Spomenik (‘Monument’) is a photographic project by the Belgian photographer Jan Kempenaers, documenting various monuments and commemorative sculptures built in the 1960s and 1970s by the Tito regime in Yugoslavia.
Life and Fate, the epic 1959 novel by Vasily Grossman about the Soviet Union and the Second World War, is being broadcast by BBC Radio 4, in a dramatisation featuring Kenneth Branagh and David Tennant. The novel was famously ‘arrested’ by the KGB, and was considered so dangerous that Mikhail Suslov, chief Soviet ideologist, told its author that it could not be published for at least another two hundred years after it had been written.
The BBC puts it pithily: “No end in sight to Russia’s era of Vladimir Putin”.
‘Bald, Hairy, Bald, Hairy’:
Tourists at the Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels monument, Marx-Engels-Forum, Berlin, Autumn 2011.
The statue of Marx and Engels, and the surrounding park, were commissioned and built by the East German government in 1986. In 2010, due to ongoing construction work on the U5 U-Bahn line, the statue was moved to a different area of the park. Since German reunification, the statue has become a popular tourist attraction — visitors often pose sitting in Karl Marx’s lap.
Part of the logic of triumphalist Soviet memorials, and other works of public art, was to create reproducible iconic images. Portrayals and reproductions of Soviet monumental art were commonplace throughout the USSR, and many remain today. The memorials themselves, usually combining totalitarian vastness with unintended kitsch, occasionally lend themselves to strange juxtapositions, such as this image of the Soviet War Memorial in Treptower Park, Berlin, appearing on the wall of an abandoned school near Chernobyl. The image has been doubly abandoned; first by human-created nuclear catastrophe, and then by political downfall and collapse. The slideshow it is part of doesn’t even mention the memorial, it’s simply part of the scene (in a story about another nuclear disaster a quarter of a century later).
Image of Soviet War Memorial, Treptower Park, Berlin, in an abandoned school in Pripyat, near Chernobyl, Ukraine (Photo: Getty; no photographer credited in original article)
Soviet War Memorial in Treptower Park, Berlin (Photo: Bernd Brincken, via Wikipedia)
Swing was part of a trio of works called Carousel Slide Swing, about which Szejnoch said:
The project Carousel Slide Swing aims to pursue a dialog with memorials that served as communist propaganda. Although such memorials have been consigned to the historical scrap heap, we can still meet them in the streets and parks. To suggest a change in the function of the monuments is an attempt to build a bridge between the present and the past, to add a contemporary layer distinct from their original style and function. For example, the idea of Swing is based on a contrast between the monumental bronze Berling Army Soldier and a tiny individual swung by a big hand of history. It is a monument from a former era, but at the same time — from the Berling Army soldier’s point of view — it is a well-deserved tribute paid to his sacrifice. This is an example of how much history can differ from the perspectives of individual and collective memory. My aim is to make this complexity and ambiguity more conspicuous, to show the relation between an individual versus the historical machine.
The statue where Swing was installed can be seen on Google Maps, and was constructed by the communist government of Poland in the early 1980s and officially unveiled in 1985. Swing won the Szpilman Award in 2008, an international competition for works of ephemeral or temporary art.
The Berlin U-Bahn station Magdalenenstraße, on the city’s U5 line, does not have any advertising hoardings along its walls. Instead, it features a remarkable series of hand-painted murals depicting scenes from German labour history, created by the German painter Wolfgang Frankenstein.
The murals were commissioned and installed by the East German government in 1986, as part of their official celebrations of the 750th anniversary of the founding of the city of Berlin in 1237. There were two parallel sets of celebrations that year — one in East Berlin, and one in West Berlin.
Magdalenenstraße was formerly part of the East Berlin transport network, and the murals have stayed on the walls throughout the last three decades, despite the disappearance of their Stalinist patrons into the dustbin of history after the Wende.
There are twenty paintings — ten on each wall — in roughly chronological order. The murals are a strange blend of expressionist art and obsolete propaganda, and their presence in this otherwise-unremarkable train station gives an almost elegiac atmosphere to the bustle of rush-hour traffic. Images of all the paintings are below, with brief notes — click to view larger versions on Flickr.
