A Feverish, Youthful Poetic Frenzy: Art, Nationalism, and the Pleasures of Terror

In 1856, the young artist Viktor Madarász (1840-1917) displayed a strange painting at the exhibition of the Art Society in the city of Pest. The large canvas bore the title The Dream of the Fugitive during the War against the Turks, and showed a young man and a soldier sleeping while two ghostly apparitions – an old man in chains, dressed in white, and a horrid, dark, winged figure with a cape and a skull-like face – hover above them. The painting received much attention from the critics, who did their best to try to interpret it. A month later Madarász helped them out by hanging an explanation next to the painting. As it turned out, the title – which mentions no specific person and refers to the war against the Turks – was only a ruse to avoid censorship: the real subject of the painting was the struggle against Austrian rule. The sleeping youth was none other than Imre Thököly (1657-1705), the future leader of an uprising against Austria, who had just fled from his family’s castle – under siege by the Austrians and defended by Thököly’s father, a rebel himself. Thököly the elder had died that night, and the picture shows his ghost appearing to his son in a dream.

In 1856, Hungary was still a province of the Austrian Empire, and the emperor’s army had just defeated the Hungarian revolutionaries in the War of Independence of 1848-1849. No wonder Madarász feared censorship (the arbitrariness of which is demonstrated by the fact that it was possible for him to hang his text next to the picture; what is more, one of the newspapers published it – this is how we know about it). Today, The Dream of the Fugitive counts as a history painting, one of the many depictions of national history produced by Hungarian painters in the second half of the 19th century. 19th-century critics assigned a vital role to these paintings: they were supposed to help forge a community by addressing the nation as a whole and representing significant events of national history, while also conveying ‘national character’. But did The Dream of the Fugitive, with its unrealistic subject and blood-curdling imagery, satisfy those demands?

Viktor Madarász: The Dream of the Fugitive, 1856 (Hungarian National Gallery)

In 2010, the Hungarian National Gallery organised an exhibition which aimed to take a critical look at the ‘national narrative’ of 19th-century Hungarian art by showing how the changing concepts of the ‘nation’ itself were reflected in art and its reception. The title of the exhibition was XIX.: Art and Nation – Image and Self-Image, and it was curated by Erzsébet Király, Enikő Róka and Nóra Veszprémi (that’s me). In the essay I published in the catalogue, I attempted to examine the concept of ‘national Romanticism’, a term used by early-20th-century art historians to refer to Romantic art and culture in Hungary. Supposedly, ‘national Romanticism’ was different from German or French Romanticism, because instead of the individual it focused on the national community and the common interest. These ideas are deeply rooted in the mid-19th century, the very period the term refers to. At that time, the popular literature on national characteristics described Hungarian ethnic character as rational and down-to-earth compared to ‘German’ philosophising. The Hungarian way of thinking was simple and straightforward like the Great Hungarian Plains (the puszta); and, although Hungarian people were passionate and prone to extreme outpourings of joy or sadness (most often exemplified by the image of the dancing or grieving Hungarian peasant), they never got lost in fruitless spleen or irrational phantasies. In the canon of national art that had gradually developed, images of the irrational and supernatural were placed on a lower level than the pictures that conformed to these ethnic stereotypes, providing a basis for the concept of ‘national Romanticism’. Of course, art historical scholarship has long rejected the line of thought that looks for ‘ethnic character’ in artworks – but the stereotypes live on in the canon of significant artworks and their interpretations.

Károly Markó: The Hungarian Plains, 1853 (Hungarian National Gallery)

The Dream of the Fugitive subverts this discourse in a fundamental way, populating  a scene taken from national history with terrifying, supernatural characters. In my opinion, this is where the discrepancy between contemporary interpretations of the painting and its classification today stems from. In the 20th century, The Dream of the Fugitive was seen as a standard history painting, and its terrifying nature was barely mentioned, as if it was unimportant to its interpretation. In 1856, on the other hand, it was not viewed as a history painting at all – its irrational imagery simply did not fit with the conventions of the genre. It seemed more like an allegory, a personification of abstract ideas. One critic said it had been ‘created in a feverish, youthful poetic frenzy’, while another interpreted it as an allegory of resignation, a representation of ‘the struggle between faith and skepticism’. They took note of the historical setting, but nevertheless suggested that the picture portrayed general questions of humanity – and thus the individual soul – and not those of the nation. That said, we must note that when the second critic mentioned resignation, he may have been alluding to the current political situation – after the revolution, a resigned ‘inner emigration’ was one of the strategies adopted by those who sympathised with the lost cause. But even if it was so, that did not change his final conclusion, according to which the painting clearly conveys the painter’s individual, artistic problems. “The dream depicted by Madarász was not selected with a cold indifference but evolved instinctively, unconsciously, and fervently in the artist’s soul […] the artist was contemplating his own future when he chose a scene from the fight against the Turks to formulate his emotions”.

Madarász’ composition was interpreted as art that reflects the personal, original ideas of an artist, and not the historical struggles of a national community, because it contained visual clues that, to the mid-19th-century viewer, firmly supported this interpretation. To trace these, we will first compare the painting to a little-known work by a minor artist, Alajos Landau (1833-1884). The scene, today known by the title Vision, shows a young man who has fallen asleep by the grave of his beloved, while her ghost – so much more pleasant than the ghost of Thököly’s father – gently looks down on him. The pose of the young man is strikingly similar to that of the old soldier in Madarász’ painting.

