No Alarms and No Surprises: The Melancholy of the Biedermeier

In the 1850s, the Hungarian politician Bertalan Szemere was living in emigration in Paris. He was a republican, and had been prime minister in the revolutionary government during the Hungarian War of Independence against Austrian rule in 1849. To avoid being executed, Szemere fled the country after the defeat of the Hungarian army, leaving his beloved wife, Leopoldina, and their children behind. Leopoldina had to face an excruciating wait before the government granted her a passport, and when she finally arrived in Paris, she was stricken by a long illness. Recovering eventually, she gave birth to a girl: Irénke. Life seemed to offer quiet, homely pleasures to the emigrants. In Hungary, Szemere had been a busy politician who spent most of his time away from his family – now Irénke was with him all the time. He saw her first steps, heard her first words, and took endless delight in watching her grow. Then, when she was three years old, the little girl became severely ill and died. The parents were devastated; the pain was unbearable. Szemere wanted to write it all down, to pour all his grief into a sorrowful piece entitled Memory of Irénke, but he failed – it was impossible to express all that anguish. Almost two years later, he tried again. As he explained in his diary: “I have been meaning to write this piece for a long time, but I was afraid to tear up my wounds. I was waiting for them to heal. Readers prefer beautiful pain to actual, real, bleeding pain. The writer is like the painter, who has to follow certain rules when depicting a shipwreck in order to produce an effective painting. Of course, I want to write nothing but how I truly felt at the time, but I know great suffering is more attractive if veiled. The pain I feel now is different from what I felt then – then my wound was shedding blood, it burned, it was ablaze – now it is a scar and only smarts if I touch it. Hence, I am just a distant onlooker myself, and this state of mind is much better suited to describing our feelings to strangers.”*

This post is about an artistic current that did just what Szemere described: it took overwhelming feelings, endless yearning, burning passion, all the bruises that won’t heal, and turned them into sweet, sentimental pictures and poems, easy to digest and to like. This current, known today as the Biedermeier, has been defined in many ways by scholars; I will only cite one of the definitions now. The literary historian Virgil Nemoianu identified the Biedermeier as late Romanticism: a current that “tamed” Romantic excess, fitting it into the mould of everyday life.** If Romantics longed to travel unattainable distances to imaginary worlds, the Biedermeier suggested they visit ‘exotic’ Eastern countries. If Romantics yearned for an ecstatic kind of love that dissolves the soul in a transcendental union with another, the Biedermeier worshipped the home and the family. If Romantics strove to find the common, fundamental mythology of mankind, the Biedermeier discovered local folklore. If Romantics fought for universal freedom, the Biedermeier focused on the nation. By exploring the heights of imagination and the depths of the soul, Romanticism expanded the range of subjects available to artists; the Biedermeier, in turn, projected these onto a small, familiar world.

It would be easy to mock this as petty short-sightedness. The truth is, however, that those lofty, Romantic ideas – ideas about freedom, love, and art – are, indeed, manifested in the simple realities of everyday life. Otherwise, however magnificent, they would not be worth fighting for. And there is something else too. The Biedermeier emerged around 1820, after the Napoleonic Wars. The people of Europe had seen a huge cataclysm; they had seen great ideas rise and fall, discredited by their exploiters; they had seen powerful men tumble. Playing their own walk-on parts in the drama of history, they had been standing in the storm, defenceless and scared, pushed around by great powers. They did not want the drama. They wanted their own little world; a world with no alarms and no surprises.

At the same time, they knew how precarious it all was. They knew that alarms were inevitable, and their familiar little world could collapse in an instance. The storm may have subsided, but the power was there, watching over the subjects of the Austrian Empire. Its presence could never be forgotten.

