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)

People had been fascinated with the supposedly eccentric personalities of artists since antiquity, but the 19th century gave new meaning to the trope. With the rise of the capitalist market economy, artists had to adopt a new life strategy. Instead of fulfilling commissions from individual patrons, they had to appeal to the audience as a whole when they exhibited their works in the hope of selling them. It was a common complaint that the new system put artists at the mercy of the larger public, seen as uneducated and superficial in its taste, in contrast to the sophisticated aristocratic patrons of the earlier centuries. Consolation could be found in the ideology of Romanticism, according to which the works of a real artist are highly original products of his incomparable genius. If they do not appeal to the ‘masses,’ the reason must be the inability of those ‘philistines’ to grasp their unique quality. Paradoxically, popular stories of misunderstood geniuses were enthusiastically devoured by the same public which supposedly rejected and derided them.

Even though the 19th century was the time of the establishment of the modern art world, which was an integral part of the new social structure, and the artists who took part in its construction were surely endowed with the necessary social skills, the notion of the artist as an outsider prevailed in popular perception. After all, the artist may be rewarded by society with success and wealth, but if said society is inherently incapable of truly appreciating him, its gifts do not mean anything; the artist may still be misunderstood. The painter seen in Borsos’ picture is quite well off: he is dressed in velvet and his studio seems to be full of precious objects, but all that does not satisfy him. Real success is not of this world. He is crowned by his own painting (the picture within the picture, behind him) – probably a religious composition. Art is not something to be paid for with money – it is to be believed in and venerated, like religion.

This leads us to a typically 19th-century phenomenon: the cult of artists. The society which supposedly misunderstood and abused artists made up for this by awarding them with lavish celebrations. Some of these were organised to commemorate the great masters of the previous centuries, but, increasingly, they also celebrated the living. Many successful artists lived in sumptuously furnished homes, suitable for receiving their admirers; even their studios were decorated more like exquisite salons than simple workplaces. The most characteristic example of such a ’painter-prince’ was the Austrian Hans Makart. Of Hungarian painters, it was Mihály Munkácsy who best lived up to the role: residing in surroundings akin to Makart’s in his palace in Paris and hosting lavish parties, he was celebrated whenever he came to Hungary. In 1900, when he died, his funeral in Budapest was a huge public event. However, as we have seen in my previous post on Munkácsy, this kind of reverence can be a great obstacle to a deeper understanding of the artist’s works. The cultic mindset does not end with celebrations; it also comprises a cultic way of talking about art and artists. If art is to be revered, who are we to analyse and dissect it? Instead, it is construed in quasi-religious terms with which it is impossible to argue. We can either believe in the artist completely or reject him with a rebellious defiance.

Mihály Munkácsy’s studio in his Paris palace

The exhibition Gold Medals, Silver Wreaths, organised by Katalin Sinkó at the Hungarian National Gallery in 1995, looked at the cult of artists and the patronage of the arts in 19th-century Hungary. The catalogue is still an indispensable reference work that gives a detailed picture of the institutions promoting art – and, consequently, the myths associated with it.* Artworks and artists, no matter how ‘great’ they are said to be, do not exist in a vacuum. The label ‘great’ was not pinned on them by some kind of abstract, universal aesthetic value, but by a complex and constantly shifting system of power relations, organisations, cultural and political trends, etc. Despite its quality, The Dissatisfied Painter is relatively little known even in Hungary because – due to its sensitive material and fragile state – it is not shown at the permanent exhibition of the Hungarian National Gallery; because the canon of 19th-century artworks in Hungary is still biased towards ‘national’ subjects; and because Borsos himself – having worked in Vienna as a painter and given up painting completely after moving back to Hungary – is a relatively little-known figure.

Sinkó’s approach was informed by research on the cult of writers in 19th-century Hungary, conducted by literary historians, but the exhibition also marks a turning point in Hungarian art history writing akin to the changes that transformed English-language art history in the early 1970s. ‘Traditional’ art history had told the story of ‘great’ artists and their ‘masterpieces;’ of artistic styles and forms developing and transforming over time. It was the story of artistic genius manifesting itself in various ways in different times and places. A nice and enjoyable story which becomes extremely problematic once we ask the simple question: who decides who are the great artists? The new, critical approach involved the identification of the institutions, power relations, myths, etc. that had shaped canons and narratives, and thus the definitions of ‘genius’ and ‘masterpiece.’ The latter concepts are postulated as universal – but are they not, in reality, defined by criteria that mostly apply to the West-European white male? The new art history set out to make the narratives of art history less discriminatory by including objects previously not regarded as high art – leading, eventually, to a redefinition of art history as the history of visual culture. Art is created in a social context, and the label of ‘greatness’ has to be understood in the framework of the society which awarded it.

