A VISIT TO SZOBORPARK
We missed the stop for Szoborpark. A young backpack couple had gotten off the bus; I'd noticed an impressive brick wall with three large portals, braced by stone buttresses and topped with a classical capital, like nothing so much as the facade of a church that had never been finished; then dark bronze heads in dynamic attitudes slid past; and at my wife's question I ran to the bus driver, who with a friendly laugh jerked his thumb back toward the stop we had just left.
But he didn't make us wait till the next regular stop; so we hiked back a quarter-mile against country traffic, and turned in at the churchly brick facade, to be greeted, in the near niche, by a giant Lenin.
This – not at all the terminus of the bus route – was Szoborpark (in English, Statue Park). From inattentive reading of our Budapest guidebook, and the bright red ad on the standard tourist map, I had expected a large green public park to which the old statues of the Communist era had been hauled for the liberated masses to picnic beneath and let their children climb in pleasant vengeful mockery of the symbols of the dictatorship, now reduced from monsters to clowns.
Not quite. Far from being a large park in or on the edge of the city, it's miles out of town, in hilly countryside marked by expensive new American-looking suburban homes; it's tiny; and it's surrounded by weeds, wild flowers, and other scrub not yet cleared for the encroaching homes.
You cannot enter the park through the facade's triple entrance, between the Socialist Realism Lenin, on your left, and on your right a somewhat more "modernistic" duo of Marx and (a step behind) Engels, huge granite masses and lines reminiscent of Stonehenge or Easter Island. The three portals are gated, inside, by a stockade fence. The gate (almost) never opens. (This appears to be meant to be symbolic.) But you can simply step around the facade and up to the ticket counter cum souvenir shop, manned by two formidably smiling middle-aged women who don't speak any more English than I do Hungarian. Among candy and soft drinks for sale there are also theme-chotzkes, including mugs and T-shirts; the latter ranging from a red "MARX PARK" with squat Marx-Engels-Lenin-&-Che glaring like Cartman-Stan-Kyle-&-Kenny, to a long revolutionary exhortation on a photo of Che Guevara that does not, in fact, sound at all ironic. CDs of the "Internationale" and other Socialist choral works are also in stock.
With the multi-service Budapest Card, the 600 HUF (Hungarian forints, or $3) entrance fee is waived; but the 600 HUF English guidebook is indispensable.
Behind the brick facade the park – conceived and financed by the post-Communist Budapest Assembly (city council) – is shaped as a series of horizontal figure 8 gardens through which a straight path passes – to dead-end at a brick wall. (This also seems to be meant to be symbolic.) Gravel walks edge ovals of patchy lawn; some grassy patches also cropping up in the gravel. In the center of it all on a circle of grass lies a star of red flowers (which used to lie in a greater circle at the Buda entrance to the famous old Chain Bridge across the Danube to Pest).
The figure 8's ascend tree-like from (to my taste) the dull to the fascinating. For much of the park the guidebook is worth more attention than the artifacts themselves. There are many plaques and conventional larger-than-life statues in simple heroic poses. Quite a number are called Liberation Monuments, honoring the Soviet troops who drove out the Germans and destroyed the Hungarian fascist Arrowcross at the end of World War II. Even here ambiguity intrudes a bit. One giant Russian soldier, legend has it, might actually have been commissioned before the war as a giant Hungarian soldier, modeled by the son of the Hitler-friendly dictator Admiral Miklos Horthy.
Another monument has acquired unintended ambiguity from the post-1989 perspective. It's a massive breached white wall of baked limestone, nearly two-meters thick, with the heroic white baked limestone figure of a worker standing forth out of the breach. The wall was originally meant to represent the fascist/bourgeois oppression of the workers. Today a first-time viewer cannot help thinking of another wall and a different meaning.
Not only Lenin but one or two (to non-Hungarians) obscure personages stand with right arm extended in a gesture of ... demonstration? benevolence? We've seen pictures of Lenin statues like this before.
