The Personal and the Political: Curating a Picture Gallery in the 1880s

In 1868, the landscape painter Antal Ligeti was appointed as curator of the Picture Gallery of the Hungarian National Museum. In the previous year, Austria and Hungary had signed an agreement known as the Compromise, which gave Hungary considerable autonomy within the Habsburg Empire (from then on known as the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy). Although not completely independent, Hungary aimed to assert itself as a nation state, and institutions such as the National Museum and its Picture Gallery played a crucial role in articulating, shaping and reflecting that vision. Ever since its foundation at the beginning of the century, the Hungarian National Museum had developed in close symbiosis with the Hungarian national movement. This intimate relationship is not unique to Hungary. As the modern idea of the nation emerged in nineteenth-century Europe, national identities were shaped by the gradually solidifying stories that people told themselves about their histories and cultures. National museums contributed to nation-building by presenting these stories through the new medium of the exhibition.

This post acknowledges all this – it would be ignorant not to. Still, it is concerned with something else. Museums might be ideological machines – but, I wager to say, that is not why we like them. Their displays form narratives, but those narratives are made up of individual objects, whose individual stories might disrupt, as much as underpin the larger story. Those objects can connect together in unexpected ways, diverging from the main storyline. Ultimately, there is no way to control how individual viewers perceive specific objects or the exhibition as a whole; when we look at art, personal issues, tastes, feelings and moods always colour – and should colour – our experience. This is not only true of viewers. Museums are run by individuals with their own ideas and aspirations, their own life stories, and these will inevitably feed into the displays, even if so quietly that it is almost impossible to notice. In this post, I will try to reconstruct how Ligeti, as a creative individual, weaved his own story into the wider story he was expected to tell.*


József Molnár: Kálvin Square with the Hungarian National Museum, 1885 (Budapest History Museum; photo: Wikimedia Commons)

At the time of Ligeti’s appointment, the Picture Gallery of the Hungarian National Museum consisted of three separate collections. One was a collection donated by Archbishop Johann Ladislaus Pyrker (1772–1847) in 1836, which mainly consisted of Italian and German Old Masters. The second collection comprised Hungarian paintings, mainly recent and contemporary ones. Referred to as the National Picture Gallery (Nemzeti Képcsarnok), it had been formed with the help of civil associations such as the Association for the Establishment of a National Picture Gallery and the Pest Art Society. Finally, the third collection was called the General Picture Gallery and contained everything that did not belong in the other two: primarily foreign paintings from the last hundred years.

In the decades following the Compromise, the collection was constantly in flux due to institutional changes. In 1875, Old Master paintings from the National Museum were moved to a different venue, the Academy of Sciences, in order to be merged with the art collection of the Esterházy family, recently acquired by the Hungarian state. In 1884, pictures that were seen to have some kind of historical significance – mainly portraits of famous personalities or contemporary depictions of historical events – were moved to yet another new institution, the Historical Picture Gallery near the Royal Palace in Buda. Each one of these reorganisations meant that Ligeti had to rethink the display at the National Museum. In 1884, he came up with an arrangement that acknowledged the political aspects of the collection, while also bringing genuinely art historical concerns to the fore.

In the new arrangement, the collection was, first of all, divided into Hungarian and non-Hungarian paintings, with the latter displayed in two rooms of their own. The Hungarian collection – far larger and more comprehensive than its foreign counterpart – was then divided up by artistic genres: history paintings, landscape paintings, genre paintings, portraits and copies made after famous international Old Masters. Each of these genres was assigned its own room. Three of the rooms – the room of landscapes, the room of genre painting and the room of portraits (which, as we shall see, also held an additional work of monumental significance) were named after important nineteenth-century Hungarian painters, whose busts were placed into the centres of the rooms: Károly Markó the Elder, Mihály Munkácsy, and Mihály Zichy, respectively.**

