March 5th, 2013

Did Hungary’s Most Beloved Artist Paint Blood Libel Porn on the Side? An Index.hu/Pestiside.hu Exclusive

Mihály Munkácsy blood libel Vérvád

[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.

Mihály Munkácsy blood libel Vérvád

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.

Dr. Jeffrey Taylor, an American professor at the State University of New York who worked for more than a decade in the art business in Hungary, and Zsófia Végvári, director of the Komplex Painting Inspection Laboratory in Budapest, are the most open proponents of the theory that the work was done by Munkácsy. [Disclosure: Taylor has in the past contributed articles to this publication.]

“At this point we have encountered significant amounts of indirect evidence pointing to Munkácsy’s authorship, and as of yet no substantial evidence to refute it, other than that it would be highly inconvenient,” says Taylor. “But attribution is a process, and we are still working on this process.”

Végvári says that laboratory tests conducted on the canvas place the work as having been created between 1882 and 1887, at the height of the uproar surrounding Tiszaeszlár.

In terms of artistic evidence, the two argue that the style of the painting tightly conforms to that of other Munkácsy works from the period, down to its vast size: four meters by two meters.

Végvári points to similarities between the composition and characters in the blood libel painting and those of what may be Munkácsy’s best-known work from the period: “Christ Before Pilate” (1882). She also suggests that the absence of any surviving studies done for the vérvád can be explained by the artist’s borrowing of so many elements from his earlier, more famous work.

Despite superficial similarities that may appear striking, art historian Péter Molnos argues that the parallels are simply traits common to the Academic style. “It’s a classic historicizing composition,” he says, adding that the “quasi-hyper-realistic approach” is not characteristic of Munkácsy. Molnos also questions the connection to Tiszaeszlár, pointing out that the alleged sacrificial victim in that case was 14 years old, while the painting portrays a grown – and perhaps even pregnant – woman. According to Molnos, the picture may be the work of a lesser-known but talented Russian painter.

An Imperial Request?

Molnos’s guess about the artist’s identity is not the painting’s only Russian connection.

According to Taylor, numerous signs point to the painting having being commissioned by a Russian. For one thing, Taylor says, the current owner claims that the painting had been in Russia at the time of the revolution, before being moved via Finland to the United Kingdom, where it apparently sat in obscurity for almost a century.

Though Munkácsy’s life has been well documented, recent years have seen the discovery of previously unknown works, and he occasionally took commissions from foreign clients. (At the time, Munkácsy was represented by Charles Sedelmeyer, a Paris-based Austrian who was a forerunner of today’s first rank of international art dealers; meanwhile, it should be noted that barely half of the 600 works Munkácsy is reported to have said he painted in his career are currently accounted for.)

One theory is that among these foreign clients was none other than Tsar Alexander III, whose court painter was the Hungarian Mihály Zichy – who was in contact with Munkácsy. The painting would certainly have been in keeping with the tsar’s tastes; Zichy himself made pornographic drawings for Alexander, while Russia at the time was a cauldron of anti-Semitism.

Further, if fragmentary, evidence pointing to this theory is a contemporaneous report, originally published in the Novoje Vremya (“New Times”) newspaper, that Munkácsy had painted a work by the name “Vérvád.” (Munkácsy’s widow went on record at the time denying the charges.) Meanwhile, during infrared tests on the painting the letter “M” was found on a faded part of the bottom right corner of the canvas, next to an anchor symbol – a symbol of the tsar.

“Completely Foreign”

Even given the climate of the day, it is unsurprising that Munkácsy – or whomever authored the painting – might have shied away from public association with such a work. Végvári posits that the painting could have been the reason Munkácsy and Sedelmeyer, who was of Jewish background, eventually parted ways. Laboratory tests on the canvas hint that it was a dirty secret from the beginning; numerous pieces of textile embedded in the paint suggest it was being covered with cloth whenever the artist finished working on it for the day.

A similar discomfort is no doubt felt by those in the Hungarian art and culture establishment regarding attempts to link the work to the country’s best-known painter; Taylor says he believes that there may be no amount of evidence considered sufficient to guarantee Vérvád‘s place as an accepted, if inconvenient, part of Munkácsy’s official oeuvre. This is especially true given the current nationalist government, which has vigorously sought to refocus the country on its past cultural achievements, and to downplay what many see as a resurgence of anti-Semitism.

Shortly after Index ran its story, state newswire MTI released a dispatch quoting Gábor Bellák, head curator at the Hungarian National Gallery, strenuously rejecting any notion of Munkácsy’s authorship. “This picture has nothing to do with Munkáscy,” Bellák said, arguing that it looks nothing like his work, and that its “ethos” was “completely foreign” to Munkácsy.

Taylor, who has lectured at INTERPOL on issues of forgery and attribution, and provides US Homeland Security with forensics reports on criminal cases, says he found it “curious” that experts who had not seen the painting in person or the forensics report and already made an effort to deny the attribution. “In the global art world, high-level attribution issues are not simpy settled by saying ‘it doesn’t look like this artist.’”

Meanwhile, leading far-right website Kuruc.info didn’t take a stand on whether the painting was or wasn’t painted by Munkácsy, and instead just called it “brilliant.”

 
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