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The National Character

National Temperament

In spite of all ethnographical attraction, the term nation was still restricted to the nobility as the sole possessor of political rights at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries; by the mid-19th century however it had become accepted that, regardless of heredity, the connection between members of a nation consisted in the knowledge and preservation of common traditions. Literary folkishness sought to unearth those traditions among the village folk, and regarded folk poetry as its model. Artists however had not yet commenced to employ folk motifs in their work. When doing rural genre pictures, artists of the period were less concerned with perpetuating cultural heritage than with representing attitudes thought of as typical of Hungarians. The ideology was that such forms of behaviour could best be observed among the peasantry and should be represented through "typical" figures. The contemporary literature on national characterology assigned extreme emotional moods to Hungarians: sorrow and noisy gaieties, and a combination of the two-tearful merriment. The grieving Hungarian was a typical figure: the grieving outlaw in Mihály Munkácsy's painting is in the same bodily position as Péter Zrínyi in the picture of Viktor Madarász. Dance and gaiety became key themes of rural genre pictures, although their portrayal gave rise to problems. Contemporary art critics expected rural genre painters to preserve decorum, and not depict anything distasteful or rough. Portrayals of drunkenness frequently stretched these limits, but Munkácsy's Easter Sprinkling was also criticised by Gusztáv Keleti for its fervent passionateness. Meanwhile, such characters as the outlaw or the peasant dancing a wild dance came to be aligned with international clichés regarding Hungarians. Rural genre pictures with Hungarian themes-regarded as exotic-were also very popular in Western Europe. Relying on national characterology and the ethnographically inspired print series of preceding decades, rural genre pictures portrayed their characters-Hungarian or other-in a typifying fashion. Viewers recognised the theme of the pictures by "reading" those types; hence, there developed a system of expectations, of visual codes, which prescribed the way in which individual characters should be represented. In the eyes of contemporaries the work was "realistic" as far as it complied with the appropriate rules. It would easily occur for one character to be borrowed from one rural genre picture and featured in another as a "literal" pictorial quotation.

The spirit of the Place

An important genre representing the national theme comprised views of places of significance in Hungary. The sights most frequently shown in such pictures were ruins of castles which would conjure up the notion of "old glory"-historical events linked to the site-on the one hand, and ghost stories, popular in Europe since the 18th century, and often set in medieval castles, on the other. Educational publications on local history in the first half of the 19th century strove to engage the reader's imagination by telling gripping stories about existing ruins; the stories-received from oral tradition or completely fictitious-were similar in vein to the popular hair-raisers that were set in fictional castles. Painters of "historic landscape"-a subgenre emerging in the middle of the century-employed mysterious, dramatic lighting effects in an effort to direct attention to the complex symbolism of the castle, invoking important historical events as well as historically unimportant yet very fascinating legends, and, in general, underscoring the inscrutable nature of history fading into the mist of the past. The Visegrád castle, for example, where the Crown had once been kept safe, was a symbol of the nobility's sense of national identity, but the picturesque scenery also had legends and romantic notions attached to it, such as the story of Klára Zách or the chivalric tournaments held at the time of Louis the Great, in the 14th century. At the same time, the Puszta-the Hungarian steppe-with its typical figures also came to be regarded as "national" scenery, relevant as a symbol of the national character by virtue of its timelessness rather than its historic significance. Abroad, common stereotypes about the Hungarians soon included the theme of the Puszta and the "son of the Puszta". The endless plain and the temperament of its people seemed to personify the idea of romantic freedom. The Plain-the typical Hungarian landscape-also became part of the image the nation formed of itself. By the end of the century the inhabitants of the Puszta-the horseherd, the outlaw, and the shepherd-were considered to be bearers of ancient Hungarian mentality and culture.

Folkishness and Literature

Before the end of the 19th century, it was uncommon for conventionally educated artists to seek inspiration in folk art. For them, folklore was no more than subject matter to be represented objectively and conventionally. János Jankó's genre scene portrays the genesis of the folk song as a result of a collective creative activity. The illustrations accompanying the works of János Arany clearly demonstrate the difference in approach of the poet and the artists: while Arany's programme was to draw on folk traditions, his illustrators emphasised the breathtaking, bloodcurdling, gothic features, rather than the folklore aspects, of the poems. Arnold Ipolyi's 1855 Hungarian Mythology was probably the most prominent source on folk lore and "domestic mythology": its stories continued to inspire artists for a long time. For example, the book supplied the subject matter-the story of Prince Árgirus-for a mural complex in the staircase of the Vigadó Concert Hall.

Hungarian Ornamentation

From the 1870s onward, there were fierce debates over the issue of a national style and a Hungarian idiom in visual arts. In the course of the debates, scholarly issues of ethnography, archaeology, and art history, came to be discussed extensively. Beyond the intention of identifying primordial Hungarian art there lay questions concerning Hungarian civilisation and innovative aspirations in architectural style. While some scholars doubted the national character and the ancient origin of motifs on archaeological artifacts and hand-made articles, respectively, the collections of motifs published by József Huszka from the 1880s onwards became widely known. Huszka's publications drew on a variety of sources: in addition to motifs decorating artifacts from the Migration Period, he also published Persian, Sassanid and Hungarian folk art motifs. Assuming that the various ornamental idioms were in fact codes, Huszka believed that they formed elements of the primordial Hungarian decorative art. Insisting that an art of ornamentation had been passed on throughout the centuries, his work and approach had an influence on those working towards a Hungarian national style.