Friday 19 October 2018

Red Relics: The Statues of Memento Park, Hungary

This article from my second visit to Budapest appeared in The Age newspaper in 2010, but is no longer online: so please enjoy. There's nothing I like more than an artfully arranged set of communist-era relics.

Winston Churchill famously described the Soviet Union as a “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”. He might as well have said the same thing about its art.

At the height of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s rule in the 1930s, an attempt was made to tame the untameable. A new art movement, sanctioned by the state, would promote the goals of socialism.

The result was Socialist Realism, the genesis of a long line of dreary statues scattered across Europe and Asia, depicting sturdy grain-fed peasants and robust factory workers gesturing heroically toward the communist future.

Curiously, it’s simultaneously both a bland and intimidating style, as I see for myself first-hand at Memento Park on the outskirts of Budapest, the Hungarian capital.

It’s a striking place, with high red brick walls bounding three large oval-shaped grounds, a central garden with a big red star picked out by red blooms, and an impressive collection of the massive Socialist Realist statues which once stood throughout Budapest.

It suggests an immense parade ground into which a detachment of Red Guards might suddenly march, scattering the handful of dawdling onlookers on this wet spring day.

Stepping into the grounds, I at once encounter an immense statue of a Soviet soldier standing with chin tilted arrogantly, a rifle strapped across his greatcoat. His right arm is held high, grasping a staff from which a carved flag hangs.

My first impression is of the sheer brute force manifested in this intimidating figure. The second is of what a bad piece of art it is. The flag is particularly awful, a clumpy solid mass rather than the intended depiction of cloth ruffled by the wind.

This gem once decorated the 19th-century Austrian-built Citadella on a hill overlooking the Danube. In the company of other stone soldiers, he played support act to a giant female figure bearing a palm frond, representing liberty. The woman with the palm remains in place; her Soviet entourage does not.

Clearly this grim art style was in the service of ideology and oppression, seeking to overpower the individualism of the viewer.

However, as I walk around the grounds in the company of Orsolya Madary, the park’s enthusiastic communications manager who has a precise knowledge of each piece’s history, I begin to realise that the statues have an another, unexpected aspect.

In a nutshell, they’re funny. Though designed to inspire fear, they also inspire humour. In fact, with their absurdly oversized limbs, stiff expressions and ungainly depictions of movement, the figures are nothing less than a po-faced set of posers who are begging to have the piss taken out of them.

And it’s not only we inhabitants of the safe and comfortable present who see the joke. As we progress, Orsolya relates how Hungarians used to give the solemn statues unflattering nicknames.

Pointing at a clumpy composition of a worker with hands outstretched in front of a Soviet soldier with upraised arms, she says “That was known as The Fishermen. You see, one is gathering his nets while the other is describing the length of the one that got away.”

Further on we meet The Basketballer, a chunky plasticine-like figure with one arm outstretched to the sky as if trying for a basket; and The Linesmen, two figures with small flags who could just about serve at an AFL fixture.

There are also the newly-nicknamed Mobile Phone Marketers, three abstract figures wearing ammunition belts, each with a hand raised to their right ears as if simultaneously saying: “I’m on a tram. A tram!”.

My favourite, however, is a vast muscular figure striding forth with an upraised hand trailing a long piece of cloth. He’s presumably bearing the banner of socialism toward the enemies of the state, but locals snidely referred to him as The Cloakroom Attendant, vigorously returning a scarf you’d just dropped.

Hungary’s communist regime was no laughing matter, obviously, but such everyday humour was a small, regular protest that stole puffs of wind from its sails and turned it into an object of quiet ridicule.

Back at the entrance, I browse the shop’s array of humorous communist-themed items that further take the mickey out of the totalitarian past.

Then, as I pocket my Best of Communism music CD and step past the rusting main gates toward the bus stop, I encounter the last exhibit - a mighty plinth bearing a gigantic pair of boots. No figure above, just boots.

It’s a replica of the remains of an eight metre high statue of Stalin which once stood above a grandstand in the centre of Budapest. When the revolt against communist rule broke out in October 1956, the citizens took to it with saws.

Only the boots remained, and they’ve endured as a comical symbol of communism’s eventual impotence and overthrow. It’s less a case of the emperor having no clothes, than of the boots having no emperor.

Find Memento Park's opening hours and entry fees at its website.

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