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 in 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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A Piece of Canvas Smeared with Colours: The Hungarian Painter Miklós Barabás on J. M. W. Turner

This is a blog that presents Hungarian art to an international audience, constantly forcing me to try to look at Hungarian art history through an outsider’s eyes. In today’s post, these perspectives will be hopelessly entangled: we will look at a Hungarian artist as he is looking at a British artist and is looked at by British art lovers. The previous post thematised the differences between Eastern and Western Europe through the sad story of the sculptor István Ferenczy – with a (hopefully) upbeat ending that stressed that the two are inseparable. This post will continue in the same vein, showing that, somewhere deep down, even differences can serve as connections. But first of all, let me introduce a new artist: the portraitist and genre painter Miklós Barabás (1810-1898), one of the most successful painters in 19th-century Hungary.

Miklós Barabás’ career can be seen as an antithesis to István Ferenczy’s. While Ferenczy saw himself as a struggling artist who suffered from the lack of patronage and a well-developed cultural life, Barabás not only made good use of the emerging institutional framework, but took part in building it up. Ferenczy finished his life in self-imposed solitude; Barabás, on the other hand, was venerated by the public throughout his long life, even if his art itself eventually came to be seen as outdated. It can perhaps be said that Ferenczy came too early – starting his career only a decade later, Barabás already had solid foundations to build upon. He was also helped by his optimistic, rational, resourceful personality: instead of aspiring to be regarded as a genius, he contented himself with being a good and successful artist, and relied on his excellent social skills to find patrons and further his career.

Miklós Barabás: Self-Portrait, 1841 (Hungarian National Gallery)

Miklós Barabás: Self-Portrait, 1841 (Hungarian National Gallery)

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The Ground Beneath Her Feet: István Ferenczy and the Origin of Sculpture

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)

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