Context & Identity in Contemporary Hungarian Art

Reimagining the near past and constructing local identities. A Fulbright project by Linnea West (2012-13)

National identity in the Hungarian visual arts (1): situating oneself in the historic context

Yellow_notebook_paperBefore one can begin to understand how contemporary art relates to and represents Hungarian national identity today, one must situate oneself in the historic context of art and nationalism in Hungary and understand the current framework that artists are working in. Through a consideration of the initial nationalism of Hungary during ‘the long century,’ the state and the arts during the Soviet era, and the aftermath of the changes of ‘89, the emergence of reoccurring symbols and the nuances of current themes become apparent. This leads to an appreciation of the complexity of art produced in Hungary and by extension that of the former Eastern Bloc, especially that which tackles the thorny, mythic, yet increasingly relevant construct of national identity.

The intention of this brief introduction is provide this context and understanding based on Edward Said’s influential theory that nationalism is a construct that both informs and is informed by arts and culture.[1] National identity, as part of a larger construction of history, tends as much toward the mythic rather than the actual. Here national identity refers to a unifying set of collective beliefs about a nation’s history and characteristics, as well as shared common experiences in daily life. The legacy of the past plays a pivotal role in the formation of national identity, perhaps particularly so in a nation as markedly historically conscious as Hungary.


Art and popular culture play an important role in the construction of national identities, as Benedict Anderson as well as Edward Said have notably theorized.[2] That is, rather than art mirroring social narratives of national identity, it can play a more active role in their construction. This complex interplay can, as Said points out, often take the form of resistance. Cultural agents, such as artists, often feel the need to examine the dominant conception. Thus, artworks featuring representations of national identity act can reinforce but also disrupt the larger narrative.

Contemporary conceptions of national identity are rooted in certain key periods of modern history. First, beginning at the turn of the 19th century and stretching up until World War I (dubbed ‘the long century’), Hungary experienced the creation of the traditional nation-state narrative of the period, albeit while a member of the Austro-Hungarian Empire rather than an independent nation. The period was disrupted by the 1848 failed revolution for independence and the First World War, after which Hungary lost two-thirds of its territory in the Treaty of Trianon. In 1945, Hungary was again on the losing side of a World War in WWII, and while there was a growing trans-national focus on identity in the Western world, Hungary was instead brought under the Soviet yoke. In place of a trans-national focus, there was an enforced patriotism for the Communist Soviet Union, and, after 1956, for Soviet-dominated Socialism under Prime Minister János Kádár. In 1989, Hungary, as a newly democratic nation, experienced the sudden demise of Soviet influence while experiencing the rapid globalizing forces of capitalism, open communication with the West, and later European Union integration. A mythic narrative of national identity was created and modified during these key periods.

Next article in this series: National identity in the visual arts (2): ‘the Long Century’

[1] See Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994), and Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1978).

[2] In addition to Said as listed above, see Anderson’s Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (New York: Verso, 2006).

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This entry was posted on December 8, 2012 by in Article, History.

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