Photographing the 20th century

Hungarian artist Peter Puklus talks about his photography book The Epic Love Story of a Warrior, European history of the 20th century, and Marina Tsvetaeva. RU

Andrei Zavadski
5 October 2017

This article continues oDR’s series “Practically about memory”. Find out more here.

Peter Puklus often finds inspiration in the past. Memories of people, objects, encounters, and experiences are transformed in his artistic practice into a very distinct visual language. The Hungarian artist’s latest project, The Epic Love Story of a Warrior, is dedicated to the events of the 20th century. This acclaimed photography book tells the story of an abstract Central and Eastern European family that, in the course of the century, is forced to move westward. Created mostly in his studio, the photographs that сomprise Puklus’ book reference easily recognisable imagery of Europe’s difficult past, thus turning The Epic Love Story of a Warrior into a “memory book” for every European.  

Is The Epic Love Story of a Warrior based on your personal and family memories?  


Cover of the book "The Epic Love Story of a Warrior"

Yes, on two family histories. The first is that of my wife: she comes from a very rooted, once affluent Jewish family from Budapest; her grandmother survived Auschwitz. The second family history is my own: I was born in the Romanian region of Transylvania, in the Hungarian minority. One of my great uncles about whom I know little, was deported by the Soviets to the Gulag. My family, which is partly Catholic, unwittingly became a sort of opponent to the regime in Romania, and fled as soon as they could.

I picked personas, memories, cities and other elements from both of these family histories at random, and mixed them well. Thus I created a new story. The resulting narrative – the wanderings of a Central and Eastern European family throughout the 20th century – is fictional, but at the same time based on actual memories. I wanted to create a story of an “average” family that is affected by history.

In other words, you take very personal memories to produce, so to say, everybody’s memories. How does the book’s title fit into this?

I believe that one of humankind’s most powerful tools is its ability to tell a story. I love stories. They usually consist of three obligatory elements (or at least one or two of them): birth, love, and death. All three are present in my book, and that is why it is an “epic” story: it aspires to be a reference to the medieval and even ancient Greek art of storytelling. After all, a “love story” is a synonym of life itself: we constantly fall in love.


Thunder. 2014, Budapest. Photo: Peter Puklus. All rights reserved.

And not only with people, but with places, ideas, objects…

Exactly. Love transforms us this way or another, forms our personality. It is a crucial feeling for a human.

And “warrior”?

That stands for heroism. When I was thinking about the title for this project, I reflected a lot on European values. Including, possibly, heroism. But what becomes of a European hero? In most cases, especially during hard times (as the 20th century was), people become heroes when they die. In other words, you have to sacrifice yourself to become a hero - take, for instance, Joan of Arc or Sophie Scholl. Every country has people like that: just ordinary people who, when necessary, rise up against injustice and die on a battlefield, or in prison, or in front of an execution squad. They die and are then proclaimed heroes. Bronze statues are built in their honour…


Painted plaster head (Self-portrait of a man in blue). 2015, Budapest. Photo: Peter Puklus. All rights reserved.

…national myths are built around their stories.

Yes. But dead people cannot raise children. For me, heroism lies in the everyday. It is about being an example for others. That’s why I think that the focus on the dead hero needs to be reconsidered in the 21st century: we have to come up with ways to become a hero without dying.

So, you have created this warrior who goes through the 20th century, struggles, endures a lot of hardships - and stays alive. Is that what heroism should be?

I don’t know if there is only one warrior in this book. And I do not know if he or she actually survives. It is more about posing the question, rather than giving an answer: Is it right to believe that a hero should always die?

The book is divided into four chapters: “The beginning of hope (1918-1939)”, “Unsafe to Dance (1933-1945)”, “Bigger. Faster. Higher (1944-1989)”, and “Life as Techno (1989-2016)”. It thus is a history of the last hundred years. At the same time, you seem to be using Eric Hobsbawm’s concept of a “short 20th century”. Why?

