[Editor's Note: After another long break in publishing Pestiside.hu is back again. Rather than trying to make excuses for this most recent unexplained absence, this time I'll just say that I and the other people who have in the past provided content for this website have had more important things to worry about and work on, and as of late there hasn't seemed to be so many compelling stories in Pestiside's "beat" to cover or riff on. The story you are about to read is a notable exception. As the headline indicates, it was made in collaboration with leading Hungarian-language portal Index.hu, which published its own version yesterday morning. Most of the reporting came from Index's side, while the original idea for the investigation came from our side. Given the sensitivity of the topic, we will play it "straight," though as you will see, the story is anything if.]
Anyone who knows something about Hungary and about art is likely to know of Mihály Munkácsy (1844-1900), the man widely considered to be the “Rembrandt of Hungary,” or at least the country’s most acclaimed artist.
But there are a few important – or at least interesting – things about Munkácsy they probably don’t know.
One is that Munkácsy (right, in an 1881 self-portrait) is not just the most famous Hungarian painter who ever lived. At the peak of his career he was among the most famous and best-paid painters in the world, with thousands in Europe and North America lining up and paying to see his epic canvases. Hungarians often exaggerate the role played by their historical figures, but in Munkácsy’s case this role was perhaps more outsized than most Hungarians today realize. Another lesser-known fact about this national icon, who was commissioned to paint a monumental rendering of the Hungarian Conquest of the Carpathian Basin for the House of Parliament in Budapest, is that he wasn’t really all that Hungarian. Born “Michael von Lieb” to ethnic German parents in the frontier town of Munkács (now Mukachevo, in present-day Ukraine) – from which he fashioned his better-known professional name – he spent most of his working life in Paris.
And now, more than a century after his death, evidence has emerged that among his works is a lurid fantasia featuring a group of religious Jews engaged in ritual sacrifice like that alleged during the infamous “Tiszaeszlár Affair,” which set off a wave of hysteric anti-Semitism across the Austro-Hungarian empire – and much of Europe – in the 1880s.
Images of the painting which threatens to add “blood libel porn” to Munkácsy’s legacy surfaced in Hungary last year, after an as-yet-unidentified collector based in the United Kingdom began moves to sell the work.
One does not need any formal training in art history or appreciation to understand what is going on in the painting. A naked and defenseless woman is being held aloft by several men easily identifiable as religious Jews. Blood flows from the victim’s abdomen and hand while one of her assailants holds a bowl, evidently to collect her blood. Behind them, other participants in the ceremony whisper in each others’ ears. The Jews’ noses are hooked, one has blood on his lips, and two old men with beady eyes stare at the girl’s crotch as the ringleader approaches with a knife. The whole grisly tableau is so by-the-book it almost comes across as self-parody or caricature of blood libel, or vérvád, as it is known in Hungarian.
But for those with a trained eye, the picture’s artistic qualities are likely to be just as quickly appreciated. It is, in short, an excellent painting.
Evidence and Doubts
While the canvas’s subject matter and the superior skills of its creator are in little doubt, the identity of the artist is far from certain. The painting’s origins are murky – its owner has yet to make himself or herself publicly known – there is no obvious signature on the work, and there is no trace of it in Munkácsy’s official oeuvre.
But to some experts who have seen the canvas and images of it, the work is highly characteristic of Munkácsy’s. Meanwhile, certain historical evidence points to his authorship, most notably several mentions in the international press in the early part of the last century of a painting of the same topic attributed to Munkácsy. more >>