Exerpt from Ernő Kállai’s New Painting in Hungary (1925)

Translated from the German by David Britt.  From Between Two Worlds: A Sourcebook of

Central European Avant-Gardes, 1910-1930.  (The MIT Press.  Cambridge, MA: 2002).

• • •


“Art is Nature seen through a temperament.” If Zola’s definition were complete, there would be no more worthy and splendid national school of painting than that of Hungary.  For a bounteous Nature has showered us with her richest gifts; as for temperament, we have almost too much of it.


The Hungarian temperament manifests itself in a turbulent dynamism of body and soul, a heady succession of forceful experiences.  Such rapidity and intensity of experience necessarily results in emphatic and therefore, in artistic terms, concentrated emotions, which in their turn create a specific kind of structure and set a lively rhythm.  But there is another side to the Hungarian temperament.  It loves to surrender, with Oriental quietude and inertia, to the hot, brooding power of its senses.  Such sensuality all too often reaches a pitch of suffocating excess.  It inclines people to a consuming passivity and melancholy, which is liable to shift without warning into an unbridled excess of joy.

Two perils constantly lie in wait for the Hungarian temperament: the blindness of unbridled elation and the abysmal gloom of despondency.  Both extremes upset the rhythm of the vital spirits and lead to loss of bearings and inarticulacy.  The excessive craving for action dissipates and atomizes experience, or sets it pulsing in sympathy with dynamic associations of emotions and ideas, so that all structured content and stable substance are lost.  At the opposite extreme, the overheated temperament and its sensuality rest like a dead weight on every impulse that could ever lead to motion, activity, or vitality.  No human predicament is more dismal than those stillborn or broken initiatives that are the defining tragedies of the Hungarian will.  Nor, unfortunately, can all of them be blamed on the enervating Romanticism engendered by bourgeois individualism — though such Romanticism has undoubtedly done great harm by causing moral and philosophical disorientation.  Nor do our historical and societal misfortunes furnish any adequate explanation — especially since they themselves largely spring from our own national character defects.  Destiny, even the destiny of nations, is the result of character.  It is fundamental to the Hungarian character that the enduring and practical force of its will seldom harmonizes with the grand perspectives so dear to its enthusiastic temperament — or with the stifling melancholy of its instincts, which so often fatally defeat its better self, its reason, and its soul.  Even at full strength, Hungarian will is burdened with inner inhibitions.  Even at its most active, Hungarian energy never shakes off the sense of being oppressed and muted, because it is constantly strung between the opposing poles of fatalistic impotence and ecstatic vitality.  Almost invariably, the Hungarian national consciousness harbors a deep sense of these elemental impulses — even in its attitudes of statuesque self-containment and stable repose.  For this reason, no sooner is the national consciousness thrown off-balance than it is tossed between emotional extremes: it enters upon the famous or notorious rhapsody of tearful self-complacency that is a defining specialty, not only in individual psychology, but also in the Hungarian identity as a whole, and in all the senseless reversals of fate that mark its history.

The psychology of the Hungarian temperament does of course include variations that find an explanation in economic and societal terms.  For all its heroic shifts of mood, the temperament of the Hungarian peasant has in its depths incomparably more sureness and firmness, a far more effective instinctual philosophy of cause and function, than that of the bourgeois intelligentsia.  It is, above all, in the lower reaches of the provincial gentry — and in those circles where the lifestyle of that deracinated class is still regarded as the ideal of a Hungarian elite consciousness — that the dangers of the Hungarian temperament reveal themselves: the tendencies toward indolence, irresponsibility, and blithe extravagance.  It is, however, quite possible to ignore class differences entirely, and to define the Hungarian racial identity as a single, instinctual force, sometimes unruly and domineering, sometimes negligent and slothful, with scant inclination to submit to laws of moderation and discipline.  Our frivolity and indolence are all but limitless.  All the same, there is one thing that can both awaken the passive, even fatalistic depths of our temperament and curb the playful audacities of our more sprightly moods.  And this is not a categorical imperative, or anything of that sort, but [618] our attitude of imperious pride — or, to put it another way, the staying power of our heavyweight instincts, more Asiatic quietude than mental superiority.  A proud, masculine bearing and an instinctive, often brutally domineering attitude are the impulses behind the finest and noblest Hungarian deeds.  On the other hand, there is in the Hungarian temperament and destiny a kind of calm, Asiatic wisdom that manifests itself in an unshakable sense of purpose, economy, and a priceless sense of humor.  Admittedly, this wisdom is not so sober as, say, the Teutonic variety.  It does not take life’s administrative details quite so seriously.  Its interest in modern civilization and its organizational capabilities fall far short of those of the West.  In Hungary, much that in the West would be caught up in the hectic business of economic and intellectual production is left to lie fallow.  “If you don’t come today, you’ll come tomorrow,” and “Slowly does it,” are among the most popular expressions of Hungarian folk-wisdom.  No wonder Hungarian life, even in Budapest, still flows with a provincial breadth and deliberation.  This leisurely way of life suggests a nation of comparatively simple habits, by contrast with the harried haste of the complicated West.