Die Weber (The Weavers)
The first painting in the series is also the first of several to depict historically ‘proletarian’ workers — in this case, weavers at a loom. Weaving was one of the professions which was famously transformed by the industrial revolution, and a discussion of weaving was used as an explanatory device by Karl Marx in Das Kapital.
März 1848 (March 1848)
The second painting refers to the revolutions of 1848, specifically the March revolutions in the German states. These democratic revolutions across Europe coincided with the publishing of the Communist Manifesto.
Historically, mining was central to the industrial revolution. Politically, it was also still an important ‘prestige’ industry in the East Germany of the 1980s.
Hegel vom Kopf auf die Füsse Gestellt (Hegel Turned from his Head onto his Feet, or, Hegel Turned Right Side Up)
The title is a somewhat oblique reference to the concept of dialectical materialism, the foundational philosophical dogma of Marxism-Leninism (and, as such, an official state doctrine of East Germany).
Another reference to the industrial revolution and Marxist theory.
Pariser Kommune (The Paris Commune)
The title refers to the Paris Commune of 1871, generally recognised as the first explicitly socialist uprising in world history.
Kriegsausbruch 1914 (Outbreak of War 1914)
The beginning of World War I in 1914.
Erster Weltkrieg (First World War)
The Great War — at the time, the most destructive war in human history.
Oktober Revolution (October Revolution)
The Bolshevik revolution in Petrograd in 1917 — the birth of the Soviet Union, and one of the turning points of the twentieth century.
The painting refers to the German revolution of 1918-1919, which was initiated by the Kiel mutiny, brought down the Kaiser, brought and end to the First World War, and led to the Spartacist uprising of 1919.
Fabrikarbeit (Factory Work)
More proletarian workers.
The early years of the Weimar Republic were marked by labour unrest, strikes, hyperinflation, paramilitarism and political instability.
Reichstagsbrand (Reichstag Fire)
The Reichstag Fire of 1933 served as the pretext for the establishment of Nazi political dominance of Germany and the suppression of communist activity.
Bücherverbrennung (Book Burning)
The mural refers to the Nazi book burnings of 1933, when thousands of ‘un-German’ books were destroyed.
Buchenwald was one of the first, and one of the largest, of the Nazi concentration camps in Germany.
Zweiter Weltkrieg (Second World War)
The Second World War. The mural gives prominence to fighter planes, in contrast to the infantry soldiers of the First World War mural.
The city of Berlin was largely destroyed by the Battle of Berlin at the end of World War II.
The last three murals refer to historical events which overlap with the actual existence of the East German state, and as such are more overtly propagandistic than the earlier paintings. Aufbau refers to the rebuilding which took place after the war — possibly as an allusion to the East German national anthem, Auferstanden Aus Ruinen (Risen from Ruins).
Gegen Atomtod (Against Nuclear Death)
One of the standard lines of Soviet and East German propaganda in the 1980s was a professed opposition to nuclear weapons.
Friedensdemonstration (Peace Demonstration)
In keeping with the party line on peace, many state-sponsored peace demonstrations took place in East Germany in the 1980s (and despite the noble aspiration, these were mostly cynical exercises in state-controlled messaging). The final mural alludes to these demonstrations.
As was reported during the week, the Monument to the Soviet Army in Sofia, Bulgaria, was given a pop-art makeover last week. The heroic proletarian soldiers of the postwar sculpture were reimagined as comic-book superheroes, and the punchline “в крак с времето” (Russian for “in step with the times”) was added to the plinth.
The tone of coverage of the story by different media outlets is revealing. RIA Novosti, the Russian media portal, had this lede:
Bulgarian policemen are looking for a vandal who defiled a monument to the Soviet Army in Sofia on Saturday night.
Whereas the Guardian (UK) had a different tack:
There was Superman in red leather boots, Ronald McDonald clutching a bottle of beer, and Santa Claus about to look through a pair of binoculars.
Historical raw nerve touched, it would appear.
Pictures from Budapest Avant-Garde.