Henrik Weber: The Composer Mihály Mosonyi and His Wife, 1840s (Hungarian National Gallery)

Henrik Weber: The Composer Mihály Mosonyi and His Wife, 1840s (Hungarian National Gallery)

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A Baedeker of the Soul: Love, Dangerous Games, and Hungarian Gothic

The novel is the “official Baedeker of the soul,” the Hungarian writer and literary historian Antal Szerb remarked in 1936.* Or should we say it is its Lonely Planet guide? Novels – and other artworks – have the power to take us to corners of the human psyche where we would be afraid to venture on our own. They also show us that these dark and scary places are in fact not so far from places we visit every day: our fears and freak outs lurk beneath the most mundane facets of our existence, disguised as rational responses to human interaction. Longing to welcome other people to our lonely planet, we are at the same time terrified of them getting a glimpse of what we do not want to show. For this reason, we play games. Innocent games designed to obscure the way to our souls. Manipulative games that provide us with the illusion of being in control. Keeping distance within the greatest intimacy gives us a certain kind of comfort – so those distances have to be travelled cautiously. Besides setting up fingerposts on these journeys, art reminds us that our frivolous games can sometimes turn serious – which is why we need our trusted Baedekers in our hands.

The figure of a girl who played with her lover “as the cat trifles with the mouse” became iconic in 19th-century Hungarian culture. Abigail Kund is the tragic heroine of János Arany’s 1877 ballad Call to the Ordeal (Tetemre hívás).** As I will soon explain in detail, Abigail did something we all do to each other every day with less tragic consequences: while playing her game, she touched on a nerve; she pushed a button that released her lover’s fears and insecurities. I have to say, however, that the idea for this post came to me after reading a present-day American bestseller, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. That novel – maybe the scariest Baedeker ever – tells the story of a couple who know each other the best in the world and yet do not know each other at all. It exaggerates those innocent games into a murder mystery. Getting closer to another person is a thrilling but all in all scary experience, and this book catalogues and entangles all the strategies people use to cope with it. We try to fit the other person into a mould we have created for them – because it is so much easier to find our way among preexisting stereotypes than among the many spurious traits of a real, individual personality. (This is how the painter Bertalan Székely tried to preconceive his marriage in neat little pictures presented to his wife-to-be.) We get annoyed – and insecure – if the other person does not comply. We expect them to know us inside out and to read our minds, but feel threatened if we find that they do. We imagine relationships in terms of power relations and believe that showing our feelings for the other person makes us weak and vulnerable – it means conceding control to them. Games help us retain control – at least that is how Abigail saw it.

Jenő Gyárfás: Call to the Ordeal (Ordeal of the Bier), 1881 (Hungarian National Gallery)

Jenő Gyárfás: Call to the Ordeal (Ordeal of the Bier), 1881 (Hungarian National Gallery)

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Stereotypes and What They Hide: On the Representation of Gypsies in Hungarian Painting

Stereotypes are a recurring theme of this blog. One post discussed the hopelessness of trying to relate personal love stories through stereotypes, while the latest post touched on the subject of stereotyping other nations. Stereotypes may be inherent to how we perceive (and thus represent) the world: in order to find our way among the endless number of things and people we encounter, we try to find similarities and contrasts between them and label them accordingly. But every time we squeeze an object into such a neat category, something individual is lost, and – if I am allowed to be a bit bombastic here (and I guess I am – this is my own blog) – I think that most problems in the world, whether large or small, arise when people confuse stereotypes with reality. If, when meeting someone, we content ourselves with noting personality traits that seem to prove the stereotypes commonly associated with their nationality, gender, age, profession, sexual orientation, etc., we prevent ourselves from getting to know them as individuals. I think this causes a lot of trouble in everyday life – but it is, of course, most dangerous and vicious when it serves as a basis for hatred. As you may have guessed by now, this post is about racism.

Miklós Barabás: Travelling Gypsy Family in Transylvania, 1843 (Magyar Külkereskedelmi Bank Zrt., deposited at the Hungarian National Gallery)

Miklós Barabás: Travelling Gypsy Family in Transylvania, 1843 (Magyar Külkereskedelmi Bank Zrt., deposited at the Hungarian National Gallery)

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A Piece of Canvas Smeared with Colours: The Hungarian Painter Miklós Barabás on J. M. W. Turner

This is a blog that presents Hungarian art to an international audience, constantly forcing me to try to look at Hungarian art history through an outsider’s eyes. In today’s post, these perspectives will be hopelessly entangled: we will look at a Hungarian artist as he is looking at a British artist and is looked at by British art lovers. The previous post thematised the differences between Eastern and Western Europe through the sad story of the sculptor István Ferenczy – with a (hopefully) upbeat ending that stressed that the two are inseparable. This post will continue in the same vein, showing that, somewhere deep down, even differences can serve as connections. But first of all, let me introduce a new artist: the portraitist and genre painter Miklós Barabás (1810-1898), one of the most successful painters in 19th-century Hungary.

