With me or against me
Pre-war 1 Sheet (cca. 63 x 95 cm)
Fine, fold marks, light wear, small tears, some creasing.
Paper, stone lithography.
With me or against me is a 1919 original vintage Hungarian avant-garde communist propaganda poster by Marcell Vertes (Marcel Vertes). Vertes famously used an image of a boy soldier calling men to arms and also implies to the general public that traitors will meet their fate sooner than later. This poster is an early example where the character conjured in the artwork directly communicates with the recipient of the message.
The Hungarian Soviet Republic – Progressive art and culture with social interest
During the very short period (133 days) of the Hungarian Soviet Republic, the progressive and modern tendencies in art and literature became apparent, and dominated the cultural policy. In fact, the modern and progressive Hungarian intelligentsia supported the new regime unanimously.
Behind this phenomenon lied many reasons. The Hungarian Soviet Republic was established in the spring of 1919, peacefully, without bloodshed – unlike the Soviet Revolution in 1917, which lead to a civil war. This fact gave the new state strong legitimacy. In addition to the socialist ideology of the regime, the nationalist emotions were also present, since the country was about to continue the war to defend itself and its territorial integrity. This meant that the new regime was able to represent the key, although diverse opinions present in Hungarian society.
The social issues were a central question for many Hungarian artists’ groups, since the 1910’s. Some of them were avant-garde groups with a strong leftist ideology – in which they were similar to – not just the Russian – but to the western Avant-garde (like Expressionist and Dadaist artist groups). The question of social relevance was present in the work of the writers of the main literary journal, Nyugat (West). Socialist ideology was dominant in Gyorgy (Georg) Lukacs’s philosophy circle, Vasárnapi Kör (Sunday Circle) as well. Lajos Kassak published internationalist and leftist articles in his magazines, A Tett (Action) and Ma (Today). His circle defined itself as Activist, with which they referred to their efforts to achieve changes in the social system. In 1917, the news of the Soviet Revolution has upset all of these groups.
Their terrible experiences of the World War One caused great disappointment and a strong desire for peace. The modern artist groups had a common desire for “a new system, a new world, new faith, and new man”. The belief, that after this terrible war, a new world will arise, got stronger and stronger. Their envisioned new world was defined by equality, which was to be achieved by the peaceful uprising of the lower classes. As the poet and writer Gyula Juhasz phrased: “only the proletariat can create a new world, a better one, because it is truer”.
The Hungarian Soviet Republic seemed to fulfil the wishes of the artists, who all became prominent actors in its cultural policy-making. The focus of the new cultural policy was on “the removal of the bourgeoisie’s intellectual dominance” – culture should not be theirs, but everyone’s privilege. To achieve this goal, the new regime had to restructure the system: from the elementary schools to the universities and museums. Education became free, and schools became public. The art collections were expropriated; new libraries were opened in the country. The new system gave the workers a real chance to be educated.
The modernist intelligentsia held important positions in the new system. Most of them played central roles in the reforming of cultural life. That meant, that after the fall of the short-lived communist state, most of them had to leave Hungary to avoid retaliation, and they started a new career abroad – and we can add: this was an important factor in that many of them later became world famous.
Gyorgy (Georg) Lukacs, the important philosopher and writer, was a central figure in the cultural policy: he became Commissar for Education and Culture. In that position, he controlled most cultural matters. He was also a member of the Directory of Theatre, where the famous writer, aesthete and film critic, Bela Balazs (born Herbert Bauer) was working as well. The Directory of Film was led by Sándor (Alexander) Korda, who later built his career as a film director in Hollywood. In the Directory of Art, most of the modernist artists became members: Robert Bereny (the young painter of Nyolcak (The Eight), Beni Ferenczy (a famous sculptor), Lajos Kozma (architect and designer). The Directory of Music was responsible for the high standards of musical life, and was led by world-famous composers: Bela Bartok, Erno Dohnanyi and Zoltan Kodaly. The Writers Directory was also under the governance of Lukacs, who worked with most of the writers of Nyugat, the most prominent cultural journal of the time. Lajos Kassak (avant-garde painter, graphic artist and writer) was working at the Propaganda Department.
All these great theoreticians and artists were working for an idealistic new world. They didn’t fail; they were able to follow their original modern way of thinking, and the dictatorship wasn’t strongly present in the field of culture. According to Lukács’s principles, there was no obligatory style, no “official” art (they were able to avoid the slavish acceptance of the Bolshevik’s idea of realism, as the sole acceptable style). Modernist tendencies were widely accepted and became an important element of the new system’s art and propaganda.
Posters of the Hungarian Soviet Republic
The theories of this leading group became apparent in the propaganda posters, which were created mostly by the leading poster artists of the decade; Mihály Biro, Imre Foldes, Geza Farago, etc.; prominent avant-garde artists, like Robert Bereny, Bela Uitz, Bertalan Por, Jozsef Nemes-Lamperth, Janos Kmetty, etc.) and other talented artists, most of whom later created a significant oeuvre, like Marcell Vertes, Janos Tabor, Odon Danko, Jolan Szilagyi etc.
All the artists and theorists, who were participating, were in their twenties or early thirties. Mihaly Biro, who was one of the most important pioneers of propaganda poster design of the 20th century, created his most important works during the early 1910’s and then in 1918 and 1919. He also designed the scenery for the 1919 May 1 celebrations in Budapest. Sandor Bortnyik - also known as Alexander Bortnyik - was one of the most important artists during this period, and created paintings, and woodcuts, with which he welcomed the new system. The majority of these talented young artists and theoreticians soon became disillusioned and realized that reality was far from their idealized vision. After leaving Hungary, some of them never came back, but went on to became very successful in their respective fields.
Marcell Vertes for example, built a fantastic career in Vienna, Paris, and finally in the United States, as a graphic artist and costume designer. He won two Academy Awards for his work on the 1952 film, Moulin Rouge. Most of the young artists came back after a few years, and continued their work in Hungary. Kassák founded new journals (Dokumentum, Munka), worked as a graphic designer, and started Munka-kor (Work-circle), a leftist creative community focusing on social inequalities.
Bortnyik and Bereny introduced modernist tendencies (Bauhaus, Neue Sachlichkeit) into graphic design, designing some of the famous Modiano posters among many others. While the Hungarian Soviet Republic was a failed experiment, which brought more suffering to the already devastated Hungary, it was undoubtedly a unique attempt that brought the young, immensely talented modernist minds together, and partially gave them the opportunity to shine. This modern utopia soon showed its enormous flaws, but its demise was not without a trace. The most important imprints of this era are the unique and bold propaganda posters, which were supposed to convey its utopian ideas to the masses. Education, culture and propaganda were linked together and each took part in the great work of reforming society. Posters of the Hungarian Soviet Republic show the spirit of this very short but important period.