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National Mythologies

In the early 19th century-the age of Romanticism-attention came to be focused on the distinctive cultures of individual nations all over Europe. In Hungary too, the notion of state as homeland was gradually replaced by ideas in which national culture had its origins in the characteristics and traditions of a more narrowly defined community. In the literary scene this entailed using Hungarian as a literary language-the national tongue clearly distinguished Hungarian literature from that of other nations. The idiom of fine arts however remained universal; it was mostly in Vienna-the capital of the Empire-or other cities abroad that Hungarian painters learned to master commonly adopted motifs and schemes of composition. Consequently, it was left to the choice of subject matter to manifest the national identity of art, which also meant that paintings were often illustrations of works of literature or of writings by contemporary historians. Eventually, there developed a national iconography, with fine art greatly contributing to the popularisation of scenes of history and rural life as conveyors of meaning. To use a popular notion of Romanticism: a national mythology was born providing works of arts, topical interpretations, and a national community engaged in defining its own identity, with materials that could be shaped in various ways.

Origin Myths

The early 19th century witnessed the search for or creation of epic poems narrating the mythical prehistory of various nations all over Europe. A great impetus was provided by a cycle of poems attributed to a legendary Gaelic bard called Ossian, which seemed to prove that the Greeks were not the only people to have epic poetry in ancient times. While no ancient Hungarian epic was discovered, it fell to Hungarian writers to create one, based on their imagination and the Ossianic examples. In the 1820s it was the almanac Aurora, edited by the painter and writer Károly Kisfaludy, that provided the most prominent forum for poems telling stories of the conquest of Hungary written in a gloomy, melancholic Ossianic style, accompanied by illustrations. While prehistory continued to provide artists with subject matter throughout the 19th century, later works revealed a different approach: with the advancement of historical and archaeological knowledge, the historical authenticity of details became a major concern. The choice of topics was often influenced by the latest scholarly achievements and political implications. The theory of the identification of Huns with Hungarians, widely accepted previously, was refuted as a legend in the middle of the 19th century-one of the reasons why Árpád and Saint Stephen came to the forefront in the wake of the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867. In the run-up to the millennary celebrations, the government side tended to emphasize the importance of the holy king, the establishment of the multiethnic state, and the adoption of the constitution, while the opposition-favouring independence and the supremacy of Hungarians over other ethnic groups-gave preference to the topic of Árpád and the Hungarian conquest.

National Glory-National Sacrifice

From the mid-19th century, motives of olden virtues and heroism-heroic acts and poses, and exemplary roles, often linked to important historical events-appeared in paintings as well as in literature. In the representation of national themes of heroism, Hungarian artists followed European academic patterns of composition. Significant events in national history remained predominant in monumental compositions for about half a century. In addition to murals, they emerged in exhibitions, in the illustrated press, and in lithographic reproductions, becoming widely known as part of the image the nation created of itself. Quite often they also carried topical messages. Discovering the Corpse of Louis II, a painting by Soma Orlai Petrics, with a composition reminiscent of the Lamentation of Christ, containing a figure holding up the crown on the right, was an allusion to the sacrifice of the nation and thus, indirectly, to the lost war of independence. The Mourning of László Hunyadi, Viktor Madarász' emblematic work (1859), was clearly laden with antiroyalist, republican content. Two decades later, The Death of Sándor Petőfi (the great poet of the 1848-1849 Revolution and War of Independence, who died in one of the last battles) and The Exile reflected the artist's stand for independence in an atmosphere where those ideas continued to be fought for in the arena of daily political struggles. Other subjects conveyed pro-Habsburg perceptions. The meeting of King Ladislas IV and Rudolph of Habsburg on the battlefield of Marchfeld provided a historical example of the alliance of Hungary with the House of Habsburg; this is how Mór Than immortalised it in his monumental composition.

The Example of Zrínyi

In the early 19th century the much-needed national epic could have been a proof not only of the bygone heroism and ancient origin of the Hungarians, but also of the ancient roots of Hungarian culture, thus invalidating Europe's image of Hungarians as savage and barbarous. It was Miklós Zrínyi's Siege of Szigeth (1647-1648) that best met these criteria. It was no word-of-mouth poetry, nor was it about ancient history, yet it was on a par with the epic poems of other nations, and its author an exemplar of the dual virtues of heroism and erudition. This however was not the only reason why the heroic death of the protagonist, the great grandfather of the author, became a favourite subject with 19th century painters; it was also due to the profound influence of an earlier work painted by Peter Krafft. In agreement with the ideas of imperial patriotism, Krafft's 1825 picture represented Hungarians as defenders of the Habsburg Empire and of Christendom. The picture, reproduced lithographically, served as a point of reference for later representations of Zrínyi, even when an artist took a deliberately divergent approach. In this manner the subject developed its own tradition in fine arts, independent of its background in literature.