Hungary’s Aggressive Posterist
If you know the name Mihály Biró (1886–1948) at all, you’ll be familiar with his most internationally known image: the “Red Man” cover for the newspaper Népszava, an heroic figure of a nude male wielding a sledge hammer. This memorable image of political power represented the Social Democratic Party of Hungary. Today it’s a symbol of revolution in the face of reaction and the tyranny of repression.
Biró was celebrated in 2010 by the MAK Art Society of Vienna, which issued a booklet, Mihály Biró: Pathos in Red, through the Verlag Für Moderne Kunst Nürnberg, which in word and image tells the story of this significant 20th-century graphic designer and illustrator. While much of his work was political, producing propaganda for the Hungarian Red Army, he was also a prolific commercial advertising artist. He put himself at risk during World War I as a combatant but also as an enemy of the subsequent “White Terror” dictatorship of Admiral Miklós Horthy, which lasted 28 years until Hitler invaded Hungary and replaced him with an even more cruel puppet regime. For Biró’s efforts, he was arrested but escaped execution twice.
Biró was born in 1886 to a Jewish merchant family. His father’s name was originally Weinberger, but the family Hungarianized their names right before Biró was born.
Among his political posters for the party, Biró also designed some anti-war images. The most well known was the cannon feeder („ágyútöltő”), which invited people to a protest against the horrors of the War in 1912. “The posters were so strong visually that they were often defined as a prophecy,” Eszter Kaba states here, “and were misplaced after the war broke out.”
Biró’s posters are more or less in the Secessionist or Art Nouveau style but without naturalistic eccentricities. They are widely considered outstanding because of their expressive power, and because his employ of monumental (male) figures stood for an entire social class or the society itself. Red and black are the two colors that define many of his works. Biró was very versatile in his use of typography; the text on his posters often becomes an organic part of the composition.