive works is this huge bronze, chrome and red copper work of massed figures that was created by Imre Varga, one of Hungary's most respected sculptors. In 1986, the communists commissioned the piece to honour Béla Kun, who led the Hungarian Soviet Republic in 1919 (see above). Kun was an odd choice to heroize: after the collapse of his regime in 1920, he fled Hungary to Russia, where he was responsible for the execution of thousands of prisoners of war and the ethnic cleansing of 60,000 Crimean Turks. Varga himself was an strange choice of artist, renowned for his humanising of heroes and mythological figures, rendering them in human scale and 'bringing them down to size'. 

Civilian figures represent the 'Chrysanthemum Revolution' (detail)

More two-dimensional metallic Red Army soldiers (detail)

The final composition is less than flattering to Kun. He stands at the back, removed from the crowd, his platform a ship (which implies a storm-tossed leadership). He urges the crowd forward, yet seems to be waving goodbye with his hat - perhaps a reference to his abandonment of Hungary after his regime collapsed. On the left are ordinary civilians who formed the 'Chrysanthemum Revolution', but they turn into two-dimensional metallic Red Army soldiers by the end of the procession. The fact they all seem to hover above the ground make them appear like ghosts, symbolising all those who were executed during the Red Terror. Again, the paradox of a turbulent 20th Century is eloquently represented.

The Peace Guards' Bas-Relief by Sándor Ambrózi and Károly Stockert, 1958

What is also nice to see is the array of sculptures representing ordinary working people. Communism is on ideologically unsound ground when it establishes leaders as idols, but when it memorialises the common men and women, then the park can be refreshing. There are numerous busts, reliefs or plaques celebrating union leaders, print-shop worker, carpenters and jewelers who were martyred for their beliefs during the Horthy-fascist regime of the 40s. Though the following regime may have been just as brutal, it doesn't diminish the revolutionary spirit of those honoured. Nor does it undermine the efforts of those who fought to liberate Budapest from German control in 1945. The Peace Guard's Bas-Relief is unusual for celebrating the role of children and female radio-operators, whilst the stunning Liberation Monument is a proud tribute to those who fought the fascists... whilst still a reminder that these freedom fighters were often accused of crimes and persecuted in later years.

Liberation Monument by Viktor Kalló, 1965

It is fitting that the entrance to the museum is guarded by the dais and colossal boots of Stalin. The dais is a replica of that which stood in Felvonulási tér, where the communist leaders stood to be saluted by marching crowds on national holidays.

1949 parade before Stalin's statue in Felvonulási tér

During the October 1956 revolution, the rebelling public sawed the statue of Stalin off at the knees and pulled it down. Over following days, before the Red Army was called in to crush the revolution, the huge boots that were left behind became a comical image, mocking the dangerous might of the dictator. Now, the park's final view is down a walled tunnel, imitating the forced idolatory of the regime, with the boots framed at the end - an Ozymandias-style reminder that all such dictatorships will eventually crumble.

Entrance, with a replica of the grandstand dias and Stalin's boots in the background
And as one leaves the park, a poster reduces to Lenin's power to a more contemporary form of 'people power':

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