Gold Medals, Silver Wreaths examined the mechanism of the cult of artists and its institutions in a similar vein. For example, the original permanent exhibition of the Hungarian National Museum had incorporated rooms designed to honour particular ’great’ artists – Károly Markó, Mihály Munkácsy, and Mihály Zichy. The rooms did not isolate these painters from the flow of history: they included works by other artists too, hence presenting the three masters as geniuses who had led the way. The rooms are long gone, but the same artists are still at the top of the canon, epitomising 19th-century art even in the eyes of those who reject their work in the name of ’modernity’. The example shows beautifully that the myth of the individual genius is inseparable from the institutionalisation of art in the modern art world.

The Munkácsy Room of the Hungarian National Museum, after 1879. In the centre: Munkácsy’s bust by Friedrich Beer

Gold Medals, Silver Wreaths took an important step in the direction of art history as the history of visual culture by not only showing works of ‘high’ art, but also products promoting them, for instance cheap printed reproductions. It also displayed cultic objects: awards and medals, as well as painting utensils, furniture, etc. once belonging to artists and preserved as relics by their admirers. For example, Munkácsy’s last palette – still smudged with paint – was donated to the Hungarian state by his widow, and is now kept in the Archives of the Hungarian National Gallery together with other such relics. The cultic attitude extols everything touched by the genius. In this regard, there is no difference between the chair he had sat on and the artworks he had created with his blessed hands.

Munkácsy’s last palette, a plaster cast of his hand, and a ribbon from a funerary wreath (Hungarian National Gallery, Archives; page from the catalogue Aranyérmek, ezüstkoszorúk)

This attitude is still alive. Instead of cultic rooms, the greatest artists are honoured with blockbuster exhibitions, and their names are used as brand names. The media loves to report when works created by famous artists are sold, stolen, or found; their importance seems to lie in the names attached to them, as well as in their commercial value – routinely mentioned as an indicator of ’greatness.’ The awe the 19th century viewer felt in front of artworks is translated into tangible numbers, but the approach is similar: the artwork cannot be dissected and analysed; it is precious as it is, and its value – whether ethereal or quantified – is unattainable to simple members of the public. The importance of specific artists and artworks is established by authority and not by reasoning – it is to be believed. Besides promoting a simplicistic view of art history as the method of identifying expensive artworks (and thus as a luxury), this mindset also makes interpreting national art history to an international audience extremely difficult, as I shall explain below.

National art history has its own canon of great masters and masterpieces. If, however, genius and quality are universal and not something to be argued about, the qualities of our great masters should be just as obvious to non-Hungarians as they are to us. In line with this way of thinking, several attempts have been made to introduce one of the painters we like to take pride in, Tivadar Csontváry Kosztka (1853-1919), to the international scene – with mixed results which have not satisfied the painter’s proponents. His works were admired by many at the exhibitions, but he is still far from being internationally well-known. It is of course an illusion to think that a Hungarian artist will become a household name abroad just because his retrospective is shown at a large museum. Canonisation is a long process depending on many factors, some of them arbitrary and completely out of our control. Furthermore, no matter how interesting the artist is to us, it has to be taken into account that viewers abroad will be looking at him from a different angle. Hence, instead of relying on the concept of universal quality, we have to be able to explain why the artist is important to us.

Tivadar Csontváry Kosztka: The Ruins of the Greek Theatre in Taormina, 1904-1905 (Hungarian National Gallery)

Csontváry lends himself to being mythicised as a lone genius because he was something of an eccentric. Born in 1853, he trained as a pharmacist, and took up painting later in his life, after supposedly hearing a voice in his head proclaiming he would become a great painter – greater than Raphael. At the same time – his eccentricities and possible schizophrenia notwithstanding – he was also a smart businessman, who managed his pharmacy so successfully that its revenues eventually made it possible for him to study art and to travel around the Mediterranean and the Middle East. His visionary paintings are commonly described as unique and incomparable to any European trend. (The Wikipedia article on Csontváry, for example, accompanies this statement with many cultic phrases, while failing to provide the reader with a succinct, matter-of-fact biography.) This reinforces the notion that the appreciation of Csontváry’s art does not require any background knowledge; that his greatness should be recogniseable at first sight.

