Wednesday, October 7, 2009

19th Century Scandal: Mihaly Zichy

Mihály Zichy was born on October 15, 1827 in Zala Hungary and lived till he was 76 years old. He was a major influence on romantic painting in his region and was very well educated in law from two different Hungarian schools. He continued his studies in Vienna and went on to be a teacher in St. Petersburg in his late twenties. From the 1850s onward, Zichy worked in water color, oil on canvas and occasional pencil drawings. This included painting the portrait of Hungary's first Prime Minister Lajos Batthyany.

What drew me to Zichy was his works in the 1870s from his time spent in Paris, France. He did a series of erotic sketches that even to this day make me blush. The subject matter and the artful way he draws the pictures make the viewer bashful as if he or she was looking on a real sexual act.
These drawings especially draw my attention because the time in which Zichy did them in Europe was during the late Victorian era which is known for "prudishness" or even repression.
The power, passion and love felt within Paris
must have inspired him to depict such expressive acts of sex. When looking upon his collection of drawings one must think 'Did he draw this from thought or did he have models?' The answer is unknown but I would not rule out either
assumption. He plays with the idea of value shading and light source in many of his drawings and implies cross hatching in a lot of his pencil work which makes them extremely detailed. I believe most of these drawings are wildly realistic to make a statement. Many of his subjects were average looking people partaking in these acts. It showed the universality of sex. Zichy's scenes depicted sexual acts between people of different genders, ages and social classes. He would also draw same-sex relations and masturbatory acts. He captured the broad spectrum of sexuality much like an artist would aim to cover any subject. It is obvious that Zichy's main focus is the sensuality of the acts and the people participating in them. This is apparent through the blatant lack of detail in the background setting of the drawings. To Zichy, where was not of any importance but what was going on meant everything. It's as though he challenged himself to bring a certain realism and dynamism to his subjects in this very active state. The amount of detail he achieves through line and shade is incredible that it makes the 21st century viewer a little bashful.

Some of these sketches, such as Two Lovers, Zichy did in ink which I think speaks to his
multiple talents within different
medium. I know personally, I have trouble drawing even in charcoal because the permanence of the lines bothers me I could not imagine sketching in ink.

As one could surmise, these works could be seen as controversial. It wasn't until five years after Zichy's death, 1911, that these works were even
published. This 19th century 'porn' was seen as extremely graphic and not through the lens of nudity as art. But who can argue? We have the same debates in our society today about the place of eroticism in art and popular media. Nevertheless, Mihály Zichy paved the way for erotic imagery in an artful context.

Like many artists of this time, Zichy did not only work on sketches but on painting as well. His flexibility as an artist helped him gain recognition from characters such as Tsar Alexander II whom allowed him to paint his coronation. Zichy often created illustrations with religious themes and undertones. For example, The Triumph of the Genius of Destruction, 1878,
painted for The Paris Exhibition, depicts the overwhelming authority a higher power holds over humanity. Despite war efforts God will always be superior. French authorities banned the work due to its daring anti militarist nature. Zichy's work always seemed to be problematic and rather controversial. I enjoy artists who push the limits of the society which confines them which is probably why I enjoy Mihály Zichy's work so much. His use of color and value is just as enchanting as the realism he captures in his drawings. Light source is always something Zichy considers when creating a work as one can see the light adorning the front right of the Holy intervention within this painting. The contrast between deep dark red and bright yellow light set up the motif of good versus evil within the composition. The realistic portrayal of the people with the fantasy elements of the Divine also make this a very captivating imaginative work. While Zichy desires to attain a realistically accurate picture via techniques of foreshortening and implementing vanishing points, he mixes in fantasy within his own creative mind which draws me to his work. His style is so convincing that the viewer must think deeper about the content and meaning behind every work.


Burkovits, Ilona. Mihaly Zichy: Leben und Werk (1827-1906). Budapest: Akademiai Kiado, 1964.ály_Zichy

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