Having led the Bolshevik revolution, taken over the state apparatus of Russia, and reorganized the Czarist distribution of power, Lenin can be said to have given at least the Russian proletariat a world they'd never had before. Taken and given. One can muse how that magnanimous pose of one man giving a world to millions tends to conflict with the theory of the proletariat collectively seizing the means of production for themselves. Praxis and theory often conflict, but one wouldn't expect to see this one fact of praxis idealized as the great thing to be collectively grateful for. Other dynamics were in play, of course, and Lenin did not order his own statues; Stalin did. O.K. But who are these other putative benefactors with arms extended; and, more to the point, who ordered their statues, and why?
As the guidebook makes clear, most of the individuals memorialized did not live to see the Hungarian Communist regime establish itself. They were founders or early leaders of the Hungarian Communist Party (or its successor Hungarian Socialist Workers' Party); but most importantly they were martyred by the Horthy regime before World War II, or by the Arrowcross or Germans during. There are no statues of or tributes to the men who set up the postwar Communist regime, or (with the exception of the deceased Ferenc Munnich, one of the benevolent arms) who perpetuated it after suppression of the Hungarian Revolution of October-November 1956.
One big reason for this, of course, is the official repudiation of the Cult of Personality, in February 1956, by Nikita Krushchev, First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, when he denounced Stalin before the 20th Party Congress.
It may also be observed that dead martyrs are more manageable than live officials. One can do just about anything with them, as symbols and myths, and never risk disgrace by subsequent deviations from whatever line they are meant to exemplify. As for the live officials, like Janos Kadar, who took over from the deposed Imre Nagy after the ‘56 Revolution, if any statues of him have been raised, they are not here.
I cannot comment further about this possibility, because beyond what I've read in the guidebook, and the little I've read since returning home, I know nothing about the history of Communism in Hungary, except the general reputation it shares with its Warsaw Pact comrades. Frankly, Szoborpark is not about the facts of history but the dreams – more precisely, the symbols and myths of a dream destroyed.
It doesn't really matter, I think, that the dream might have been destroyed by the dreamers themselves, or by their grandchildren. It lived, and sent deep roots, into the imaginations of Hungarians, roots still living. That's what Szoborpark makes clear. Although the brochures say "It's not a memorial to Communism, but to the fall of Communism," make no mistake: it's both. That is what is fascinating, and haunting, about the park, the tension in its garden air. As my wife put it: "They despise Communism, but they also love it."
I could walk you through the figure 8's and the guidebook. But I'd rather focus on the three monuments I found most striking.
First there's the gigantic worker, striding gigantically, arms spread as though in flight, flag flying from one fist, the other doubling up to land a death blow to the enemies of the people. He might derive from Delacroix's "Liberty Leading the People," but he's no bare-breasted beauty: he's raw strength, power, determination, and rage. (In fact, he derives from a 1919 poster proclaiming "FEGYVERBE! FEGYVERBE!" ("To Arms! To Arms!") He might look silly at first sight striking such an enormous pose in the patchy grass of a little garden. But keep staring at him, walk from side to side, and step back a ways to let him loom upon you whole, and the silliness fades beneath his force.
The second memorial is the most unexpected of the entire group. It's a neo-Cubist frieze in baked white limestone, about one meter high and maybe a dozen meters long, of nearly abstract squares and circles and rectangles of stone, some incised, some embossed, in the forms of flames, Guernica-like hands, fists, falling blocks – and in one giant carved sunburst, a falling head. In the center names are carved horizontally in vertical blocks – and to their left (our right) rise more vertical, perhaps positive lines and a new sunburst pointing further left to a circle of faceless armed figures, and even further left in a sweep of pole-like lines and waving flag-shapes three individual profiles in a row wearing military hats. Below them what looks like a stone crankshaft is followed by stone stalks of wheat, a stone collage of cubist blocks; and above them, surprisingly small, a deeply incised star. The limestone is pitted and veined as weathered limestone would be; but it also bears sharp cavities that might have come from a sledgehammer, and faint traces of red paint. The entire frieze is also cracked all over where it has been dressed together again from the fragments into which it was broken in the months after ‘89. For this is a memorial to certain members of the State Security Forces (AVH), or secret police, executed in a pivotal moment of the ‘56 Revolution as they filed in surrender out of the Budapest Communist Party Headquarters. The guidebook reproduces the powerful sequence of snapshots that appeared in LIFE magazine at the time, showing a group of six of the policemen in the seconds just before, during, and after their summary execution.
