The prelude of this essay is my performance YOU SHOULD FEEL HONOURED, which took place on the 11th of October 2018 at the National Gallery. It put an end to a long tug of war with the Gallery, which had taken almost 10 months. Originally I had planned an exhibition focusing on Gyula Pauer’s statue Miss Hungary, modelled on the winner of the 1985 national beauty pageant. As the statue is a part of the Gallery’s public collection, the venue offered itself as an evident option. In my proposal submitted to the Gallery, I wrote: “I would like to enrobe the bronze statue of the beauty queen. Not in a dress. I will cover it in a mantle made from the material of the so-called red carpet. The red carpet is an important symbol of not only the beauty-, advertising-, film- and fashion industry, but also of political and power representation…. The long red fabric gives the impression of a ceremonial mantle worthy of a queen, while also being a paralysing burden.”
For a few years now, the statue has been standing on a corridor connecting two wings of the building, at a semi-public spot. On the 11th of October 2018, however, it was moved from the corridor for the sake of an event and put on display in the Dome Hall. As my plans for the exhibition seemed to fall through, this gave me the opportunity for a somewhat ambush-like performance that was eventually approved by the Gallery. The statue bore a red fabric on her shoulder, which was thinner than planned, but at least easier to handle. I had pinned on it a sequence of letters cut out of light fabric, reading YOU SHOULD FEEL HONOURED. I then fastened this roughly 14 metres long banner on the wall of the Dome Hall. Afterwards, I commenced to write these pages exploring the social and artistic context of Pauer’s statue.
The documentation of the performance is on show between 14 May and 10 June 2019 at the Fészek Artists’ Club Gallery, accompanied by new works related to the subject at the Herman Hall.
The role of photography in the cultural and media policy of the ‘70s
The economic restructuring that preceded the regime change was entailed by the dissemination of printed colour photography and advertising images across various mass media. According to a statement dated 1972, issued by the Ministry of Domestic Trade, artistic nude photos, graphics and drawings could be used to advertise commercial goods only of they were relatable to the character, purpose or usage of the advertised goods. Against all appearances, this regulation in fact provided unlimited possibilities in practice and opened the way for the mass cultural and advertising use of “artistic nudes”. “Artistic nude” had become a veritable blanket rule with regard to its photographic uses, as it could be freely applied to any photo of relatively good technical quality. In the beginning, the popular and intimate medium of calendar cards served as an experimental field for the publication of pictures that would not necessarily have made it into the printed press or onto billboards.
The Fine Arts Publishing Company considerably supported this tendency, which correlated with the goals of party politics as it incited consumption and was enhanced by the ideology of mass culture. The company that had monopoly in managing visual artists in the socialist period, in other words, the political commitment of which would have been difficult to question, published its very own calendar cards as well.
The above image is a typical example of the company’s calendar card publishing activity in the ‘80s. Of the 16 calendar cards in the double page, 10 are so-called “artistic nudes”, 4 are reproductions of paintings, and 2 are meant to introduce Formula 1 into the public consciousness (it would not be launched in Hungary before 1986). The artistic quality of “artistic nude” primarily stood for better quality lighting and photographic equipment, and each of the represented models was a beautiful and young woman. Calendar cards primarily targeted the male public.
Photos of naked bodies appeared in other media as well. From the late ‘60s, photography gradually replacing the graphic solutions of previous decades. The most characteristic example is the magazine Tollasbál [‘Pyjama Party’], published by the National Association of Hungarian Journalists (MÚOSZ) once a year during carnival season [‘Farsang’] in February between 1959 and 1990. The magazine deployed an entire arsenal of creative ideas to disguise the sexualisation of the female body with diverse topics. Such themes were body painting, nudist beaches, artists painting nudes, artists photographing nudes, nudity at the theatre, etc. The topics of Tollasbál were mainly tailored to the interests of men: besides displaying female bodies as nakedly as possible, they published articles portraying popular Hungarian men (e.g. Géza Hofi, György Szepesi, Alfonzó, Alajos Chrudinák etc.), introduced famous and successful foreign men, actors, sportsmen (e.g. Laurence Olivier, John McEnroe etc.), while the topic of cars and sports was featured as well. In addition to ‘creative editing’, naturally, they also used ads and humour as an excuse to display nudity; the ads and jokes in the magazine perfectly exemplify their ideas about the representation of the female body. Content meant for women was mainly hidden in ads, as these predominantly promoted women’s lingerie, fashion jewellery and cosmetic products. In other words, they seemed to primarily target female readers in this respect. Of course, this was a quite transparent pretext, as these were the very products that ‘required’ female bodies in advertising, and where the sight of naked women was in accordance with the regulations. All in all, in terms of content, Tollasbál should be considered a men’s magazine, perhaps a socialist version of Playboy even. The appearance of a mixed (male and female) readership was provided merely by the monopoly of the magazine.
However, there are signs indicating the monitoring and control of practices related to the use of the female body. It is not exactly clear owing to what, but the fact is that while for instance in the 1980 edition of Tollasbál, the Lehel fridge was advertised by a woman wearing slips, the same ad in the 1981 issue omits the woman. There is, nevertheless, a quite specific source (cited by by Boldizsár Vörös in his research paper) confirming that in 1979, the Hungarian Advertising Association criticised the Fabulon sunscreen’s ad for the “artistic bare bottom” in the image, and permitted the posting of these billboards in holiday resorts only, banning them from cities. The criticised company reacted to the censorship in the more libertine domain of Tollasbál. The advertising profession regarded the ban as prudery, and awarded the idea with a special prize at the Best Press Ads of 1980 competition.
In 1982, the magazine published an ad that sexualised violence against women with a humorous overtone. The ‘attacked’ woman in the image is already almost half-naked, as the “assailant” ‘tore off’ her blouse. The woman’s face shows lust, and she holds a mobile radio telephone in her hand. The caption: “Help! I’ve been attacked! Can you hear me? – I can! Knock your assailant over the head with the device! The BRG mobile radio telephone can endure anything!” Perhaps this ad also got caught in the filter of the Advertising Association, perhaps they changed it for other reasons, but by 1983 the same product was featured in the magazine in a still sexist manner, but no longer by sexualising violence. Perhaps it is worthwhile to mention here that in The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf considers the aggression inherent in the medium of photography often pornographic in terms of the mass-cultural representation of the female body. She classifies image types by pornographic convention: “soft-core” versions “just” objectify the female body, while “hard-core” ones also do violence to it. By “pornography” she means sexual objectification. It is not mutual eroticism between people of the opposite sex that she criticises, but rather those instances when representation is degraded to serve impersonalisation as well as desires and fantasies of power. In other words, the term “pornography” has a different meaning in her vocabulary than for instance in the Civil Code.
It is worth to take a look at another type of publication in terms of the representation of bodies: the New Year special issues of daily newspapers. The New Year specials of dailies are not only peculiar dashes of colour in press history, but they also reveal the complicity of the party state in the commodification of the female body. Otherwise banned, nude photographs had a special position in the issues distributed to a closed circle comprising the editorial staff and party functionaries. For instance, Népszabadság [People’s Freedom], the daily of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party (MSZMP), published a special issue once a year titled Szilveszteri Népszabi [‘New Year’s Peep’s Freed’’]. The genre of New Year’s special edition was trendy amongst editorial offices, with such titles as ’Rest News’ for Pest News, ’Hungry News’ for Hungary News or ‘People’s GERD’ for People’s Word. These issues could not be published every year, as they required party permission, and for long they could not be circulated outside an exclusive sphere. An increasing number of copies had to be printed each year as the most diverse official circles were begging for it. As a regular featurethese publications contained female nudes cut out from foreign magazines. The imagery of the 1971 Szilveszteri Népszabi reflects the body image and conception of gender that characterised the Western magazines used as source, occasionally still reflecting the ’68 sexual revolution. The issue in question also features men, more precisely, two photos feature naked women and men together. In one of the pictures, even a man’s penis is visible.
This is not characteristic of subsequent issues. The positive consequences of the ’68 movement rapidly disappeared from Hungarian press publications (as well). The men’s club character and sexist humour of editorial offices knew no bounds in the issues to follow. This was where the desires of the typically male journalists of the party’s daily converged with the goals of party policy, softened by the processes of market economy. Its formerly exclusive circulation was extended, and in the years immediately preceding the regime change, the New Year’s special editions of certain papers would even be allowed to be distributed on the street. From this point forward, looking at images of naked women was no longer the privilege of party officials and their environment: the sexual guidance coming from above was democratically available to anyone.
The images in these issues were cut out from papers published abroad. Foreign publications had to undergo control at the border. In the 1984 issue of the aforementioned Tollasbál, István Barnai, lieutenant colonel of the Customs and Excise Office (VPOP), head of the Department of Passenger and Gift Traffic gave a statement about the regulations of importing erotic magazines. According to this, there was no official blacklist; his colleagues would decide based on their subjective visual examination which press publications they would find appropriate for customs clearance (these would be returned to their original proprietor after the clearance procedure), and which ones they would deem inappropriate and ordain to be destroyed. He stresses that the publications containing merely nude photographs could be imported to the country without further ado. The Customs Office’s official opinion also confirms that “nude” can only refer to female nude, even if the image is pornographic, at least in the sense understood by Naomi Wolf. The nude woman must be alone in the image; it is inappropriate for the models to be in interaction with each other. The sight of a penis is inadmissible.
The representability of genitalia as far as female (often bare) and male (rather covered) sex organs are concerned, is closely related to the question of power relations. This unwritten rule has quite deeply rooted traditions in fine art as well. An example from 1962: sculptor József Somogyi makes the small scale model of his three-figure statue Family, which he casts in bronze. The penises of the erect figures of the father and his son are clearly visible, and the elaboration and formal features of the genitalia are in harmony with the sculpting of their bodies. The mother’s seated figure only reveals her breasts.
In 1964, Somogyi creates the public version of the statue, with seemingly insignificant modifications that are in fact radical in terms of the topic at hand. In the public statue, which stands in a little park among modern houses at the Bécsi Road in Óbuda, the boy has metamorphosed into a girl wearing a dress, the father figure’s penis is gone, and a unidentifiable veil-like object smudges the form of the incriminated organ. Meanwhile, the figure of the mother has gained an extra genital, represented by an indentation in her body between her legs, which is nowhere to be found on the small sculpture. Whether his modifications were the result of an order from above, or self-censorship, I have not been able to find out so far. Nevertheless, this example quite clearly demonstrates how a double standard is in play regarding the representation of female and male nudity, which is validated and operated by the dominant culture’s power position, thereby fostering and conserving power inequalities between genders.
(Translation: Dániel Sipos)
I wish to thank Csaba Gál for calling my attention to this aspect of Somogyi’s statue.
I wish to thank András Beck for his help in my research.