This blog has been on a long hiatus, so first of all I have to apologise to my readers. A lot has been going on this year. The hiatus does not mean, however, that I was not constantly thinking about topics I could write about. I hope to turn all the drafts I have started and abandoned into proper posts soon. First, however, to get into the mood, I decided to briefly revisit an old post which addressed a question that is crucial to this blog: What Is Hungarian Art History Anyway?
In that old post, written almost one and a half years ago, I started out from a seminal text published in 1951 by the Hungarian art historian Lajos Fülep (1885-1970), entitled The Task of Hungarian Art History (A magyar művészettörténelem föladata). I focused on the distinction Fülep made between ‘art in Hungary’ and ‘Hungarian art,’ which is maintained by Hungarian art history writing to this day. ‘Art in Hungary’ simply refers to artworks found in the historical territory of Hungary, while ‘Hungarian art’ implies the existence of a continuous tradition of national art. As a rule of thumb, ‘art in Hungary’ is usually used to denote art in the period before the 19th century, while ‘Hungarian art’ is reserved for the subsequent times when, due to the establishment of a national institutional framework, the continuous tradition became palpable. Even though I had read Fülep’s essay a few times, I have to admit that my interpretation was somewhat simplified.
Recently, I had the opportunity to delve deeper into the text, as I prepared an English translation of it to be published in the open access Journal of Art Historiography. And now for some shameless self-promotion: if you wish to read it in English, annotated by me and preceded by my brief essay on Lajos Fülep and the question of national art, look no further: here is The Task of Hungarian Art History.
When translating a text, one has to read and interpret it sentence by sentence and has no excuse to skip over any details. Hence, I have now discovered how complex and multi-layered this text really is. It is easy to critique Fülep’s ideas on national art looking back from the 21st century, armed with the theoretical arsenal of post-colonialism and the like. But what I discovered while preparing my translation is the sheer intellectual bravery of Fülep’s endeavour. He set himself the task of defining Hungarian art and its history – a problem that, in itself, rests on a 19th-century way of questioning. At the same time, he was a modernist, and he was brave enough to examine those 19th-century concepts and the intellectual framework they constituted in the light of new ideas, even if he himself was still indebted to that framework. He already did so in his essay Hungarian Art, written in 1916-18, and he went on to address the same problems from a different perspective in The Task of Hungarian Art History. I tried to summarise all this in my introduction to the English translation, so I will not dwell on it further here. If you are interested, please read the Introduction.
Another fascinating problem I have been thinking about is the way Fülep treats ‘Hungarian art history’ as a scholarly discipline related to, but distinct from, say, Italian art history or French art history. In the 19th century, when they were born, literary history, art history, and of course history itself were ‘national disciplines’ in Hungary (and, I guess, in other countries), and they strongly contributed to the construction of national identity. But is Hungarian art history really a separate discipline? Fülep defines it as art history that takes Hungarian art as its subject – but does that make it different in its methods? Fülep argues that it does: he says that Hungarian art history raises special questions which its ‘scholarly models’ – Italian, French or German art history – lack, and thus needs to rely on a special methodology. How far is that true? Certainly, the humanities are not like the sciences: their methods, questions and results cannot be universalised, because every national artistic tradition (and, indeed, every artist and artwork) is unique and may raise different questions. At the same time, in the 21st century, we may choose to focus on the entanglement of ‘national’ art histories and on how blurred those national traditions really are (which is something Fülep does not deny, quite to the contrary!), and we may find transnational perspectives fruitful. If art history is a scholarly discipline at all, it has to have methods and theories that can be generalised. At the same time, it cannot neglect local singularities. Forcing methods developed for art histories of the ‘centre’ on art histories of ‘peripheral’ nations could be seen as a certain kind of colonialism. But at the same time, the rejection of these methods and the insistence on national ‘uniqueness’ can be seen as a certain kind of provincialism. Art history may be global today, but is there really one global discourse? And if there is, how can national art histories chime in?