War in Art

After the declaration of war on Serbia, on 28 July 1914, many believed that the victorious troops would have returned home by the time leaves began to fall. This was never to happen. The leaves fell once, twice, and three times, but the war not only kept on raging but in fact expanding. Hungarian soldiers were assigned to the borders of Serbia, Galicia and, later, even Italy. “This huge war gave the lie to all expectations and predictions. It overwhelmed all areas of life, including state affairs, the economy, and the fighting itself, with a multitude of events and a constant flood of new phenomena”, wrote Major General Miksa Hoen in his introduction to the catalogue accompanying the first exhibition of the Budapest Press Headquarters, of which he served as commander.

Cicero’s famous maxim “[i]n times of war, the muses fall silent” has been quoted in diverse situations ever since he formulated his aphorism, but it did not hold water during the Great War, when the Astro-Hungarian military command relied heavily on the input of artists, including writers, painters, sculptors and architects. The Press Headquarters was created for the single most important function of informing the hinterland. Initially, only four artists were employed there; by the end of the war, they numbered two hundred. The works submitted were shown in exhibitions. The first was held at the Künstlerhaus in Vienna, in October 1915. Budapest first hosted such an exhibition at the National Salon in January 1916, featuring works by 83 artists, followed by two more shows, in 1917 and 1918. Concurrently, there were several other solo and group exhibitions showcasing the theme of war. One of them was of the works of no lesser artist than József Rippl-Rónai, at the Ernst Museum, with one fourth of the exhibited works painted on the Italian front. Apart from painters and graphic artists, the contributors included sculptors, typically commissioned to portray high-ranking officers or design tombs. The first Press Headquarters exhibition featured but a single sculptor, Miklós Ligeti, with sculpture portraits of Franz Joseph, Archduke Friedrich, and five other chiefs of staff. The estimated total number of 9,000 works of art – predominantly drawings and paintings – shown at various wartime exhibitions suggests that Hungarian artists kept rather busy during the upheaval.

As for the rank and file, they went when they had to go and died if they had to die, as Mihály Babits wrote in August 1914, in his poem The Young Soldier. Many fell, and the grave markers of those buried in the battlefield soon disappeared without a trace. Those who returned wounded or sick to die at home were given last honours by their families. Caring for the memory of the dead is as long as culture, as is the custom of setting aside a special site for the purpose, such as a necropolis, a graveyard or cemetery. The large number of heroes laid to rest in foreign soil created a need for communities in Hungary to erect memorials or monuments for them, typically in public squares in town centres, often near a local church. Virtually every locality in Hungary has monuments commemorating the fallen soldiers of the Great War – a plaquette, a simple obelisk, a turul (a mythological bird of prey emblematising ancient Hungarian tribes), or other figurative representations. These are collectively known as war memorials, except that they do not commemorate the war itself (although they are undeniably related to it) so much as the victims listed in the inscription, who went if they had to go, and died in lands far from their homes.


Anything new that comes along in art needs an antecedent to fall back upon, and this was no different for war memorials. One of the sources was the graveyard tomb. A war memorial itself can be regarded as a sort of tomb, but one that is symbolic and collective in nature. Unlike a grave in a cemetery, it stands in a public square, and no one is buried under it. It bears the names of victims united in their common birthplace. Needless to say, few had the privilege of being commemorated like the Member of Parliament Zoltán Désy, who entered military service voluntarily, and fell in Galicia on 24 March 1915. He found his final resting place in the Kerepesi Road Cemetery, under a tomb designed by Lőrinc Siklódy. The sculptor decided on a standing figure holding a banner in his right and his hat in his left hand. The traditional Transylvanian folk costume he is wearing underlines the fact that he enlisted as a volunteer rather than as a conscript.

Lőrinc Siklódy: Zoltán Dési’s Tomb, 1915, limestone. All photos of this article are by the courtesy of Mihály Ludmann

The second iconographical source was the public monument commemorating great statesmen. These served as models for the design and position of pedestals and for setting the posture of the human figure, as well as its size and proportions. Another important criterion for the public memorials was to conform to community expectations and embody them in the finished work.

