There’s a place for party political campaigns. It’s not the national art museum.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s right-wing government is presenting its own version of the national historical narrative at the Hungarian National Gallery in Budapest, with an ill-judged show of contemporary art that it commissioned to illustrate the new constitution. (Copies of the basic law, by the way, can be purchased in the museum shop.)
The National Gallery is in Buda Castle, the ancient seat of kings on the crest of a hill overlooking the Danube. The propaganda begins upstairs, in an exhibition titled “Heroes, Kings, Saints,” which runs through Aug. 26.
A hall to the left shows hallowed relics, such as a replica of St. Stephen’s crown, the symbol of Hungarian statehood, alongside portraits of 19th-century reformers including Istvan Szechenyi and artists like the poet Mihaly Vorosmarty.
Hefty copies of the constitution sit on tables for visitors to browse, presenting the law as a natural progression from the glories of the past. In reality, it’s a polarizing bone of contention: As many as 100,000 protestors took to the streets on Jan. 2, a day after it took effect.
The halls to the right address the sacrifices made in the name of Hungarian nationhood, mainly through huge 19th-century romantic oil paintings. The centerpiece of the show is Mihaly Munkacsy’s monumental 1893 canvas “The Hungarian Conquest,” painted for the parliament building. It shows Arpad, chief of the Hungarian tribes, atop a white horse, receiving gifts from the grateful native Slavs.
Where Is Nagy?
Hungary’s most famous martyr of modern times -- Imre Nagy, the communist politician who was executed for his role in the 1956 uprising against Soviet rule -- gets short shrift. High above eye level, at the end of a hall of rich oils, is an offset poster portrait. Blink and you’d miss it.
Socialism and heroism clearly don’t go together in the vocabulary of Orban’s government. Tacked on to the show, in a room downstairs, the new historical narrative starts to take shape in a way that would be sinister if it weren’t laughable.
Nagy turns up again here, this time dead. A painting by Tamas Galambos depicting Nagy’s 1989 reburial looks superficially naive, yet carries an insidious message. Official speakers on stage are separated from a banner-carrying crowd by a row of featureless men in dark suits.
The reburial, an event that marked the end of four decades of communism in Hungary, is reduced to a sham display by the Socialists still in power to appease the crowds and suppress Hungarians’ desire for a strong nation (preferably including bits it lost after World War I).
The undermining of the 1989 revolution chimes with the government’s hypothesis, formulated in a parliamentary statement in June 2010 after Orban’s party bloc won a two-thirds majority. Hungary has experienced “46 years of occupation and dictatorship and two chaotic decades of transition,” it read.
That line sweeps aside the achievements of the past 20 years. The path hasn’t always been smooth, yet Hungary has introduced democracy and a market economy, and joined NATO and the EU, to name a few of the successes. In the government’s narrative, the new dawn only began when it took power in 2010.
Perhaps the most ridiculous of the works is “The Birth of a New Constitution” by Ivan Szkok. An array of dignitaries pays homage to the new law, a chunky bound volume similar to those on display. Bathed in a soft golden light, the great and good of Hungarian history (no Socialists, obviously) watch over them as King Matthias blesses the volume with his sword.
In a healthy show of cynicism, the Hungarian press has poured scorn on the new artworks, commissioned at a cost of 20 million forints ($90,000) by a government that’s making drastic cuts in arts funding.
Gabor Bellak, the curator of the “Heroes” exhibition, also sought to distance himself from the contemporary show in an interview with the news website Origo, saying the National Gallery had done nothing more than provide the space for it.
“If this is state patronage of the arts and fine art representation, then it’s cheap, weak, dull and didactic,” Bellak said, according to Origo. “One must either do better or nothing.”
There is nothing new about authoritarian regimes using art to promote their cause. A modern, democratic Hungary at the heart of Europe shouldn’t need to resort to such measures.
(Catherine Hickley writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Any opinions expressed are her own.)