Just as Roman emperors considered it a must to commemorate their reigns with monumental architectural creations, so modern political leaders, especially those with dictatorial tendencies, want their fame to be cast in stone. Over the centuries there have been many happy combinations of rulers with good taste and talented artists. But when both are missing, the results can be disastrous. This is what’s happening to the Hungarian urban landscape nowadays. Viktor Orbán and his friends, who are aesthetic philistines, hire mediocre architects and sculptors. By the time Viktor Orbán finds a profession that suits him better than governing a country, Hungary will be dotted with hundreds and hundreds of mediocre, oversized objects created by the new court artists, the favorites of the regime.
Once, back in 2011, I wrote about Imre Makovecz, the architect whose works I don’t like but whose views I liked even less. He was an ignorant, bigoted man with grandiose ideas. Makovecz died that year, but we are still not free of his style of architecture. Little Makoveczes have been hard at work. For example, the Felcsút stadium’s plans were finished by one of Makovecz’s pupils. And given Viktor Orbán’s fascination with Makovecz’s work, I’m sure that we’ll see more buildings in the near future that reflect his rather idiosyncratic “organic” style.
Another idol of the regime is the sculptor Miklós Melocco. He is such an important person to the Orbán regime that a couple of weeks ago President János Áder gave a gala dinner in Melocco’s honor. The sculptor had just turned 80. Since 2014 Melocco has been among the few who have been designated “artists of the nation.” The Orbán government created this title, which comes with a monthly stipend, in 2013.
According to Kriszta Dékei, an art historian specializing in Hungarian contemporary visual and figurative art, Melocco at the beginning of his career was “a promising talent,” but eventually he “sank into the morass of megalomania.” It’s no wonder that Orbán and Melocco found each other. They both have an obsession with the grandiose and the extravagant.
Ever since the change of regime both Makovecz and Melocco were vocal communist haters, which is more understandable in Melocco’s case since his father was executed on trumped-up charges in 1951. Nonetheless, both men had very successful careers in the Kádár regime. In Makovecz’s case, he and his team designed three or four buildings almost every year. Melocco, right after he finished the College of Fine Arts in 1962, got orders for statues. By the mid-1970s he received the prestigious Munkácsy Prize. He was also the recipient of the Kossuth Prize (1988).
According to knowledgeable people, sculpting monuments or memorials usually doesn’t offer much opportunity for inspired artistic creation, and Melocco ever since the early 1980s has been doing nothing else but producing one monument after the other. And these monuments have become increasingly incomprehensible. I checked out some of Melocco’s works and couldn’t make head nor tail of them. And it seems that I’m not alone. His imagery has become confused and dissonant. It’s hard to decide which monument is more hideous: the Tomb of József Antall or the Árpád Brusznyai Monument.
A few days ago Melocco gave an interview to Heti Válasz from which we learned that he is currently working on a monument honoring Imre Makovecz. It will be a 14-meter-tall steeple that will include a 2-meter-high face of the architect. This new Melocco creation will stand on Ádám Clark Square, on the Buda side of the Chain Bridge, one of the most significant landmarks of the Hungarian capital. Worse yet, Melocco is not working alone on this project. Another sculptor, Péter Párkányi Raab, is also involved. In case anyone has forgotten, he is the creator of the infamous Memorial of the German Occupation which, by the way, Melocco praised highly.
What really upsets city planners as well as artists is that both Viktor Orbán and István Tarlós have already approved the plan. This is not how the process is supposed to work. Normally, first the idea emerges that a monument honoring so and so should be erected. This is discussed at length by the city fathers. If the idea is approved, a proper site has to be found. After the announcement of the decision, the city holds a competition, which is judged by a group of art historians. Once all this is done, the real work begins. But in a one-man dictatorship, it is enough for a “court sculptor” to come up with an idea, name the place where he would like to see his sculpture sited, and “sell the idea” to Hungary’s pocket dictator. Simple, isn’t is? No fuss, no muss.
Since the appearance of the Melocco interview more details and more objections have emerged. Perhaps the best article on Melocco’s crazy idea, which was published in Magyar Nemzet, was written by the architect József Őrfi. Őrfi was a student of Imre Makovecz, so we can’t accuse him of anti-Makovecz bias. Here are some of Őrfi’s objections. The 14-meter steeple would be built right in front of the Buda Hill Furnicular, blocking its view. One normally builds towers on a hill and not at the bottom of a hill. Moreover, the spot happens to be owned by District I, but the mayor and the council were never asked whether they would allow such a structure to be erected there. As Őrfi put it: “in [Melocco’s] authoritarian world it is quite enough to ask two potentates in questions of art.”
Őrfi reconstructed what the Makovecz monument will most likely look like. He took as his model the last church steeple Makovecz built in Devecser, not only because this was the architect’s most recent work but also because it has a shield-like opening which was specifically mentioned by Melocco as one of the features of his creation. Then comes the two-meter face of Makovecz placed in the opening in the body of the steeple. Behind it, Melocco wants to have five poplar trees. It will be a frightening site, says Őrfi. And indeed it will be. It’s enough to take a look at the site as Őrfi imagines it.
Just as I said at the beginning, great artistic creations have been financed over the centuries by rulers with an artistic sense, but when this sense is lacking, the results can be disastrous. Just think of the National Theater, which was designed by an architect who had never done a public building in her life. Or look at the horrendous Melocco monuments in front of the theater. And what about the latest “talking”Albert Wass monument in Eger? Luckily, something went wrong with the computer and, temporarily at least, visitors can’t listen to their favorite poems. There’s kitsch everywhere we look. This heritage of the Orbán regime may not be the most damaging, but it’s made of stone and brick, which is difficult to obliterate.