The third source of inspiration for war memorials were symbolic or allegorical works enacting an idea or notion, such as those devoted to Hungary’s 1848 Revolution and War of Independence. Despite some forerunners, including Miklós Izsó’s portrayal of a wounded soldier, the time for such allegorical public monuments came in the 1880s, after György Zala won the commission for a Memorial of the Patriotic Soldier, unveiled in 1893 in Buda Castle. The central figure of the wounded soldier holding a sword has individual features but is not the rendition of an actual person. The major symbols in this work include the flag held high, the winged spirit holding the wreath of honour and glory overhead, and the broken cannon at the feet of the soldier.

György Zala: The Patriotic Soldier’s Memorial, 1893, bronze

Another work by Zala provided a model for the Statue of Liberty in Arad. It embodies Hungary in a figure standing on a pedestal, holding the oak-leaved wreath of glory in his right and resting his left hand on the hilt of his sword. One of the supporting characters is a female figure holding a wounded man in embrace. These are all motifys and symbols to which subsequent war memorials would hark back.


The story of erecting war memorials is a peculiar chapter in the history of Hungarian sculpture, if only because the legal underpinnings of related exhibitions were legitimised by a considerable social demand. In view of the excessive number of casualties, the idea of collectively commemorating the heroes was raised as early as during the first year of the war. The first decree on the “erection of war memorials” was promulgated on 23 June 1915, less than one year into the war. The associated law enacted by Parliament, Act VIII of 1917, declared that

§ 1. All troops who performed their obligations in the line of duty of the army taking up arms in the current war have earned the unanimous recognition and gratitude of the nation. Let posterity guard with reverence the memory of those who sacrificed their lives while defending their imperilled homeland.

§ 2. Each community and town shall erect worthy memorials, each according to its means, engraving thereupon the names of its natives who lost their lives for the country during the present war.

The explanation attached to the Act states that

The entire nation casts a particularly reverent gaze upon the blessed memory of the heroes, whose sacred memory must be cherished and respected not only by the current generation but also by posterity, as an example to follow and a source of encouragement for self-sacrifice and patriotism. This makes it incumbent upon us to mention by name everyone who gave his life for the country, for all of us. The suitable way to accomplish this is for all communities and towns to make provisions for a memorial in its jurisdiction upon which the names of its hero sons fallen in battle shall be engraved in a manner that will endure the ravages of time. Affluent communities and towns and the poor shall mount monumental memorials and, respectively, modest plaques, but always a worthy one which, for all its simplicity as the case may be, brings a noble artistic design to immortalising the names of the native heroes. Such a memorial shall serve as an altar for all time, the altar of patriotism, upon which the names of our brave soldiers killed in action shall bask in the eternal light of undying regard and gratitude.

In order to ensure the quality and adequate artistic standards of the works commissioned, a National Committee for Commemorating Heroes (HEMOB) was set up in 1915, to be superseded, in 1924, by a Committee for the Evalcation of War Memorial Designs (HEBB). This latter body served as a jury of experts in charge of evaluating designs; all memorial projects had to go through them on a mandatory basis. Another important decision brought during the 1920s, enshrined in Act XIV of 1924, instated Memorial Day of Heroes. The subsequent order of the Minister of Defence declared the last Sunday of May a national holiday. Wherever possible, this day of the year was then chosen to unveil new memorials. In 1933, a new colour on the palette appeared when Bálint Hóman, then Minister of Religious Affairs and Public Education, ordered all schools to mount memorial plaques on the institution walls to care for the remembrance of their teachers and students who fell in the war. Some of these markers were indeed low relief tablets or, more rarely, even statues erected on the school grounds.

Even though the law on war memorials was signed in on 19 April 1917, new memorials were few and far between at this time, smack in the middle of the war. The first figurative memorial worthy of mention was the work of Sándor Finta, unveiled in the city of Hatvan on 25 November 1917.

