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.
In my previous post I took a somewhat critical look at artistic ‘greatness’ understood as a quality that sharply distinguishes ‘great’ artists and their works from ‘ordinary’ people and everyday life. For art to move us, does it necessarily have to rise above us? Does it have to be a work of incomparable genius? Does it have to be monumental? Or can it be small, banal, personal? Can it, quite simply, speak about love? I will now be looking at pictures by an artist who filtered his personal experiences through some of the most trivial and commonplace products of the visual culture of his time, transforming those trivial images into something intimate and full of life. This perpetual oscillation between general and singular, public and personal, was crucial to Bertalan Székely’s (1835-1910) representations of domestic life.
The collision between greatness and intimacy is a productive force in Székely’s oeuvre. Today, he is widely known as a history painter: his scenes from 16th-century battles against the Turks are familiar to the Hungarian viewer not only as artworks, but as illustrations in history books. They are certainly great: depicting turning points in history, they are monumental in their sizes and awe-inspiring in their compositions, often recalling religious imagery, as in the case of The Discovery of the Corpse of King Louis II after the Battle of Mohács. There is, however, another facet to Székely’s art, much less known today, but – as evidenced by his notes and sketches – considered equally important by the artist himself. Besides the great events and heroes of Hungarian history, Székely also aimed to depict moments of everyday life; scenes so general, so universal that – according to him – any person from any country would understand them. To achieve this, he planned series of lithographs narrating ‘typical’ human lives.
In the second half of the 19th century, Mihály Munkácsy (1844-1900), a Hungarian artist who lived in Paris and sold his pictures to wealthy collectors in Europe and America, was an internationally known celebrity. Today, there are paintings by him in collections such as the Metropolitan Museum or the Milwaukee Art Museum, but his fame has declined, washed away by the modernisms of the early 20th century. In Hungary, however, Mihály Munkácsy is still the default choice for blockbuster exhibitions. Reproductions of his paintings decorate the walls of many homes, and his works fetch record prices at auctions. The ‘reemergence’ and sale of a Munkácsy painting always makes a good news story, but the artist himself remains hidden, veiled in the myths that have surrounded his person ever since his first biographies were published around 1900. Munkácsy is the saddest Hungarian victim of the tendency to mythicise ‘famous’ artists and their ‘valuable’ paintings at the expense of a deeper understanding of their work and the art historical questions involved. Even scholarly discussions tend to evolve into endless debates on the attribution of certain works – that is, on whether they had effectively been touched by the one and only genius -, although it is well known that the ‘Munkácsy’ paintings of the 1880s and 1890s were produced in close collaboration with his students.
While Munkácsy’s paintings are immensely popular with the general public, many (art lovers and professionals alike) have their reservations. This is partly due to an aversion towards the blockbuster mentality. Another reason is, however, a tendency to measure Hungarian art history to the usual narrative of modern (French) art, with Realism, Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, etc. following each other in a distinct genealogical line, each overriding the previous one in its ‘modernity’ and ‘progressivity’. Munkácsy finds no place in this mythical family tree. It has been stated many times that – even though he lived in Paris – the painter had ‘failed’ to recognise the importance of Impressionism.
In my previous post, I attempted to show how the the 19th-century concept of a ‘national school of art’ created a set of expectations where national subject matter, as well as ways of representation conforming to widely accepted models of ‘Hungarianness’, were ranked higher in the canon. Critics were baffled by Viktor Madarász’ painting The Dream of the Fugitive because its Gothic imagery did not fit these expectations. Gothic terror was, however, not the only mode of representation that posed a challenge to the national narrative: the Rococo, which could perhaps be called its direct opposite, provides another case in point. The national narrative was just as easily scared by scantily-dressed, flirty 18th-century women, as it was by horrific ghosts. The Rococo revival of the 1840s and 1850s, as well as its afterlife in the Rococo-inspired salon paintings of the late 19th century, can be read as a counter-narrative. Recent art historical research – summarised in the excellent catalogue Rococo: The Continuing Curve – has defined the Rococo not so much as a style rooted in the 18th century, but rather as a form of expression that recurs time and time again in art history. It is sensual, curvy, frivolous, and free, and a pain in the neck to the proponents of ‘serious’ art in all ages and countries.
In 1856, the young artist Viktor Madarász (1840-1917) displayed a strange painting at the exhibition of the Art Society in the city of Pest. The large canvas bore the title The Dream of the Fugitive during the War against the Turks, and showed a young man and a soldier sleeping while two ghostly apparitions – an old man in chains, dressed in white, and a horrid, dark, winged figure with a cape and a skull-like face – hover above them. The painting received much attention from the critics, who did their best to try to interpret it. A month later Madarász helped them out by hanging an explanation next to the painting. As it turned out, the title – which mentions no specific person and refers to the war against the Turks – was only a ruse to avoid censorship: the real subject of the painting was the struggle against Austrian rule. The sleeping youth was none other than Imre Thököly (1657-1705), the future leader of an uprising against Austria, who had just fled from his family’s castle – under siege by the Austrians and defended by Thököly’s father, a rebel himself. Thököly the elder had died that night, and the picture shows his ghost appearing to his son in a dream.
In 1856, Hungary was still a province of the Austrian Empire, and the emperor’s army had just defeated the Hungarian revolutionaries in the War of Independence of 1848-1849. No wonder Madarász feared censorship (the arbitrariness of which is demonstrated by the fact that it was possible for him to hang his text next to the picture; what is more, one of the newspapers published it – this is how we know about it). Today, The Dream of the Fugitive counts as a history painting, one of the many depictions of national history produced by Hungarian painters in the second half of the 19th century. 19th-century critics assigned a vital role to these paintings: they were supposed to help forge a community by addressing the nation as a whole and representing significant events of national history, while also conveying ‘national character’. But did The Dream of the Fugitive, with its unrealistic subject and blood-curdling imagery, satisfy those demands?
The retrospective exhibition of Károly Ferenczy (1862-1917), one of the most well-known Hungarian painters, opened at the Hungarian National Gallery last December and is on view until 17 June. Ferenczy’s importance in the history of Hungarian art has hardly been contested in the nearly 100 years that have passed since his death, but the exhibition still manages to show him in a new light. Previously, the painter was mostly seen as one of the founding fathers of the Nagybánya (today Baia Mare, Romania) artists’ colony – an independent school whose members are often (quite imprecisely) dubbed ‘Hungarian Impressionists’. Hence, Ferenczy was known to the public as an Impressionist or plein-airist, as a painter of sunny landscapes. The current exhibition (curated by Judit Boros and Edit Plesznivy) presents the many facets of his oeuvre as equally important, giving due space to his portraits, nudes, and Biblical scenes, which had formerly been decried as examples of the ageing painter’s ‘new academism’. This shift of emphasis leads to surprising results. Maybe painting the effects of light wasn’t the central concern of Ferenczy’s art after all. Maybe he was preoccupied with something else – with the human body, with sensuality and desire, and with the representation of unattainable ideal beauty. Continue reading