The Truth about Charlie: The Painter Károly (Charles) Brocky and the Limits of Art History

Dear readers, I feel like I owe you. And not just you, but also Charlie, my imaginary friend. A few months ago, I set out to write a post about him – Károly/Charles Brocky (1807–1855), London-based painter of portraits, genre scenes and female nudes – and what came out was a post about Brexit. It was a conversation that had to be had, no doubt. But it eclipsed the central topic: a ‘fascinating and illuminating’ one that would have involved, as Charlie himself put it, ‘migration, cultural exchange, and some outstanding art’. I still owe you the truth about Charlie.

But is there a truth? And if there is, whose truth is it? And how do I access that truth? Being an art historian, my go-to method is of course to gather as many sources as I can and assemble them like pieces in a puzzle. I am not the first to attempt this, and certainly not the most serious. Thanks to more than a hundred years of research, we do have a nice amount of information about Charlie. The puzzle pieces are numerous, and they sometimes fit together quite well. Nevertheless, as you will see, these puzzle pieces are often more like intricately cut gems: they glisten in the light in different colours, depending on which way you hold them. Their ‘truth’ is multifaceted and elusive. We know a lot about Charlie – but what we know can be subject to different interpretations.

Continue reading

Landscapes of Loss, or The Park of the Exile

What happens to our favourite places when we are not around? The painter Gusztáv Keleti (1834–1902) tried to imagine. Painted in 1870, The Park of the Exile shows a once well-kept landscape garden, now abandoned and overgrown. The focus of the composition is a defunct fountain in the shape of two nymphs bathing, its dainty beauty poignantly contrasted with not only the scattered, dead remains of trees, but also a herd of pigs obliviously wandering around. The pigherd is sitting in the background under a big, old, sinewy tree, seemingly lost in thought. Further to the back, on the left-hand side of the composition, we can catch a glimpse of the mansion whose garden we have entered. The sky is overcast and the whole picture is atmospheric and moody in that late romantic way that makes us gasp at the beauty of a decayed branch, the flimsiest sprig of weed.

A szamuzott parkja

Gusztáv Keleti: The Park of the Exile, 1870 (Hungarian National Gallery )

Continue reading

Charlie in Albion: A post about Brexit

‘So, Charlie,’ I said to my imaginary friend. ‘We can’t avoid it. We have to talk about Brexit.’

Charlie made a face and started fiddling with the soft silk scarf he wore around his neck. ‘Can’t you just write about something else? A fascinating and illuminating topic that involves migration, cultural exchange, and some outstanding art? You know. Me.’

‘I can’t, Charlie,’ I said. ‘I can’t write about anything else until I get this out of my system.

Charlie shrugged. ‘You know I don’t care very much. I’ve been here too long. Seen too many things.’

Károly_Brocky_-_Self-Portrait_-_WGA03215

Károly (Charles) Brocky (1808-1855): Self-Portrait, c. 1850 (Hungarian National Gallery) Wikimedia Commons

Continue reading

Two Journeys Down the River

Times change, ideas change, even countries change, but the geographical formations we inhabit remain the same. The river known to Slovaks as the Váh, to Hungarians as the Vág, and to its German-speaking friends as the Waag, was the same river in 1820 and in 1930 as it is today, even though it once flowed through Upper Hungary, later through Czechoslovakia, and now through independent Slovakia. The ruined castles it meandered past were the same castles, even though they accumulated new layers of history as the years passed. That history was interminable like the river and mysterious like the castles and allowed people of various political persuasions to pick and choose the events that suited them. But the river, and the castles, and the surrounding landscape, that changes with each season, yet never goes away, all serve as reminders that all those events belong together; that that history is fundamentally one.

Around 1820 the German-speaking Hungarian author Baron Alajos Mednyánszky travelled down the Waag and wrote about its castles, exploring them as vestiges of the shared history of the peoples of the Habsburg Empire, who, to him, belonged together like members of the same family. Subsequent Hungarian authors mined his stories of the Vág to find building blocks for a national narrative of Hungarian history. Around 1930, the Czechoslovak artist Ferdiš Duša recorded sights by the Váh to promote Slovak patriotism. Yet, all these endeavours were part of the same artistic and literary tradition, flowing relentlessly like the river itself. Duša’s journey was haunted by Mednyánszky’s. I wrote about this for another blog. To read it, click here.

Tomas Pochmarsky

Ferdiš Duša: Hričov, 1933, Slovak National Gallery – photo: Webumenia

When It All Began: Viktor Madarász as an Old Man

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.