Sándor Finta: War Memorial for the City of Hatvan, 1917, marble

Due to the economic downturn caused by the war, the military occupation and looting of the country in 1919 by the Romanian Army, and the large number of prisoners of war, most communities did not have a chance to even think about performing their law-given obligation until the new administrative system was in place and economic stability restored. Under the circumstances, the erection of war memorials really only gained momentum from 1922. The movement then gathered momentum steadily until the mid-1930s. There was a setback during the Great Depression, but by the end of the decade it had been difficult to find a village without a war memorial in Hungary. As a result, only few monuments remained to be raised in the late 1930s and early 1940s.


Hungarian sculpture faced new challenges in the early 1920s. The War broke the spirit for erecting monuments in public spaces that had characterised the period before 1914, and the number of grand projects relying on the collaboration of several artists plummeted. The flagging of demand for public sculpture also had something to do with a shift in styles and attitudes in architecture, where new materials, structures and emphasis on functionality decimated the number of sculptures decorating the new buildings. In the 1920s and 1930s, war memorial projects became the largest employers of sculptors nationwide. Across Europe, a turn toward realism replaced the experimental styles that had characterised the art scene before the War. The new focus on verisimilitude and details naturally affected the War memorials as well. Additionally, Hungarian sculpture did not escape the influence of the classicism gaining ground in Italian art from the early 1930s, owing to the number of artists who spent shorter or longer periods in Rome on a grant.

In preparation for their memorials, each community considered its financial means, which typically depended on the number of residents, although donations from wealthy local landowners sometimes enabled a few smaller settlements to implement costlier designs. By and large, villages with fewer souls and thus fewer casualties of war contented themselves with a simple memorial plaque, on occasion decorated by a low relief of some sort. More often than not, these were mounted on church walls.

Works on a larger scale included obelisks, commissioned from a local stonemason or tomb carver. The summit was sometimes graced by the Holy Crown of Hungary or, more often, a turul bird, a symbol taken from ancient Hungarian mythology. These could also be realised by a local tradesman with better skills, although they were typically commissioned from professional sculptors.

Sándor Somogyi: War Memorial at Diósjenő, 1924, cast stone

Where sculptors really had their work cut out for them, so to speak, was in the genre of the figurative memorial. These were often based on tender, with several artists submitting projects. If the first round did not result in awarding the contract, either a new tender was announced by invitation only, or the commission was given to the best project anyway but with instructions on effecting certain modifications to the originally submitted project. For instance, the city of Cegléd announced a competition for its Remembrance of Heroes. The 15 projects submitted were evaluated in February 1925 by a committee chaired by the local Mayor and composed of members including delegates of the National Council of Fine Arts, the prominent architect István Medgyaszay, and the sculptors István Tóth and István Szentgyörgyi. While rewarding entries by Viktor Vass, Béla Farkas and Géza Horváth, the committee decided to issue a call for a more exclusive tender, in which only János Horváth, Lajos Lukácsy and József Damkó were invited to participate. Finally, Damkó was declared as the winner. His grandiose, three-figure sculpture in bronze was inaugurated in 1927.

In an effort to encourage artists and commissioners, the state announced the first nationwide war memorial tender; the projects were evaluated on 6 August 1927. The associated exhibition, like others of its kind, fulfilled an important mission by virtue of providing generic models and types embodied by the works on display, helping prospective commissioners to make preferences. The exhibiting artists included some of the foremost sculptors of the day, such as János Horvay, István Szentgyörgyi, József Damkó, Zsigmond Kisfaludy Strobl, István Gách and György Vastagh Jr, who were either members or senior officials of the National Association of Heroic Memorials.

War memorials representing human figures involved significant expenses. It was for a reason that the related Act of Parliament expressly permitted communities to choose the type of work best suited to their budgets. Most memorials were made of cast stone, an inexpensive material easy to manufacture. On the downside, the bonding is less impervious to weather than the pulverised stone itself, in time turning the surfaces coarse and gray. The more enduring bronze was far less common due to its higher expense, despite its obvious benefits of surpassing both natural and cast stone in its ability to convey fine detail and plasticity. At the beginning of the Second World War, the shortage of bronze led many artists to cast their works in aluminum instead. These can have an attractive silver sheen if renovated, as is the case with the memorial in Mernye.

