Stereotypes are a recurring theme of this blog. One post discussed the hopelessness of trying to relate personal love stories through stereotypes, while the latest post touched on the subject of stereotyping other nations. Stereotypes may be inherent to how we perceive (and thus represent) the world: in order to find our way among the endless number of things and people we encounter, we try to find similarities and contrasts between them and label them accordingly. But every time we squeeze an object into such a neat category, something individual is lost, and – if I am allowed to be a bit bombastic here (and I guess I am – this is my own blog) – I think that most problems in the world, whether large or small, arise when people confuse stereotypes with reality. If, when meeting someone, we content ourselves with noting personality traits that seem to prove the stereotypes commonly associated with their nationality, gender, age, profession, sexual orientation, etc., we prevent ourselves from getting to know them as individuals. I think this causes a lot of trouble in everyday life – but it is, of course, most dangerous and vicious when it serves as a basis for hatred. As you may have guessed by now, this post is about racism.
Let us start with a painting that is made up of stereotypes. Miklós Barabás, the resourceful painter we have already met, showed his picture of a Travelling Gypsy Family in Transylvania at the 1843 exhibition of the Pest Art Society. The painting attracted considerable attention and was praised as the first large-scale composition depicting a contemporaneous Hungarian subject. Throughout the 19th century it was remembered as a work that marked the beginning of Hungarian genre painting, even though it was in a private collection, and thus rarely seen. In 1843, Hungarian critics considered it extremely true to life.
At this point, I have to confess my personal connection to this picture: it was the subject of one of my first attempts at ‘serious’ art historical research, while I was still a university student.* I was very proud to have noticed that what critics had perceived as a reflection of reality was in fact a reflection of stereotypes of Gypsies (Romani, to be more precise – in this post I am using the term ‘Gypsy’ in order to reflect the terminology of my 19th-century sources), disseminated by other images and texts that had, in turn, shaped peoples’ perception of the real outside world. I know this is no great novelty, but to a fledgling art historian it was a revelation. I found that figures like the beautiful young girl, the caricaturistically rendered old woman smoking a pipe, the patriarch-like old man, or the bare-breasted Gypsy mother recur again and again in pictures and texts depicting Gypsies in 19th-century Hungary. The pig is a frequent motif too. In a poem he wrote in 1844 to accompany a print made after Barabás’ painting, the poet Sándor Petőfi referred to the pig as ‘stolen.’ It is impossible to deduce this from the image alone – Petőfi, the great Romantic and subsequent martyr of the 1848-49 Hungarian Revolution and War of Independence, drew on his prejudices, founded on other texts, when he composed that line.
Apart from this detail, Petőfi’s poem (entitled Vándorélet – Traveller’s Life) is fairly sympathetic to the family, turning them into symbols of romantic freedom in its very last line (‘they ignore all earthly sorrows’) – a connotation attached to depictions of Gypsy travellers all over Europe in the 19th century. Another description of the painting tends towards mockery: the author Ignác Nagy used the picture as a model when describing a Gypsy family in one of his short stories, making fun of their ragged clothes. In both cases, however, the narrator makes it very clear that he has nothing to do with the family, and is observing them from outside, describing them as strangers. Gypsies were outsiders in 19th-century Hungarian society. They could play specific roles, like pursuing their traditional professions and selling their products to villagers (such as carving wooden troughs or spoons – as seen in the painting), or playing music. Gypsy musicians are standard figures in 19th-century genre paintings: they were essential accessories to merry parties – but only accessories. They were Others, compared to whom Hungarian identity could define itself. This is especially clear in Nagy’s text which recounts the arrival of a Gypsy family in the city of Debrecen. Described as fundamentally different from those who dwell in the city, the family is enveloped by an air of strangeness. The outsider’s point of view, which constructed them as eternal aliens, was inherent to representations of Gypsies in 19th-century Hungary.
Thinking about Barabás’ Travelling Gypsy Family in the subsequent years, I have made much of the fact that the picture, hailed as the first real Hungarian genre painting with ‘real’ Hungarian subject matter, depicted figures of Romani, and not Hungarian ethnicity. In early 19th-century Hungary, seemingly conflicting conceptions of the nation lived side by side; the definition founded on ethnicity was complemented by one that defined the nation as the totality of people living in the country, regardless of their backgrounds. I have tried to regard the painting as a visualisation of the latter model, and I still think there is some merit to this interpretation, but I also think that it is, sadly, a bit too optimistic, and that the real, somewhat disheartening explanation lies in what was said in the previous paragraph. These Gypsy figures did constitute Hungarian subject matter – because, as stock motifs, they belonged to Hungarian culture. This is why critics praised them as ‘familiar.’ This does not mean, however, that flesh and blood Gypsies were not outsiders. They were useful as musicians, they were fascinating in their strangeness, and their representations could be amusing, but their own voices were never heard. They were just there to be looked at – whether as humorous or as exotic figures, or sometimes both. These two-dimensional representations claimed to represent the whole truth, and spectators were invited to form an opinion based on stereotypes instead of real knowledge; to judge and to evaluate and to glare at what was put on display without questioning their own preconceptions.