Miklós Barabás’ career can be seen as an antithesis to István Ferenczy’s. While Ferenczy saw himself as a struggling artist who suffered from the lack of patronage and a well-developed cultural life, Barabás not only made good use of the emerging institutional framework, but took part in building it up. Ferenczy finished his life in self-imposed solitude; Barabás, on the other hand, was venerated by the public throughout his long life, even if his art itself eventually came to be seen as outdated. It can perhaps be said that Ferenczy came too early – starting his career only a decade later, Barabás already had solid foundations to build upon. He was also helped by his optimistic, rational, resourceful personality: instead of aspiring to be regarded as a genius, he contented himself with being a good and successful artist, and relied on his excellent social skills to find patrons and further his career.

Miklós Barabás: Self-Portrait, 1841 (Hungarian National Gallery)

Miklós Barabás: Self-Portrait, 1841 (Hungarian National Gallery)

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The Ground Beneath Her Feet: István Ferenczy and the Origin of Sculpture

In 1818, the aspiring young Hungarian sculptor István Ferenczy set out on a journey to Rome.* Previously, he had spent four years in Vienna learning to make iron stoves (his father’s profession), but had also attended classes in anatomy and engraving at the Academy of Fine Arts. He did the latter in secret: when writing home, he pretended he had visited the Academy out of curiosity but finally given up. His parents wanted him to choose a ‘real’ profession, one that would provide him with a stable living. Making stoves was well suited for that purpose – art not so much. Patronage of the arts was scarce in early-19th-century Hungary, and artists could not expect to receive large commissions. Sculptors eked out a living by decorating buildings or gardens. Ferenczy, however, strove for more. In 1818, finally revealing his decision to his parents, he declared he wanted to become a real artist, superior to those handworker-like sculptors. He wanted to study in Rome with Antonio Canova, the greatest Neoclassicist, and to subsequently establish the high art of sculpture in his homeland. His parents had no choice but to accept his wish.

In 1846, a disillusioned Ferenczy, by then a broken man, destroyed the sculptures and models left in his studio in the city of Buda and moved back to Rimaszombat, his town of birth (then in Northern Hungary; today Rimavská Sobota, Slovakia), willingly isolating himself from Hungarian art life. He died in 1856, and asked for his last sculpture, a life-size figure of the dying Eurydice, to be buried with him. On the base of the statue, on the ground, he inscribed the names of the Hungarian counties that had voted against his planned monument to King Matthias Corvinus – a grand project which would have been Ferenczy’s greatest achievement, but which never materialised due to some resistance and mainly lack of interest on part of his audience.

The events between these two dates can be interpreted from multiple viewpoints. Ferenczy’s ultimate failure is sometimes ascribed to his lack of talent; maybe he was not capable of as much as his ambition demanded. The sculptor himself, however, never doubted his own artistic genius, blaming the circumstances – the meagre possibilities offered by early-19th-century Hungary – instead. In this post, I will try to trace how he came to identify with Eurydice – the mythological woman bitten by a snake and swallowed by the underworld. To borrow the title and leitmotif of Salman Rushdie’s novel: Eurydice was betrayed and killed by the ground beneath her feet.

István Ferenczy: The Beginning of the Fine Arts (Shepherdess), 1820-1822 (Hungarian National Gallery)

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Looking Down Into the Abyss: Bertalan Székely and the Perils of Love

In my previous post I took a somewhat critical look at artistic ‘greatness’ understood as a quality that sharply distinguishes ‘great’ artists and their works from ‘ordinary’ people and everyday life. For art to move us, does it necessarily have to rise above us? Does it have to be a work of incomparable genius? Does it have to be monumental? Or can it be small, banal, personal? Can it, quite simply, speak about love? I will now be looking at pictures by an artist who filtered his personal experiences through some of the most trivial and commonplace products of the visual culture of his time, transforming those trivial images into something intimate and full of life. This perpetual oscillation between general and singular, public and personal, was crucial to Bertalan Székely’s (1835-1910) representations of domestic life.

