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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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