Károly Cser: War Memorial in Mernye, 1943, aluminium

With memorials, the plinth is nearly as important as the figures that stand on it. This explains why an architect was typically hired to design the pedestal, particularly if the memorial had large dimensions. The pedestal bears both the figures and the inscription, in this case containing the information that the memorial was erected in honour of the heroes who fell in the war that lasted from 1914 to 1918. It also lists the names of those killed in action, sometimes attaching a note by way of explanation – frequently a quote from a classic work of literature. One of the favourite quotes was the famous line from Vörösmarty’s poem Szózat (“Appeal”): “It cannot be that all in vain / so many hearts have bled” (translation by Watson Kirkconnell). Another recurring quote came from József Bajza’s poem Apotheosis: “Here they lie at rest, these hero sons, from raging battle”, and there were others, of course. A special subset consists of reflections borrowed from well-known novelists, such as Cecile Tormay, whose inspirational message of tribute graces the pedestal of the memorial in Nádudvar: “The Hungarian Plains sacrificed their sons on the altar of the country, and shall forever hold their memory close to heart.” Tormay herself was a native of Nádudvar and personally attended the inauguration of Gáza Horváth’s memorial on 6 June 1926.

Géza Horváth: The War Memorial of Nádudvar, 1926, limestone

The unveiling of a new memorial invariably meant a momentous event. The official day for doing it was the last Sunday of May, as already mentioned, but circumstances, quite understandably, often dictated a different timing. The inauguration was attended by local elders, senior army officers, Members of Parliament, and Church dignitaries. The ceremonies were frequently attended by Archduke Joseph and Regent Miklós Horthy.


The vast majority of Hungary’s sculptors participated, in one way or another, in war memorial projects. The approximately sixty artists who contributed figurative works included some older, experienced masters such as György Zala, who was born in 1858. Best known as the artist of several statues and reliefs in Heroes’ Square in Budapest, Zala created three war memorials. The most monumental of these, inaugurated in 1927 in the presence of Regent Horthy, is located in Nagykőrös. Standing on the pedestal is a beautifully moulded female figure. Behind her is a lion – the symbol of fierceness and courage. The plinth, inscribed with the names of 997 war victims, provides a home for two reliefs in bronze, also by Zala. One of them represents fighting, the other mourning after battle.

György Zala: War Memorial in Nagykőrös, 1927, marble

During this period, Zala was a much sought-after artist with several works in public spaces to his name. Chief among them was a memorial to the assassinated statesman, former Prime Minister István Tisza on Kossuth Square, Budapest, which was removed in 1948, then renovated and re-inaugurated in 2014. Zala’s sculptures owed their popularity to their vivid expressive force and brilliantly resourceful, individualistic execution. His students learned many of his professional skills and took an active role in the creation of war memorials. One of them, Antal Orbán, assisted him in the realisation of the Tisza Memorial and created the side figures. He belonged to a younger generation. He cast six war memorials, including those erected in Dunaföldvár and Tolna. These memorials, each portraying three figures, represent a rare type of the genre. A talented sculptor with academic erudition, Orbán favoured a style akin to that of Zala, albeit without the latter’s virtuoso touch with surfaces. Instead, he proved himself as a master of grouping individual figures in a particularly dynamic manner. The protagonist of the composition in Tolna is the allegorical figure of Hungary. Her gesture harks back to classic examples such as Bertalan Székely’s painting The Women of Eger, while the wounded soldier she supports on her knee recalls Michelangelo’s Pietà.

Antal Orbán: The Tolna War Memorial, 1929, bronze

Far more common were memorials employing just two figures. A case in point are the works of György Ősz Nemes, who often returned to the motif of the soldier taking farewell of his child, realised with poignant tenderness and sorrow. Indeed, these sentiments characterised many sculptures at a time when families without anyone missing meant the exception to the rule. Like other disciples of Zala, György Ősz Nemes belonged to a younger generation (he was born in 1885). He entered the war as a general conscript, fell into captivity, and was taken to Asinara, the “Donkey Island” off Sardinia. He was lucky to survive. Apart from his nine war memorials, he is known for various reliefs, portraits, genre paintings, and works treating sacred themes.

