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 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.*

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

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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)

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