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
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)
This blog has been on a long hiatus, so first of all I have to apologise to my readers. A lot has been going on this year. The hiatus does not mean, however, that I was not constantly thinking about topics I could write about. I hope to turn all the drafts I have started and abandoned into proper posts soon. First, however, to get into the mood, I decided to briefly revisit an old post which addressed a question that is crucial to this blog: What Is Hungarian Art History Anyway?
In that old post, written almost one and a half years ago, I started out from a seminal text published in 1951 by the Hungarian art historian Lajos Fülep (1885-1970), entitled The Task of Hungarian Art History (A magyar művészettörténelem föladata). I focused on the distinction Fülep made between ‘art in Hungary’ and ‘Hungarian art,’ which is maintained by Hungarian art history writing to this day. ‘Art in Hungary’ simply refers to artworks found in the historical territory of Hungary, while ‘Hungarian art’ implies the existence of a continuous tradition of national art. As a rule of thumb, ‘art in Hungary’ is usually used to denote art in the period before the 19th century, while ‘Hungarian art’ is reserved for the subsequent times when, due to the establishment of a national institutional framework, the continuous tradition became palpable. Even though I had read Fülep’s essay a few times, I have to admit that my interpretation was somewhat simplified.
Lajos Tihanyi: Lajos Fülep, 1915 (Hungarian National Gallery)
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)
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.
István Ferenczy: The Beginning of the Fine Arts (Shepherdess), 1820-1822 (Hungarian National Gallery)
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.
Mihály Munkácsy: Paris Interior, 1877 (Hungarian National Gallery)
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.
József Borsos: The Morning after the Masquerade, 1850 (Hungarian National Gallery)
In 1856, the young artist Viktor Madarász (1830-1917) 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?
Viktor Madarász: The Dream of the Fugitive, 1856 (Hungarian National Gallery)