Reimagining the near past and constructing local identities. A Fulbright project by Linnea West (2012-13)
“Istvan Ferenczy, Henrik Weber, Karoly Marko and Miklos Izso left us emblematic representations of the 19th century image of the nation. Along with them, they conferred the task of inquiring into a deeper historical understanding of the works and their ideas. If these represent an enduring self-image, then we are also charged with the task of reinterpreting them from time to time.”- Erzsebet Kiraly, “From a National Imagination to an Image-creating Nation: Ideas about the Origins of Hungarian Art,” Art and Nation: Image and Self-Image (p. 138)
Erzsebet Kiraly uses Hungaria, above, and The Shepherdess below, as examples of iconic Hungarian 19th C. artworks, representative of many of the themes of nation building occurring at the time. The art that began to emerge in the 19th century, alongside and connected to literary and linguistic movements, focused on supporting national culture. (Social Darwinism was a popular theory, and discussions about what characteristics would ensure Hungarian survival were ongoing.) The “national school” (nemzeti iskola) was formed at this time; Hungarian-born painters, trained abroad, came home and painted Hungarian topics, and whether they painted them well did not determine success as much as nationalistic content (though by the end of the century there were higher standards about this.) Half a century of intensifying nationalism ended with a failed revolt in 1848; then focus the was transferred to a non-political but cultural Hungarian themes. At the same time, much of the impetus was a desire to catch up to Western culture.
Hungarian defining characteristics and identity was beginning to be explored by cultural theorists, and popularized through print media and literature. Common motifs include folk dancing, mythic heroes, grim-skied landscapes, historical scenes, and intellectuals as warriors. This phenomenon of forging a national consciousness created the heroic figure of King Matthius, the common people as the symbol of the nation, the nobility as epitomizing Hungarian characteristics, attaching importance to folk elements and traditional dress, Romantic ideas of history of suffering and heroic death, as well as the creation of “the other:” the gypsy musician, the Jewish pub-keeper, the outlaw (betyár). Earlier in the century discussion of the origin of the Hungarian race took place and later cultural critics started to describe artworks as “un-Hungarian.” These themes and ideas still play a role in the conception of Hungarian identity today.