Like all historians, art historians turn scattered facts from the past into stories. Stories have a beginning and an end, they have logical outcomes and surprising twists, they have a rythm. We look for causes and effects, we look for reasons, and spin them into narratives. This is also how we tend to tell stories from our lives – but it is not how life itself functions. In the real life we live, beginnings and ends are hard to discern, causes and effects are blurred. Happily ever after does not exist; it is dotted with further major and minor occurences, pleasures and fights, tragedies and bursts of joy. Things never stop happening, but we often don’t know why they happen – there is, simply, no explanation. And when life brings strange and surprising rythms, we think of fate, of karma, but those rythms are, in reality, “spasmodic tricks of radiance,” the sporadic accidents of life before they are spun into a story. In art history, we like to tell the stories of the rise and fall of artistic movements, the social forces that drove the careers of artists in one direction or another, but what we are really doing is arrange facts into a narrative, because otherwise they would be impossible to grasp. And our favourite narratives are modelled on the trajectory of human life.
The earliest form of art history writing was the artists’ biography. The Renaissance author Giorgio Vasari published a collection of biographies of “the most famous artists”, telling their stories from childhood to death. An average human lifespan offers a pre-made storyline: the talented child, the aspiring youth, the successful painter at the peak of his abilities, and then the painter as an old man, living off his former achievements, his health and creativity in decline. This storyline is so appealing that it still remained in use when art historians started writing about broader developments, not just individual artists. The eighteenth-century author Johann Joachim Winckelmann, who is considered as the father of modern art history writing, described the history of ancient Greek art as a story of birth, emergence, rise, and decline, and even though now we are savvy enough to be aware of the constructed nature of such narratives, we still use them because they seem so natural – and because they provide a good, relatable story. Similarly, it is still easy to describe the late work of artists as the product of decline. This model is often challenged, and the late work of certain artists is celebrated as innovative and original – the classic example being Michelangelo. Still, the stereotype lives on. This post will look at an artist whose late work is usually completely ignored, if not laughed at. The artist in question is the history painter Viktor Madarász (1830-1917), and the paintings he produced in the last fifteen years of his life are utterly weird and – to me – very, very fascinating.*
Readers of this blog have already encountered Viktor Madarász as an ambitious young painter whose monumental history paintings, exhibited in Pest while he was still studying painting in Vienna, challenged the expectations of critics in an impressive way. In 1856, he moved to Paris where he studied with the history painter Léon Cogniet. He lived in the French capital for more than fifteen years, achieving considerable success with his history paintings, which he also sent home to Hungary, where they were even more enthusiastically celebrated. It was no mean feat to make events from Hungarian history appeal to the French audience, to whom they meant nothing, and it was an equally large achievement to introduce dramatic French late Romanticism to a Hungarian public that was not used to it. Translating between cultures is not easy, but Madarász had a great talent for it. He employed the visual devices of French academic history painting to help the French audience understand the unknown stories, and he chose stories that resonated so strongly with the Hungarian audience that they accepted and learned to love the exalted, overly dramatic visual language in which they were presented. Madarász knew it all. Then, in 1870, he moved home to Hungary.
Madarász had fought in the Hungarian War of Independence of 1848-49 as a young man and treasured the political idea of independence all his life. His move to Paris was motivated by his artistic aspirations, but also by his politics: he was strongly opposed to the absolutist Habsburg regime that followed the failed uprising. The subject matter he chose for his paintings makes this clear: he repeatedly selected historical figures who had fought against the Habsburgs. In 1867, Hungary and Austria signed a treaty known as the Compromise. Hungary was no longer a subordinate province, but a self-governing state in the dual structure of the newly created Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. It was these changes, no doubt, that catalysed Madarász’s move home. In the next years, he took part in state competitions for history paintings and received some good commissions. Things seemed to work out – until they didn’t.
Madarász’s father owned some copper mines and copper works, and after his death in 1873 his son had to take over the business. He had much less time to paint. In 1883 his wife died. He remarried a few years later, and desperately needed to provide for his large family: three children from his first marriage and two from the second. But by the dawn of the new century his business had tragically failed. In 1903 he lost all he had, even his home, and became dependent on the goodwill of the National Hungarian Fine Art Association, which provided him with a studio home where he could move in with his family. Things were awfully dire – but in 1904, a retrospective of Madarász’s work was organised at a venue called the National Salon. He was back in the spotlight. And in this time of simultaneous failure and success, a strange, exhausting, dizzying time, Madarász began to paint again.
