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. 

Master M S: The Visitation, 1506 (Hungarian National Gallery)

One example is the case of ‘Master M S’, an unknown painter whose initials, as well as the date 1506, were found on one of the panels of an altarpiece from Selmecbánya (a town formerly in Northern Hungary, today Banská Štiavnica, Slovakia).** The unusually high quality of the five panels brought them to the centre of attention. Especially one of them, the Visitation (meeting of the Virgin Mary and Saint Elisabeth) has become an iconic image in Hungarian art history. Interwar art historians, who postulated that the painter had been Hungarian without giving the matter much thought, had praised the paintings as ‘original products of the Hungarian will to form’.*** Since then, it has been established that the painter must have come from abroad; his works have close stylistic ties with the Nuremberg school. Fülep’s emphasis of this was a warning against extolling ‘Hungarian creativity’ without taking historical facts and circumstances into account.

Today there is a consensus among Hungarian art historians to follow Fülep’s advice and refer to pre-1800 art as ‘art in Hungary’, while the term ‘Hungarian art’ is reserved for art after that date. It has to be said, however, that this terminology is more like a rule of thumb than a strict system. Under the heading ‘art in Hungary’ we never fail to mention some significant artists who were born in Hungary but trained and worked abroad. The 17th-century painter Jakab Bogdány (or Bogdani; 1658-1724) studied in the Netherlands and settled in England, where his luscious still-lifes with fruits and exotic birds were sought by collectors. Another good example is the portraitist Ádám Mányoki (1673-1757), who had worked for princely patrons in the German states. He spent most of his productive years away from Hungary, except for one short period between 1707 and 1711, when he was court painter to Francis II Rákóczi, prince of Transylvania and leader of a freedom fight against Habsburg rule. Nevertheless, Mányoki is inextricably connected to Hungarian art history – not as much by his place of birth as by his emblematic masterpiece, Rákóczi’s portrait painted in 1712, when the prince was already in emigration in Gdańsk. But how does the rest of his oeuvre fit into the picture? Mányoki’s retrospective exhibition organised by Enikő Buzási at the Hungarian National Gallery in 2003 presented the painter as a cosmopolitan artist whose ‘Hungarian’ works belong to a European courtly culture. The paintings Mányoki had created abroad provided an international context for his own ‘Hungarian’ paintings. As Buzási points out in the scholarly oeuvre catalogue compiled by her and published to accompany the exhibition, Rákóczi did not invite Mányoki to Hungary because the painter was of Hungarian ethnicity – he invited him because, for representational purposes, he needed a painter who was well-versed in the international practice of courtly portrait painting.****

Ádám Mányoki: Portrait of Francis II Rákóczi, Prince of Transylvania, 1712 (Hungarian National Gallery)

The example demonstrates that ‘art in Hungary’ is merely a guiding concept which does not have to equal short-sighted geographic isolation; Hungary is more like a focal point than a confined space. The collection and exhibition of pre-1800 art at the Hungarian National Gallery was built up and organised according to the same principles. Works originating from, for instance, Austria and Silesia are included not in order to ‘hungarianise’ them (as interwar art historians had hungarianised Master M S), but to show how art in Hungary had been an inseparable part of the art and culture of Central Europe.

We can draw the conclusion that – taken literally – even the concept of ‘art in Hungary’ is insufficient to cover all that we include in our story. What makes us believe the 19th century is simpler and allows us to use the expression ‘Hungarian art’? One answer is this: the art of the previous centuries cannot be forged into a continuous narrative of ‘Hungarian art’ because it was so fragmented; there were no artistic centres, no schools, no great masters with a country-wide influence. Even the country itself was fragmented: plagued by continuous wars with the Turks since the 14th century, it was divided into three parts at one point in the 16th, and finally liberated from Turkish occupation by the Austrian army at the end of the 17th. The 19th century, however, brought relative peace. Hungary was part of the Austrian Empire, but it was possible to establish and centralise its own cultural life by founding, for example, the National Museum (1802) and the Academy of Sciences (1825). Annual exhibitions of contemporary art were organised (from 1840), and reviews were published about them. What really matters is the artist’s relationship to this institutional framework, and not his place of birth or country of residence.

