With near-simultaneous exhibitions in the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Österreichisches Museum für angewandte Kunst in Vienna, it might be claimed that the poster designer Mihály Biró is breaking into the consciousness of art and design historians. It is not before time, because Biró clearly was, as the MAK catalogue states, “the most famous commercial artist of his time” in central Europe and “the first in his trade to create unequivocally political posters.” This is no mean claim because, in the period after the First World War, the Sachplakat, or “object poster,” was still triumphant in much of the German-speaking world, German advertising firms were dominant throughout the region, and the whole practice of poster art was undergoing radical changes in response to the new commercial and political imperatives. In 1920, Biró was a newly arrived political émigré with few contacts in the art or advertising worlds of Vienna. That he was able to balance his political and commercial work during the next decade, and that his poster designs appeared on billboards and magazines throughout the region, says much for his ability and his practical outlook. Most of the Hungarians who had fled the White Terror in 1919–20 remained disconsolate émigrés in Vienna before drifting back to Budapest when an amnesty was offered in 1925. Biró, by contrast, established a new reputation for his posters in Austria and set about developing a number of distinctive features that were more than just commercial outlets for his art.
Interesting as it was, the MoMA exhibition was a small affair (with no catalogue) in which Biró’s famous “Red Man,” described there as “one of the most well-known political images of the period,” was juxtaposed with other revolutionary posters from the 1919 Republic of Soviets. There were two versions of Biró’s heroic nude figure on display, each one adapted for a slightly different purpose while preserving the continuity of meaning that every powerful symbol retains. The MAK exhibition was an altogether more substantial show, offering a full retrospective of Biro’s work, which allowed the spectator to follow the arc of his career.
Biró emerged as a distinctive designer in Budapest in the years before the First World War when the Hungarian print media were in overdrive. The combination of unprecedented political and economic power, the fast expansion of the capital city, and the need for an independent press and a publishing and advertising culture to reflect the unique Hungarian language meant that Hungarian printing houses were working at full tilt to meet the demand of their markets. The pictorial advertising poster flourished along with product packaging, brand labels, illustrated magazines, handbills, music sheets, and a host of other printed ephemera. Biró entered this world in 1910 with a series of bold political posters for the Hungarian Social Democratic Party that revealed an already-mature sense of radical socialist iconography and a figurative style at once harsh and striking. The 1912 poster for a demonstration, depicting a skeleton in army uniform shoveling a mass of tiny people into the gaping breech of a cannon, is one of the most arresting and successful of these political images. In the same year, he designed the first version of the Red Man, wielding a huge hammer, printed by lithography over the newsprint of Népszava (The People’s Voice), the official newspaper of the party.
Alongside this politically engaged activity, Biró was also developing a career as a commercial artist, creating designs for, among others, Pauker stationery, Yost typewriters, and a number of topical news, literary, and society magazines. His most famous commercial designs from this period were for Palma shoe products (rubber soles and heels); Palma was one of the most prolific public-advertising firms in central Europe. The “Park Bench” design of 1911–12, employing Biró’s gift for caricature to great effect, is perhaps the most widely reproduced Hungarian poster of the period. The light humor in this, and in the Pauker striding errand boy, is deceptive, however, since the designs also reveal Biró’s skill in rendering figurative scenes with an economy derived in part from an awareness of both the distorting effects of photography and recent expressionist art. This latter source is significant because, like many of the Budapest poster designers, Biró had close ties to the emerging avant-garde circles around Lajos Kassák and the magazine MA(Today).
Biró’s ability in both pictorial propaganda and commercial advertising was quickly recognized by the authorities, and after completing his military service, he was employed as a poster designer for the war effort. In contrast to the British, who, at least in the early stages of the war, concentrated on recruitment, the Hungarians directed their propaganda primarily at raising funds to support the military. Biró’s war propaganda posters in this vein are among the most dynamic that he produced, although the iconography (coins as shields; appeals from soldiers at the front; juxtaposition of soldiers and peasants) was largely conventional. One poster, however, does strike an unfamiliar note: advertising a competition for war photographs taken by soldiers on active duty, it depicts a front-line soldier with a camera taking a shot of a plane falling from the sky in flames. This particular collision of modern technology, warfare, and art (or documentary) unites many of the characteristics that historians have retrospectively associated with the war.
