The Truth about Charlie: The Painter Károly (Charles) Brocky and the Limits of Art History

Dear readers, I feel like I owe you. And not just you, but also Charlie, my imaginary friend. A few months ago, I set out to write a post about him – Károly/Charles Brocky (1807–1855), London-based painter of portraits, genre scenes and female nudes – and what came out was a post about Brexit. It was a conversation that had to be had, no doubt. But it eclipsed the central topic: a ‘fascinating and illuminating’ one that would have involved, as Charlie himself put it, ‘migration, cultural exchange, and some outstanding art’. I still owe you the truth about Charlie.

But is there a truth? And if there is, whose truth is it? And how do I access that truth? Being an art historian, my go-to method is of course to gather as many sources as I can and assemble them like pieces in a puzzle. I am not the first to attempt this, and certainly not the most serious. Thanks to more than a hundred years of research, we do have a nice amount of information about Charlie. The puzzle pieces are numerous, and they sometimes fit together quite well. Nevertheless, as you will see, these puzzle pieces are often more like intricately cut gems: they glisten in the light in different colours, depending on which way you hold them. Their ‘truth’ is multifaceted and elusive. We know a lot about Charlie – but what we know can be subject to different interpretations.

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Two Journeys Down the River

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.

Tomas Pochmarsky

Ferdiš Duša: Hričov, 1933, Slovak National Gallery – photo: Webumenia

When It All Began: Viktor Madarász as an Old Man

Like all historians, art historians turn scattered facts from the past into stories. Stories have a beginning and an end, they have logical outcomes and surprising twists, they have a rythm. We look for causes and effects, we look for reasons, and spin them into narratives. This is also how we tend to tell stories from our lives – but it is not how life itself functions. In the real life we live, beginnings and ends are hard to discern, causes and effects are blurred. Happily ever after does not exist; it is dotted with further major and minor occurences, pleasures and fights, tragedies and bursts of joy. Things never stop happening, but we often don’t know why they happen – there is, simply, no explanation. And when life brings strange and surprising rythms, we think of fate, of karma, but those rythms are, in reality, “spasmodic tricks of radiance,” the sporadic accidents of life before they are spun into a story. In art history, we like to tell the stories of the rise and fall of artistic movements, the social forces that drove the careers of artists in one direction or another, but what we are really doing is arrange facts into a narrative, because otherwise they would be impossible to grasp. And our favourite narratives are modelled on the trajectory of human life.

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Ruined Castles – A Hundred Years Later

A few years ago, an early post on this blog looked at ruined castles in what was once Upper Hungary (today’s Slovakia) – or rather, it looked at their representations in image and text. Such ruins are perfect symbols of History in all its formidable, mysterious glory: they are fragments of a past which we strive to piece together, never perfectly or completely, from tiny fragments usually much more flimsy than their monumental walls. They have survived through centuries, even though their battered bodies bear the marks of old battles, wars and neglect; the turbulences of history. They have seen it all. The post talked about a trend in early nineteenth century history writing which focused on such castles, led by a fascination with the aspects described above. It used the places marked by the castles as anchors in the wild and still unharnessed currents of history. Because it focused on spatial relations, rather than teleological, coherent, chronological narratives, and because it celebrated the fragment in its openness, this approach to history was well suited to telling the stories of a multi-ethnic region like Upper Hungary. Read that old post here: Ruined Castles and the Layers of History: An Emotional Approach

The spatial, fragmented approach to history was soon overshadowed by one that aimed to tell linear national narratives. The castles still marked out space, but soon that space itself changed: after the First World War, in the Trianon Peace Treaty, two thirds of the former territory of the Kingdom of Hungary were allocated to Hungary’s neighbours. What was once Upper Hungary was now in Czechoslovakia. What happened to the national narratives that incorporated, with a self-confident assertiveness, the territories that were no longer part of the country? How was historical memory reframed? Did the time come for a spatial history again? I wrote about this for a different blog, on the website of the research project I am currently involved in. You can read it here: Place, Memory, Propaganda: The 1930 album Justice for Hungary!

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The Castle of Trencsén (now Trenčín, Slovakia), in Ottó Légrády, ed., Justice for Hungary! (Budapest: Légrády Brothers, 1930), p. 50

But Seriously: What Is Hungarian Art History Anyway?

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)

Lajos Tihanyi: Lajos Fülep, 1915 (Hungarian National Gallery)

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Ruined Castles and the Layers of History: An Emotional Approach

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)

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What Is Hungarian Art History Anyway?

The title of this blog – Hungarian Art History – may sound slightly too ambitious, but I have to admit I chose it simply because I could not think of anything better in that decisive moment. It might be useful, however – especially after writing my previous post on Mihály Munkácsy, the ‘greatest Hungarian painter,’ who had spent most of his life in France – to reflect briefly on the concept of Hungarian art history itself. What is the subject of Hungarian art history? What is it made of? Of course, a short blog post cannot even attempt to analyse this question in its entirety; I would just like to share some of my thoughts. But before I start, it is inevitable to cite a classic text that engages with the same problem. In 1951, the philosopher and art historian Lajos Fülep published an essay entitled The Task of Hungarian Art History, in which he argued that a distinction should be made between ’art in Hungary’ and ’Hungarian art’.* He pointed out that before the 19th century, Hungarian art had not existed in the sense of a distinct, continuous tradition, and that many of the most excellent artworks in Hungary had been produced by artists who came to Hungary from abroad just in order to fulfill commissions. The art of those centuries can thus only be referred to as ‘art in Hungary’.

At first sight, Fülep’s views have a certain 19th-century feeling to them. The quest to establish a continuous ‘school’ of Hungarian painting, which would convey national characteristics, had started in the 19th century – loyal readers of my blog have already encountered it in a previous post on ethnic stereotypes and Romantic painting. Taken out of context, the questioning of the ‘Hungarianness’ of artworks created by foreign artists who had migrated to Hungary might appear to be driven by nationalist discrimination – but Fülep’s aim was the exact opposite. He was taking issue with nationalist tendencies in interwar Hungarian art history writing, which had celebrated all high-quality artworks found in the territory of historic Hungary as manifestations of the ‘Hungarian spirit’ and ethnic character.  Continue reading