In terms of the nation-building project, the message of the Room of History Paintings seems to be the most obvious. This room brought together monumental, sometimes glorious, but mostly tragic scenes from Hungarian history painted by the most ambitious Hungarian artists in the last three decades. The catalogue of the exhibition explained the scenes in detail, making it clear that it was the patriotic message, rather than the artistic style that viewers should absorb before all else. But was this interpretation promoted by the arrangement itself? I am not so sure. In fact, it seems to me that Ligeti was consciously highlighting and contrasting certain artistic tendencies, particularly the differences between history painting in Paris and in Munich. But how, you may ask, if all the artists were Hungarian? They were indeed, but as there was no fine art academy in Hungary at the time, artists needed to study elsewhere. Viktor Madarász, for instance, moved to Paris and became a pupil of Léon Cogniet. Many others, including Bertalan Székely and Gyula Benczúr, chose the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich, where they studied under Karl von Piloty, whose huge canvas depicting Nero Walking on the Ashes of Rome Ligeti hung in the room of history painting – as a foreign picture, its purpose was to highlight a stylistic trend within all those grandiose manifestations of Hungarian national sentiment. Ligeti’s juxtaposition of paintings by Madarász and Munich artists both opposite and next to each other emphasised artistic differences: the Munich school’s realistic, almost tangible depiction of small details versus the dramatic use of light and colour, the agitated Romanticism Madarász’s critics associated with contemporary French art.

History Paintings

The Room of History Paintings in 1888 (photo from Magyar Salon, 1888, p. 489). To our left, closest to us: The Baptism of Vajk by Gyula Benczúr. To its right: The Mourning of László Hunyadi by Viktor Madarász. Facing Madarász’s painting, on the opposite wall: Nero Walking on the Ashes of Rome by Karl von Piloty. To its right: The Women of Eger and The Discovery of the Body of Louis II after the Battle of Mohács by Bertalan Székely.

Instead of the history, Ligeti chose to focus on the art, and this can rightly be seen as his own individual professional contribution. There is a small detail in his arrangement which I particularly love. There are two paintings hanging on one of the shorter walls (facing us in the centre of the photo above): Saint Elisabeth of Hungary and the Beggar Woman by Sándor Liezen-Mayer and a drunken, nude Bacchante by Benczúr. They are very close in style – both artists studied with Piloty – and even composition, but could not be further from each other in subject matter. Their juxtaposition seems to be a tongue-in-cheek call to the visitor to ignore the subject and focus on forms and brushstrokes and colours instead. But are you able to do that, dear viewer? Or does the contrast make you blush, laugh, disapprovingly frown? Perhaps it is a reminder that it is not so easy to ignore the subject after all. The contrast makes you stop and think without propagating a definite answer, and that is why it is, in my view, a splendid example of thoughtful curating.

The interplay of political and art historical considerations was more explicit in the Zichy Room, which served three different functions. First, it displayed portraits of the Habsburg imperial family which had not been transferred to the Historical Picture Gallery with the other portraits in the collection; second, it commemorated the Hungarian politician Ferenc Deák, architect of the Compromise, by prominently displaying Zichy’s monumental composition: Queen Elisabeth by Ferenc Deák’s Bier; third, it paid homage to Zichy himself by displaying his bust in the centre of the room.*** Without Zichy’s painting, the room would simply have been a Habsburg Room; indeed, that is exactly what it had been before 1867. The addition of a depiction of a popular member of the imperial family paying her respect to a Great Hungarian changed its focus decisively. Congregating around Zichy’s painting, all the Habsburgs were now admiring Deák, and the room was, in effect, a Deák Room. Except that there was yet another layer. The central position of Zichy’s bust suggested that it was not really about rulers or politicians, but about art and artists. The interpretations of the room were far from fixed; the objects in it could be connected to each other in several different ways, producing an array of meanings.

Zichy Room

The Zichy Room in 1888 (photo from Magyar Salon, 1888, p. 487)

These are all examples of creative curatorial work, but none of them are personal. It is in the two other rooms, the Markó Room and the Munkácsy Room, where Ligeti’s own affinities can be traced. The choice to celebrate these two artists along with Zichy was not necessarily a personal one: it was informed by a fairly mainstream view of recent Hungarian art history. Markó had lived in Tuscany and risen to international fame there; he was remembered as the great doyen of new Hungarian painting. Munkácsy was the representative of a younger generation and had made his name in Paris. Together with Zichy, who had earned success in Paris and Saint Petersburg, they were all artists whose greatness had been validated by external eyes; hence, they proved that Hungarian artists were now able to compete on the international scene, while helping to embed the exhibition into European art history even if the paintings on view were all Hungarian. With all that said, however, Ligeti’s personal links to two of the three artists cannot be ignored. Markó had mentored him when he had been travelling through Italy as a young aspiring landscape painter, and he, in turn, had mentored Munkácsy when the latter turned up in Budapest as a young man with basic artistic education, clutching a batch of promising, if still rather unpolished drawings. If Markó stood for the venerable past and Munkácsy for the flowering present, then the link between them was the curator himself.

