Although the revolutions of 1989 are commemorated as marking the fall of the Soviet Union, many consider that the beginning of the end was 33 years earlier, in 1956. At the start of that year, on 25 February, new Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev delivered the ground-breaking speech “On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences” to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. What became known as the Secret Speech condemned Stalin for brutal mass repressions and accused the late dictator of having distorted the ideals of Communism for personal gain. By early June the full text of the Secret Speech was leaked by the CIA to the world’s media and broadcast into the Soviet bloc by Radio Free Europe, setting off a chain of rebellions among citizens of countries remotely controlled by the Kremlin.
The most dramatic of these rebellions was in Hungary, where protests raged from 23 October until 10 November 1956. The contents of the Secret Speech had inflamed an already smouldering power struggle between Mátyás Rákosi and Nagy Imre, who had enraged the old guard and inspired a younger generation with his liberal reforms. The spirited student uprising that initiated the Hungarian Revolution rapidly transformed into a nationwide revolt. But after nineteen days, it was cruelly crushed beneath Soviet tanks, leaving thousands of demonstrators dead and leading to the exodus of up to 200,000 Hungarian citizens. These events would provoke and inspire Hungarian and international artists both in 1956 and for years to come.
One such artist was József Jakovits, a modernist sculptor born in Budapest in 1909. In 1945, Jakovits had been one of the leading Surrealist sculptors to found the Hungarian avant-garde group, the European School. But when a repressive Communist government took power in 1948, this and other modern art groups were banned, as the Soviet artistic policy of Socialist Realism was imposed on Hungary’s artists. That same year, Jakovits’s studio was confiscated and several of his statues were destroyed by the authorities. In 1953, in the aftermath of Stalin’s death, Jakovits made clear his disgust at Soviet influence in Hungary in his ribald effigy Dove for Peace (Stalin’s Dove of Peace).
Three years later, during the heady days of the Hungarian Uprising, Jakovits produced a series of ten pencil drawings, entitled Revolution. Using his distinct style of biomorphic abstraction, Jakovits chronicled the revolutionaries’ fight against the encroaching Soviet army.
Art historian Gary van Wyk of the Alma on Dobbin gallery in New York has described the progress of the series as follows:
“In the first few images of the Revolution Series, a unified biomorphic form coalesces but then fractures into an image of fratricide, Brothers Fighting Brothers [top row, middle]. The identity of the opponents takes form in Battle between the Devil and the Angel [top row, second from right]. Poet Stefánia Mándy described the scene in Before the Tanks [bottom row, left] as a horned “hero” or “totem”, representing the revolutionaries and “the universal power of the human spirit”, confronting rows of tanks. In Soul of Heroes [bottom row, middle], an ominous black force evolves as the dead revolutionaries vaporize. In Last Breath [bottom row, second from right], the evil victor becomes a bird of prey, gets the upper hand, and imposes a rigid order. In the final print in the series, Silence [bottom row, right], this bird is hieratic, its wings reduced to a closed circle, charged with zigzagging lines like an electrified circuit. Now, however, the bird appears to be possessed by one of the beings it has subsumed. Its panoptic eye, surveying all, is also the artist’s eye, a motif that recurs in Jakovits’s self-portraits. From the eye of this apparently electrocuted being emerges a tear so large that it reads like a tear in the paper.”
[Ref: Gary van Wyk, ’56: Artists and the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 (New York: Alma on Dobbin, 2015)]
Under Hungary’s new puppet regime, Jakovits was informed that his art would never again be publicly exhibited in the country. After toiling in obscurity for several years, the artist was finally granted permission to emigrate to New York in 1965. There he remained until 1987, when Hungary finally began to break free from Soviet influence and Jakovits was invited to resettle in Budapest. Upon his return, Jakovits used his revolutionary drawings from 1956 to produce a portfolio of lithographs which served as a timely reminder of one of the Soviet Union’s most shameful moments just prior to the nation’s dissolution.
Images: József Jakovits. Upper: Dove for Peace (Stalin’s Dove of Peace) [Békegalamb (Sztálin békegalambja)], 1953. Aluminium, 44.5 x 32 x 24 cm; Lower, top row, L–R: Disintegration [Bomlás], Unfolding [Kibontakozás], Brothers Fighting Brothers [Testvérharc], Battle Between the Devil and the Angel [Ördög és angyal harca], Warrior [Harcos]; Lower, bottom row, L–R: Before the Tanks [Tankok előtt], Conquering the Devil [Ördög legyőzése], Soul of Heroes [Hősök lelke], Last Breath [Utolsó lélegzet], Silence [Csend]. Each 1956/1989, etching on white paper, 32.2 x 22.3 cm. All works courtesy Müller-Keithly Collection of Hungarian Art, New York.