György Ősz Nemes: War Memorial in Mezőszentgyörgy, 1927, cast stone

Surpassing his output twofold, Lőrinc Siklódy designed over twenty war memorials. His rich and varied oeuvre includes a number of sepulchres, and tombs. The most famous of these is the tomb of the great dramatist József Katona in Kecskemét, made in collaboration with Ferenc Márton. Yet where Siklódy truly distinguished himself was in the category of public sculpture, and particularly of war memorials. The first was erected in 1923, his last in 1943. Many of these works portray a soldier holding a flag or a rifle. The one in Püspökhatvan is shown blowing a horn; the one in Tápiószentmárton is represented in the heat of battle action. Like his contemporaries, Siklódy also attempted the allegory of the Holy Mother as Patrona Hungariae, as seen in the memorial unveiled in Tiszaalpár in 1926. The figure wearing the Holy Crown of Hungary stands on the pedestal with her eyes closed, her torso clad in armour, her dress and her veil over her shoulders undulating for a painting-like effect. Siklódy’s most grandiose work, displayed in Sopron, is a monument to the memory of the 17,564 troops of the 18th volunteer infantry regiment killed in action. The composition in bronze portrays a soldier setting off to war, accompanied by his wife with their small child in her arms.

Lőrincz Siklódy: The Tiszaalpár War Memorial, 1926, cast stone

Some of the war memorials of the era use the iconographical type of the Pietà. The one in Tótvázsony, by Béla Farkas, shows a mother (the allegory of Hungary) holding the body of her fallen son. In another memorial by Farkas, in Hejőkeresztúr, the figure of Christ himself holds up the reclining wounded figure. Another prolific designer of war memorials, Farkas was an important master of his age, distinguished by his precision, authenticity, consummate skills of composition, and the poignant power of his females devastated by sorrow.

A specific subset of war memorials conjure up the age of the original conquest of the Hungarianhomeland. A case in point is Elemér Dedinszky’s work in Hidasnémeti, representing the standing figure of an Árpád-era knight wrapped in sombre sadness. Such themes not simply enriched the stylistic palette of war memorials; the historical allusion had a very specific significance. (See War Memorial in Mezőszentgyörgy.)

Among the symbolic memorials, there is a work of a unique medieval atmosphere, suggesting that the sculptor, Éva Lőte, was well-versed in the heritage of sacred art. The dead soldier in the middle has his eyes closed, and his feet do not touch the ground as his body is being lifted by two angels – one with eyes shut, the other’s wide open. The broad sweep of the surfaces and the symmetry of the entire composition is a tribute to archaic sculpture. This work was created to commemorate soldiers killed in foreign lands and was inaugurated in 1942.

Éva Lőte: Memorial for Soldiers Killed in Foreign Land. Budapest Public Cemetery, 1942

One of the major fields of activity for Hungary’s sculptors in the interbellum years was, without question, the designing and building of war memorials. Most of these works were created by a younger generation of artists born roughly between 1880 and 1900, who studied at the Hungarian Royal School of Applied Arts in Budapest, where the special programme in sculpture started in 1880 under Lajos Mátrai. After graduation, many travelled widely in Europe and continued their education at foreign academies. Returning home before the outbreak of the war, they reacquainted themselves with the Hungarian art scene, showed their work at exhibitions curated by the National Salon and the Kunsthalle, and submitted projects to the large- scale sculpture competitions such as thoseforthefigureof Queen Elizabeth or Mihály Munkácsy. However, they soon found their career halted by the Great War. Many enlisted, some became wounded, spent long years abroad as prisoners of war, or never came back alive. After the war, the sculptors of this generation played a vital role in public war memorials and tombstone art, and earned universal recognition and respect of society at the time. Little wonder, then, that most were repudiated and consigned to oblivion by politics after 1945. Today, their names ring unfamiliar, some of their works can no longer be identified, and there are major gaps in their biographies.