Given Biró’s early political allegiances, it is hardly surprising that, like many in the artistic and literary avant-garde, he moved further to the left as the war progressed. While producing designs for government propaganda he was creating powerful posters in support of workers’ relief organizations and, in 1918, full-blown appeals for a workers’ insurrection. Biró was thus at the center of the most turbulent years in modern Hungarian history. Between 1917 and 1921, Hungarians witnessed the collapse of first the military and then the Dual Monarchy, a liberal republican revolution followed by the short-lived Republic of Soviets, invasion by the Allied Powers (including a destructive occupation by Romanian troops), and a right-wing counterrevolution and the White Terror, which resulted in the installation of Admiral Miklós Horthy as regent. Biro’s posters and prints are the visual accompaniment to these events, at least from the viewpoint of the left-wing revolutionaries, since he became the commissar for poster propaganda in Béla Kun’s Communist republic. His imagery is clear and powerful, elaborating many of the tropes found in leftist propaganda for the next thirty or forty years–ugly, bloated capitalists sitting on piles of cash, powerful workers smashing the symbols and institutions of capitalism, terrified women and children threatened by the police and army. At the heart of this was the Red Man, revived for the new revolution in 1919, who adorned posters, magazines, cartoons, banners, and printed textiles as one of the most recognizable symbols of left-wing and trade-union activity–a Che Guevara of the early- to mid-twentieth century. Biró’s confident use of the emerging iconography of communism is one of the hallmarks of his revolutionary posters, as we see in his gigantic workers kicking over the imperial throne, sweeping away the bankers, the police, and the military, and, in one image, lifting the roof off the parliament building to shine a light on the bourgeois politicians inside.
Like virtually all his fellow artists on the left, Biró fled to Vienna in 1919 when the counterrevolution gained ground, unleashing the White Terror that Biro castigated in a horrific series of prints entitled the “Horthy Portfolio.” In Vienna, and in Berlin, he set himself up as a poster artist. He continued to produce political propaganda, but during the 1920s he became one of the most popular commercial poster designers of the entire region. Working for a series of advertising agencies and film distributors, he produced a stream of successful designs, employing the expressive effects of his earlier work but now in a more painterly and romantic manner. In one area, however, Biro’s work marked out a new departure. This was in the development of a form of “advertising architecture”: illusionistic renderings of buildings or engineering structures to form the brand names or logotypes of advertised products. Perhaps the most famous of these is the series he produced for annual exhibitions in Vienna in which the symbol WIM (Wiener Internationale Messe) is conceived as a colossal structure rising from the exhibition grounds. This is a characteristic of some exhibition architecture of the period, in which the building becomes a three-dimensional version of the logotype or trademark, into which the visitor can enter. The designer must have been aware of prototypes for this. In Biró’s poster for the M. E. Meyer foundry, the brand (MEM) supports the gigantic ferris wheel in the Prater; it was first set up for an exhibition to mark Emperor Franz Ferdinand’s jubilee in 1897 and has subsequently become a symbol of Vienna itself, much as the Eiffel Tower has for Paris. The sense of scale in these works is brought out most effectively in Biró’s six-sheet poster for Abadie cigarette papers (on display in both MoMA and MAK), in which a bridge spanning an expanse of water spells out the brand name in its supports while ships pass underneath and a train speeds along the top.
Whether because of overexposure, failure to respond to changing market trends, or merely his waning ability, Biró’s popularity declined sharply at the end of the 1920s. In 1934, with the rise of right-wing violence in Vienna, he fled to Czechoslovakia. Even there, however, he was never free from danger and was unable to find work–only one poster design is known from this four-year period. In 1938, with the Nazi annexation of the Sudetenland, he had to leave and seek refuge in France. Absolutely destitute and hunted for his politics and his Jewish background, he was also now suffering from the advanced stages of tuberculosis. He spent much of the next few years in hospitals, which probably saved his life, and not just from tuberculosis: he was too ill to be deported and was eventually rescued by the liberating Allied troops. The toll this period took on him physically is evident from photographs. Returning to Budapest in 1947, he looked a broken and fragile old man–a far cry from the rather intimidating class warrior of thirty years earlier. Biró did not live long enough to restart his career, even if he had been able to do so. He died in October 1948 and was given a hero’s burial under the Stalinist regime of Mátyás Rákosi. His work was much reproduced in Hungarian Communist propaganda, and the Red Man had another revival as a symbol of party and union activities, youth camps, mass rallies, lectures, and branch meetings. The fame of the revolutionary propaganda, however, at least in central Europe, has obscured Biro’s much larger commercial output. With these exhibitions and catalogue, we can see the full range of his work and understand something of a career that spanned several regimes and several categories of graphic design.
Dominic Paterson is a lecturer in the History of Art at the University of Glasgow.