For me, the 20th century begins with the First World War and lasts until around 1989, when communism fails in Central Europe. It was an extremely important time for who we are now: during that period, our value systems were destroyed and rebuilt anew. Our current borders, agendas, rules and ways of thinking originate in that time, especially the first decades after WWII. Some of them are great, but some need to be rethought. The question is: Can we move into the 21st century without a major war? Because history teaches us that a great change happens as a result of a great war…


Statue of a Lefthanded Soldier, position nr. 1. 2013, Budapest. Photo: Peter Puklus. All rights reserved.

But 1989-1991, when the Soviet system collapsed all over Europe, is considered by many to have been a more or less peaceful revolution. From your perspective, we are now faced with a question of whether that event and the change that followed was radical enough…

Yes. For instance, after the Romanian Revolution of 1989, a politician named Ion Iliescu became president. And he had been a Securitate agent in Ceaușescu’s era. Is that a real change or not? That’s why, despite talking about the “short 20th century” that ends with the collapse of Communism, I feel that, in some way, we still live in the 20th century – and it’s high time we moved into the 21st.

What does the time overlap between “The beginning of hope (1918-1939)” and “Unsafe to Dance (1933-1945) imply?

Those six years are a milestone in European history. Hitler gained power in 1933, the Great Terror began in the USSR in 1937, World War Two started in 1939. Retrospectively, it’s very easy to judge those who did not rise against what was happening. But I try not to hold the hand my readers’ hand. I may have my own views, but I’m sure they’re not perfect. So I set the framework but leave some freedom for the reader to reflect.

Let’s talk about the “Bigger. Faster. Higher” – or the “Faster. Higher. Stronger”, as the classic Olympic slogan goes – in Hungarian history. How important is the Communist period for Hungary and Hungarians today? How is it remembered?

It’s difficult to talk about it, especially because there are so many blank spots. For instance, we still have very limited access to communist-era secret police archives in Hungary. This creates room for fake facts and fake news and, besides, leaves the past looming over the present. For example, there has been speculation that Viktor Orbán’s father, and indeed the prime minister himself, were informers for the secret service. But we don’t know the truth.

Do you think that finding out that a neighbour or father of a friend used to be an informer will improve Hungarians’ lives?

I believe in communication: it is better to talk about things, discuss them publicly, than to hide them. I also believe in freedom, in the necessity to take decisions for oneself and be responsible for them. Going back to your previous question: many Hungarians cherish communist times because of the strict rules that governed people and the clear patterns of behaviour that people were expected to follow. It didn’t require too much thinking, it was easier. And now that almost 30 years have passed, people feel nostalgic about that life. This is dangerous because the oppression and tyranny of those times can then be easily forgotten. I can’t really discuss this even with my own father because he inevitably says that there also were good things under Ceaușescu.

Starting from 1989, according to your story, life has been “techno”. What does that mean to you? Is it about parties and dancing or, since techno was born in Detroit, about American influence on Central Europe?

Neither. There is a very interesting thing inherent in the structure of techno music. It is based on repetition, but if you’re attentive, you realise there is a slight change, then it is the same again, then there is a big change. That’s how I understand life: it repeats itself, again and again. Be it whether with small or huge variations, there is a constant repetition.


Hula-hoops (Blue and Red). 2014, Vienna. Photo: Peter Puklus. All rights reserved.

Is the book then also a comment on the current Hungarian government?

I’d like it to be.  I’m happy that you asked; nobody asked me that before. But it was there in my mind when I was working on the book: I wanted to address what was happening around me and say: “Hey, guys, things seem to be repeating themselves”. This isn’t very obvious in the book, but it is there.

Then what is your take on the Fidesz government’s politics of memory?

There are many things that I dislike, but in this context it’s the government’s obsession with the antique idea of a Great Hungary “whose shores were washed by three seas” and its desire to restore this “great nation”. That’s why they are putting up statues to Hungary’s kings all across the country. For example, there was a huge wave of monuments to Stefan I, our first king, erected across Hungary. I think this is an attempt to strengthen the regime.

