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History paintings ignite culture war

November 14th, 2011

Left-wing commentators believe that the pictures commissioned by the government to illustrate the deluxe edition of the new Constitution promote a partisan political message. Some young conservative pundits also find the paintings kitschy, while an art historian defends their originality and artistic quality.

Theatre director Imre Kerényi, PM Viktor Orbán’s special commissioner overseeing the PR-campaign meant to popularise the new Constitution, offered 20 million Forints for paintings depicting important events and characters of Hungarian history in the past 150 years. The new paintings will be used to illustrate the deluxe edition of the Basic Law.

Why do they finance such kitsch and call it art? Why do they promote a culture war by embracing such a tacky genre of occultism? Why do they make themselves so ridiculous?” asks Tamás László Papp in Hírszerző.

One of the reasons for the government to embark on such an “embarrassing and counterproductive” project is that Fidesz wants to strengthen its strong anti-Socialist image and keep radical right-wing leaning voters, Papp suggests. “Some aggressive  consumers of such a politically idiotic diet… characterized by obsessive messianism and prone to primitive historical interpretations” might otherwise easily be attracted to Jobbik, he believes.

By invoking the clichés of “nationalist realism”, the government wants to divert its supporters’ attention from the fact that in contradiction to its earlier campaign promises, it is about to introduce severe budget cuts in order to avoid the collapse of the economy, Papp remarks.

I am really sorry, but I cannot fit the 2006 police violence into a series of great Hungarian historical events,” Endre Aczél writes in Népszabadság.

Like other left-wing and liberal leaning commentators, Aczél finds that the paintings promote a clear political message. He also thinks that the pictures are on a par with former Socialist Realist pictures commissioned by the Communist leadership of the 1950s. Most notably, he regards the painting depicting the 2006 clashes between the police and demonstrators as highly problematic. He admits that the police action also hurt innocent bystanders, but argues that during violent riots such unfortunate incidents are quite common.

Orbán has sparked a culture war”, Iván Andrassew proposes in an ironic opinion piece in Népszava. He goes so far as to compare Orbán to “those strategists, who see themselves as Napoleons, but end up making fools of themselves”. The left-wing commentator predicts that even Orbán’s supporters will consider the paintings ridiculous.

It seems that the government is not very satisfied with the new Basic Law. … The government does not seem to believe that it will earn public respect, and is therefore trying to promote a cult around it,” Zoltán Miklósi contends in Szuverén.

Miklósi believes that the police assaults of 2006 were major crimes. He also adds that the Socialists (MSZP) and the Liberals (SZDSZ) formerly in government have so far failed to provide a fair and proper analysis of those events.

Nonetheless, the liberal blogger finds the historical selectivity of the paintings problematic. “They depict only the characters and motives that are dear to the right”, he remarks. Liberal politicians, the social democratic tradition and the trade unions are neglected.

He considers it even more problematic that the years between 1945 and 1989 have not been given a picture.  “[The paintings] express the same historical narrative that permeates the Basic Law,” Miklósi suggests. The Preamble of the new Constitution states that Hungary’s control over its own destiny was suspended between the Nazi occupation in March 1944 and the democratic election in April 1990. According to left-wing critics, that suggests that Fidesz wants to acquit Hungary of the crimes committed during the Holocaust and the Communist era. As a matter of fact, however, one of the 14 pictures is devoted to the early fifties, the darkest years of Stalinist dictatorship, and another one to the Holocaust.

Some right-leaning intellectuals have also voiced concerns about the illustrations. “This should be stopped. During last year’s electoral campaign there was no sign of such bad taste, comic lopsidedness and out-of-date thinking,” András Stumpf contends in Heti Válasz.

Stumpf finds it worrying that the government “commissioned paintings which suggest that the ratification of the new Constitution and the disgusting police violence of 2006 are of the same historical importance as the Trianon Peace Treaty, the 1956 revolution and the reburial of Imre Nagy in 1989”.

Stumpf suggests that opening a culture war will only help the Socialists, who since the 2006 events (PM Ferenc Gyurcsány’s ‘secret’ speech in which he admitted lying in the electoral campaign, followed by the police attacks on peaceful demonstrators) lost any credibility for their claim to being the sole defenders of democracy.

“Political achievements are not judged rationally. … Elections are won by the party with which voters can identify. Identification is an emotional issue, and thus it is determined primarily by symbolic gestures. The government’s self-adulatory gestures in the middle of an economic crisis may easily result in a lost election,” Stumpf warns.

“To pay 1,6 million Forint for each of the 15 paintings is dubious enough. … But to make things even worse, the quality of these works of art is on the level of high school talent contests,Konzervatórium remarks in an ironic comment.

Konzervatórium also fears that the kitschy pictures will remind Hungarians of the Socialist Realist paintings that were created to strengthen the image of the pre-1989 Communist regime. “These paintings will neither illustrate, nor strengthen national unity. They will only serve to make a laughing stock of everything they are associated with.”

“It was quite natural for monarchs and feudal lords to immortalize their deeds by commissioning works of art. But in contemporary democracies such efforts may easily backfire. The pieces commissioned by the government, when seen from a specific angle, will show a hidden message painted in red: You are ridiculous!”, a conservative blogger adds in Mandiner. He also finds it awkward that the final exit of the Soviet Army from Hungary in 1991, and the fall of the Iron Curtain are missing from the most important events of the past 150 years.

The real question is whether all that cynical criticism is a reaction to the paintings, or whether it is part of the omnipresent political muck-raking,” art historian Gábor Takács asks in his blog in Magyar Nemzet.

Critics who label the paintings kitschy and find them of no artistic value forget that they are works of well-known and prestigious painters. Takács believes that most of the paintings are original, of high aesthetic quality, and that most of the artists succeeded in solving the extremely hard task of grasping the essence of recent historical events. All this, however, is completely obscured by the superficial interpretations dashed out by politically motivated, non-expert critics, Takács contends.

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