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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Gold Medals, Silver Wreaths, and the Dissatisfied Painter: The Myth of Artistic Genius

After roaming the corridors of ruined castles in my previous post, I will now return to the painting whose fragments I have used as the blog’s header and avatar. The exquisitely painted details may have made some of my readers wonder where they come from. Well, The Dissatisfied Painter was painted by an artist who has been mentioned here more than once: József Borsos. It is high time to show it in its entirety – all the more so because, despite its obvious qualities, it is not too well known, even in Hungary.

Why is the painter sitting in his studio with such a stern expression on his face, and why is he destroying his works? This is explained by one of the reviews published when the picture was exhibited in Pest, Hungary, in 1852: unappreciated by the world, the distressed artist is venting his despair. Figuring in countless stories, novels, and images, the romantic stereotype of the misunderstood great artist was already commonplace at the time. Consequently, not all critics were sympathetic to Borsos’ painting – some of them rejected it as a pompous rendition of a subject already seen a million times.

The Dissatisfied Painter

József Borsos: The Dissatisfied Painter, 1852 (Hungarian National Gallery)

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A Feverish, Youthful Poetic Frenzy: Art, Nationalism, and the Pleasures of Terror

In 1856, the young artist Viktor Madarász (1840-1917) displayed a strange painting at the exhibition of the Art Society in the city of Pest. The large canvas bore the title The Dream of the Fugitive during the War against the Turks, and showed a young man and a soldier sleeping while two ghostly apparitions – an old man in chains, dressed in white, and a horrid, dark, winged figure with a cape and a skull-like face – hover above them. The painting received much attention from the critics, who did their best to try to interpret it. A month later Madarász helped them out by hanging an explanation next to the painting. As it turned out, the title – which mentions no specific person and refers to the war against the Turks – was only a ruse to avoid censorship: the real subject of the painting was the struggle against Austrian rule. The sleeping youth was none other than Imre Thököly (1657-1705), the future leader of an uprising against Austria, who had just fled from his family’s castle – under siege by the Austrians and defended by Thököly’s father, a rebel himself. Thököly the elder had died that night, and the picture shows his ghost appearing to his son in a dream.

In 1856, Hungary was still a province of the Austrian Empire, and the emperor’s army had just defeated the Hungarian revolutionaries in the War of Independence of 1848-1849. No wonder Madarász feared censorship (the arbitrariness of which is demonstrated by the fact that it was possible for him to hang his text next to the picture; what is more, one of the newspapers published it – this is how we know about it). Today, The Dream of the Fugitive counts as a history painting, one of the many depictions of national history produced by Hungarian painters in the second half of the 19th century. 19th-century critics assigned a vital role to these paintings: they were supposed to help forge a community by addressing the nation as a whole and representing significant events of national history, while also conveying ‘national character’. But did The Dream of the Fugitive, with its unrealistic subject and blood-curdling imagery, satisfy those demands?

Viktor Madarász: The Dream of the Fugitive, 1856 (Hungarian National Gallery)

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