During the Second World War, many Hungarian soldiers perished in the battlefields over again. It was to commemorate them that Minister of the Interior Ferenc Keresztes-Fischer in 1942 ordered the names of those killed in this new upheaval to be indicated on existing memorials of the Great War. This would have to wait until after the war ended and the prisoners of war returned home, but it never came to pass in a Hungary that had become a vassal state of the Soviet Union in the aftermath of the Communist takeover. At long last, the original plan was carried out by communities throughout the country after 1990. This is why many war memorials are inscribed with the names of victims from both conflagrations.

The pinnacles of Hungarian sculpture have sustained aching losses for a thousand years. Medieval works without number perished during the Ottoman occupation, including the royal statues made by Márton and György Kolozsvári for Buda Castle in the 14th century. Concurrently, the Reformation also wreaked havoc on objects of sacral art. Centuries later, Hungarian territories occupied in 1919 by neighbouring countries succumbed to a wave of terror which destroyed at least 120 works in public spaces that portrayed prominent figures of Hungarian history and art. The next campaign of demolition started in 1945. In the 19 August 1945 issue of Világosság, a monthly of young radical intellectuals. The sculptor Tibor Vilt, a former grant recipient to Rome and then holding the desk of art affairs in the Council of Community Works, abrupthly called for the “removal, first and foremost, of all [István] Tisza memorials, the counterrevolutionary memorial in Martyrs’ Square, and others, for instance the obelisks and plaques in the gardens of the Ludoviceum [military academy]. We have proposed the revisionist statues in Liberty Square to be removed as well. The war memorials commemorating the past must be weeded out, not leaving a single one that incites hatred due to its political bias or sheer aesthetic inanity. The best example of this is the memorial of the 1st infantry regiment that stands in Customs House Square.” After 1945, everyone with creative output from before the war was vetted, without exception, by special political committees or censorship – not just writers but painters, sculptors and architects as well, be they democrats but not of the extreme left.

Like any work of art, a war memorial has a double life. It has a physical existence – it is made of matter, after all – that can be abolished, and this happened to more than a few. Between 1945 and 1990, more than sixty memorials were demolished and destroyed. Why “only” sixty ones, and why the others were spared, is readily understandable. Since these works were built on the money of local residents, often to commemorate their family members, erasing from the face of earth each and everyone was a task beyond even those who held that the past had to be eradicated once and for all. Yet the past lives on not only in individual memory but also in the shape of objects, such as a statue. Those surviving now include both a fair number of works renovated since 1990 and many crumbling memorials with illegible names inscribed on them.

Károly Cser: Detail of the War Memorial in Detk, 1933, cast stone

The immaterial dimension of works of art likewise suffered, and continue to suffer, devastating attacks. The régime set up after the Second World War in Hungary found false self-justification in writing off and censoring most intellectual achievements that came in to being between 1920 and 1945. This supplied the new Communist political system with a sort of ideological rationale for uprooting all areas of life, including art and the vast majority of works, not excepting war memorials. Very few works of art dating from the interbellum years were permitted to survive unscathed into the new era. As for the war memorials themselves, they were point-blank stigmatised as being militant and aggressive – in fact, not belonging to the proper domain of art at all.

Memorials, as their name suggests, are materialised forms of remembrance. They want us to remember someone raised on the pedestal as an example for future generations to follow. They remind us of an inseparable part of our history that is both uplifting and tragic while capable of serving the benefit of our offspring. The figurative war memorials were created by artists in a style stemming from their times as well as their own education and singular personalities. They must be regarded as collective tombs conveying the respect felt for history, for our ancestors and heroes – for the soldiers who died a soldier’s death for the country; for all of those, in the words of the poet Mihály Babits (The Young Soldier, 1914) “who gave their golden hearts and golden smiles for us, without ever knowing if we would win at last, for all he knows is how to die, how to die”.

Translation by Péter Balikó Lengyel

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