One of the first paintings he produced depicted Francis II Rákóczi in the Prison in Wiener Neustadt (1905). Rákóczi had led an uprising against Habsburg rule between 1703 and 1711; Madarász had obviously returned to his favourite subject matter. But he was not simply wallowing in the past; rather, he was reacting to contemporaneous political events. 1905 was the year of a serious political crisis in Hungary, provoked by the Emperor’s decision to appoint a prime minister who was unacceptable to the parliamentary majority, which now consisted of parties that rejected the Compromise. Consequently, the idea of independence was gaining greater traction. Madarász himself remained a staunch believer in independence, and he was, no doubt, energised by these developments. Furthermore, an important symbolic event was also set to take place soon: the remains of Rákóczi, who had died in exile, were brought back to Hungary from Turkey and festively reburied in Kassa (now Košice, Slovakia) in 1906, after years of preparation. The project, of course, was a major outlet for Hungarian nationalist sentiments of the most combative kind.
Madarász must have been inspired by all this – but the painting shows nothing of the cantankerous character of the early-twentieth-century Hungarian independence movement. Instead, it is quiet and melancholy. Rákóczi is sitting in the window of the castle prison, sticking out one of his legs and feeding the swans that float majestically in the moat. His pose is undoubtedly awkward, provoking ridicule every time this painting is shown. But the ridicule is unfair, because it at least partly stems from the very characteristic that should make us appreciate this picture. The picture seems ridiculous, because it is so different from what we would expect from a history painting. Rákóczi is not represented as an energetic freedom fighter. The painting is brave because it replaces the obligatory pathos and heroism with sweetness and a mournful beauty. In the art of the German Romantics, from whom Madarász may have borrowed the motif, swans were symbols of death, but also of the immortality of poetry and art. When the picture was painted, Rákóczi was being used by the noisiest political movements as a mascot, but – in midst of the greatest political turbulence – Madarász turned his story into a haunting image of loss, transience, and the passage of time.
Two years later, Madarász created a similarly strange picture, in which he revisited one of his most successful earlier compositions. Sándor Petőfi was a Romantic poet, who had fought in the War of Independence and died in the battle of Segesvár (today Sighișoara, Romania) on 31 July 1849. Thanks to this, as well as to his brilliant revolutionary poems, Petőfi became a symbol of independence almost immediately after his death. In 1875, Madarász had painted a monumental picture that showed him dying, filling it with so much pathos that it almost overspilled, even for a genre made for pathos. Petőfi, whose pose echoes the famous ancient statue of the Dying Gaul, looks mournfully up to the sky, while writing the word “Hazám” (My Homeland) on the ground in his blood. The composition became incredibly popular: its printed reproductions could be found on the walls of countless households in Hungary. In 1907, Madarász decided to paint a new version.
In the 1907 version, Petőfi is lying on the ground, already dead; the pathos-filled look towards the sky is gone. The motif of writing in blood remains, however: but this time, the poet has written the word “Szabadság” (Freedom) as he took his last breath. The most intriguing motif in the painting is a drop-shaped blob of light hovering above Petőfi’s head. A will-o’-the-wisp. Does it refer to eternal, albeit illusory hope, or to the transient nature of the desire for freedom? It is impossible to pin the meaning down. In the academic history paintings Madarász had produced in his youth, every detail had an exact meaning; history paintings were, in a sense, painted to be read. But a painting like the 1907 version of The Death of Petőfi is not to be read, but to be felt. Madarász may have been old, but he clearly wasn’t unreceptive to recent artistic currents such as Symbolism. In that sense, his late work was not a weird, isolated bubble within the currents of the turn of the century, nor was it just a blast from the past; instead, it was a product of its own time.
Then again, in another sense, it was a blast from the past: from Madarász’s own past. As a young painter, Madarász had experimented with history paintings which, instead of being read, were designed to evoke visceral reactions in the viewer. This is precisely why his Dream of a Fugitive perplexed critics in 1856, as I explained in a previous post. To achieve success at exhibitions, Madarász had to tame his tendency towards weirdness and fit it into the conventions of history painting. He wanted success, he wanted a career. Then he moved home and needed to meet expectations, new ones, yet again. But by 1905 all that did not matter. He could paint however he wanted, and he did.
Madarász’s artistic success may have ended sometime after he moved back to Hungary, but his life and his art did not. His late paintings derive from his early interests, they engage with the same artistic problems, but are stripped of all external concerns. They were painted by someone who had lived a difficult life: emigration, return, the loss of a beloved wife, family concerns, bankruptcy, failure, insecurity. He could have seen them as the end. But life never ends until it ends: before that, there is always something new round the corner. To Madarász, that something new was a new bout of inspiration, and he took the challenge. There was so much to constrain him; but by then, he had gone through so many struggles that he could paint like someone who did not care. And maybe this last phase of his career was when it actually all began.
* And I made that clear in the booklet I wrote on Madarász a few years ago: Nóra Veszprémi, Madarász Viktor (Budapest, 2014).