I started this blog on a sudden whim, but I 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.
I became interested in these texts while researching gothic (terrifying, horrifying) elements in Hungarian Romanticism, a topic I have already introduced in a previous post.* The fashionable gothic novels of the period told gruesome tales of murders and hauntings, creating an atmosphere of suspense that made it impossible to put the books down. Mysterious, ancient castles were common and very appropriate settings for these stories, which often began with a foreboding description of the building. Even though they were writing “serious” history, authors of Hormayr’s periodical, the Taschenbuch für die vaterländische Geschichte, especially his Hungarian co-editor Alajos Mednyánszky, consciously exploited the vocabulary and plot devices typical of gothic novels when describing the remains of medieval castles in the Austrian Empire. Mednyánszky’s essays on the castles of Northern Hungary combined historical facts gleaned from “real” documents with stories from local lore. He was perfectly aware of the difference between fact and fiction, but valued old legends as documents of ancient beliefs. Moreover, his examination of the building from an archeological point of view, as well as his historically accurate telling of the events that had taken place there, could have proved a tedious read to an audience used to suspenseful novels; the often gruesome and terrifying legends, however, made sure that their attention was engaged. The castle of Beckó (today Beckov, Slovakia), for example, had been built by the ruthless Voivod Stibor, who met his well-deserved fate when a snake bit his eyes and blinded him while he was taking a nap in the garden. Maddened with pain, he threw himself off the cliff.
The Taschenbuch was illustrated with engravings depicting castles; sober picturesque landscapes seemingly void of gothic terror. It was up to the imaginative reader to liven them up with fantasies of ruthless warlords, damsels in distress, and strange hauntings. Gothic novels – and historians who imitated them – left a lot to the imagination. 18th-century theories of the pleasures of terror in art (theories of the sublime) argued that imagining unspoken terrors which the text or picture only hints at is a greater source of pleasure to the beholder than a straightforward description of a gruesome scene. It is the fearful, but eager anticipation of what is going to happen, the painful desire to satisfy our curiosity, and not the eventual outcome itself that drives us through the book.
Published in different variations by the author himself, Mednyánszky’s stories became extremely popular and were retold by significant Hungarian authors throughout the 19th century. This had been the Hormayr circle’s goal: besides making history popular with readers, they also aimed to encourage writers and artists to engage with subjects taken from the history of the Austrian Empire. Behind their enthusiasm lay a political agenda: they propagated the idea of the nations of the Empire living together in peace, unified under the rule of the Austrian emperor. They accepted and even encouraged differences in culture, but only if they conformed to the big picture – the Empire. Hence, when telling the histories of the different nations, they concentrated on the occasions when they were fighting for a common cause (against the Turks), instead of the tensions within the Empire. For instance, Hungarian leaders of uprisings against Austria – today regarded as national heroes – were represented as villains, if mentioned at all. On a more positive note: the ruined castle provided a site where the histories and folklores of local Hungarian, German, and Slovakian people were shown as intertwined into one lively, multicultural whole. Nevertheless, the stories told by the historians subsequently broke free from their original context, providing subject matter for authors promoting Hungarian patriotism.
Pictures of castles are often interpreted as straightforward representations of the bygone glory of the Hungarian past. In today’s nationalist lore, the castles function as symbols of the greatness of the nation, especially since many of them stand on territories which – since the peace treaty after WWI – do not belong to Hungary anymore. I believe, however, that 19th-century historical landscapes had more to do with the literary tradition of Mednyánszky’s stories than with a simple demonstration of power. Viewers who grew up in that tradition must have conjured up legends and ghost stories in their minds when they saw these pictures, and thought less about specific, major historical events. In fact, many of the castles described by Mednyánszky and, in turn, depicted by painters, had not witnessed any of the great turning points of history. Mednyánszky’s essays made the stories of historically insignificant or even fictitious people seem just as relevant as those of the greatest heroes, and took stories of love just as seriously as the stories of great battles. To feel the past, to become emotionally attached to it, we do not necessarily have to identify with heroes – because we might have more in common with a pair of lovers whose names are barely mentioned in the chronicles. It is not the individual events that fascinate us, but history itself.
History writing does not only consist of collecting information; it is also a process of selection. I have described the Taschenbuch‘s approach as encompassing, but, as I have already pointed out, there was also much selection going on, in order to conform to a certain political view. In the following decades, the professionalisation of history writing resulted in a canon of “important” historical events and their mainstream interpretations. Presenting the story of Stibor and the snake alongside the history of a heroic battle in a history book would have raised many eyebrows. That does not mean, however, that the gothic approach to history had died out. It lived on in historical novels, in the numerous variations of Mednyánszky’s legends, and in gloomy representations of ruined castles. Even Visegrád, a royal castle of undoubted historical significance, was often conceived as a site of mystery and suspense.
