Everything is ours!
Kassák Museum Budapest / BUDAPEST (Hungary)
28.03.2018 – 01.07.2018

The propaganda of the Hungarian Soviet Republic can be regarded as the diagnosis of social tensions arising as a result of the First World War as well as the representation of an exceptionally interesting social experiment. On the one hand, in the intersection of strengthening post-war traumas, increasing social inequality, the claim of disenfranchised social strata for equal rights in politics and the reconstruction of the state, propaganda outlined the acute problems of the society (recall the messages put forth on posters). On the other hand, from renaming public spaces through public political rituals, the symbolic acts throughout the 133 days of the commune expressed the intention of a comprehensive restructuring of the society and the economy.

The exhibition perceives propaganda as a social process in which meanings were primarily transmitted by action, movement and its visual context instead of mere texts. The participants of these events were the very users and shapers of this propaganda. Without the residents who decorated their houses and the groups that made protest signs and papier-mâché sculptures, without the women who donned red dresses and the spectators of the events, the cityscape known from contemporaneous photographs would not have been possible. All of this is not meant to suggest that the impact of the propaganda was absolute, as diverging interpretations, misinterpretations, replacements and rejections of the message can also be detected in contemporaneous reports and subsequent recollections as regards the dynamics of participation and resistance. Even despite the fact that the dictatorship itself strove for totality when it extended the propaganda beyond politics in the narrow sense, to the fields of culture, education and economy.

Regarding this specific historical situation, Ádám Albert explores how political, economic and artistic ideas are joined to create a social utopia. The exhibition focuses on the most spectacular propaganda event of the period, May 1st, 1919, the visuality of which, with the assembly of monumental structures and artworks, laid claim to the visual representation of a new world. Evoking classical modernism with their clean simplicity, the exhibited artworks direct attention to the complex relationship between economy, aesthetics and ideology. Above all, the pieces reflect on symbolic acts related to the production of goods and services and their (re-)distribution. Until the First World War, Hungary had been characterised by liberal market economy, with the state having had little or no say in economic matters. This situation changed during the First World War on account of the emergence of war economy, which entailed the state-controlled distribution of raw materials as well as requisition from the population. In this respect, the centralised economic principles and socialisation programme of the Hungarian Soviet Republic carried on the concept of war economy, but they associated different meanings, above all the ideal of collectiveness and equality, with the practice they continued.

Official propaganda associated two objectives with the celebratory metamorphosis of the city: stressing the importance of the “first free May Day”, and employing thousands at the constructions. The reasons for the latter were that the ruling power saw unemployment as a threat to the functioning of the state and that it did not conform to the ideal of proletarian dictatorship. The People’s Commissar of Public Education, Tibor Szamuely was charged with organising the celebrations, as he had had personal experiences of the 1918 May Day celebrations in the Soviet Union. Although he only had three weeks at his disposal, the documents reveal an efficiently organised mass event of modern society. On the 8th of April 1919, Szamuely appointed fine artist Mihály Bíró in charge of the decorations. Although Elek Falus is not mentioned in official publications, several recollections name him as the head of constructions. Preparations were made by separate committees for decoration, catering, parade and entertainment, making sure the parades and May Day festivities would all go smoothly. First aid points were set up at assembly sites and parade routes, and drinking water supply was provided by 200 new taps, mobile vendors and water container trucks. On the Margaret Island, 8000 litres of mineral water were distributed. Armbands were issued to distinguish crowd control operatives, public service operatives, photographers and journalists, to help the participants in orientation. The synchronised movement of paraders was assisted by a telephone chain, for which telephones of shops and cafés were temporarily requisitioned. Everything is ours!

The phrase “Everything is ours!” is a reference to the closing lines of rebellious Hungarian poet Endre Ady’s Hungarian Jacobin Song. When Budapest’s Margaret Island opened its gates to the public in April 1919 – a few weeks before, it had still been a restricted park exclusively reserved for the bourgeois elite –, the same quote was put on display to welcome visitors. Ady’s poem was not the only allusion to the Jacobin movement in the Soviet Republic’s propaganda. For the 1st of May, the dome of the royal palace was adorned with a Phrygian cap, the sarcophagus of Ignác Martinovics, leader of the Hungarian Jacobin movement, was reconstructed at the Vérmező (“Bloodfield”) Park, the site of his execution, and the Madách Theatre put Frigyes Karinthy’s drama Vérmező on show. Associating the tradition of the French revolution with measures of economic policy reveals how propaganda had become a tool of establishing a new society, intended to facilitate the large-scale dissemination of ideals related to radical left-wing politics.