There is, however, more to this than the contrast between East and West; there is also a state of alienation between agrarian culture, on the one hand, and monopoly capitalist industry and global commerce, on the other.  Agriculture and the primacy of natural landscape are essential component factors of the Hungarian character and temperament.  The rural Hungarian way of life tends to foster bodily opulence and rich sensuality.  People in Hungary like to declare: “We may be poor, but we live well.”  The agrarian culture upholds and reinforces the ruling trait of Hungarian racial psychology: the concentrated physicality of the Hungarian experience, which emerges intact even where the experience itself points to abstract and intellectual connotations.  Undoubtedly the placid life-style of provincial agrarian culture, and its hearty dislike of problematic issues, feed the powerfully instinctual nature of the Hungarian temperament.  As a result, there is more scope for the slightly anarchic, often violent, but flamboyantly sensual impulses of the subconscious.  This is not so among the masses in the great mercantile and industrial regions of the West, where the vital impulses of the body are far more harshly affected by the rigors of rationalized working and living.

Cushioned by the agrarian fat of the land, the Hungarian tends to be less frequently and less powerfully afflicted by inner conflict than the Westerner.  Intellectually inclined toward skepticism, nervously hypersensitive, the Westerner is racked by the thousand crises of psychology and destiny that afflict technological civilization, with its ferment of industrial socialism.  Naturally, we, too, pick up echoes of the problems that stir up unrest and threaten disaster in other countries.  But the life of the mind, in modern Hungary, has significantly shifted its center of gravity toward diaspora and emigration.  Those who have lived or still live at home exhibit nothing like the same extreme and radical dichotomy within bourgeois culture that has found expression in France and Germany.  In this respect, the new poets, writers, and artists of Russia — a far more agrarian country still — have gone much farther: this is a consequence of the limitless fanaticism of the Russian soul.  The Russians’ confession of anti-Christian faith is as ardent and as absolute as their Christian piety and humility once were.  We have neither the Russian fanaticism nor the German idealism to break free of our personal limitations and devote ourselves to an idea, a mental demand.  Nor, constitutionally, can we muster the same respect as the French for the objective autonomy of the surrounding world.  Far down within our national consciousness is an unsleeping instinct that makes us live for our own identities: unassailable, self-contained, imperious, and self-sufficient.  For us, the wall between self and not-self remains intact at all times.  We lack a center, where — as in some ultimate solution — all the external and internal problems of our being might come to rest.  We have no mystics, because our imperiousness is far too proud, stiff-necked, and pagan, and we cannot resist the expansionist urges of our [619] temperament.  The Hungarian spirit has never submitted so completely as others to Christian or bourgeois constraints.  Nothing so well illustrates our pseudo-Christianity as the fact that we, caught between the spheres of the Western and the Eastern Church, have been unable to find our own distinctive form of Christian worship or of church building.  Bourgeois life never reached us until long after it had relaxed its initial rigor and made room for a variety of transitions from feudalism and guild organization to liberal democracy.  Even so, Hungarian economic and intellectual life during the last century, and in the prewar period, included a number of prominent figures who were as much at home in liberal bourgeois democracy as a bull in a china shop.

The dichotomy between Asiatic origins and European demands subsists to this day.  Plainly, this mentality is not conducive to the harmonious clarification and stabilization of a nation’s sense of itself.

It is a mark of the proud and well-rounded egocentricity of the Hungarian character that its vital consciousness always distinguishes between the concerns of the ego and those of the world.  The external world is a stage backdrop, against which the outlines of the ego stand out with telling clarity.  Or else the world is the adversary in a keen trial of strength and endurance; in which case success is announced by ponderous, static monumentality.  But any attempt to widen the bounds of this monumentality causes it to dissolve into nebulous imprecision.  Our world is not informed with the clear faith of its essential oneness with us.  Nor is it a horrific blend of reality and fantasy, ordinariness and miracle, reality and super-reality, manifested in a way that fragments the ego and causes it to merge with objects in many dimensions.  To some degree, the gulf that this well-rounded Hungarian egocentricity opens between itself and the world necessarily reveals itself as a fondness for external display.  This is not to say that Hungarian egocentricity is incapable of internalizing itself: but this internalization springs more from the confused, intricately entangled instincts of the subconscious than from the radiant purity of psychic enlightenment.  Put it this way: as soon as the typically Hungarian experience refines and clarifies itself, it loses depth and coherence and shades over into a plaything of the merely impulsive, joyous temperament, a rootless flowering of our sensuality.  On the other hand, the fatalistic Oriental wisdom of the Hungarian soul generally ensures that our experiences of cause and purpose eventually lead us into the realm of ponderous weight and inertia.

• • •

From Romantic Nationalism to Impressionism

At this point in our psychological and philosophical account of the Hungarian soul, it becomes possible to ask what kind of painting might express that temperament and that character.

The history of Hungarian painting is still a very short one.  True, some scattered medieval remnants have survived the intervening centuries of almost continuous Turkish and Tartar wars.  But it is more than dubious whether these can really be regarded as Hungarian at all, either in origin or in style.  Nor have our Renaissance and Baroque paintings anything positive to tell us in this respect.  The dawn of the nineteenth century saw a significant increase in the number of Hungarian painters and paintings, but the first fifty years produced little besides a Neoclassicism and a Biedermeier full of Italian or Austrian reminiscences.