For example, the Venetian-born painter Jakab (originally Giacomo) Marastoni (1804-1860) moved to Pest, Hungary, in 1836. Besides selling his pictures to Hungarian customers and exhibiting regularly in Pest, he also took on pupils, founding the First Hungarian Painter’s Academy in 1846. Its name notwithstanding, this school was not a real academy in the sense of an institution of higher education (like the fine art academies in London or Vienna), but more like a preparatory school; still, it played an invaluable role in the furthering of art education in Hungary. Marastoni was a very active member of the art world, and his most well-known painting, Greek Woman, was an early addition to the picture gallery of the National Museum (sparking a debate about which I might write a post later). Marastoni is integral to the history of Hungarian art – only a chauvinist would claim otherwise.

Jakab (Giacomo) Marastoni: Greek Woman, 1845 (Hungarian National Gallery)

Marastoni came from abroad and settled in Hungary. But the 19th century also saw many Hungarian-born painters seek their fortunes abroad. The landscape painter Károly Markó (1793-1860) spent most of his productive years (from 1832 to his death) in Italy, earning considerable fame and painting for patrons like the Spanish king. It would be possible to argue that his paintings created there have nothing to do with Hungarian art – he followed the tradition of Claude Lorraine-esque ideal landscape painting with a touch of Romanticism, and (except for his early years) rarely painted Hungarian subjects (I posted one of the few examples here). Yet, Markó’s paintings were often shown in Hungary; his name was well-known and revered, and he was often put forward as an example to young Hungarian painters. He was known to offer all his help and support to Hungarian artists travelling to Italy, and the tradition of Romantic-ideal-sublime landscape painting in late-19th-century Hungarian art was partly initiated by his example. Even though he lived abroad, Markó’s art is connected to Hungarian art history in many ways.

Károly Markó the elder: Landscape near Tivoli with Vintage Scene, 1846 (Hungarian National Gallery)

Let’s take a more provocative example. The painter Károly (Charles) Brocky (1808-1855) settled in London in 1838 and lived there until his death. His works were never displayed in Hungary during his lifetime, and – apart from a few mentions of his name in newspapers – not much was known about him. Exhibiting at the Royal Academy and working for the English art dealer Dominic Colnaghi, he was part of the London art world and had nothing to do with the institutions in Pest. In his will, he left five of his paintings to the Hungarian National Museum. This made his name somewhat known, but he was only really discovered at the very end of the 19th century, when an enthusiastic art historian started to trace his pictures in England. Brocky became fashionable and his paintings were purchased and brought to Hungary by Hungarian collectors. Consequently, his name has fallen into complete oblivion in England, the country whose artistic tradition he had adhered to. In Hungary, on the other hand, he is mentioned in every summary of 19th-century art (albeit with the qualifier ‘a painter who had worked abroad’), and features prominently at the permanent exhibition of the Hungarian National Gallery. Which means that – no matter where he painted and whom he followed – he is part of Hungarian art history now. He is part of it because his name has been written into it. Art history is not an object that exists independently of investigation – it is created by the investigation itself. Needless to say, this does not mean we should forget about the British context of his art – just the contrary.

Károly (Charles) Brocky: Venus and Cupid, 1850 (Hungarian National Gallery)

Most 19th-century art critics would, of course, object to these ideas, and so would Lajos Fülep. In the 19th century, critics were eagerly waiting for a distinct ‘Hungarian school’ to evolve, and searched for national characteristics – usually equated with national subject matter – in Hungarian paintings. No matter how much respect they had for Markó, for example, his landscapes did not satisfy them in this regard. Fülep, on the other hand, distanced himself from the 19th-century way of thinking, proposing a definition of ‘Hungarian art’ as art that gives uniquely ‘Hungarian’ answers to internationally relevant artistic, formal problems. (It has to be added that, in his opinion, only a few Hungarian artists were able to achieve that.) This definition is at last free of ethnic stereotyping, but it still relies on the assumption that ‘Hungarianness’ is a distinct, objective quality which can be discerned by the art historian in works of ‘Hungarian art’.

In practice, however, Hungarian art history writing uses a much wider definition; in fact, it does not really define at all. Bogdány, Mányoki, Markó, Marastoni and Brocky are all subjects of Hungarian art history, even though each of them has his own unique way of being ‘Hungarian’. And rightly so. The 19th-century concept of the nation and national identity was solid, normative and exclusive. Now, in the 21st century, we know that identities vary from individual to individual and that it is everybody’s right to choose their own; that national identity can be made up of multiple components, so, for example, it is possible for an immigrant to identify both with his/her country of birth and country of residence, etc. This is also true of art. Markó’s art is not either Italian or Hungarian – it is both, and at the same time also belongs to a long European tradition. It is possible for a painter to be regarded as part of both Hungarian and Slovakian art history, as the example of László Mednyánszky (1852-1919) demonstrates.

