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.
In 1868, the landscape painter Antal Ligeti was appointed as curator of the Picture Gallery of the Hungarian National Museum. In the previous year, Austria and Hungary had signed an agreement known as the Compromise, which gave Hungary considerable autonomy within the Habsburg Empire (from then on known as the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy). Although not completely independent, Hungary aimed to assert itself as a nation state, and institutions such as the National Museum and its Picture Gallery played a crucial role in articulating, shaping and reflecting that vision. Ever since its foundation at the beginning of the century, the Hungarian National Museum had developed in close symbiosis with the Hungarian national movement. This intimate relationship is not unique to Hungary. As the modern idea of the nation emerged in nineteenth-century Europe, national identities were shaped by the gradually solidifying stories that people told themselves about their histories and cultures. National museums contributed to nation-building by presenting these stories through the new medium of the exhibition.
This post acknowledges all this – it would be ignorant not to. Still, it is concerned with something else. Museums might be ideological machines – but, I wager to say, that is not why we like them. Their displays form narratives, but those narratives are made up of individual objects, whose individual stories might disrupt, as much as underpin the larger story. Those objects can connect together in unexpected ways, diverging from the main storyline. Ultimately, there is no way to control how individual viewers perceive specific objects or the exhibition as a whole; when we look at art, personal issues, tastes, feelings and moods always colour – and should colour – our experience. This is not only true of viewers. Museums are run by individuals with their own ideas and aspirations, their own life stories, and these will inevitably feed into the displays, even if so quietly that it is almost impossible to notice. In this post, I will try to reconstruct how Ligeti, as a creative individual, weaved his own story into the wider story he was expected to tell.*
In 1856, the young artist Viktor Madarász (1830-1917) 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?