Károly Lyka’s work on the Hungarian art of the period has much of interest to tell us on the socioeconomic causes of this lack of autonomy.  The Viennese court, the courtbound aristocracy, and the Church — insofar as they exerted any artistic patronage — were precluded by their whole mentality from contributing to the emergence of a Hungarian artistic identity.  The cultural needs of the local gentry were negligible, and the only public that did exist — the urban bourgeoisie — was almost exclusively German.  The social context of our painting was thus so impoverished and so dominated by [620] foreign influences that it could sustain virtually no artists with any aspirations beyond the artisan level.  Any Hungarian artist who nevertheless managed to work in his own country was making use of knowledge acquired in foreign academies.  The pictures that were painted could be Hungarian only in subject matter, not in style.  Even the increasing quantity of paintings on subjects from Hungarian history or folk life depended on a carbon copy of foreign academic formulas.  It required the overwhelming national experience of the War of Liberation, and the advent of the Romantic cult of individual feeling, to rid our painting of the sleek, alien skin imposed on it by the Neoclassical canon and by the pedantic, Teutonic, petit-bourgeois love of tidiness and neatness.

The tragic historical compositions of Viktor Madarász embody the revolutionary eloquence of the oppressed Hungarian national consciousness, not only through their subject matter but also through the honest plasticity of their style and the muted expressive force of their gestures and moods.  The way in which, in Zirínyi and Frangepán, he sets the gentle sadness and devotion of the younger comrade alongside the unbroken, manly defiance of the elder, as they commune with their common destiny in the last hours before the end, is Hungarian lyricism in all its authentic inwardness.  This lyrical unity, this inseparable blend of grief and defiance, was the mood of Hungary in the years that followed the suppression of the Revolution.  As an adolescent, Madarász had taken part in the bloody struggle against Austrian absolutism, and he shared in the national mood of mingled despair and rage with all the weighty and passionate impulsiveness of his Hungarian temperament.  His historical compositions, though they differed widely in subject matter, always sprang from this one basic mood.  For Madarász, the motif was not an opportunity for illustration but a means of expression.  It was a framework, which the artist filled with rounded form and clothed with the pictorial emblems of defeat [Frangeáan], of affronted dignity [llona Zirinyi], or of the rigidity of death [László Hunyadi on his Bier]. The expressive clarity and suggestive force of his paintings is not solely attributable to Madarász’s own personal talent.  His paintings gave expression to a national mood that had deep sources in history.  Furthermore, that general mood — the lyricism and eloquence of the oppressed and frustrated Hungarian national consciousness — was one that fatefully recurs in Hungarian character and in Hungarian history.  Madarász gave visual form to his own, present personal suffering, and thus to the suffering of Hungary in his lifetime.  This was the authentic lyricism and eloquence of the ancient laments, transforming historical memories into a true and spontaneous means of present expression…

Impressionism was an extraordinarily mobile, intellectually superior vantage point from which to obtain the most undisturbed enjoyment of the world and life.  In place of passionate commitment, truth to objective fact, and devoted fidelity, it chose to play games with objects: delightfully fleet-footed and whimsical, but with very little of substance to offer.  The only artists who ever could keep a foothold among all these rarefied and volatile sense-impressions were the French.  The analytical acuity and instinctive harmony of the French mind, the ingrained liberal individualism of its bourgeois culture, produced such artists as Manet, Pissarro, Degas, Renoir, Monet, Sisley, and Signac.  The Hungarian temperament lacks the ability to subject its instincts to this degree of rational control and intellectual sublimation.  Our culture rests on a style of life that is far too plain and provincial to allow us to rise above crude material ties and operate as the French do — on a superior level of experience and interpretation.  The atmosphere of our Impressionist paintings is accordingly denser; their physical framework appears more material, harder, and more rounded.  Local tones are not subsumed, as those of the French are, in a shifting veil of complementary colors and reflections.  The intensity of color is not so evenly distributed; instead, it builds itself into contrasts of high tension.  [621] We lack the French artists’ gray-attuned harmonies of valeurs. With us, the liveliest cadences of primary color prevail.  Our summary renderings are cruder and more physical in their patch and outline effects.  With our Impressionists, mobility resides not so much in subtle, scattered vibrations as in hefted masses.  Hungarian Impressionism is both more objective and more expressive than French Impressionism.  Often enough, however, this expressiveness takes the form of temperamental impetuosity and a welter of detail: the very same rhapsodic overindulgence and pent-up volcanic force that characterized the studies of Székely and Munkácsy.  Modern styles and experiences cannot prevail against the ingrained artistic instincts of the race.

The history of Hungarian Impressionism admittedly affords some exceptions.  But — aside from the fact that these serve only to prove the rule — they almost invariably reveal a fading of the Hungarian identity and a reduction in essential content.  The classic example here is that of Pál Szinyei Merse.

[Originally published as Neue Malerei in Ungarn (Leipzig: 1925)]


~ by Ross Wolfe on October 21, 2010.

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