Ludwig Hevesi, the Hungarian-born art critic, is probably best known as the author of the motto that graces the facade of the Secession Building in Karlsplatz in resplendent golden letters: ‘Der Zeit ihre Kunst, der Kunst ihre Freiheit!’ or ‘To every age its art, to every art its freedom!’ Hevesi, however, played a far more significant role in the cultural life of Vienna in the second half of the nineteenth century. Having published a German edition of Hevesi’s collected art writings in 2015, Ilona Sármány- Parsons undertakes in her latest book to examine Hevesi’s oeuvre in a wider context.

From the introductory biographical chapter we learn that Hevesi was born in 1843, in the eastern Hungarian town of Heves. The widely read youth originally studied to become a physician at universities in Pest and later in Vienna, but the lectures in classical philology and aesthetics he attended soon diverted him from medicine. In Vienna, he joined a circle of journalists gathered around Miksa Falk, who exerted a formative influence on him. In 1866, he became a columnist for Pester Lloyd, one of the foremost dailies based in the Hungarian capital (published in German). In 1875, he relocated to Vienna, where he assumed charge of the culture column for Fremden-Blatt, the leading press organ of the state administration. Until his tragic suicide in 1910, he continued to publish articles in both papers, informing Hungarian readers of cultural news in Vienna, and vice versa. In the process, he became an active practitioner of cultural transfer and audience education. He wrote on notable events in the world of theatre and the arts, keenly followed developments in the cultural centres of Europe, and visited world’s fairs to report on them. His recognition as the foremost authority in his field is indicated by the fact that he was the first to publish a comprehensive review of Austrian fine arts in the nineteenth century (Oesterreichische Kunst im 19. Jahrhundert), and that in 1906 he was commissioned by The Studio, one of the top art journals in England, to contribute an introduction to the new art scene in Vienna. Hevesi’s style and distinctive vocabulary (he had a knack for combining words in entirely novel, unique ways) soon became the model for young critics to emulate. His critical writings were always vivid, tactile, empathetic, and often borderline free verse in their blending of genres.

Hevesi’s stature as an innovator of art criticism can only be properly grasped in the international context. In the second and third chapters of the book, the author offers a panoramic overview of the era’s major art critics in France, England, Germany, and the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, and discusses the exhibitions that influenced the young Hevesi. The genre of art criticism emerged in tandem with the rolling out of art institutions, the professionalization of art history, the mounting importance of exhibitions in the eyes of the public, and the shaping up of art markets. In the nineteenth century, the notion of ‘artist to the court’ was replaced by that of the exhibiting artist, who counted on positive reception by art journalists to attain a reputation. Attracting audiences worldwide, the major art exhibitions also served to elevate the prestige and image of the hosting country. Art writing at the time was ideologically loaded in France and prone to moralizing in England. By comparison, the approach that gained ground in German-speaking countries—the one that shaped Hevesi’s views in fundamental ways—favoured a historical perspective and a focus on the artwork itself. Despite a legacy of massive censorship, the cultural columns of Vienna’s daily papers after 1848 were written by members of a relatively narrow circle of intellectuals with a zeal for modernity who embraced the principles of bourgeois liberalism. Their stance was dominated by an emphasis on substance and by the idea—inherited from German Romanticism—that a work of art could and should only be analysed in a critique that constituted a work of art in its own right. It was by reading the feuilletons of Ludwig Speidel, Rudolf von Eitelberger, Carl von Lützow, Jakob von Falke, Friedrich Pecht, and Eduard Hanslick that Hevesi formulated his own critical idiom and became the master par excellence of the genre.

The subsequent chapters trace Hevesi’s career in strict chronological order, painting in the process a veritable tableau of Viennese art and culture in the second half of the nineteenth century. Beside reporting on a regular basis on the major exhibitions at venues such as the Künstlerhaus, the Österreichischer Kunstverein and, from the late 1890s, the Secession, and the Hagenbund, Hevesi made a point of following the private galleries which claimed an ever-larger piece of the pie starting in the 1890s (Galerie Miethke and Salon Pisko). His writings chart the rich web of international connections in which the art of the imperial city was inextricably intertwined, and which reached Hungarian creative minds due to the proximity of Vienna and Hungary’s being part of the same state formation. Hevesi’s feuilletons provide a vivid portrait of the pageant of styles characterizing the second half of the century. Peering into this kaleidoscope, however, he never became dizzy enough to lose his bearings, because he used sheer artistic quality as his only trusty compass. This is why he could admire Rudolf von Alt, Makart, Munkácsy, and Klimt at one and the same time. The details of cultural history augmenting his analyses afford a glimpse into the origins of such phenomena as the fad for Biedermeier art, which had been very much alive in Vienna ever since the Schubert exhibition of 1897, and offer colourful snapshots of state sponsorship as well as the evolution of public and private collections. The book may be read as a history of art criticism printed in the Viennese press, in that it does not confine the inquiry to Hevesi but branches out to discuss the writings of several influential contemporaries, including Albert Ilg and Adalbert Franz Seligmann. Through these meanderings, Sármány-Parsons shows us Hevesi’s key role in establishing the professional terminology of art criticism, along with his consummate skill in teaching audiences in Vienna and Budapest how to view and interpret paint on the canvas.

The book also breaks new ground by placing the style shifts of the 1870s and 1880s in an international context and by shedding light on how the Secession, exemplified by Klimt, emerged victorious from the stylistic medley of the 1890s, in which so many pro-modern groups and schools vied for primacy. Remarkably, the book refuses to sweep the ‘losers’ of this battle aside, choosing instead to remain open to the merit of their own artistic achievements and arguments.

Hevesi was instrumental in nurturing the career of several artists and, more generally, in honing the Secession’s strategy for a breakthrough. By then, he had become a revered grey eminence of art criticism whose opinion could not be gainsaid or circumvented with ease, particularly when it came to the Secession. Yet Hevesi’s authority and influence went far beyond the history of Viennese Art Nouveau. In the seminal 1903 book mentioned before, he accomplished nothing less than the canonization of the fine arts in nineteenth-century Austria, with Vienna at its centre. To this day, our thinking about the era is deeply indebted to the conceptual framework he devised, and the artists he placed on a pedestal— Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller, Rudolf von Alt, Hans Makart, Gustav Klimt— remain the best-known among their contemporaries. Indeed, it is this process of canonization that particularly fascinates Sármány-Parsons, and to which she devotes the closing chapters of her book as she subjects the last works of the famous critic to scrutiny (Acht Jahre Sezession, Altkunst-Neukunst Wien).

Richly illustrated, smooth-flowing, and downright enjoyable to read, this text will be a delicacy of cultural history not only for the academic specializing in the period but for the curious layman as well. Of course, apart from being a pleasurable read, the book raises several vital themes and issues. Perhaps the most essential of these is the urgent need to step up the exploration and appreciation of the work of other Hungarian art critics—for instance, Károly Lyka, Artúr Elek, Ödön Gerő, Tamás Szana, László Kézdi- Kovács—comparable to Hevesi in their penchant for organizing the art scene and educating audiences. Sármány-Parsons brings a characteristically humble professional attitude, a broad international outlook, and an appropriate distance from her subject to the comprehensive treatment of data she has collected over several decades. As she summarizes the results of her painstaking project, she opens paths for future researchers to take toward new discoveries in the history of art criticism.

Translated by Péter Balikó Lengyel

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