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
I started this blog on a sudden whim, but I am enjoying it immensely now. It is not only a great exercise in disseminating research to a wider audience, but – to make it even more exciting – it involves explaining Hungarian art history to international readers. When speaking about Hungarian art to Hungarian people, there are countless items of common knowledge I can refer to, from historical events to literary classics. It is of course also possible to find such points of reference with an international readership in mind; for example, I can point out stylistic similarities to world-famous European artists or include fun facts such as: “Mihály Munkácsy’s Christ before Pilate is featured in Maupassant’s novel Bel Ami.” But how can I convince my non-Hungarian reader that – besides some great individual artworks which can easily be pinned to the grand narrative of European art – Hungarian art history itself is interesting? How can I make my story generally comprehensible without neglecting the specific problems of Hungarian art – those very problems which make it exciting in their singularity? Thinking about this has made me acutely aware of one of the core questions of all kinds of history writing. As historians, we have to make the past – which is, as the famous quote has it, a foreign country – accessible to the present. We have to find ways to connect with times long gone by, and we do that by analysing problems we – and our readers – can relate to. We collect the traces the past has left in the present – texts, objects, artworks, even immaterial ideas – and turn them into pathways leading through time.
Organising our story around a particularly poignant trace of the past often helps to structure it and make it tangible. A group of historians in the early 19th century, congregating around the Austrian Joseph Hormayr, often chose ruined castles for this purpose. They popularised national history by taking advantage of the 18th-century vogue for picturesque representations of ruins, as well as for sentimental reflection on the unavoidable fall of civilisation and on the relentless passage of time. Their stories of once magnificent, real, historical castles evoked these feelings, grabbing the reader’s attention through the emotional force of the subject matter, while also providing a factual account of the historical events that had taken place there throughout the centuries. As if sticking a pin through the layers of time, the historians used the ruins to connect the present with the past. From the legendary battles of ancient, obscure times to the enlightened technical discoveries of the recent decades, those battered castles had seen it all.
János Hofbauer: The Castle of Dévény, 1830s (Hungarian National Gallery)