Alajos Landau: Vision, 1858 (Hungarian National Gallery)

Landau’s painting was created two years later, but it probably was not influenced directly by The Dream of the Fugitive; rather, both images look back to the same pictorial tradition. Ghosts, graves and visions were prevalent subjects in prints and illustrations of the previous decades. For example, the Aurora – the first Hungarian-language literary annual with original illustrations – published several such images in the 1820s. These illustrations were also sold as independent prints and can be counted among the pictures most well-known to the Hungarian public at the time. Sometimes sentimental, sometimes terrifying, these images illustrated tales of ‘private’ dreams and contemplation, even when they were set in the national past.

Michael Hoffmann after Károly Kisfaludy and Johann Ender: Illustrations from the almanac Aurora (published in Pest and edited by Károly Kisfaludy), 1831

The Aurora was edited by the poet-painter Károly Kisfaludy (1788-1830), who aimed to establish a national annual which would pave the way for representations of national history both in words and images. To achieve his goal, he had to make history popular – the texts published in his periodical blended history with fiction, placing made-up, gruesome tales among real historical settings and populating tellings of real historical events with ghosts, fairies and other supernatural beings. In this, Kisfaludy followed the historical periodicals of the time – most notably the Taschenbuch für die vaterländische Geschichte, published by the Austrian historian Joseph Hormayr (1781-1848) – which nonchalantly cited legends from local lore alongside ‘serious’ documentary sources. The Aurora was more fiction, while the Taschenbuch was more history, but their basic approach was very similar. They built on the popularity of the exciting, gruesome Gothic novels and stories of the time, using the same motifs, words and narrative devices to create suspense in their tales of (national) history. In these texts, it is often history itself that seems sublime, terrifying, and yet irresistible. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries there was much discussion (also in Hungary) about the appeal of Gothic terror, and it was often stated that readers experienced a particular painful pleasure or pleasurable pain when consuming these texts; they were compelled to keep reading by their insatiable curiosity and excitement, while at the same time frightened and appaled by the terrors and horrors they encountered. In short, these texts (and pictures) were crafted to grab the imagination and to affect the beholder as sentient individual and not as member of a national community – even when they were propagating patriotism, like the Aurora.

Tales and images of terror cause fear and excitement – instinctive reactions independent of the intellect. Due to this, Gothic imagery was regarded as something that appealed to the uneducated, and not to people of good taste. In the exhibition reviews of the 1840s, most critics expressed their dislike for paintings that aim at ‘effect’ – that is, at causing the kind of instinctive reaction connected with the Gothic. Effect was particularly unwelcome in history paintings – of course, depictions of the history of the nation should be impressive, but they should not rely on ‘superficial’ devices of effect. In addition to that, Gothic imagery was considered the product of ‘German’ phantasising, and thus alien to the Hungarian spirit. Defining the unique characteristics of Hungarian culture was a central concern of emerging nationalism, and the art critics of the 1840s wished for a school of painting that would be unmistakably Hungarian. To achieve that, national subjects had to be painted so that they expressed national character – which was, as usual, defined through oppositions with other nations. The German Gothic had no place in Hungarian national painting.

And yet, Madarász’ painting was greeted with enthusiasm by the critics, who bowed to the young painter’s undeniable talent. True, his picture was no real history painting – and by avoiding to be classified as one, it broke free from the confines of the genre. The critics reasoned that Gothic imagery may not be appropriate for a history painting that seeks to address the community, but it is certainly suitable for an allegory of the individual imagination. The range of meanings associated with the picture have fallen into oblivion due to its subsequent canonisation as a history painting, but tracing them today can offer new insight into the subtlety of Madarász’ composition. It is hard to believe that the painter – who was a history buff – had only chosen the subject of Thököly to dress up his personal artistic problems, but it is also evident that he aimed to differ from the usual discourse on national art. His painting, which features motifs that were associated with popular culture and pure entertainment, reconciles national history with the private pleasure of looking at pictures. The idea that history painting should be aimed at the nation implies that its meanings should be fixed, so that every member of the community gets the same message. In The Dream of the Fugitive, on the other hand, there is room for the imagination to roam. Instead of propagating the bygone glory of the nation, it offers a thrilling look into the terrifying cauldron of the past. Thrilling not only because of its pleasurable terrors, but also because what we see there is not prescribed by propaganda – it is only up to us.

Viktor Madarász: The Mourning of László Hunyadi, 1859 (Hungarian National Gallery)

* Veszprémi, Nóra, “Kísértetek a végtelen rónán. A magyar romantika rettenetes hagyománya.” [Ghosts on the Endless Plain. On the Tradition of Terror in Hungarian Romantic Art] XIX. Nemzet és művészet. Kép és önkép [XIX.: Art and Nation: Image and Self-Image] Exhibition catalogue, Budapest: Hungarian National Gallery, 2010, pp. 139–166. (summary in English: pp. 164-166.)

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