I went to Hungary this past July – it was my seventh visit there since 1993.  It was a combination of business and pleasure and another opportunity to explore Magyarorszag (Hungary in Hungarian), its people, culture and cuisine.  Despite our different language and customs, Hungarians and Americans certainly share the planet, Western culture and fundamentally,  the human condition – truly, we’re all in the same boat.  But then, it’s not that simple…

During my stay, I had occasion to once again visit the magnificent collection of paintings and sculptures at the Hungarian National Gallery (the Magyar Nemzeti Galeria or MNG) located in the former Royal Palace in the Buda hills.   From medieval and Renaissance stone carvings through modern 20th century and contemporary paintings, the collection of native masterworks documents the rise and development of fine arts in Hungary - and it's nothing short of extraordinary.  I’m particularly fascinated with paintings of the late-19th through mid-20th century, and the works on display in MNG’s permanent collection by Karoly Ferenczy, Simon Hollosy, Laszlo Mednyanszky, Pal Szinyei Merse, Tivador Csontvary Kosztka, Mihaly Munkacsy, Janos Vaszary and Jozsef Rippl-Ronai are transcendent.  In my humble opinion, their collective contributions to innovation in European formal art design and aesthetic expression certainly match (if not exceed) the works of this period that you’ll find in the Louvre, Hermitage or Tate.

While these artists are much appreciated by discerning art lovers throughout Europe for their skill, technique and genius, to borrow a phrase from the late and great comedian Rodney Dangerfield – Hungarian fine art in America, for the most part, “gets no respect.”  I was intrigued by the notion given my interest in the subject matter and I’ve done a bit of research to get a better handle on why this happens to be so…

For one thing, when it comes to ethnicity, the U.S. in 2010 is a far more enlightened and tolerant place than at any previous point in our history.  The election of President Obama in 2008 is powerful evidence that we’re making great strides in overcoming stereotyping.

America in the late 1800s and early 1900s was a far different place, as the country witnessed wave after wave of economic immigration from Europe and Asia, to help work the factories on the East coast and populate the heartland in a movement westward that fulfilled our “manifest destiny.”  Hungarians arrived to take their place in American society and partake in the American Dream, but like most immigrants back then, weren’t quite greeted with open arms. See further, Steven Bela Vardy and Thomas Szendrey’s excellent article on this theme in  Hungarian Americans at http://www.everyculture.com/multi/Ha-La/Hungarian-Americans.html. These were poor, uneducated folks and “they unwittingly created a negative image of Hungarians, which then was transferred to all of the East and Southeast European immigrants.  The image survived well into the post-World War II period, even though by that time Hungary’s intellectual immigrants of the 1930s and its political immigrants of the 1950s began to diversify the immigrants’ social composition.  Although far fewer in number, these newer immigrants were the ones who gave birth to the revised image that Laura Fermi, the author of the highly praised study Illustrious Immigrants (1968), defined as the “mystery of the Hungarian talent.”   This was a natural by-product of the fact that "many of these intellectual and political immigrants made impressive achievements that had a measurable impact on American society.”

When it comes to recognizing the greatness of Hungarian fine art by Americans today, preconceptions about Hungary’s immigrant past only go so far in explaining why it remains “under the radar.” There’s more to understanding why the creative brilliance and achievements of Hungary’s art masters are, by in large, unfairly underrated and unappreciated in the culture of the United States.

Several reasons come to mind why Hungary’s contributions to world fine art have escaped exposure in America up until now:  it’s “strange” language, turbulent geo-political past (especially during most of the 20th century), the lack of a Champion among U.S. art opinion-makers, ineffective (read non-existent) promotion, the existing patronage and distribution system, and the specter of ethnocentrism.  As a result, even though Hungary joined and influenced the mainstream of European art, it’s been marginalized in the Western story. 

These have been daunting obstacles for Hungarian fine art to overcome.  Fortunately, it’s a generational thing, and the Internet is providing enlightenment and a major new pathway toward accelerating that much-deserved recognition.  The Internet has been embraced by a new generation of collectors and is being effectively utilized to communicate, educate and raise awareness to Hungary’s awesome artistic traditions.  The web’s a powerful resource for multiculturalism and diversity, yet truly embodies the unifying spirit of "all in the same boat.”
 

Hoping to be a lighthouse in the fog...  Thanks again for stopping by and for sharing this post with other like-minded readers.  I’d like to encourage a dialogue by asking for your comments, feedback and opinions – whatever you believe will make my blog better.

-TS



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