photo: Ján Svrček
In Slovakia, which has experienced a turbulent 20th century, there are many examples of new regimes removing the monuments of their predecessors and erecting monuments to their own heroes and ideals.
February 25 marks the 55th anniversary of the 1948 communist coup, which culminated in the "victory of the working proletariat over the bourgeoisie" and led to a totalitarian communist regime. The new system abolished democratic rights and put the country, for the next four decades, under the influence of the Soviet Union. It staged show trials, executed hundreds of political prisoners, deprived people of their property and forced many to leave the country.
The communist leadership took control of many aspects of life, including art and culture. The party decided who was allowed to exhibit works and who was not, and also dictated what the artists could create.
Because artistic creativity was restricted by the imposed ideology, art historians and critics today do not consider the art of the communist era to be of real artistic value. They suggest that the art from that period should be referred to in quotation marks.
What one might find surprising, though, is that despite the fall of the regime in 1989, many such works have remained in their places as a reminder of the past.
SLAVÍN, a monument commemorating soldiers who fell in the second world war, with a statue of a soldier on top of a high column, was designed by AlexanderTrizuljak and built in 1960. The word Slavín refers to the entire military cemetery and all its statues and relief sculptures, created by various artists. It is part of Bratislava's cultural heritage.
photo: Ján Svrček
In Bratislava, for example, a huge statue of the first communist president, Klement Gottwald, that stood on what was known as Gottwald Square back then and is known as Námestie Slobody today, was removed. Two objects that disappeared from the northwestern town of Žilina are an enormous bust of Vladimir Ilich Lenin and a sculpture of a hammer and sickle - the idealised symbol of the working class.
The memorials that remain, despite also having been created during communism, are mainly the ones that portray events that have a positive historical legacy rather than the ones that were erected for strictly propagandist purposes. Some of these statues pay homage to soldiers who fell in the two world wars and who fought against fascism, some portray leading figures in Slovak history.
The most visited and most notable second world war memorial is called Slavín. It was constructed in 1960 and to this day still rises high above the country's capital.
Numerous smaller monuments commemorating war heroes are located all around the country and can still be found in almost every town. Statues representing significant Slovak politicians, revolutionaries, the codifiers of the Slovak language, artists, and writers stand in the towns where these people were born or where they worked.
TODAY'S SNP Square (Námestie Slovenského národného povstania)
in Bratislava was previously known as Stalin's Square. In 1949, a huge statue was set up there to celebrate the leader. The monument remained in its location for less than 10 years, because later it was politically unacceptable. The square stood empty until 1974, when it took its present form. The statue of a soldier in the centre and a woman and man to one side, commemorating the Slovak National Uprising, was created by Ján Kulich in 1974 (picture above).The picture on the right and detail underneath is a monument to the SNP in the northwestern town of Považská Bystrica.
The art of communism
The official art that developed under the communist regime can be divided into two types, both of which have their roots in different decades. The first one was socialist realism, which appeared right after the communists came to power in 1948; and the other was the real socialism of the 1970s, which was a return to the style of the earlier socialist realism after a brief period of eased restrictions during the late 1960s.
Even though the works of the two movements resemble each other in style, the artists created them with different motivations.
"In the 1950s, during the period of socialist realism, artists gave in to the illusion that their works had to be [easily] understood by the people and should pay tribute to the victory over fascism, which meant celebrating the Soviet soldiers. Socialist realism was pathetic back then; it painted reality in rosy colours while [the regime's] representatives were staging political trials," says Zuzana Bartošová, an art historian with the Slovak Academy of Science in Bratislava.
"In the 1970s and 1980s, after the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Warsaw Pact armies in 1968, artists adjusted their work to the ideological requirements of the time," she continues.
"They served the totalitarian regime, which turned the art into a showcase [for its propaganda]. The art from that era of real socialism [or 'normalisation'] was false. It wanted to please both the ideologues who were suppressing civic freedom and those who succumbed to the ideology, the average communist."
photo: Ján Svrček
Artists of the past, today
Many of the artists who were active during the communist era are still active today. Art historians agree that it is because they are skilled artisans and people like their work no matter what they did in the past.
"Their [current] works are realistic and rather conservative. They look like they were made in the 19th century, they have no ideology behind them, and there are many clients who like their style. The clients don't care if the person has a communist past or not, and they don't mind if the artist's previous clients were the powerful people of the [communist] era," says Ivan Jančár, director of Bratislava City Gallery.
Many find it odd that the artists who were faithful to the regime back then made such a clean switch to motifs that had been banned by the authorities.
"The paradox is that the official sculptors of the communist regime, like Ján Kulich or Ladislav Berák, today create works that depict Christ and the crucifixion. They are capable of anything," says Bartošová.
photo: Ján Svrček
"Many of these artists are officially received at the highest [state] level. During the president's New Year's reception, Kulich was among the invited guests, which rather surprised me. He was one of the most prominent artists producing communist art in Slovakia, and he was the dean of the University of Fine Arts, from which he kicked out many talented students. There is something wrong if people like him have their statues in front of parliament and are met by the president."
Kulich's sculpture of a woman, entitled Welcoming, which is in front of the Slovak parliament building, is one work that Bartošová would like to see removed.
NÁMESTIE Ľudovíta Štúra (Ľudovít Štúr Square) in Bratislava with its monumental statue of Slovak writer, linguist, politician, and nationalist leader Ľudovít Štúr and companions, created by Tibor Bártfay and Ivan Szalay in 1972. Štúr was the most significant figure of the Slovak nationalist movement in the middle of the 19th century and was the pioneer of romantic literature in Slovakia. He codified the Slovak language and advocated stronger national identity.
photo: Ján Svrček
24. Feb 2003 at 0:00 | Saša Petrášová and Zuzana Habšudová