Leafing through an introductory volume to Hungarian art history or walking through the permanent exhibition of the Hungarian National Gallery, these multiple identities present themselves in full bloom. Simply comparing the biographies of artists shows that it is impossible to confine Hungarian art history geographically, while their readiness to absorb various European artistic traditions makes it impossible to construct one unbroken narrative of the ‘Hungarian style’ (the ‘Hungarian character’) in art. Of course, this is just as true of the art of any other country. The Great British Art Debate, organised by Tate Britain, the national collection of British art, raises very similar questions, while the excellent exhibition Migrations shows how the works of artists who came to Britain from abroad – for example ‘our’ Jakab Bogdány – are integral to British art. (Note that British art history writing does not feel the need to differentiate between that and ‘art in Britain’.)

Hungarian art history is not the story of some kind of abstract ‘Hungarianness’ unfolding in a succession of selected artworks. It is made up of countless stories of artists, artworks, patrons, and institutions connected to Hungarian culture in one way or the other. When told together, whether in a heavy volume, at a comprehensive permanent exhibition, or in this humble blog, these stories reflect countless different ‘Hungarian’ identities. They imply an encompassing, but at the same time not restrictive concept of national culture.

László Mednyánszky: Landscape in the Tatra Mountains, 1890s (Hungarian National Gallery)

* Fülep, Lajos, “A magyar művészettörténelem föladata [The Task of Hungarian Art History; originally published in 1951],” A magyar művészettörténet-írás programjai, ed. Ernő Marosi, Budapest: MTA Művészettörténeti Kutató Intézet – Corvina, 2000, pp. 283-302.

** On Master M S, see: “Magnificat anima mea Dominum”: M S mester Vizitáció-képe és egykori selmecbányai főoltára / The Visitation by Master M S and His Former High Altar at Selmecbánya, ed. Árpád Mikó – Györgyi Poszler, Budapest: Hungarian National Gallery, 1997. Recently, the art historian Miklós Mojzer has proposed an identification of Master MS with Marten Swarcz, see: Mojzer, Miklós, “A történeti M S mester. I. rész.” [The Historical Master M S. Part I] Művészettörténeti Értesítő 55 (2006), pp. 223-250, and: Mojzer, Miklós, “Der historische Meister M S sive Marten Swarcz seu Martinus Niger alias Marcin Czarny, der Maler des Krakauer Hochaltars von Veit Stoß. II. Teil.” Annales de la Galerie Nationale Hongroise 25/10 (2005-2006), pp. 90-138.

*** Tibor Gerevich in 1924, quoted by Fülep, op. cit., p. 290.

**** Buzási, Enikő, Mányoki Ádám (1673-1757): Monográfia és oeuvre-katalógus [Monograph and oeuvre catalogue], Budapest: Hungarian National Gallery, 2003, p. 50.

8 thoughts on “What Is Hungarian Art History Anyway?

  1. I really appreciated this synopsis of Hungarian art history — both of the works and of the historiography! While reading about those artists who left Hungary to work abroad, I immediately think of artists who traveled in and out of Italy. The question of their national or ethnic identity never seems to be as freighted with as much meaning. As examples, I’m thinking of Bernardo Bellotto, the nephew of Canaletto, who traveled throughout the German states and Poland, and Gaspar Van Wittel, a Dutch artist who spent most of his career in Italy. Although they belong to the 18th century, it seems to me on quick reflection that their positions in art history are less complicated — Bellotto is considered Italian through and through and Van Wittel (although his name was eventually Italianized into Vanvitelli!) belong completely to the art history of the Netherlands. Do you think that the “distinct, continuous” tradition in the countries from which these artists hailed made their departures less disruptive? Despite the conflicts that engulfed both lands, their artistic traditions were secure enough to weather the exodus of their artists. Your blog post is a welcome reminder that the parameters placed around artists are often the product of specific cultural and political agendas!

    (Perhaps I am unintentionally positing a Western v. Eastern European view of art history — my apologies if it sounds that way!)