The collision between greatness and intimacy is a productive force in Székely’s oeuvre. Today, he is widely known as a history painter: his scenes from 16th-century battles against the Turks are familiar to the Hungarian viewer not only as artworks, but as illustrations in history books. They are certainly great: depicting turning points in history, they are monumental in their sizes and awe-inspiring in their compositions, often recalling religious imagery, as in the case of The Discovery of the Corpse of King Louis II after the Battle of Mohács. There is, however, another facet to Székely’s art, much less known today, but – as evidenced by his notes and sketches – considered equally important by the artist himself. Besides the great events and heroes of Hungarian history, Székely also aimed to depict moments of everyday life; scenes so general, so universal that – according to him – any person from any country would understand them. To achieve this, he planned series of lithographs narrating ‘typical’ human lives.

Bertalan Székely: The Bride, 1869-1870 (oil sketch for a scene from the series Life of the Woman; Hungarian National Gallery)

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Gold Medals, Silver Wreaths, and the Dissatisfied Painter: The Myth of Artistic Genius

After roaming the corridors of ruined castles in my previous post, I will now return to the painting whose fragments I have used as the blog’s header and avatar. The exquisitely painted details may have made some of my readers wonder where they come from. Well, The Dissatisfied Painter was painted by an artist who has been mentioned here more than once: József Borsos. It is high time to show it in its entirety – all the more so because, despite its obvious qualities, it is not too well known, even in Hungary.

Why is the painter sitting in his studio with such a stern expression on his face, and why is he destroying his works? This is explained by one of the reviews published when the picture was exhibited in Pest, Hungary, in 1852: unappreciated by the world, the distressed artist is venting his despair. Figuring in countless stories, novels, and images, the romantic stereotype of the misunderstood great artist was already commonplace at the time. Consequently, not all critics were sympathetic to Borsos’ painting – some of them rejected it as a pompous rendition of a subject already seen a million times.

The Dissatisfied Painter

József Borsos: The Dissatisfied Painter, 1852 (Hungarian National Gallery)

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Ruined Castles and the Layers of History: An Emotional Approach

I started this blog on a sudden whim, but am enjoying it immensely now. It is not only a great exercise in disseminating research to a wider audience, but – to make it even more exciting – it involves explaining Hungarian art history to international readers. When speaking about Hungarian art to Hungarian people, there are countless items of common knowledge I can refer to, from historical events to literary classics. It is of course also possible to find such points of reference with an international readership in mind; for example, I can point out stylistic similarities to world-famous European artists or include fun facts such as: “Mihály Munkácsy’s Christ before Pilate is featured in Maupassant’s novel Bel Ami.” But how can I convince my non-Hungarian reader that – besides some great individual artworks which can easily be pinned to the grand narrative of European art  – Hungarian art history itself is interesting? How can I make my story generally comprehensible without neglecting the specific problems of Hungarian art – those very problems which make it exciting in their singularity? Thinking about this has made me acutely aware of one of the core questions of all kinds of history writing. As historians, we have to make the past – which is, as the famous quote has it, a foreign country – accessible to the present. We have to find ways to connect with times long gone by, and we do that by analysing problems we – and our readers – can relate to. We collect the traces the past has left in the present – texts, objects, artworks, even immaterial ideas – and turn them into pathways leading through time.

Organising our story around a particularly poignant trace of the past often helps to structure it and make it tangible. A group of historians in the early 19th century, congregating around the Austrian Joseph Hormayr, often chose ruined castles for this purpose. They popularised national history by taking advantage of the 18th-century vogue for picturesque representations of ruins, as well as for sentimental reflection on the unavoidable fall of civilisation and on the relentless passage of time. Their stories of once magnificent, real, historical castles evoked these feelings, grabbing the reader’s attention through the emotional force of the subject matter, while also providing a factual account of the historical events that had taken place there throughout the centuries. As if sticking a pin through the layers of time, the historians used the ruins to connect the present with the past. From the legendary battles of ancient, obscure times to the enlightened technical discoveries of the recent decades, those battered castles had seen it all.