All historians are like archeologists: we collect fragments of information from historical sources and put them together as if they were stones from an ancient castle, filling out the voids between them with our (hopefully eloquent) words. Despite our efforts to reconstruct the past, what we present to our readers is still in ruins – it would be impossible to retell every tiny detail of a historical event (including, for example, what each and every soldier had had for breakfast before a battle), even if the sources were available. We use our imagination and intellect to connect the dots, but also to eliminate what we think is of minor relevance. Our reader, in turn, has to use his/her imagination to build a fantasy castle from the ruins. Our attempts at reconstruction and interpretation also demand an exercise of imagination on the part of our reader: he/she has to put herself/himself into our shoes just as much as into the shoes of the people of the past – because what we offer is not an objective picture but our interpretation of the fragments we have managed to dig up. And after years of digging, after writing or reading a 500-page monograph, the essential beauty of the past might still be concealed from us, like in this painting by Károly Ferenczy:
The above is an interpretation I like to assign to this image. Being anything but an expert on Ferenczy, my reading is admittedly subjective. But even in fields where I am more at home, I am aware of the fragility of my interpretations. Despite collecting as many sources as possible, I will never be able to see a painting through the eyes of a 19th-century spectator. I have managed to come to terms with this problem by accepting that what I build up is not a reconstruction of the castle – it is a bridge that leads from the ancient castle to my time. Adding my own point of view is unavoidable, but it is also necessary in order to make the past accessible to my reader, who, after all, lives in my time and not in the ancient times when the castle was built.
I know all this has been said before, and with much more erudition. It is time to get to the point. Writing art history is a form of communication not only between author and reader, but also between the past and the present. Seen in this light, writing the art history of a small nation for an international readership is not so different: it is a form of communication between cultures, and its success depends on whether we are ready to listen to our potential readers. We have to find problems they can relate to and narrate them in a language they understand (and here, of course, I do not simply mean that we have to use English instead of Hungarian). Merely presenting the facts and concentrating on what we find interesting will not do. It is quite possible that we will have to show pictures of scary ghosts and haunted castles instead of the Great Masterpieces we like to take pride in. In fact, the whole process should not have anything to do with pride. It should be a dialogue, and we should be just as ready to learn as to explain. It is humbling, but also fascinating to experience how an outsider’s perspective can disrupt our all-to-well constructed canon of Masterpieces; to find that some of these works might prove uninteresting to someone from a different country, even if accompanied by a long explanation of their significance in the history of European art, while they might enjoy a painting we usually rank lower in the canon because it addresses a tradition they are familiar with, but in a surprising and intriguing way.
This blog is an experiment in the above, prompted by the recent opportunities I have had to talk about Hungarian art with (and not to) people from other countries. Hence, I would like to encourage my readers to leave comments – I would be very interested to know what you think. To start a dialogue. This post was meant to explore the Hormayr circle’s essays about ruins and their relationship with historical landscape painting in Hungary, but it has turned into a somewhat dishevelled compendium of my musings on history writing and the problem of placing Hungarian art into an international context. In a way, this was predictable. I had planned to present the texts as examples of an emotional approach to history, where the reader is expected to fill in the gaps using the power of imagination, by adding a personal interpretation. Ruins invite subjective reflections on past and present. Moreover, Hormayr’s project itself was an experiment in cross-cultural communication. Albeit driven by a political agenda, it populated the ruined castles with Hungarian, Austrian, and Slavic historical figures, fictitious characters, legends, stories, and superstitions. It stirred them together in order to create one compulsory narrative for the whole Empire, but – due to the necessarily fragmented results of its archeological approach to history writing – it created an intricate web of connections between the different nations and their histories instead, leaving many loose ends, as well as room for alternative readings. A strong, intact, fortified castle is a symbol of splendid isolation. Ruins may be incomplete, but that is exactly why they are open to the world.
* See: 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.)
For an excellent account of the story of the Hormayr circle and their goals see: Szentesi, Edit, “Birodalmi patriotizmus: Történelemszemlélet, történetírás, történeti publicisztika és történeti témák ábrázolása az Osztrák Császárságban 1828-ig.” [Imperial Patriotism. Views on History, History Writing, Historical Journalism, and the Representation of Historical Subjects in the Austrian Empire before 1828], Történelem-kép: Szemelvények múlt és művészet kapcsolatából Magyarországon, exhibition catalogue, eds Árpád Mikó and Katalin Sinkó, Budapest: Hungarian National Gallery, 2000, pp. 73–91. (summary in German: pp. 779–781.)