Romania’s new exhibition on Vlad the Impaler and Dracula makes the mistake of confusing history with fantasy. Review by Michael Bird
Some nations create myths. Some myths create nations. And some nations have myths forced upon them. This last situation is the case with Romania and Dracula.
The country received the vampire legend without wanting it. Irishman Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel sensationalised Transylvania as a locale for erotic homicide by blood-sucking aristocrats – and remains a leading signifier for Romania in the international mind.
But Stoker never visited Romania, his book was not fully published in Romanian until 1990 and few Romanians have read the novel. In the last fifty years the local culture has merged the Dracula myth with that of 15th Century Wallachian prince Vlad ‘Tepes’ Dracul– which is translated as Vlad the Impaler or, more amusingly for the English, Vlad the Prick. But there is little linking the two figures other than a shared surname.
On wooden plates and ceramic mugs on sale outside Transylvanian castles, the portrait of Vlad Tepes is often inscribed with the title ‘Dracula’ – a comparison would be for Stratford-Upon-Avon to sell souvenir glasses with Shakespeare’s image underlined by the words ‘Sherlock Holmes’.
Vlad Tepes’s reign of south Romania included trading off between his more powerful Hungarian and Turkish neighbours. Period literature – written by Romania’s neighbours – details Vlad’s modus operandi of impaling his enemies on stakes or inviting guests to his castle, feeding them, locking them in and setting fire to the building.
Conversely Dracula is an undead character who can only be eliminated by a wooden stick – Vlad’s very weapon of choice.
But the real victim here is Romania, which is at the mercy of two independent myths – mostly constructed by foreigners.
This exhibition at the National Museum of Arts makes the same mistake – it combines historical artefacts from Romania’s 15th and 16th century with the vampire legend – an 18th century construct from central Europe. Even the title confuses the casual visitor – ‘Dracula: Voievod (prince) and Vampire’, above an image of Vlad Tepes.
However the presentation and some exhibits are intriguing – lurid red drapes and background give the impression the gallery is bathed in blood. Centre stage is the first painted portrait of Vlad, on loan from Austria’s Ambras Castle, in his fur-skinned coat, pearl-encrusted hat and his signature moustache, like a plump curly parenthesis.
There are insights into how the west used the ‘Tepes’ myth as propaganda to characterise the east Europeans as underdeveloped and homicidal. