“My art often reflects upon and relates to crucial historic events that, while shaping the lives of every one of us, have Hungarian connotations as well,” writes Péter Pócs. The Hungarian designer has taken to making protest posters—or what he calls “historic documents, which make it possible (this is my intention, at least) later to peel back and verbally reconstruct my thoughts as well as the events themselves.”
Pócs graduated as a goldsmith from the Secondary School of Arts in Pécs in 1971 and has been a poster designer ever since—a lifelong member of the Hungarian Poster Loneliness Association. At the age of 60, he earned a design degree at the University of West Hungary (Nyugat-Magyarországi Egyetem). After The Daily Heller began publishing posters about the war in Ukraine, Pócs sent me a batch of his own. Instantly, I had to ask him about Hungary’s position and his own emotional response to being a designer in this return to European war. (Q&A translated by Réka Szabó.)
Troubles with Russia (e.g., the Soviet Union) are not new to your country. Will you talk a bit about this?
Every year on March 15, we commemorate the events of the heroic 1848 Hungarian Revolution and Freedom Fight. We mustn’t forget that only with the help of the Russian tsar and his troops were the Habsburgs able to suppress it.
In 1945, the mother of my ex-wife, then 17-year-old Maria, along with other girls of similar age, was forcibly taken to the Soviet Union to spend five years in a labor camp (malenkiy robot, as the Russians called it). Only one out of 10 returned. The postcard she managed to smuggle home shows rows of rail thin, bedraggled girls wearing the ubiquitous Russian quilted jacket, and a Cyrillic inscription above their heads: “FORGET ME NOT!”
The 1956 Revolution and Freedom Fight, along with many other events, paved the road that made the fall of the Berlin Wall possible. My poster titled 56.10.23/1989, featuring the trapped red star (“the leaking Aurora”), symbolizes the final agony of the Communist ideology, the agony that foreshadowed and marked the way for the political changes of 1989. Then, in 1989 the last of the Russian troops left Hungary, the domino effect reached the whole of Central Europe and culminated in the collapse of the Soviet Union itself. As a result of these events, political and social movements gained a new, added importance and more and more political posters appeared in my work alongside the cultural ones.
When Soviet rolled tanks into Budapest in ’56, it was similar to the invasion of Ukraine and must have extra special resonance for you.
During World War II Hungary was allied with the losing side. It was on the giving and receiving end of unspeakable human tragedies. After the war the country became part of the Russian occupation zone. My first defining childhood memory: the suppression and bloody retaliation of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and Freedom Fight. I was 6 years old. History lurked under our windows, where I secretly watched the progress of Russian tanks brandishing their cannon towers. I can still hear the deafening sound of their caterpillar tracks crunching up the cobblestones, and the crystalware shuddering in the cabinets as they rattled by. I can still see the dead bodies of Hungarians lined up along the sidewalks. There was not a single Hungarian family unaffected by the horrors of the war, the Holocaust or the bloody repercussions of the 1956 uprising.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is not Putin, but strongmen nonetheless have certain behavior in common. Is Hungary firmly supporting Ukraine’s struggles?
In 2010, Viktor Orban—with the help of his party, FIDESZ—returned to power as prime minister for the second time. He declared a new policy, the policy of Eastern orientation. He strived to strengthen his ties with the countries encompassed within while generating more and more conflicts with the EU and the traditional West. This policy is still in force today. Turning his back on his younger self, he advocated and created the so-called illiberal state, which is a more sophisticated, tamped-down version of Putin’s model. He divided the country into “patriots,” i.e., right-wing illiberals, and “traitors,” i.e., leftist liberals. He has gradually changed, and in the end dismantled the democratic institutions of the state. In his economic policies he has increasingly rubbed up to the Russians and China.
In some of your posters you equate the USSR with Putin. Do you feel that Soviet-style aggression is simply a fact of life today?
The great majority of Hungarians, myself included, wish for peace and friendship, maintaining a sufficient distance, safety and independence in all respects. The only guarantors that can provide all of the above is NATO and the EU, and these we are a member of. I call myself a liberal conservative who thinks pragmatically.
Orban’s populism, our dependence on Russian energy and other economic ties “do not allow” for the Hungarian government’s open stance for Ukraine’s freedom struggle as would be otherwise duly expected. To this day, Orban performs a tight-rope dance between his outwardly communicated, seemingly European-friendly actions and his pro-Russian domestic rhetoric. Every step he takes is guided by one goal only: to hang onto his power, as national elections will be held on April 3.
Have you experienced any forms of censorship?
My posters are a “lone figure’s” futile fight for truth, honesty, decency, love and morale in our world. In the times prior to 1989, I had posters that were censored, that were shredded or not allowed to go to print at all. Still, I had a lot of work. After the political changes, none of my posters have been censored, but no work has been commissioned of me in Hungary for the past 30 years, either.
There is no censorship, but no work. I design my posters first and foremost for myself, but also for the Hungarian and international public who show an interest in my work.
Posters can have some mnemonic power, trigger certain feelings, etc. But what is the goal of your work? Who are you trying to reach?
This kind of intellectual (risk-taking) way of thinking, direct reflection, protestation, open support, concise, emblematic messaging, the prophecies, unfortunately or fortunately withstand the test of time. I consciously follow my instincts. It has been my credo from the very beginning: The poster artist is the conscience of a given time, who provides visual answers to verbal questions. Posters begin where words end. Gutenberg’s Galaxy, the posters that used to dress the streets, might be on their way out, but the poster as a means of conveying thought, as a form of expression, has not disappeared, only moved to another platform where it thrives. Digitalization, the internet, social media, make imminent and far-reaching reflection possible. As a result of this—despite the unbelievable sea of disinformation—we are able to gain information quickly and react to it instantly.
How do you feel about this war and its long-term implications?
The first reflection of Putin’s frustrated war, of the Russian aggression: the drive of the great Russian empire. This for me, a Hungarian, is especially jarring and painful. It tears open old wounds, awakens slumbering memories, fills you with dread and shivering. Every inch of my body protests against the shelling of Ukraine, against the killing of Ukrainians, against the blatant disregard of life, against this whole, unfair war that is being fought and lost under false pretenses. We need to say it out loud: Putin is a war criminal. With the events unfolding in Ukraine, a new world order has started to take shape. We have to rethink and start everything from the beginning.