    • Thank you for your comments! These are very good points. I think that in the case of the artists you mentioned, the difference does in fact lie in the existence of a continuous tradition in their home countries. Their art was interesting to patrons in their ‘new’ countries of residence precisely because it was different from art produced locally, and because it meant that a respectable foreign tradition was brought to their doorsteps. Whereas in the case of an artist like Ádám Mányoki, there was no famous ‘Hungarian school’ sought by collectors abroad. To achieve success, he conformed to the tradition of his chosen country.
      On the other hand, if we look at art history not just as the history of artistic styles, but also of institutions, patronage, the art market, art criticism, etc., etc., then I think even the artists you mentioned can be seen as parts of the art histories of their ‘new’ countries, as well as of their countries of origin. After all, they may have worked in the style they had learnt at home, but they worked for patrons in their ‘new’ countries, took part in art life there, and maybe influenced local painters of the future. Another good example would be Van Dyck – he painted in the Flemish tradition, but it would be hard to tell the story of British art without mentioning his name.
      It is very true that “the parameters placed around artists are often the product of specific cultural and political agendas.” I really do think that the questions I raised in this post could be raised when speaking about the art of any other European country – what is really interesting is that, it seems, they are not raised in the exact same way. This must be due to those “specific cultural and political agendas” – we are a bit obsessed with defining national identity in this corner of the world. This has its own historical reasons. But preconceptions originating in the 19th century can be challenged by a more encompassing, flexible, “21st-century” concept of national identity, and the study of art history could play a very important role in that process.

  2. “The Visitation” is exquisite. You write that “Interwar art historians, who postulated that the painter had been Hungarian without giving the matter much thought, had praised the paintings as ‘original products of the Hungarian will to form’.”

    What do the art historians mean by “the Hungarian will to form”?

    • Hello and thank you for your comment and question. The quote about the ‘Hungarian will to form’ originates from the art historian Tibor Gerevich, who was trying to trace the manifestations of the ‘Hungarian spirit’ in art. He postulated the existence of an eternal Hungarian character which had remained essentially unchanged throughout the centuries. If that were the case, the history of Hungarian art would mean the history of this ‘Hungarianness’ as exemplified by specific artworks in certain times. Gerevich’s definition of Hungarian character was similar to that of 19th-century treatises on ethnic character: “Restraint and sobriety, avoidance of mannerist excessiveness, a respect for reality, and a tranquil mode of expression” – according to him, these are characteristic traits of the Hungarian spirit, and thus of the Hungarian style in art. (You can read about 19th-century stereotypes of Hungarians in my post ‘A Feverish, Youthful, Poetic Frenzy’.)
      To tell the truth, ‘will to form’ (which is English for Kunstwollen, a more specific art historical term introduced by Alois Riegl) isn’t a very good translation of the word used in Hungarian. The Hungarian text simply speaks of something like ‘the Hungarian way to create forms in art.”

  3. Might the concept of ‘Hungarian will to form’ relate to work of Group of Eight in Budapest 1909 -1913 and theories put forward by Karóly Kernstok (‘Inquisitive art’)and Georg Lukács, (‘The ways have parted’) in Nyugat articles of 1910? These spoke against subjectivism that reduced visual representation to moods and impressions and called for a new art that returned to aesthetic traditions of solidity and permanence. The Eight’s attention to formal relations (mass and space, line and colour) did not of course “escape” from ideology. And figurative representation in work of the Eight bears comparison (perhaps?!) with the changing shape of Neoclassical nudes in elite culture of France over the period of revolution and restoration of monarchy, c.1789 -1830.

    Any comment??

    • Thanks for reading and commenting! You certainly know a lot about The Eight!But I have to answer no, the concept of a Hungarian way of creating forms (or, as I imperfectly phrased it in the post, a ‘will to form’), which I am talking about here, is not related to the group of Eight. (See my answer to the previous comment.) Tibor Gerevich, the art historian quoted in the article, was more conservative in his tastes, while the Eight were an avant-gardist group. On the other hand, The Eight were supported by Lajos Fülep, the art historian quoted in my post as an opponent of Gerevich’s views.
      The theoretical foundation of the art of The Eight lay in the backlash against Impressionism at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. They were admirers and followers of Cézanne, so by solidity and permanence they mean something similar to the famous statement by Cézanne: “I want to make of impressionism something solid and lasting like the art in the museums.” So yes, in a way their attitudes may have been classicist (as in, aiming for permanence and universality). But I’m not really an expert on 20th-century avant-garde tendencies.
      Your comment on Neo-classism is intriguing, but I’m afraid I don’t quite understand what you mean. Could you please elaborate?

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