The museum owned several paintings by Markó, thanks to a purchase made by the Association for the Establishment of a National Picture Gallery from the deceased artist’s estate in 1862. By adding pictures by younger landscapists – himself among them –, Ligeti turned this collection into a landscape room that also told the story of recent developments in Hungarian art. Explaining the exhibition in an article, he described himself and the others as modest followers who could not compete with the master – an interpretation that contradicted the National Museum’s general message that Hungarian culture was on a rapid rise towards greatness. You may say this was simply a case of humblebrag, and that might be right. Nevertheless, by holding up an artist who had died decades before as an unsurpassable model, the exhibition inevitably questioned the overall narrative of progress, even if it showed the younger artists, who were by then experimenting with modern effects of light and colour, as followers worthy of a place in the Markó Room.

Munkacsy Room

The Munkácsy Room in 1888 (photo: Magyar Salon, 1888, p. 486)

In his own art Ligeti was more of a traditionalist, but he was open-minded when looking at the work of others. It was him who had persuaded the Association to buy such an experimental painting, Storm on the Puszta, from the young Munkácsy in 1867. In the 1880s, the National Museum only possessed one other genre painting by the celebrated artist: Recruitment, painted in 1877. Hence, while dedicating a room to Munkácsy seems to have been a logical choice, not necessarily informed by personal concerns, this choice was – unlike the Markó Room – not preformed by the collection itself. It was a firm and somewhat bold curatorial gesture to base the concept of a room on two paintings, to create a context in which they could gain unique importance, and to embed all that into the story of the progress of Hungarian art. The rest of the genre paintings in the room were mostly older than Munkácsy’s, allowing him to appear as the rising star of a more modern era of Hungarian art.

Ligeti’s creative ideas and personal references did not subvert the overall political message of the Museum and its Picture Gallery. Their effect could, at best, be described as a mild disruption, a quiet nudge to make the visitor stop and think and adopt a different viewpoint for a moment. Ligeti was not a rebel, and this post is not about rebellion. Some of my readers might even think I am reading too much into these crammed displays of paintings – but if I am, well, so be it. I think this is exactly what exhibitions are for. The purpose of curating is to inspire ideas and catalyse thought processes, not to predetermine them. After all, no matter how authoritative a narrative aims to be, it will always come apart at the seams: there will be an unruly brushstroke, a warm flash of light, a surprising contrast, a sudden personal memory, an unexpected surge of emotion that will lead you astray. Cultural heritage is a resource, an inspiration. So use it, reinterpret it, play with it, turn it around, dissect it in your head.  When someone tries to fix its meanings, peel off the interpretation and look again. Remember: it is yours. Try not to let go.

Maros Karabas

Antal Ligeti: Visegrád, 1860, lithograph made after his own painting, published by the National Hungarian Fine Art Association as a gift to its members (Bratislava City Gallery, photo:

* This post is based on my article: Nóra Veszprémi, “An Introspective Pantheon: The Picture Gallery of the Hungarian National Museum in the Nineteenth Century,” Journal of the History of Collections 30.3 (2018), pp. 453–469. Read here

** On this arrangement as an example of the museum as pantheon see Katalin Sinkó, ‘A művészi siker anatómiája 1840–1900’ [The anatomy of artistic success], in Sinkó, ed, Aranyérmek, ezüstkoszorúk: Művészkultusz és műpártolás Magyarországon a 19. században [Gold medals, silver wreaths: The cult and patronage of artists in Hungary in the 19th century] (Budapest, 1995), pp. 15–47) (summary in German, pp. 49–55).

*** On Zichy’s painting and its installation in the Zichy Room see Enikő Róka, ‘Egy
kultuszkép története: Zichy Mihály: Erzsébet királyné Deák Ferenc ravatalánál’ [The story of a cult image: Mihály Zichy: Queen Elizabeth at Ferenc Deák’s Bier], in Enikő Róka and István Csicsery-Rónay, eds, Zichy Mihály (Budapest, 2001), pp. 36–44.

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