There is a painting that, to me, embodies all I have said above: Gypsy Girl by István Réti, one of the founders of the Nagybánya (today Baia Mare, Romania) artists’ colony. I do not think it needs much explanation; it says more than any eloquent words. The white male artist can put this vulnerable little girl on display in her nakedness, to be looked at by others from his own social class – because he can.**
Maybe this is an unprofessional thing to say, but I fervently hate Réti’s painting; it makes me nauseous. I have to admit, however, that I really like Barabás’ Travelling Gypsy Family, despite its stereotypical nature – partly because of the personal reasons stated above, but that is not all. I have tried and failed to explain why I like it with its supposedly ‘inclusive’ concept of the nation. Then I found another reason. Let us look at the way the painting is composed. The figures seem disconnected from each other; the scene is not focused on one central action or one figure, and it even lacks an overall compositional structure that would keep everything together, as for instance in Barabás’ next genre painting, Romanian Family on Their Way to the Fair, which is arranged according to a neat, classical, pyramidal compositional scheme. I believe this is because the figures were conceived individually, based on precedents such as popular prints showing the different ethnic costumes worn in the Austrian Empire, or even – in the case of the woman carrying the child on her back – on prints depicting Native Americans. That is, on stereotypes. Yes. But I think that by making the fact that it is compiled of stereotypes so blatantly obvious, the painting problematises, and even negates them, exposing their essentially constructed nature. It does not try to conceal the fact that it is putting images, and not real people, on display. By doing so, it provides us with an occasion to reflect on the nature of stereotypes. Moreover, I would even risk saying that it liberates interpretation: as soon as we become aware of the stereotypes, we can put them aside, rethink them, and rearrange them in our minds. Are the two younger women not opposites, in a way? One of them is covered from head to feet, while the other is half naked; one is an attractive beauty, who gazes modestly, but alluringly at the beholder, while the other is a busy mother, who does not care about the beholder at all. They are both stereotypes – but side by side they also show how different individual people can be.
I am not saying this was the artist’s intention. As I said, in 1843 the picture was interpreted as a highly realistic representation of Gypsies in general, and Barabás himself wrote an article in a magazine, defending his painting against the criticism he received from Austrian reviewers by claiming to have been extraordinarily faithful to nature. But paintings do not necessarily say what their artist intended – if that intention is known at all. In my view, Travelling Gypsy Family questions the truthfulness of supposedly faithful representation. It draws attention to the fundamental paradox of 19th-century genre painting, which aimed to represent typical, and not individual people, while at the same time purporting to be faithful to reality. Reality, however, consists of individuals, not generalised types. Types are just paper figures, that can be cut out, arranged, and rearranged, as seen in Barabás’ picture.
Almost 200 years have passed, but prejudice still exists, fed by stereotypical images. When Romani are portrayed in the news today, they are routinely shown through an outsider’s eyes, as strangers. Just like genre paintings, television programmes show types, not individuals; they select their themes from the endless array of possibilities so that they conform to images that live in popular opinion, thereby helping to perpetuate them. They do so much more shrewdly than Barabás’ picture, never revealing their constructedness and creating a perfect illusion of reality. The proliferation of such images and the lack of a critical attitude towards them heavily contributes to racism against Romani in today’s Hungary. And this is why the humanities, among them the history of art, have an essential importance in today’s society. The study of visual culture teaches us to look at these images critically and to analyse them not as representations of reality, but as vessels of (sometimes centuries-old) stereotypes.
Understanding how stereotypes work will make us aware of how our imagery, considered realistic and harmless, has robbed Hungarian Romani of their human dignity. At least, in our eyes – because in reality, of course, every individual human being has dignity, even if other human beings choose to ignore it. And, while art can perpetuate stereotypes, it can also transcend them. Working at the same Nagybánya colony as István Réti, the painter Károly Ferenczy depicted his Romani models holding stereotypical attributes like cards and a violin, but while one of them looks out of the picture with a highly individualised and complex expression on her face, the two others turn away, wrapped in a mysterious veil of obscurity.*** The figures are strangers, but not in the usual way. While stereotypical representations operate on the premise that the stereotype explains everything there is to know about that stranger, in Ferenczy’s painting the stereotypes are useless. The violin and the cards are small and arbitrary details and – as the scene is set in the artist’s studio – may just have been placed in the models’ hands by the painter. To get to know the strangers, to find out anything about them, the viewer of this picture has to make an effort to look through the darkness, to interpret the central figure’s expression and the gestures of the others. Instead of being able to make the usual quick judgements, we are confronted with the possibility that the objects of our gaze might also be judging us. Why are they not looking at me, asks the beholder. Is something wrong with me? Well, dear beholder, you might as well ask them. And then you will be looking past the stereotypes that obstruct your view.
* It even got published! See Veszprémi, Nóra, “Barabás Miklós, Petőfi Sándor és az Utazó cigánycsalád: Egy közös motívum a 19. századi magyar képzőművészetben és irodalomban.” [Miklós Barabás, Sándor Petőfi and the Travelling Gypsy Family. A Common Motif in 19th-Century Art and Literature] Művészettörténeti Értesítő 51.3–4 (2002): 265–286. [with summary in English]
** A great article by the sociologist Éva Kovács has examined this painting and some other representations of Gypsies in Hungarian art from this angle – unfortunately in Hungarian.
*** This picture has recently been examined in relation to the problem of otherness by Judit Boros, in a paper given at a conference in Paris.
Wonderful post! This may be my favorite so far, not only because of the way you discuss the paintings and historical underpinnings, but also because of the way you discuss the people and the issue of racism. Excellent!
Thank you, Susan, you are very kind!