Budapest Finds Profit In 'Ghastly' Public Art

What to do with those leftover communist icons? Hungarians build a park.

Drive 15 minutes from the center of the Hungarian capital and you can come face to face with the people who created and ran the "Evil Empire."

You can get a close-up look at Lenin, spend as much time as you like with Karl Marx, and stare into the eyes of Hungarian politicians who helped to turn their fiercely independent nation into a satellite of the Soviet Union.

If you decide that many of the 42 characters look a bit stony-faced, you'd be right. They're all statues, and the space they stand in is unique in the former communist world.

Three years ago, when Budapest's city council decided to create what is now known as the Statue Park Museum, critics said nobody would be interested and that the whole idea was an unfunny joke. The doubters couldn't have been further from the mark. Today, the park has become an attraction not only for thousands of Hungarians, but for large numbers of foreign visitors, too.

It now figures in guidebooks alongside the many other museums and galleries that help to make Budapest a tourist mecca.

Standing inside the wire fence surrounding the park, a woman in her 60s, visiting Budapest from the southern Hungarian city of Szeged, says, "Under communism, such statues stood in particular places, and you got used to them. But seeing dozens of the things brought together like this makes you realize how ghastly they really were."

A tourist from the former East Germany, gazing up at the Heroes of People's Power Memorial - a massive affair depicting joyful workers half-striding, half-swaggering into the future - remarks: "It is easy to forget that communism was about bad taste as well as despotism."

Creating a space where the sculptures of the communist past can be examined at leisure is a notion typical of this small Central European country, where sly jokes and studied irony are a part of the currency of politics.

In Russia, Romania, Bulgaria, and other former communist states, offending statues were ripped from their pedestals and either hacked to pieces or melted down when the repressive regimes fell. Hungarians thought differently. Akos Rethly, the director of the statue park, calls it "a memento of an unfortunate era."

In 1989, within weeks of communism's collapse in Hungary, Laszlo Szorenyi, a literary historian, proposed in a newspaper article the creation of a "Lenin garden" where statues of the famous Bolshevik from all over Hungary could be gathered in one place. Mr. Szorenyi conceived of the garden as a physical reference to Lenin that would be available to scholars and anyone else interested in the history of communism.

But he made his suggestion at the very moment the citizens of Budapest were in the midst of a debate about what to do with the statues, plaques, and other communist bric-a-brac. The city is renowned for its dozens of beautiful works of sculpture dedicated to famous writers, musicians, and artists. Alongside these, communism's offerings seemed all the more disagreeable. Some people wanted them destroyed, but in the ensuing discussion, Szorenyi's idea became the basis for the eventual solution: a large outdoor space displaying a comprehensive collection of communist monuments.

The council provided the land; the unloved icons of a bankrupt system were taken from their plinths and trucked to the site. The common feature of virtually all the exhibits is a consummate lack of artistry. The stress is on size, power, and exaggerated physical gestures.

Mr. Rethly resists any suggestion that the Statue Park is a memorial to communism. He remarks with a wry smile: "Perhaps there is a certain justice in making a successful capitalist business like this park out of communist memorabilia. If you like, it is a form of criticism of the previous system."

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