Miklós Barabás, Bust of Sándor Petőfi (1846)

Miklós Barabás, Bust of Sándor Petőfi (1846)

Contributor: Emese Asztalos

Location: Hungary

Description: Sándor Petőfi (1823–1849) was not just a poet, but also a cultural hero and icon in Hungary. In his lifetime he was already what we might spell with symbolic capital letters: The Romantic Poet. His name could be transformed into a term, as in the case of Byron or Liszt. Of course this “Petőfism” is not so extensive as Byronism or Lisztomania, but still, the main features and attributes of his character could be also be abstracted to many of the same symbolic Romantic meanings, for instance freedom, youth or independence.

This portrait of Petőfi was painted by Miklós Barabás, who was the main protagonist of nineteenth-century Hungarian Art. All the most important figures of the nineteenth century were portrayed by him, so Petőfi’s popularity is underscored by the fact that the lead portraitist depicted him in 1846. As an engraving, it was published first on the cover of Petőfi’s Selected Poems in 1846, which immediately conveys several metaphorical messages. With its opening or initiating function, the picture reinforces the poet’s intention: his aim was to be considered as the embodiment of poetry itself. In his lifetime, and particularly after his death, this image became the most well-known portrayal of Petőfi, and was reproduced extensively. It gives a characteristic glimpse of the method of the construction of Petőfi’s Romantic authorship through symbolic portraits from the nineteenth century.

The visual aspects of the Petőfi-phenomenon or “Petőfism” are quite well-researched in Hungary. It can be argued that Petőfi’s poetical and political fame was supported by the great expansion of images of him in his lifetime. As a result, after his early death, in his prospering cult, he could be easily handled as a visual object. But there are some scientific questions around the process of the initial creation of this image: how did he manage his own myth-making, or create himself as a cultural production?

Petőfi was not just the first self-made-man poet in Hungary who made his living from writing, editing, and publishing; he was also a cultural pioneer who became a real literary celebrity. His portraits emphasized and enhanced the representation of the poet he displayed in his poems. And representing this new literary voice speaking the fresh and new poetical discourse of his age required new visual effects or at least new attributes in his portraits.

There are some resemblances between the poet Lord Byron (1788-1824) and Petőfi: both of them constructed their images, and moreover this invention could be considered as an artwork, as a creative exploration of the self. The similarities between their portraits provide evidence that Byron’s portraits made the strongest visual and cultural impact on Europe among literary figures of the nineteenth century. His visual presentation of himself as a Romantic poet could be modified and adapted easily, because it could be divided from his oeuvre and literary discourse, so it could work perfectly without connection to the poet or the actual works. Hungarian portrait-painters could reference the essential Byronic elements of the Romantic Poet through evoking Byronic images.

As an illustration, it is worth considering the cover of the first Hungarian publication that combined a biography of Byron and translations of his poems, from 1842. It is clearly a reproduction of the oil painting of Byron by George Sanders (1774–1846) which was created with the contribution of Byron. It is one of the most successful images of him: it conveys the complex meanings of the Romantic wanderer, the Pilgrim in the stormy landscape, the Admirer of the Orient, the Freedom Fighter in national liberation movements, etc. It was also one of the most popular images of Byron in his lifetime; it was displayed at the office of his publisher, John Murray, during Byron’s years of London fame (1813-1816). Importantly, it includes the most ‘Byronic’ elements: for example, the curly hair (with the veiled reference to Apollo and the god of poetry) and the open shirt collar.

This open shirt collar makes the main point regarding Hungarian Romanticism. This element – through the well-known stock-image of Byron – had been domesticated and shifted by the Hungarian painters since the 1830s or 1840s to Hungary. Through its association with the character of Petőfi, it finally lost its traceable associations to Byron and got the name of Petőfi-collar. This renamed Byron-collar, so let’s call it the Petőfi-collar, did not fit into the conventional dress-code of the day. The neck without tie or scarf, the open collar, deliberately emphasized the artistic and political view of Petőfi. This open shirt collar became a brand, a trademark, which accomplished gestures of republicanism, and political and artistic radicalism. Actually, Byron was quite popular among the young Hungarian poets, so it could be argued that they were self-consciously and fully aware of continuing European Romantic traditions and references through adopting Byron’s iconographical features. In fact, if we take a total view of the major iconic representations of Petőfi made in his lifetime, there is little or no resemblance between the various portraits. This is evidence that they do not depict the poet himself, but primarily tend to suggest a proper idea, a concept, namely the Romantic Author.

The main intentions and tendencies of the Romantic Movement are embodied in portraits of both Byron and Petőfi, in particular the conscious mythicising and shaping of their own image and authorship. Beyond the open shirt collar, other elements developed this visual discourse, this iconographic parallelism. Both played significant roles and met their deaths in the independence wars (Greek and Hungarian). Legends (formed and fostered by themselves) that grew up around them also drew crucial connections. Petőfi’s disappearance after death, the gossip about his unpublished poems etc., correlate with the myth of Byron’s death or his burned memoirs. These aspects affect the mythmaking texts of the biographers. The fanatical collection of the relics and cultic objects (eg. pieces of hair, parts of sheets, pieces from their furniture) of these national heroes are also comparable, despite their strongly different social origins and identity. While Byron was proud of his noble ancestry, Petőfi consistently underlined his non-aristocratic roots, yet they were depicted with similar attributes. This confirms that this “visual Byronism” is increasingly independent of its origins. Both Byron’s and Petőfi’s portraits have become individual “data carriers” of an idea of the Romantic Poet, often with little or no connections to their poetry, but widely recognisable across Europe.

Date: 1846

Creator: Miklós Barabás

Subject: Sándor Petőfi

Object type: portrait

Format: engraving