What about memory of the Holocaust? Recently a memorial to the Nazi occupation of Hungary has been put in the centre of Budapest. It presents Hungary as a victim of Nazi Germany, which, on some level, is true, but on another, this shifts the emphasis away from Hungarians’ participation in deporting Jews to Auschwitz…

The Holocaust plays an important role in The Epic Love Story of a Warrior. Among others, there is a photograph of the former Gestapo headquarters in Budapest, one of the few images taken outside my studio. The Nazis sent only a few officials to Hungary, and this handful of people could not conduct the deportations on their own. All they needed was the collaboration of Hungarians. And they got it. So, it wasn’t just them, it was us. Maybe my grandfather was involved, I don’t know… The government’s stand on the Holocaust is rather ambiguous: I would say, Hungarians’ role in the Holocaust is not admitted explicitly enough.


Fachwerk in fire. 2014, Vienna. Photo: Peter Puklus. All rights reserved.

While each photograph in The Epic Love Story of a Warrior could be seen as a separate work, I feel it is much stronger as a story. This might be the case, of course, because I personally relate to narrative, to “words” better than to an individual image. What was your rationale behind the decision to create this, if I may say so, Gesamtkunstwerk (because, in addition to photography, you use poetry and, in exhibitions, sculpture)? Is it because of the limitations of photography for telling a story?

I like to think that I am not a photographer, but an artist who mostly works with photography. This gives me freedom to go beyond the medium. The Epic Love Story of a Warrior does not push the boundaries of photography, strictly speaking. But it strives to do something else. There is this saying that one plus one equals three; I prefer to think that one plus one makes eleven. So, it was an attempt to go beyond the photo book as an object and prompt the reader to think. How do we actualise memories? Either through stories (texts) or with the help of images (photos, films, etc). I tried to unite these two strategies and create a synergic effect. That’s why I used recognisable, in some cases iconic images from the 20th century as a point of departure for my own photographs. Looking at them, and looking at their juxtaposition with other images, can trigger a whole flow of memories, which I do not want to control. Many of the questions that you ask me are not in the book, but it made you think of them. So I have probably achieved my goal.

Instead of page numbers, you punctuate the story using Marina Tsvetaeva’s poem “How many people fell in this abyss, I fathom from afar!”. Why?

It is a lovely story: we met by accident…

You also quote the Russian singer Zemfira, whose lyrics say almost exactly that: “In the early hours of morning, I fell in love with you, Marina Tsvetaeva”.

Funny: my Tsvetaeva story is also related to music. I am omnivorous when it comes to music and am constantly looking for new things to hear. Once I came across this track by Max Richter, it started with a female voice [of the Russian actress Alla Demidova] reading a Russian poem. Obviously, I couldn’t understand a word, but I liked the language and melody of it. I listened and listened, and at some point decided to look up whose poem it was. I found a Russian translator living in Australia, Ilya Shambat, who had translated the poem into English. And when I started to read about Tsvetaeva, I became obsessed with her: in a way, her life is symptomatic of the 20th century. So, I used the poem as a tool to demonstrate the passage of time.


Maquette of a Monument Symbolising the Liberation III., view nr. 1. 2014, Vienna. Photo: Peter Puklus. All rights reserved.

Was the project for you about overcoming death through being remembered by future generations, along the lines of Tsvetaeva’s poem? Or was it more about contributing to how the 20th century will be recollected by Europeans tomorrow?

It’s very much about recollection of the unknown, of the countless deaths of people whose names we do not remember. Was it worth it, or should we find other ways to make radical change happen? The history of the 20th century taught us that it’s always about the opposition between the “right” and the “left”: Nazis against Soviets, the Warsaw Pact against NATO, etc. I believe that the real opposition is not between left or right, it’s between “up” and “down”: the oppressive state, the banking system, extremist ideas – which work against us, ordinary people, average working families. That’s what we have to realise to really move forward.





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