In 1868, the landscape painter Antal Ligeti was appointed as curator of the Picture Gallery of the Hungarian National Museum. In the previous year, Austria and Hungary had signed an agreement known as the Compromise, which gave Hungary considerable autonomy within the Habsburg Empire (from then on known as the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy). Although not completely independent, Hungary aimed to assert itself as a nation state, and institutions such as the National Museum and its Picture Gallery played a crucial role in articulating, shaping and reflecting that vision. Ever since its foundation at the beginning of the century, the Hungarian National Museum had developed in close symbiosis with the Hungarian national movement. This intimate relationship is not unique to Hungary. As the modern idea of the nation emerged in nineteenth-century Europe, national identities were shaped by the gradually solidifying stories that people told themselves about their histories and cultures. National museums contributed to nation-building by presenting these stories through the new medium of the exhibition.
This post acknowledges all this – it would be ignorant not to. Still, it is concerned with something else. Museums might be ideological machines – but, I wager to say, that is not why we like them. Their displays form narratives, but those narratives are made up of individual objects, whose individual stories might disrupt, as much as underpin the larger story. Those objects can connect together in unexpected ways, diverging from the main storyline. Ultimately, there is no way to control how individual viewers perceive specific objects or the exhibition as a whole; when we look at art, personal issues, tastes, feelings and moods always colour – and should colour – our experience. This is not only true of viewers. Museums are run by individuals with their own ideas and aspirations, their own life stories, and these will inevitably feed into the displays, even if so quietly that it is almost impossible to notice. In this post, I will try to reconstruct how Ligeti, as a creative individual, weaved his own story into the wider story he was expected to tell.*
József Molnár: Kálvin Square with the Hungarian National Museum, 1885 (Budapest History Museum; photo: Wikimedia Commons)
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)