Reimagining the near past and constructing local identities. A Fulbright project by Linnea West (2012-13)
The visual arts and national identity were radically twisted and shaped by the oppressive political environment of the Soviet Regime. The Soviet Army initially entered Hungary to liberate it from Nazi Germany, but it stayed. While Soviet dominance in the People’s Republic of Hungary existed from 1945 until 1989, the time can be divided further into two periods. First, the Soviet military occupied Hungary until 1956, during which time Hungary was basically under martial law. After the 1956 revolution, Hungary became the ‘happiest barrack’ in the Eastern Bloc under a slightly more liberal Socialist regime led by János Kádár, also known as the period of ‘goulash communism.’
National identity in this era of oppression was defined in terms of opposition to the Soviet regime and its local representatives. This parallels in a basic sense the way nationalism was conceived of during Hapsburg rule, except now nationalist conceptions were stamped out much more ruthlessly and much top-down effort went into integrating Soviet ideology into society. In public forums, such as official statements or monuments, uniquely Hungarian aspects were subsumed by the enforced Soviet influence. Red stars—a symbol of the Soviet Union— were put on public buildings, such as the Hungarian Parliament building.
This history creates a dichotomy when ones talks about the arts, and certainly when one talks about national identity in the visual arts. Today the common generalization goes as follows: the official art of the Soviet regime was propaganda, bad, and in the Social Realist style, while unofficial art was opposed to the government, good, and avant-garde in style. Social Realism, typically focused on heroic figures of happy workers, was not, despite its name, realistic in its portrayal of life and it did not allow for criticism of the government, but rather bolstered it. This official art was supported by the state, while unofficial art was not funded and at times was more actively discouraged. There were moments of relative freedom. 1945 initially seemed an auspicious year for the arts with the ‘European School’ attempting to revive progressive Hungarian arts and integrate modern western art trends into the local scene. However, Soviet control quickly stamped it out.
Then, in 1956, ‘liberalization’ began in the arts in Hungary with the ‘three Ts’ (támogatott, tűrt, tiltott). Támogatott, supported, refers to work supported by the government. Tűrt, or tolerated, was the label applied to some avant-garde artists’s work. It was allowed to be shown, in line with Kádár’s pronouncement that “those who are not against us are with us,” albeit with nothing like the same level of financial support. Tiltott means banned, and artwork that was overtly questioning of the political system fell into this category. In the 1960s, Hungarian art once again attempted to deal with modern western art trends, albeit behind the Iron Curtain. For example in December of 1968, the IPARTERV exhibition presented some of the avant-garde art that had previously only been seen in studios. It showed the work of many, later prominent, artists and provided a space for critical reflection. The cultural policy of the state later forced some of these artists to emigrate, but the influence of their work on the Hungarian art scene was determinate.
The effects of the Soviet regime on the production of art were legion (many are well-known and common to the Eastern Bloc). To better understand the arts of this period, it is helpful to break down the hegemonic assumptions of Social Realist art versus avant-garde art. It is especially helpful to note the heterogeneity of the unofficial arts and to explore some of the ways it was expressed and shown in Hungary despite the prohibitions against it. The role of the artist in this period is noteworthy because it became much more that of an intellectual and a dissident position.
To refer to the unofficial art of the era as avant-garde is misleading. Avant-garde in this context refers to a variety of styles. For example, Abstract Expressionist paintings and Fluxus actions are not normally grouped together as they were in Hungary at this time. The political climate produced a false unity of resistance among unofficial artists, in which many different styles and practices fell under the umbrella of avant-garde. It included styles ranging from Pop and Op art to Minimalism and Actionism. However, this avant-garde movement, such as it was, became increasingly defined and synchronized with contemporary western endeavors under Kádár and relative freedom. The 1970s showed developments in movements such a Minimalism, performance, and happenings. The 1980s there was a grotesque-surreal trend and a ‘New Sensibility’ intellectually linked to post-modernism.
A lasting effect of the period concerns how art is thought of in Central and Eastern Europe. Avant-garde art, particularly abstract art, is considered ‘better’ merely by virtue of its style. As Katalin Timár remarks, “That abstract art is a higher form of expression than figurative or narrative has been a conviction of many arts professionals for many decades, which was obliquely reinforced by artists from the Eastern Bloc when they started to produce abstract works against the canon and political threat of the ruling party.” She goes on to write that:
“It is in this sense that many artists, at least in Hungary, have been considered subversive, not necessarily for the explicit political content of their work and their occasionally dissident political position, but for producing art that, in terms of a lifestyle and alternative mode of creative existence, proved to be critical of the principles of the Socialist canon.”
The latter statement highlights how all art was inherently political during this period.
For example, Dora Maurer has always denied that her conceptual artwork was political in nature, though it has often been construed as such. Seven Turns, recently re-discovered by an international audience at the 12th Istanbul Biennial, is a self-portrait that begins with the corner of Maurer’s face poking out from behind a square of white card and continues with her holding the previous portrait in the series rotated 45 degrees, culminating in a dizzying spiral of hands and peeking eyes. The explicit content of the work and the concepts of artmaking it explores are distinctly apolitical. However, because it was not made in the Social Realist style, it was assumed to be implicitly critical of the regime.
The role of the artist in society was defined by this period of Soviet oppression as well. Like the tradition of the Central and Eastern European intellectual, the artist’s role became to act as a resistance figure and the conscience of the nation. As noted above, art became a vehicle for political sentiment whether or not it dealt with politics, so much so that silence, or a “tight-fisted reluctance to engage is an important element in the political toolkit of Eastern European artists and intellectuals.” The idea of a dignified or heroic artistic suicide became glorified as better than being contaminated by directly political subjects. If the invisibility of not being able to show one’s work was not enough, there was another option. Artistic suicide could be effectively accomplished through emigration, an option that was forced on some dissident artists and not allowed to others.
Given this climate, national identity in the visual arts under the Soviet regime asserted itself by its mere existence as unofficial art. A huge variation exists within that. In a sense, opposition to the governing system created an easy solidarity and national identity was a simple matter of antithesis. The demise of Soviet influence left a void, in which representing national identity became much more complicated and contentious. Since then, integrating the unofficial art of this period into art history and also re-examining the works through contemporary artwork have been major endeavors of Hungarian art historians and artists.
Next article in this series: National identity in the visual arts (4): the aftermath of 1989
Previous article in this series: National identity in the visual arts (2): ‘the Long Century’
 Katalin Timár, Unmistakable Sentences. The Collection Revisited (Budapest: Ludwig Museum, 2011), 12.
 Timár, Unmistakable Sentences, 12.
 Gábor Andrási and András Zwickl, “Contemporary Art in the Nineties,” in The History of Hungarian Art in the Twentieth Century, ed. Gábor Andrási et al. (Budapest : Corvina, 1999), 194.