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 Baedeker of the Soul: Love, Dangerous Games, and Hungarian Gothic

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)

Jenő Gyárfás: Call to the Ordeal (Ordeal of the Bier), 1881 (Hungarian National Gallery)

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Stereotypes and What They Hide: On the Representation of Gypsies in Hungarian Painting

Stereotypes are a recurring theme of this blog. One post discussed the hopelessness of trying to relate personal love stories through stereotypes, while the latest post touched on the subject of stereotyping other nations. Stereotypes may be inherent to how we perceive (and thus represent) the world: in order to find our way among the endless number of things and people we encounter, we try to find similarities and contrasts between them and label them accordingly. But every time we squeeze an object into such a neat category, something individual is lost, and – if I am allowed to be a bit bombastic here (and I guess I am – this is my own blog) – I think that most problems in the world, whether large or small, arise when people confuse stereotypes with reality. If, when meeting someone, we content ourselves with noting personality traits that seem to prove the stereotypes commonly associated with their nationality, gender, age, profession, sexual orientation, etc., we prevent ourselves from getting to know them as individuals. I think this causes a lot of trouble in everyday life – but it is, of course, most dangerous and vicious when it serves as a basis for hatred. As you may have guessed by now, this post is about racism.

Miklós Barabás: Travelling Gypsy Family in Transylvania, 1843 (Magyar Külkereskedelmi Bank Zrt., deposited at the Hungarian National Gallery)

Miklós Barabás: Travelling Gypsy Family in Transylvania, 1843 (Magyar Külkereskedelmi Bank Zrt., deposited at the Hungarian National Gallery)

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Looking Down Into the Abyss: Bertalan Székely and the Perils of Love

In my previous post I took a somewhat critical look at artistic ‘greatness’ understood as a quality that sharply distinguishes ‘great’ artists and their works from ‘ordinary’ people and everyday life. For art to move us, does it necessarily have to rise above us? Does it have to be a work of incomparable genius? Does it have to be monumental? Or can it be small, banal, personal? Can it, quite simply, speak about love? I will now be looking at pictures by an artist who filtered his personal experiences through some of the most trivial and commonplace products of the visual culture of his time, transforming those trivial images into something intimate and full of life. This perpetual oscillation between general and singular, public and personal, was crucial to Bertalan Székely’s (1835-1910) representations of domestic life.

The collision between greatness and intimacy is a productive force in Székely’s oeuvre. Today, he is widely known as a history painter: his scenes from 16th-century battles against the Turks are familiar to the Hungarian viewer not only as artworks, but as illustrations in history books. They are certainly great: depicting turning points in history, they are monumental in their sizes and awe-inspiring in their compositions, often recalling religious imagery, as in the case of The Discovery of the Corpse of King Louis II after the Battle of Mohács. There is, however, another facet to Székely’s art, much less known today, but – as evidenced by his notes and sketches – considered equally important by the artist himself. Besides the great events and heroes of Hungarian history, Székely also aimed to depict moments of everyday life; scenes so general, so universal that – according to him – any person from any country would understand them. To achieve this, he planned series of lithographs narrating ‘typical’ human lives.

Bertalan Székely: The Bride, 1869-1870 (oil sketch for a scene from the series Life of the Woman; Hungarian National Gallery)

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An Innocent Young Painter, His Ambitious Wife, and the Greedy Art Dealer: Mihály Munkácsy and the Munkácsy Question

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)

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The Morning after the Masquerade: The Rococo Revival as Subverter of the National Narrative

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)

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