Continue reading

Ruined Castles – A Hundred Years Later

A few years ago, an early post on this blog looked at ruined castles in what was once Upper Hungary (today’s Slovakia) – or rather, it looked at their representations in image and text. Such ruins are perfect symbols of History in all its formidable, mysterious glory: they are fragments of a past which we strive to piece together, never perfectly or completely, from tiny fragments usually much more flimsy than their monumental walls. They have survived through centuries, even though their battered bodies bear the marks of old battles, wars and neglect; the turbulences of history. They have seen it all. The post talked about a trend in early nineteenth century history writing which focused on such castles, led by a fascination with the aspects described above. It used the places marked by the castles as anchors in the wild and still unharnessed currents of history. Because it focused on spatial relations, rather than teleological, coherent, chronological narratives, and because it celebrated the fragment in its openness, this approach to history was well suited to telling the stories of a multi-ethnic region like Upper Hungary. Read that old post here: Ruined Castles and the Layers of History: An Emotional Approach

The spatial, fragmented approach to history was soon overshadowed by one that aimed to tell linear national narratives. The castles still marked out space, but soon that space itself changed: after the First World War, in the Trianon Peace Treaty, two thirds of the former territory of the Kingdom of Hungary were allocated to Hungary’s neighbours. What was once Upper Hungary was now in Czechoslovakia. What happened to the national narratives that incorporated, with a self-confident assertiveness, the territories that were no longer part of the country? How was historical memory reframed? Did the time come for a spatial history again? I wrote about this for a different blog, on the website of the research project I am currently involved in. You can read it here: Place, Memory, Propaganda: The 1930 album Justice for Hungary!

Trencsen1

The Castle of Trencsén (now Trenčín, Slovakia), in Ottó Légrády, ed., Justice for Hungary! (Budapest: Légrády Brothers, 1930), p. 50

Losing Ourselves: A Greek Woman and a Venetian Painter in Nineteenth-Century Hungary

In Americanah, a novel by the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, one of the characters moves from Nigeria to the USA to restart her life after a devastating event. She had been a qualified doctor in her home country, but now she needs to retake her exams while working several jobs to make ends meet. Once she has finally passed the exams and begins to prepare for job interviews at hospitals, she removes the braids from her hair. She had been told that, in the US, the hairstyle she had always worn would make her look unprofessional. Her braids had been part of her identity, but she does it happily nonetheless. As one of the other characters observes, her actions are an example of ‘the exaggerated gratitude that came with immigrant insecurity’.

Call me a monomaniac, but the episode reminded me of a nineteenth-century Hungarian painting: the Greek Woman by Jakab Marastoni (1804–1860). It is one of the best known, and yet most overlooked pictures in Hungarian art: regarded as a facile crowd pleaser, it barely features in art historical narratives, despite its enormous popularity in the mid-nineteenth-century. I think it deserves more: in my interpretation it visualises – or, better still, sensualises – ideas about ethnicity, identity and belonging in a way that few, if any, other artworks do.*

marastoni gorog no

Jakab (Giacomo) Marastoni: Greek Woman, 1845 (Hungarian National Gallery)

Continue reading

No Alarms and No Surprises: The Melancholy of the Biedermeier

In the 1850s, the Hungarian politician Bertalan Szemere was living in emigration in Paris. He was a republican, and had been prime minister of the revolutionary government during the Hungarian War of Independence against Austrian rule in 1849. To avoid being executed, Szemere fled the country after the defeat of the Hungarian army, leaving his beloved wife, Leopoldina, and their children behind. Leopoldina had to face an excruciating wait before the government granted her a passport, and when she finally arrived in Paris, she was stricken by a long illness. Recovering eventually, she gave birth to a girl: Irénke. Life seemed to offer quiet, homely pleasures to the emigrants. In Hungary, Szemere had been a busy politician who spent most of his time away from his family – now Irénke was with him all the time. He saw her first steps, heard her first words, and took endless delight in watching her grow. Then, when she was three years old, the little girl became severely ill and died. The parents were devastated; the pain was unbearable. Szemere wanted to write it all down, to pour all his grief into a sorrowful piece entitled Memory of Irénke, but he failed – it was impossible to express all that anguish. Almost two years later, he tried again. As he explained in his diary: “I have been meaning to write this piece for a long time, but I was afraid to tear up my wounds. I was waiting for them to heal. Readers prefer beautiful pain to actual, real, bleeding pain. The writer is like the painter, who has to follow certain rules when depicting a shipwreck in order to produce an effective painting. Of course, I want to write nothing but how I truly felt at the time, but I know great suffering is more attractive if veiled. The pain I feel now is different from what I felt then – then my wound was shedding blood, it burned, it was ablaze – now it is a scar and only smarts if I touch it. Hence, I am just a distant onlooker myself, and this state of mind is much better suited to describing our feelings to strangers.”*

This post is about an artistic current that did just what Szemere described: it took overwhelming feelings, endless yearning, burning passion, all the bruises that won’t heal, and turned them into sweet, sentimental pictures and poems, easy to digest and to like. This current, known today as the Biedermeier, has been defined in many ways by scholars; I will only cite one of the definitions now. The literary historian Virgil Nemoianu identified the Biedermeier as late Romanticism: a current that “tamed” Romantic excess, fitting it into the mould of everyday life.** If Romantics longed to travel unattainable distances to imaginary worlds, the Biedermeier suggested they visit ‘exotic’ Eastern countries. If Romantics yearned for an ecstatic kind of love that dissolves the soul in a transcendental union with another, the Biedermeier worshipped the home and the family. If Romantics strove to find the common, fundamental mythology of mankind, the Biedermeier discovered local folklore. If Romantics fought for universal freedom, the Biedermeier focused on the nation. By exploring the heights of imagination and the depths of the soul, Romanticism expanded the range of subjects available to artists; the Biedermeier, in turn, projected these onto a small, familiar world.