Free Space
For the 1st of May, Budapest had turned into a vast stage, where the developing iconography of the political power and the actors of its historical pantheon framed the parading crowd. This peculiar scenery was superposed over the memorials of the previous regime, which had either been carefully removed or concealed by giant scaffolds. The decorations concealed the Millennium Monument with its statues of royalties, but not before the Habsburg rulers had been removed; the ten statues donated to the city by Franz Joseph in 1897 to counterbalance the national conception of Hungarian history were also veiled along with buildings identified with taxes and exploitation: the customs houses of the bridges and the castle hill tunnel, and the main gate of Margaret Island. The abolition of the bridge-fee and the tunnel-fee had been an act of the Mihály Károlyi government, but the entrance fee to the island was abolished by the council government. The veiling of the statue of National Generosity also had economic aspects. Public forms of gathering donations had become widespread in the first years of the war. In addition to donation boxes on the streets, wooden statues had also been erected, onto which benevolent citizens could nail metal plates in exchange for a few crowns in donation. The income was allotted to charity, usually transferred to an aid fund. The equestrian statue of National Generosity on Deák Square did not comply with the ideals of the Soviet Republic not only for its wartime patriotism, but from the perspective of the workers’ movement, charity was at once the expression of social inequalities.

Imitating a curtain made using the traditional stained glass technique, Ádám Albert’s object alludes to draperies recurring in contemporaneous photographs and to the ambivalence of using ephemeral materials as representations of power. When allocating the funds for the decorations of 1919, propaganda requirements had to be conformed to the financial budget. Szamuely deemed the expenses appropriated for May 1st too high, and cut the budget of 10 million crowns to half. Members of the decoration committee acquired the necessary raw materials from textile, wood, iron, paint and upholstery shops and construction warehouses. However, even though a decision had been made to allot the necessary fabrics, all they got was paper fabric. On May Day, the public buildings of Budapest were covered in a fabric supplement widespread during the war. Efforts to recycle the raw materials can also be confirmed: after dismantling the decorations, most of the paper fabric was returned to the warehouse, and only the differential was paid for from the budget.

Having first appeared on Mihály Biró’s Népszava posters designed in 1911, the figure of the red man with a hammer overwhelmed Budapest in 1919: it advocated the power of the proletariat on posters, banners over buildings and 8-metre tall plaster statues. Its iconography dating back to the 19th century, the same symbol is printed on Bíró’s own wallet. The symbol of the workers’ movement on a wallet contradicts the Marxian definition of money. According to this, money makes the work that is materialised in the goods visible, thereby facilitating the process of the alienation of work. This alienation can primarily by witnessed in the way the worker does not feel the result of his/her work his/her own, and in a broader sense, loses control over social processes, over his/her own life. The man with the hammer also contradicts the modern concept of money, which, as a means of social exchange, is at once related to political power, influence and the system of post-material values.

For May Day, the cityscape had to be transformed in three weeks, as a result of which the temporary structures and artworks were replete with visual contradictions and tension. Although the overall impression they gave off was in line with the formal characteristics of modern art, in closer scrutiny, they reveal stylistic diversity. Among the artists we find Béla Uitz, one of the progressivists, as well as György Zala, who had modernized the tradition of historism and created the Millennium Memorial. Some of the giant plaster figures, such as the statues of Marx in front of the Gresham Palace and the Millennium Memorial carry on the tradition of heroic monuments and portraits. In fact, the randomness of symbols painted on decorations and the hallmarks of the painters indicated a freedom of form.

With the First World War, food supply became a question of strategic importance. Wartime mobilization extracted a considerable amount of workforce and horses from agriculture, which led to a drastic decrease in produced food. To solve the problems of alimentation persisting after the war, the Károlyi-government organised gardening courses, then the Soviet Republic socialised the lands and began to establish agricultural co-operatives. However, the communal gardens of the Horticultural Co-operative established on the racecourses on Stefánia Road and Kerepesi Road are difficult to explain with the capital’s food shortage. The symbolic significance of appropriating horse racing venues is indicated by news articles from the time, which gave accounts of the life of these gardens in the dichotomy of the old versus the new world, the “institution equipped for abusing the masses” versus workers’ welfare measures, aristocratic class interests versus community goals, outdated traditions versus modern technology.

Horseshoe Nail
For want of a nail the shoe was lost. / For want of a shoe the horse was lost. / For want of a horse the rider was lost. / For want of a rider the message was lost. / For want of a message the battle was lost. / For want of a battle the kingdom was lost. / And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.
In the well-known English proverb, similarly to the butterfly effect, a chain reaction started by a trifling event eventually leads to the liquidation of a hierarchical structure. The unpredictability inherent in the functioning of complex systems makes the realisation of planned social utopias impossible.

Curated by Judit Csatlós

Courtesy of the artist and Kassák Museum Budapest