The memorial was not unveiled until 1983. One can wonder at the reasons for the passage of time between event and memorial, and the specific political context in which, and purpose for which, the unpopular sentiment was asserted. The AVH, by most accounts, had started the shooting of the ‘56 Revolution, mowing down unarmed demonstrators in front of the state radio station and, two days later, the Parliament building, and were the only Hungarians to join Russian troops in opposing and crushing the Revolution. (Hungarian soldiers and regular police went over to the Revolutionaries.) But I don't think one can honestly doubt the sentiment of the party and state officials, whatever else we think of them. The dream they were trying to make concrete was suddenly threatened with complete subversion in October of 1956, and scores of "loyal" AVH and intervening Soviet troops died to preserve the dream and the praxis. They were universally condemned by the West and others in the Third World. But the Second World apparatchiks were determined to honor their defenders – who had since joined the ranks of the martyrs of the Arrowcross and the Third Reich.
The third memorial is the only artifact in the park that I believe deserves to appear in an art gallery, or an art gallery's garden. But that would not do it justice. Placement in any gallery setting would tame its force. It belongs on a public hill (whence it came), sole focus of attention, but free of official trappings – open for all to behold and ponder.
Rendered in 1986 by Imre Varga, one of 20th Century Hungary's preeminent sculptors, it represents Bela Kun exhorting Hungarian soldiers to the attack.
Kun was People's Commissar for Foreign Affairs during the short-lived Republic of Councils (a/k/a Hungarian Soviet Republic) in the spring and summer of 1919. He had been a young Socialist journalist before World War I; had entered the Austro-Hungarian army after war broke out; been captured by Czarist troops and freed by the Bolsheviks, whom he joined in the early months of Lenin's government; and returned to Hungary with a corps of fellow Socialist prisoners-of-war to organize the Hungarian Communist Party and subvert the shaky democratic-socialist coalition that had succeeded the fallen imperial government.
He actually enjoyed greater success in bringing down that coalition than he would in making the Republic function. In fact, the Republic was dominated by left socialists who had sprung Kun and colleagues from prison to form a socialist-communist coalition. But the price of coalition was dissolution of the Communist Party and defeat of every significant attempt by Kun and fellow Communists to negotiate the nominal dictatorship of the proletariat into something truly Leninist. Even if Kun and company had not committed serious blunders, and had prevented the sporadic quasi-official terror on their extreme left, the Republic probably would not have withstood the joint French-Czech-Romanian invasion that installed the "White" dictatorship of Admiral Horthy. For the Russians, the Hungarian Republic of Councils became a prime example of how NOT to conduct a revolution.
But in Communist art there is not only Socialist Realism, there is also Revolutionary Romanticism; and thanks to his pre-Republic subversive energy, ingenuity, and oratory, Bela Kun became the legendary face of the Republic of Councils. He is the hero of the first bold attempt to establish socialism in Hungary. The fact that in 1939 he was executed after one of Stalin's purge trials is a point in his favor. The Stalinists installed by Soviet troops after World War II to establish a second, lasting socialist government in Budapest – most of them old colleagues from the 1919 Republic – preferred to forget him. Then they were themselves purged (but not executed, or even imprisoned) in 1955-1956 – before the Revolution -- and by the 1980's, another generation later, Bela Kun had become a hero again.
In red bronze typical of Socialist Realism, he stands above the crowd, on something like a podium, beside an arresting, old-fashioned lamp-pole, leaning to his right, but flourishing his hat to the left in a commanding gesture. Yet for a commanding figure, he is vividly upstaged by the figures he seems to dominate. At first glance they appear Hungarian soldiers of WWI. What is most striking about them is that most of them are not bronze but shining steel, roughly, even brutally welded steel. In contrast to Kun's rounded form they are flat, yet hardly two-dimensional. Rough welds also outline the trim of military hats, the eyes and beards and mouths of the men, giving each one an individual face even as they are welded together, rifles and bayonets together, into one dynamic forward thrust.