Tivadar Csontváry Kosztka: Castellammare di Stabia, 1902 (Janus Pannonius Museum, Pécs)

Things are, however, not so simple. If they were, Csontváry’s paintings would always have been appreciated in the exact same way – if greatness is universal in terms of space, it should surely be so in terms of time too. Csontváry’s art was, however, not sought after at all during his lifetime – reinforcing the myth of the lone genius, but at the same time contradicting the myth of universal greatness. Only finding appreciation after his death, his paintings became widely known due to the retrospective organised in the city of Székesfehérvár in 1963 and the monograph published by Lajos Németh around the same time. Csontváry’s importance seems uncontestable in Hungary today, but this is the result of decades of learning to appreciate his art. As a toddler, I was fascinated by the reproductions of Csontváry’s Pilgrimage to the Cedars in Lebanon and Castellammare di Stabia hanging on the wall of my grandparents’ living room – they were probably  the first works of art I ever saw. I obviously look at them in a fundamentally different way than my non-Hungarian reader does.

Tivadar Csontváry Kosztka: Pilgrimage to the Cedars in Lebanon, 1907 (Hungarian National Gallery)

Projects like Gold Medals, Silver Wreaths strive to explain why certain works are/were considered great by certain groups of people at certain times in certain places. They force us to reflect on our own viewpoints – and that, I think, is crucial if we aim to interpret Hungarian art to an international audience. Simply declaring that our artist is great is not enough, because greatness is incomprehensible without any points of reference. Internationally well-known artists and artistic trends can provide such reference points, but such an approach is only partially effective – it might present Csontváry as a strange and somewhat naïve representative of Symbolism, but his difference from the international trend could easily come to be regarded as clumsiness. If, however, we tried to explain why he is important to us and how we came to regard him as great, his art would open a window on Hungarian history and culture, which would, in turn, help understand his art. For instance, Csontváry’s rediscovery in the 1960s is a fascinating chapter in the story of Communist cultural politics: the Székesfehérvár exhibition could take place because the rigid socialist-realist expectations of the 1950s were giving way to a more lax approach which allowed for various artistic tendencies, even abstract art (if they did not directly criticise the regime, of course). But this is not the only way Csontváry can be contextualised. He may have been an eccentric, but he was still connected to cultural tendencies of his age – everyone is. And even if we choose to view him as an outsider, his outsiderness can only be demonstrated in comparison to Hungarian art and culture of his age – otherwise, as far as the non-Hungarian viewer knows, everyone in early-20th-century Hungary may have painted just like him.

For now, I will leave my readers without an analysis of Csontváry’s work and its context – this post is already far to long, and I am not a Csontváry expert. My aim here is to show that the cultic approach to art – inherited from the 19th century – can still have far-reaching effects. Exhibitions like Gold Medals, Silver Wreaths help us understand how our canon of great artists came into being. By destabilising and relativising that canon, they give us the flexibility needed to present ourselves to an international audience. Our desire to put forward our great masters and to see them enthroned in the Western canon is, essentially, fed by an inferiority complex – our satisfaction with their greatness will only be complete if that greatness is sanctioned internationally. But is this really a meaningful goal? Instead of thinking in terms of greatness, it is also worthwhile to aim for understanding. Csontváry will never be internationally admired as one of the greatest masters of European painting, but his art could be understood as a part of 20th-century Hungarian culture. Hungarian art history, as I will present it here, is not the story of greatness; it is fragile and problematic, with moments of frailty, outright ridiculousness, but also heartwrenching beauty. The beauty will only reveal itself if the rest is not denied. If we want someone to truly know us, we have to be able to show our weaknesses.

Tivadar Csontváry Kosztka: Rendez-vous, c. 1902 (private collection) Photo: Wikipedia

* Aranyérmek, ezüstkoszorúk: Művészkultusz és műpártolás Magyarországon a 19. században / Goldmedaillen, Silberkränze: Künstlerkult und Mäzenatur im 19. Jahrhundert in Ungarn, ed. Katalin Sinkó, Budapest: Hungarian National Gallery, 1995.


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