Gathering dust in the cellars of our art galleries: Europe's brutal past

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In Budapest last week, I went to see some of my favourite paintings. They are neither ancient nor modern, though the Hungarian collections are rich in both. The pictures I like, in the Castle Gallery high above the city, are the 19th-century history paintings, the art of romantic nationalism.

I stood again under Szekely's The Women of Eger. Done in preposterous colours of thunder, lightning, smoke and flame, this shows the defence of the city of Eger against the Turks, when the women of the city took up the weapons of their dead or wounded men and lined the battlements. At the centre stands one tremendous black-haired woman; her left hand holds the wrist of a fainting male warrior while her right grasps a crimsoned sword. She has just kebabbed a swarthy Turk who is in the act of plunging backwards off a scaling-ladder. Her expression mingles triumph with horror. She has slain a Turk for Christian Hungary - but was this a womanly deed?

All round the gallery Magyar princes are galloping to battle with whirling scimitars, legendary bandits are snatching up swooning women to lie across their saddles, heroes are saying their last farewells before martyrdom, and kings lie dying, their armour gleaming in the moonlight. Some of these paintings are crude and ridiculous. Others, like those by Szekely, Benczur and the masterly Munkacsy, can make your neck-hairs rise. But in the Hungary of today, 40 years after the 1956 Revolution, people are more interested in the struggle to stay afloat in the torrent of free-market capitalism. Heroic reveries are out of fashion. The great paintings seem stranded on an alien shore.

When they were done, in the 19th century, the torrent was romantic nationalism: the "Springtime of Nations", which reached its first climax in the revolutions of 1848. All over the continent, from Ireland to Serbia, the medieval past was summoned up and re-imagined to inspire struggles for national independence. Poets, novelists, historians and grammarians pitched in. So did the painters and sculptors. History, they said, had been a series of rehearsals for the day when a free Hungary - or Ireland or Poland or Finland - raises its flag over the barricades as the imperial oppressors flee.

In every National Gallery in Europe there are such paintings. Often they are colossal. Sometimes they hang on the walls, but sometimes - where nationalism is wary or unfulfilled - they are stacked in storerooms. Their message is that the struggle for liberty is a sacred destiny, and it's no accident that their compositions are often borrowed from the imagery of religious art.

The Liberator seated among his comrades, reading out the draft of a proclamation, is Jesus at the Last Supper. The slain King mourned by shrouded women with lanterns is Christ taken down from the cross. Above all, there is the obsession with death, worshipped as the sacrifice out of which new life and salvation must spring - as if a whole nation must be crucified in order to rise from the dead in splendour.

At the Vienna Kunsthalle, there is an exhibition until January titled "Historicism: The Dream of Happiness". Sponsored by the Council of Europe, it brings together some 1200 works of art - textiles and architectural drawings as well as painting and sculpture - which in different ways display how European artists have celebrated the past or adapted ancient styles and traditions to suit new purposes. One room is devoted to monarchs and heroic rulers. Ingres' portrait of Napoleon has been brought from as far away as Atlanta. From Budapest comes Szekely's painting of the dead King Lajos II on the battlefield of Mohacs, Hungary's Flodden, where Turks slaughtered the Magyar nobility and extinguished the country's independence.

"The Dream of Happiness" is a strange name for this kind of art. It applies to the nostalgia for pre-industrial craft and community but, given the sort of history that Europe has endured, hardly fits the mood of the history paintings. They are mostly dreams of unhappiness, or at least of rebellion, disaster and martyrdom. Kings are handsome and tragic, queens are pale and lovely, and the realities of killing, destruction and flight are exalted into kitsch.

By the end of the century, artists had grown disgusted with this sanitising of misery. Many had been through war and insurrection, and knew that medieval bloodshed had been no less hideous. In the 1890s, the Polish genius Jacek Malczewski painted Melancholia: out of his easel pours a whirlwind of mouthing, gibbering figures - peasants with pikes, children with rifles, soldiers waving swords - which mounts into the air like futile smoke. That was the history painting to end history paintings.

My own dream of happiness would be to mount an exhibition of this kind of art, not eclectic like the Vienna one, but restricted to the art of romantic nationalism. It would be difficult. The size of the works and the cost of insuring them would be daunting. And many of the curators whose walls and cellars are crammed with this stuff do not like them: political art which tells stories, especially nationalist stories, is seriously out of fashion. But this was a big episode in European culture, a set of passionate assumptions which were shared all over the continent, and it is time to confront them.

Europe has always been a cruel, unstable zone of the world. Its "civilisation" has amounted to the gift of holding a mirror up to its own brutality before shedding more blood. But it was not until the 19th century that whole populations were taught to understand their past as a sacred procession of wars, whose success or failure should be the grounds for personal pride or grief. History became a compulsory heritage; to disown it was "disloyalty to the nation". History turned into an offer you could not refuse.

And yet the Central European nations who flocked to admire these romanticised paintings of death and battle were living through the real thing. Szekely painted the 1526 death of King Lajos in 1850 - only a year after Hungary's desperate insurrection for liberty had been crushed by Austrian and Russian armies. In the crowd at the opening party were people whose sons and husbands still lay in chains or in shallow graves out on the plains. They read these paintings as we no longer can: as a silent howl of grief, anger and love.

Nobody speaks that language now. After Budapest, I went to the southern city of Pecs, with its old mosques from Turkish times, and found Hungarians in an unromantic mood. There is the usual glitz at the centre, where McDonalds has taken over the ground floor of the town hall. But the people are struggling to survive. The mines around the city have closed; the Americans have taken over the cigarette factory and sacked workers. Pushy people turn themselves into limited companies, live on "expenses", then go bankrupt to avoid tax. Others do two or three jobs, as they did in Communist times.

The hangover after the 1989 revolution is heavy. They ask: are we really better off than before? Political freedom is okay, but was it wise to let foreigners buy all our factories and businesses?

Sometimes they are not sure of the answer. But at least 1989 was bloodless. A few years ago, the citizens would climb the hill behind Pecs in the evening and listen to the concussion of the Serbian guns far to the south, grinding Vukovar to ruins. On the airwaves, Radio Zagreb squalled its monotonous hatred and lies. Life may be tough in Pecs, but there is something to be thankful for: peace, and a new culture whose holy places are banks rather than scaffolds. Over there, in the blood-drenched lands of Melancholia, they are still living in a history painting.