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)

Arriving in Rome, Ferenczy was unable to get a place in Canova’s studio, but he was accepted as a pupil by Bertel Thorvaldsen, a Danish sculptor working in Rome whose reputation equalled Canova’s. Hungarian journalists were already enthusiastically reporting about the brilliant young artist studying abroad. No one at home had seen examples of his work yet, but there was much eager anticipation. In 1822, Ferenczy sent two of his sculptures to Hungary, addressed to Palatine Joseph Habsburg, the Austrian governor of Hungary and well-respected patron of Hungarian culture. The palatine displayed the works publicly at his palace in Buda (the palace today housing the Hungarian National Gallery). Together, the two works embodied Ferenczy’s artistic goals. As explained in several of his letters, one of his aims was to ‘erect memorials’ to great figures of the Hungarian past. To Ferenczy, heroes of war were just as important as heroes of culture, and he chose one of the latter for his first ‘memorial.’ In the bust of Mihály Csokonai Vitéz, he combined the deceased poet’s traditional Hungarian dress and moustache with an antique toga, thus initiating a way to adapt the formal conventions of Neoclassical sculpture to Hungarian subject matter. He offered to put his artistic skills to the use of the Hungarian nation, commemorating historical personalities who can serve as examples to the community.

István Ferenczy: Portrait of the poet Mihály Csokonai Vitéz, 1818 (Collection of the Calvinist College, Debrecen) Photo: MEK

The other work, however, exemplified a somewhat different artistic attitude. The sculpture, today usually known as Shepherdess, but originally exhibited as The Beginning of the Fine Arts, depicts the ancient tale of the first drawing – and thus the origin of the arts. A version of the tale is told by Pliny the Elder: a Corinthian potter’s daughter had to part with her beloved who was going on a journey. To keep a souvenir of his features, the girl traced the shadow of the young man’s face on the wall. Later, her father filled out the silhouette with clay, creating the first sculpture. Ferenczy depicted a different version of the story: his heroine is a shepherdess who draws her lover’s features on the ground. It is important to note that Ferenczy – even though he was a sculptor, and a very proud one at that – depicted the creation of the first drawing, and not the first sculpture, as a crucial event. In classical academic art theory, handed down since the time of the Renaissance, drawing was the basis of all branches of the fine arts and was thought to contain the artist’s main idea, his inspiration – the most important component of his art. By exhibiting The Beginning of the Fine Arts, Ferenczy presented himself as a sculptor who bases his works on intellectual activity, giving form to his own ideas. He distinguished himself sharply from sculptors ‘slavishly’ carrying out petty commissions for their patrons. The latter were mere handworkers, while he was an intellectual, an Artist with a capital A. Around this time, he had taken to signing his letters as ‘Ferenczy, the Artist.’

Istvan Ferenczy: The Beginning of the Fine Arts (detail)

Ferenczy returned home in 1824 with great expectations. He wanted to be able to create freely – to put his art to the service of the nation, but to decide on his own what he meant by that service. In the meanwhile, he was also satisfied with carrying out commissions. Diligently carving funeral monuments and portraits, he waited for greater opportunities to arise. Then things started to go wrong. Ferenczy had spent six years in Rome, the heart of European culture. Maybe other cities had more famous art academies, but Rome – an incomparable treasury of antique, Renaissance and Baroque art – was the number one destination for art lovers travelling around Europe. A thriving intellectual centre, it provided a fertile location for lively debates about the arts. Moreover, it was home to the two most excellent sculptors of the time. Ferenczy had not been able to become Canova’s pupil, but was on friendly terms with him. His relationship with the less amiable-natured Thorvaldsen was quite strained, but that does not lessen the fact that he had worked with the internationally admired sculptor for six years. Then he returned to Hungary, where the appreciation of the fine arts was the hobby of a few intellectuals. There were no public galleries, no exhibitions, no art criticism. Most of his potential patrons probably had no idea why it would be better to pay more for a unique sculpture by this strange eccentric than for one of the stock motifs provided by the ‘handworkers.’ Both starstruck and self-confident due to all he had experienced in Rome, Ferenczy believed it would be possible to overcome these difficulties and introduce in his homeland what he had learnt abroad.

