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.
Ferdiš Duša: Hričov, 1933, Slovak National Gallery – photo: Webumenia
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.
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!
The Castle of Trencsén (now Trenčín, Slovakia), in Ottó Légrády, ed., Justice for Hungary! (Budapest: Légrády Brothers, 1930), p. 50
This blog has been on a long hiatus, for which I have to apologise to my readers. It does not mean I have stopped thinking about the issues this blog is concerned with, but I have had to do it in a different setting, and while adjusting to that it was difficult to find time and energy to write. The purpose of this post is to link to a little piece I have published elsewhere, as well as to remind myself that it is time the blog was revived.
What is artistic fame? How is it influenced by outside factors? How does it change with time? These are all questions that come to one’s mind once one becomes acquainted with the life story of Károly Kotász (1872-1941). He was a Hungarian painter who is rarely mentioned in overviews of art history, either in Hungary or elsewhere. Yet, for a few years around 1930 he was famous all across Europe. His works were displayed at exhibitions and fervently praised by critics from Berlin to London, and they were bought by distinguished collectors for high prices. A disabled and reclusive man, Kotász could not be – or did not want to be – physically present at his exhibitions, which helped build his enigmatic persona. Then, after years of success, his name fell into oblivion?
Why did that happen? There is no simple answer. But this blog has always been concerned with the place of Hungarian artists in international art history (or global art history, if you will). How can they connect and be connected to that broader story? I think that Kotász’s fame and subsequent fall into oblivion had a lot do with how the story of modern art is usually told. If you are interested in reading further, check out this post:
It was published in Midlands Art Papers, a collaborative journal of the Department of Art History, Curating and Visual Studies of the University of Birmingham and 11 museums from the Midlands. Check out its other articles too – it is really worthwhile!
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)
After roaming the corridors of ruined castles in my previous post, I will now return to the painting whose fragments I have used as the blog’s header and avatar. The exquisitely painted details may have made some of my readers wonder where they come from. Well, The Dissatisfied Painter was painted by an artist who has been mentioned here more than once: József Borsos. It is high time to show it in its entirety – all the more so because, despite its obvious qualities, it is not too well known, even in Hungary.
Why is the painter sitting in his studio with such a stern expression on his face, and why is he destroying his works? This is explained by one of the reviews published when the picture was exhibited in Pest, Hungary, in 1852: unappreciated by the world, the distressed artist is venting his despair. Figuring in countless stories, novels, and images, the romantic stereotype of the misunderstood great artist was already commonplace at the time. Consequently, not all critics were sympathetic to Borsos’ painting – some of them rejected it as a pompous rendition of a subject already seen a million times.
József Borsos: The Dissatisfied Painter, 1852 (Hungarian National Gallery)
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 →