It would be easy to mock this as petty short-sightedness. The truth is, however, that those lofty, Romantic ideas – ideas about freedom, love, and art – are, indeed, manifested in the simple realities of everyday life. Otherwise, however magnificent, they would not be worth fighting for. And there is something else too. The Biedermeier emerged around 1820, after the Napoleonic Wars. The people of Europe had seen a huge cataclysm; they had seen great ideas rise and fall, discredited by their exploiters; they had seen powerful men tumble. Playing their own walk-on parts in the drama of history, they had been standing in the storm, defenceless and scared, pushed around by great powers. They did not want the drama. They wanted their own little world; a world with no alarms and no surprises.

At the same time, they knew how precarious it all was. They knew that alarms were inevitable, and their familiar little world could collapse in an instance. The storm may have subsided, but the power was there, watching over the subjects of the Austrian Empire. Its presence could never be forgotten.

Henrik Weber: The Composer Mihály Mosonyi and His Wife, 1840s (Hungarian National Gallery)

Henrik Weber: The Composer Mihály Mosonyi and His Wife, 1840s (Hungarian National Gallery)

Continue reading

A Baedeker of the Soul: Love, Dangerous Games, and Hungarian Gothic

The novel is the “official Baedeker of the soul,” the Hungarian writer and literary historian Antal Szerb remarked in 1936.* Or should we say it is its Lonely Planet guide? Novels – and other artworks – have the power to take us to corners of the human psyche where we would be afraid to venture on our own. They also show us that these dark and scary places are in fact not so far from places we visit every day: our fears and freak outs lurk beneath the most mundane facets of our existence, disguised as rational responses to human interaction. Longing to welcome other people to our lonely planet, we are at the same time terrified of them getting a glimpse of what we do not want to show. For this reason, we play games. Innocent games designed to obscure the way to our souls. Manipulative games that provide us with the illusion of being in control. Keeping distance within the greatest intimacy gives us a certain kind of comfort – so those distances have to be travelled cautiously. Besides setting up fingerposts on these journeys, art reminds us that our frivolous games can sometimes turn serious – which is why we need our trusted Baedekers in our hands.

The figure of a girl who played with her lover “as the cat trifles with the mouse” became iconic in 19th-century Hungarian culture. Abigail Kund is the tragic heroine of János Arany’s 1877 ballad Call to the Ordeal (Tetemre hívás).** As I will soon explain in detail, Abigail did something we all do to each other every day with less tragic consequences: while playing her game, she touched on a nerve; she pushed a button that released her lover’s fears and insecurities. I have to say, however, that the idea for this post came to me after reading a present-day American bestseller, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. That novel – maybe the scariest Baedeker ever – tells the story of a couple who know each other the best in the world and yet do not know each other at all. It exaggerates those innocent games into a murder mystery. Getting closer to another person is a thrilling but all in all scary experience, and this book catalogues and entangles all the strategies people use to cope with it. We try to fit the other person into a mould we have created for them – because it is so much easier to find our way among preexisting stereotypes than among the many spurious traits of a real, individual personality. (This is how the painter Bertalan Székely tried to preconceive his marriage in neat little pictures presented to his wife-to-be.) We get annoyed – and insecure – if the other person does not comply. We expect them to know us inside out and to read our minds, but feel threatened if we find that they do. We imagine relationships in terms of power relations and believe that showing our feelings for the other person makes us weak and vulnerable – it means conceding control to them. Games help us retain control – at least that is how Abigail saw it.

Jenő Gyárfás: Call to the Ordeal (Ordeal of the Bier), 1881 (Hungarian National Gallery)

Jenő Gyárfás: Call to the Ordeal (Ordeal of the Bier), 1881 (Hungarian National Gallery)

Continue reading

Stereotypes and What They Hide: On the Representation of Gypsies in Hungarian Painting

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.

Miklós Barabás: Travelling Gypsy Family in Transylvania, 1843 (Magyar Külkereskedelmi Bank Zrt., deposited at the Hungarian National Gallery)

Miklós Barabás: Travelling Gypsy Family in Transylvania, 1843 (Magyar Külkereskedelmi Bank Zrt., deposited at the Hungarian National Gallery)

Continue reading