John Malathronas visits Hungary’s Communist-era statue park and finds a marriage of art and propaganda
After the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe, one of the first concerns of the newly elected governments was the fate of the glorious revolutionary monuments that adorned every street and square. While most countries have since let them fall into disrepair, sold them for scrap or seen them vandalised, Hungary has relocated its statues to an arid plot of land half an hour southwest of Budapest.
On arrival, the very sparseness of the site invites contemplation. Close to the entrance are two big boots on a pedestal — remnants that survived the famous toppling of Stalin’s statue. Is this not a reflection on the collapse of tyranny? To the right of the façade stands an image of Marx and Engels, carved from a single granite block. It’s cubist, abstract and bold, and poses another profound question. Is it art? Before this particular statue came to be removed, Budapest city council called on other municipalities to accept it. As it turned out, no one wanted a second-hand Marx and Engels for the same reason that Hungarians avoid this site: the recent past is always painful.
For years, Memento Park has been foreign visitors’ guilty secret. Getting there used to require braving the baffling Budapest bus network, but an enterprising company has now started a direct shuttle service from the centre. Even today, though, Hungarians make a sour face when you discuss it. “There are so many beautiful places in our capital, why go there?”
Well, it’s an unusual and distinctive site for a start and — for a Western tourist —utterly fascinating. Take away the propaganda symbolism and the statues are reduced to a museum aesthetic, inviting discussion and crying out for context. The tall triptych depicting veterans of the labour movement is meaningless if you don’t recognise the story, and the complex Béla Kun monument with the Hungarian leader preaching to the masses requires a PhD in Kremlinology to decode that the lamppost symbolises the gallows.
The monuments that are most moving are the ones that allow you to make up your own backstory. The Monument to the Martyrs of the Counter-Revolution shows a young man at the exact moment of death. He’s falling down, knees buckling as a bullet hits him, but his face is calm and his left arm extends upwards triumphantly. The circumstances don’t matter — this piece depicts martyrdom for any cause, anywhere, anytime.
Another startling statue rises at the opposite end of the park. Standing eight metres tall, it’s a forward-thrusting, banner-waving colossus of a worker, arms outstretched and mouth open mid-shout. He’s instantly recognisable as the archetype of an impassioned revolutionary, as significant today as ever. The fact that he represents the short-lived 1919 Hungarian Socialist Republic is immaterial.
If propaganda is effectively advertising, let’s pose that earlier question differently: can advertising be art? What about Toulouse-Lautrec’s lithographs? What about old movie posters drawn by graphic artists before Hollywood clamped down on image distribution? What about award-winning music videos?
What about the statues in Memento Park?