When we look at an artist’s work, we see it through a glass, darkly: whether we like it or not, we are influenced by its previous interpretations. After they die, some artists are turned into icons of artistic, social, or political movements and become entangled with them to such an extent that it profoundly affects the way their works are seen. The Hungarian artist Gyula Derkovits (1894–1934) is an especially complex case. Derkovits was the son of a cabinetmaker and began training in that profession before taking up painting; after finishing three years of primary school, he never gained a formal education. Despite making a name as an artist and finding a number of patrons, he struggled to make a living from his art and had dire money problems by the last years of his life. Furthermore, as a committed left-winger, he was involved with the Communist movement – illegal in the interwar period – and depicted the struggles of the working class in his paintings, while satirising the bourgeoisie. Thanks to all this, Derkovits was easily appropriated by the Communist regime from the 1960s onwards. His pictures were everywhere, and so was his name: among other things, a state-run art gallery, a housing estate in the town of Szombathely, as well as a grant for young artists were named after him.
When we think of history, we think of it as unfolding in time. The historical events we remember sit somewhere in a chronology, and we think of them as having causes and effects, laid out neatly in the timeline. History also has a spatial dimension: the locations where the events took place are integral to their memory; but, paradoxically, this often means that their geographical reality dissolves into an abstraction. Mohács, for instance, was the scene of a battle between Hungarians and the Ottoman Turks in 1526. In the nineteenth century, the disastrous defeat suffered by the Hungarian army came to be seen as a singular national tragedy, which led to the subsequent Turkish invasion of a large part of the Kingdom. ‘Mohács’ became a metaphor. Although the town had its own local commemorations, the battle was essentially remembered in the same way everywhere in Hungary. Its physical location played no role in its national remembrance; the main thing was that it was part of the great national timeline – the national narrative of history.
The standardisation and centralisation of historical memory was part of the nineteenth-century process of nation-building. After 1867, the now semi-autonomous Hungarian state promoted the ideas of continuous Hungarian statehood and the legitimacy of Magyar hegemony in the Carpathian Basin through paintings, murals, sculptures and public monuments across the Kingdom. Monuments were sometimes erected to mark important historical locations, but at other times their locations were not relevant to the historical events they commemorated. It did not matter: all of these places, whether historical or not, were part of the country. They were in a synecdochical relationship with what was seen as most important: the nation, its territory, and its history as one integral whole. But what happens to historical memory when that integrity is suddenly broken? Continue reading
István Farkas (1887–1944) was one of the most outstanding painters in interwar Hungary, yet his name rarely comes up in discussions of the period. The reason is probably that his art is hard to categorise. He was not an avant-gardist, but his employment of symbolism and the grotesque also distantiate his paintings from the Post-Impressionism of the Gresham Circle, with whose work they might share some superficial formal characteristics. Farkas never officially belonged to any artists’ group and spent a large part of his working life in Paris. His masterpiece, Madman of Syracuse, seems as isolated in Hungarian art history as its protagonist standing in a desolate, sweltering landscape. Nevertheless, the concepts of continuity and rupture provide us with useful tools that help us situate the painting in the art history of post-imperial Central Europe.
Our artwork of the month – the first instalment in this new series – is not from the interwar period: it was created in 2008-2009. It has been chosen as an introductory piece because it represents an important aspect of our research in a thought-provoking way. Our project considers Central Europe after 1918 as a shared cultural space, but in doing so it has to deal with the political reality: the newly minted nation states of the region and the new borders drawn between them. These borders – either their enforcement, or, as in the case of Hungary, their fervent contestation – were central to political discourse in all of these countries. The concept of the nation state relies on the idea that the ethnic, cultural and administrative borders of a nation should correspond with each other; this is, however, rarely the case in reality. The new states of Central Europe were not homogeneous either ethnically or culturally. In the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, different ethnic groups had not only lived side by side, but also intermingled. After 1918 the population of the region underwent a radical mental shift from imperial multi-nationalism towards ethnic nationalism. Yet, multi-ethnicity was still present, and cultural transfer happened between ethnicities and across borders. What does this curious map tell us about all this? Let’s take a look.
Stormy Landscape, a painting by the interwar Hungarian artist Károly Kotász (1872-1941) is now on display at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. Kotász may not be a household name today, but in the 1920s and 1930s his paintings were exhibited with great success in galleries throughout Europe, and many of them found their way into famous public and private collections. The story behind the rise and decline of his fame has been the subject of an article written by Nóra Veszprémi, a member of the CRAACE team. Entitled Gambling on Genius, the article was published in Midlands Art Papers, a collaborative journal of the University of Birmingham and 11 partner museums.