Synopsis of Modern Identities – European Revivals research project and international conference, 10 – 12 October 2012

Towards the end of the nineteenth-century, European artists began to express a new profound interest in their unique local pasts and cultural inheritances. This growing sense of identity prompted a major flowering of Nationalist debate concerning the fast disappearing regional cultures throughout Europe. This was a discourse largely shaped by the desire within several countries for cultural and artistic, and ultimately social and economic, independence.

As the new century dawned national mythological epics and literature, such as the Kalevala in Finland, the Cuchulainn legend in Ireland and stories of Ossian in Scotland, became a major vehicle of cultural expression and created some of the most important art of the age. Several of the most influential artists of the period were also key figures in this movement. They worked across all artistic media from small-scale traditional domestic crafts and large-scale design to major schemes of architecture and often rather than producing easel-painting artists undertook monumental programmes of mural decoration or stained glass because of the social implications such public art held. For those countries that had not yet achieved their dream of self-sovereignty it became imperative to promote their unique distinctive cultural present as unbroken with the past. This became particularly important for those small nations on the northern, eastern and western fringes of Europe and especially those that had been conquered and divided by powerful neighbours.

Although it is well known that countries on such fringes of Europe’s borders such as Finland, Norway, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Czech, Poland and Hungary had unique and far-reaching cultural renaissances in the form of a ‘Revival’, it is less well known that although each was distinctive they also had much in common. And although direct connections existed, between Finnish and Hungarian artists or Irish and Scottish artists, several other factors contributed to a largely undocumented system of interaction and exchange from the educational and exhibiting opportunities in Paris, London, Berlin and Vienna; and the foundation of national collections of museums and research into vernacular and folk cultures; the rise of mythology and legendary history in literature and music; to the multitude of localised ‘national’ exhibitions of contemporary art and new forms of integrated art and architecture in various local manifestations of the Gesamtkunstwerk; and the major role played by displays at the International Exhibitions and World’s Fairs of the period.

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