Statue of Attila József unveiled on Kossuth Square 40 years ago

Hungarian version of the article: Negyven éve avatták fel József Attila szobrát a Kossuth téren

Written by: Csaba Domonkos

December 29, 2020 at 9:00 AM

A few years ago, the temporary removal of the Attila József statue – erected in 1980 on the site of the former Andrássy monument – from Kossuth Square due to the area's renovation caused an enormous uproar. Many believed that the work had been removed permanently. But a few months later, the statue was on Kossuth Square again. Although it was not put back in its original place, many say it found a better place only a few metres away, on the riverbank.

The iconic statue of Attila József was unveiled at the end of 1980, 40 years ago, on Kossuth Square. Even then, its placement received criticism, in the 7th 1981 issue of the periodical Kritika, Gyula Rózsa described the work of art as a fish washed ashore in his article entitled The Statue of József Attila on the Danube bank:

“The sculptor László Marton and the architect György Vadász brought the bronze figure of Attila József to the »bottom step of the wharf,« only the bottom step has been brought – in pieces – to the upper embankment and put on top of a small artificial mound where it can be climbed on concrete blocks. Thus, the washed-ashore-fish-likeness of the statue is not caused by writing a single line of the poem on the stone in bronze – and if it were, the memorial could still have a rather dramatic effect.

The critic was not fascinated by the statue itself either, calling it a monument to the “current Hungarian public compromise” and criticising its composition in a long, one-and-a-half-page article.

There had been talk of erecting a statue of Attila József in Budapest since 1947. Many locations were considered for the planned, usually in place of monuments removed by the communist leadership. Eventually, the first statue of Attila József in Budapest as set up on József Attila Square in the 13th District in 1952.

The statue in its original place in 1981 (Photo: A Hét, 15 April 1981)

The statue in the 13th District – by András Beck – depicts the poet in a more traditional pose, standing on a pedestal with his hands raised. The next statue was erected on Margit Island in 1974. However, the bust by Imre Varga was stolen in 1977 and only replaced in 1988. Unfortunately, the replacement was also vandalised.

In addition to these, there are 17 statues and reliefs of Attila József in Budapest. One of these was erected on the 100th anniversary of the poet's birth in front of József Attila primary School in the 20th District, another in 2006 on Liszt Ferenc Square, in front of one of the poet's favourite locales, the former Japanese Café. A statue also stands in front of József Attila High School in the 11th District.

The Kossuth Square monument was unveiled on 23 December 1980, in the former site of the Andrássy statue, as the closing event of the József Attila Memorial Year. This year celebrated the 75th anniversary of the poet's birth, who died at a tragically young age.

The statue of József Attila now actually looks over the Danube (Photo: Both Balázs/pestbuda.hu)

The inauguration of the statue itself was a solemn ceremony. Géza Hegedűs D. recited the poem that inspired the sculpture, By the Danube, and Zoltán Szépvölgyi, the chairman of the Budapest Council, also gave a speech. As the socialist regime wanted to tie Attila József to itself at all costs, the myth of the poet being a communist martyr was reinforced by the fact that the International was played during the ceremony.

Fortunately, the false adjectives used to describe Attila József's poetry, and the statue have been erased. The work depicting this Hungarian literary genius has become one of the most popular public sculptures in Budapest.

This is illustrated by the fact that when plans to move the statue were published in 2011, NGOs, well-known artists and public figures organized a poetry marathon to defend it – presumably due to a misunderstanding or failed communication. Performers read and recited Attila József's poems for a total of 32 hours 40 minutes. The length was decided because the poet lived for 32 and three-quarters of a year.

The protest drew attention to Attila József and his poetry, but the plans already included that the statue would be moved only a few metres because a decision was reached to restore the equestrian statue of Prime Minister Gyula Andrássy to Kossuth Square (the material of which was used to create the enormous statue of Stalin).

The monument to Attila József was re-erected in 2013, after restoration. Architect György Vadász – the architect who designed the statue's original placement, also contributed to its new location.

The new location of the monument was also designed by György Vadász (Photo: Both Balázs/pestbuda.hu)

However, the relocation brought a fundamental change in the composition of the sculpture. Now the bronze figure of the poet no longer sits on a staircase atop an artificial mound, but on the banks of the Danube, from where the river is visible, unlike its original location.

So now, the most important statue of Attila József in Budapest looks over the river while sitting on the steps of the embankment while the people of Budapest and tourists can read the lines placed on the statue:

"As if my own heart had opened its gate:
The Danube was turbulent, wise and great." – Trans. John Székely (Source)

Or in another translation:

As if it flowed from my own heart in spate, 
Wise was the Danube, turbulent and great. – Trans. Vernon Watkins (Source)

Cover photo: The statue of Attila József (Photo: Both Balázs/pestbuda.hu)


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