István Ferenczy: Portrait of Countess Viczay, 1824 (Hungarian National Gallery)

Art historians have written extensively about Orientalism: the stereotypical image of the East from a Western point of view, manifested in countless 19th-century pictures and texts. There is much less discussion in mainstream art history writing about the image of the West seen from the East – in our case, Eastern Europe. The perspective of the East is rarely heard, much less dissected and analysed. What happened to Ferenczy is not unique. When the East looks at the West, it sometimes looks at it with suspicion, but often it looks at it with wonder. Ferenczy’s contemporaries who travelled to England, for example the social reformer Count István Széchenyi, admired the industrialised, capitalistic country and its civil institutions, and sought to establish at home what they had seen there. Then came the obstacles. It was like trying to recreate a Jamie Oliver recipe from what is available at the corner shop: you substitute eisberg lettuce for radicchio, regular tomatoes for cherry ones, lemons for limes, until you have prepared something strange and half-baked, far from the glamorous picture in the book. In Rome, it was easy to forget about the lack of institutions and patronage in Hungary, the general illiteracy in the field of the fine arts, the essentially feudal social structure. It was easy to forget about the frustration of trying to make a living as an intellectual, the want of open public debates, the suspicion towards critical thinking, the lack of social mobility, and, on top of all that, the stifling presence of Chancellor Metternich’s Austrian police state. In Hungary, the ideals that had seemed so tangible in Rome were gradually obliterated by their own unearthly glow. Ferenczy soon had to realise that the ground in his homeland was not fertile enough for him to sow the seeds of Art, with a capital A. Finally, in 1840, it seemed opportunity had come. A group of intellectuals had started fundraising for a monument to King Matthias Corvinus, the Renaissance ruler of Hungary (1458-1490). The idea was motivated by the wish to commemorate Hungary’s glory days (King Matthias, a patron of culture, was the last really successful ruler of Hungary before the country was occupied by the Turks and divided into three parts), but that was not all. The initiative was also a scheme to patronise Ferenczy – he was selected to carry out the commission right from the start.

István Ferenczy: Design for a monument to King Matthias Corvinus, engraved by Lehnhardt, 1840 (Photo: MEK)

István Ferenczy’s last plaster model for the Matthias monument, 1846 (daguerrotype taken in 1846, Hungarian National Gallery, Archives)

The plan was, however, not greeted with unanimous enthusiasm. Some articles criticised the planned location, others its chosen subject, while the well-respected István Széchenyi questioned the need for such a monument altogether. But the articles that must have hurt Ferenczy most were the ones ridiculing him as an artist. One of them, for example, claimed that in Thorvaldsen’s studio Ferenczy had only been given the task of carving the toes of statues. This was the first large public debate on the arts in Hungary, and is thus of great importance in Hungarian art history** – in this regard, Ferenczy’s art had really given rise to something new and significant. Still, that was no consolation. Ferenczy tried to rework his designs, but to no avail. The required sum of money was never collected, and the monument never came into being.

Istvan Ferenczy: The Allegory of Strength, relief for the Matthias Monument, 1842-1843 (Hungarian National Gallery)

Ferenczy considered this the greatest failure of his life, one from which he never recovered. He felt the Hungarian public was too ignorant to appreciate his sublime style and refused to accept that Neoclassicism was becoming outmoded – but, at the same time, he tried to adapt his designs to the critics’ wishes as well as he could. It also has to be said that Ferenczy was particularly sensitive to criticism, and that some of the critics’ points had been well-founded. Since returning home, Ferenczy had produced many sculptures which attest to his talent but at the same time also exhibit a certain kind of clumsiness.

István Ferenczy: Portrait of the poet Ferenc Kölcsey, 1845 (Hungarian National Gallery)

That clumsiness, however, needs explanation. After all, his Shepherdess is beautifully formed and on par with other works from the Thorvaldsen studio. Some commenters, then and now, have tried to resolve this apparent contradiction by claiming that the Shepherdess had been, at least in part, carved by Thorvaldsen or Canova. I find this hard to believe; Ferenczy was an extremely proud artist, and the Shepherdess was his ars poetica – how could he have not created it with his own hands? Another explanation of the apparent decline of Ferenczy’s skills is materialistic. In Italy, the sculptor had used the finest Carrara marble, whereas in Hungary he had to use whatever was available. He set out on a mission to find Hungarian marble suitable for artistic purposes – part of his quest to awaken the arts in Hungary. Despite his high hopes, he never found anything like Carrara marble. Looking closely at the Ferenczy sculptures displayed at the Hungarian National Gallery, the difference between the smooth, milky Italian stone and the grainy Hungarian one is obvious. That was all the ground in his homeland could yield – and it was not enough to sustain him as an artist. This explanation works best if we take it as a metaphor. Ferenczy thought of himself as a genius, but his story provides a powerful argument against that Romantic concept. Genius needs a fertile ground to thrive – institutions, debates, patrons, art lovers, fellow artists, and, most of all, freedom of expression. His pride notwithstanding, Ferenczy was well aware of this. On a piece of paper preserved at the Archives of the Hungarian National Gallery, he had written down his dying Eurydice’s last words.*** My dearest Orpheus, she says, I am dying now, in the prime of my youth, and notions of virtue will die with me. She goes on to ask Orpheus to grant her one last wish: she begs him to set up a collection of plaster casts of the world’s greatest sculptures at the Hungarian National Museum, to educate the audience and provide models for young sculptors. She wishes to cultivate that murderous ground.