János Hofbauer: The Castle of Dévény, 1830s (Hungarian National Gallery)

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What Is Hungarian Art History Anyway?

The title of this blog – Hungarian Art History – may sound slightly too ambitious, but I have to admit I chose it simply because I could not think of anything better in that decisive moment. It might be useful, however – especially after writing my previous post on Mihály Munkácsy, the ‘greatest Hungarian painter,’ who had spent most of his life in France – to reflect briefly on the concept of Hungarian art history itself. What is the subject of Hungarian art history? What is it made of? Of course, a short blog post cannot even attempt to analyse this question in its entirety; I would just like to share some of my thoughts. But before I start, it is inevitable to cite a classic text that engages with the same problem. In 1951, the philosopher and art historian Lajos Fülep published an essay entitled The Task of Hungarian Art History, in which he argued that a distinction should be made between ’art in Hungary’ and ’Hungarian art’.* He pointed out that before the 19th century, Hungarian art had not existed in the sense of a distinct, continuous tradition, and that many of the most excellent artworks in Hungary had been produced by artists who came to Hungary from abroad just in order to fulfill commissions. The art of those centuries can thus only be referred to as ‘art in Hungary’.

At first sight, Fülep’s views have a certain 19th-century feeling to them. The quest to establish a continuous ‘school’ of Hungarian painting, which would convey national characteristics, had started in the 19th century – loyal readers of my blog have already encountered it in a previous post on ethnic stereotypes and Romantic painting. Taken out of context, the questioning of the ‘Hungarianness’ of artworks created by foreign artists who had migrated to Hungary might appear to be driven by nationalist discrimination – but Fülep’s aim was the exact opposite. He was taking issue with nationalist tendencies in interwar Hungarian art history writing, which had celebrated all high-quality artworks found in the territory of historic Hungary as manifestations of the ‘Hungarian spirit’ and ethnic character.  Continue reading

An Innocent Young Painter, His Ambitious Wife, and the Greedy Art Dealer: Mihály Munkácsy and the Munkácsy Question

In the second half of the 19th century, Mihály Munkácsy (1844-1900), a Hungarian artist who lived in Paris and sold his pictures to wealthy collectors in Europe and America, was an internationally known celebrity. Today, there are paintings by him in collections such as the Metropolitan Museum or the Milwaukee Art Museum, but his fame has declined, washed away by the modernisms of the early 20th century. In Hungary, however, Mihály Munkácsy is still the default choice for blockbuster exhibitions. Reproductions of his paintings decorate the walls of many homes, and his works fetch record prices at auctions. The ‘reemergence’ and sale of a Munkácsy painting always makes a good news story, but the artist himself remains hidden, veiled in the myths that have surrounded his person ever since his first biographies were published around 1900. Munkácsy is the saddest Hungarian victim of the tendency to mythicise ‘famous’ artists and their ‘valuable’ paintings at the expense of a deeper understanding of their work and the art historical questions involved. Even scholarly discussions tend to evolve into endless debates on the attribution of certain works – that is, on whether they had effectively been touched by the one and only genius -, although it is well known that the ‘Munkácsy’ paintings of the 1880s and 1890s were produced in close collaboration with his students.

While Munkácsy’s paintings are immensely popular with the general public, many (art lovers and professionals alike) have their reservations. This is partly due to an aversion towards the blockbuster mentality. Another reason is, however, a tendency to measure Hungarian art history to the usual narrative of modern (French) art, with Realism, Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, etc. following each other in a distinct genealogical line, each overriding the previous one in its ‘modernity’ and ‘progressivity’. Munkácsy finds no place in this mythical family tree. It has been stated many times that – even though he lived in Paris – the painter had ‘failed’ to recognise the importance of Impressionism.

Mihály Munkácsy: Paris Interior, 1877 (Hungarian National Gallery)

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