But this detachment of hugely bunched charging figures is not homogeneous. The rear consists of two civilian figures, steel like the soldiers in front of them, but darker even as they appear gayer: he in long coat wearing a fedora, she in long dress sporting a parasol. Yet they are both intently joining the march. Yet again not all the soldiers in the march are shining steel. Along the inside file, dramatically just below Kun, march rough bronze soldiers, as modeled as Kun, but with features dark and heavy, blurred in contrast to the sharp features of those in steel.
In the little I've read there is no reference to any particular incident this sculpture might represent. Certainly not the revolution itself, which was not an armed uprising but a negotiated agreement. (First strike against it in Lenin's book.) Kun did send a contingent of the new Hungarian Red Army into Slovakia to internationalize the revolution in that direction. The expedition met with some initial success; but its most notable historic feature was Kun's sudden decision to withdraw. In part he was under pressure from the military necessity of countering the increasing threat of the French-Czech-Romanian forces. But a note from French Premier Georges Clemenceau promised to cease hostilities if Hungary withdrew from Slovakia. Kun decided to imitate Lenin's strategic compromise with Germany at Brest-Litovsk to give his own Soviet Republic "breathing room" to build. The withdrawal, however, disintegrated the army and within days Kun and his fellow revolutionaries were fleeing the long way round to Moscow. So that's probably not the memorial's focus.
The obvious narrative interpretation of the memorial would be something like "the transformation of the people of Hungary from bourgeois [the two spiffy civilians] through the rigors of a losing imperial war into a fierce revolutionary proletariat." But it is so obvious it's got to be wrong. (We don't even have to speak of the sentimentalizing, falsifying element of that narrative.) "Art means" (cf. Joe Brennan); but reduction of a painting or sculpture, however "representative," to a statement of meaning will always miss the mark. (Does this really need to be said?) Except that the painting or the sculpture itself, if it's good, survives.
What holds my eyes is the crudely welded eyes and mouths of the steel soldiers: so grim, so determined. Although right there, I have again applied a narrative interpretation, possibly accurate but equally beside the point. Are the heavy, mud-featured bronze troops veterans of the front, in contrast to fresher steel troops? There again!
And yet the interplay is what the sculptor has intended: of narrative thrust with steel and bronze, masses, lines, darks, brights, smooth surfaces and rough, and those crude, jagged welds. Whatever narrative or narratives they all suggest are clearly part of the work. I wish I could have spent more time looking back and forth among the details, juxtaposing distant ones, making and discarding narratives small and large; and just gazing and going over those welds. I've never seen anything like it.
Happily, Szoborpark has its own website (http://www.szoborpark.hu), with plenty of photos, a number of them from visitors (who have added more from elsewhere around Budapest). Some are reproduced here, but they are only segments of sometimes much larger photos just a click away.
If I ever go back to Budapest I will certainly go back to Szoborpark. It will never be all its architect, Akos Eleod, Jr., meant it to be. The suburban encroachment will defeat any expansion even if the Budapest Assembly were to find the money for it. The website can tell you about the Witness Square of buildings that were once supposed to introduce the park.
But the park doesn't need the Square; and a tendentious round of exhibition and lecture halls might easily dissipate the curious tension in the garden air.
JR Foley is also the author of "The Short Happy Life of Lee Harvey Oswald" in FlashPøint #6, "night patrol" in FlashPøint #5,
"Lost in Mudlin" in FlashPøint #7,
"Down as Up, Out as In: Ron Sukenick Remembers Ron Sukenick" also in FlashPøint #8,
"The Too Many Deaths of Danny C." in FlashPøint #9, and
"Our Friend the Atom: Walt Disney and the Atomic Bomb" in FlashPøint #10.