István Ferenczy: The Dying Eurydice, 1845-1846 (Calvinist church, Rimavská Sobota, now placed on Ferenczy’s tomb) Photo: rimava.sk

In 19th-century nationalist imagery, the ‘ground’ of the homeland is fought for, soaked with blood, adored, prayed to – it is somber and awe-inspiring. Ferenczy’s pathos is different: all he wants is a home where he can be who he wants to be. To quote the letter informing the Matthias-monument committee of his resignation: ‘I have failed to secure a tiny piece of ground for myself.’ In this context, the change made by Ferenczy to Pliny’s original tale becomes particularly poignant. Instead of the wall, his shepherdess is drawing on the ground. Beneath her feet. To mark that little area as her own. Rushdie’s novel The Ground Beneath Her Feet tells the meandering love story of two rock musicians, Vina Apsara and Ormus Cama, as a modernised version of the Greek myth. Vina, a wonderful singer with an incomparable voice, dies in an earthquake – like Eurydice, she is killed by the ground beneath her feet. This is not, however, the only time she is betrayed by the ground she walks on. Vina and Ormus have to leave India to realise their potential. Still, despite acquiring worldwide fame abroad, they can never find a piece of ground for themselves. Displaced from home, having lost their points of reference, Vina and Ormus discover that the whole world had become precarious and uncertain. Earthquakes (and visits from alternate universes) are just the most extreme manifestations. The trauma of not being appreciated and thus feeling displaced in his own homeland is expressed through the same metaphor in Ferenczy’s art. And that metaphor is wide-reaching. The tension between the lack of possibilities at home – due to poverty, a restrictive, quasi-feudal society, or dictatorial political regimes – and the lure of the wide world is articulated in countless products of Hungarian culture, from early-20th-century modernist poetry to underground music of the 1980s. But I would like to focus on something else now. Their melancholy notwithstanding, these stories have their good sides. Vina and Ormus might not have found a home, but their talent, now in full bloom, was appreciated by millions of people all over the world. Ferenczy may have felt like a failure, but from the 1840s the institutions he had wished for gradually came into being: exhibitions, galleries, an art academy, and, by the last decades of the century, even a collection of plaster casts. And, although not all of Count Széchenyi’s proposed social reforms found acceptance, his ideas on civil liberty lived on – things could never be the same as before. It is never futile to look at other parts of the world for inspiration, and the connections forged this way are what keep the world from falling apart, no matter how frail they seem. In today’s Europe, it is essential for East and West to look at each other with a new kind of empathy. We need to understand our differences deeply to be able to preserve what we share – to understand what is threatening it. The main thing is never to let go. As pointed out by Rushdie’s narrator: ‘Disorientation is the loss of the East.’ * A recent large project on István Ferenczy was an exhibition organised at the Art Collection of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in 2007 by Éva Bicskei, which yielded many new insights. My taking part in the research connected to the exhibition provided the inspiration for this post. In the summer of 2012, the Gemersko-Malohontské múzeum (Gömör-Kishont Museum) in Rimavská Sobota organised a large exhibition commemorating the 220th anniversary of Ferenczy’s birth. Although several essays on various aspects of his career have been published since then, the most comprehensive monograph on István Ferenczy is still: Simon Meller, Ferenczy István 1792-1856, Budapest: Magyar Történelmi Társulat, 1905. ** The debate is discussed in depth by Árpád Tímár, ‘Vita Ferenczy István Mátyás-emlékműtervéről [Debate on István Ferenczy’s Planned Matthias Monument],’ Ars Hungarica 21 (1993): 163-202. *** Hungarian National Gallery, Archives, Inv. No. 4132/1942

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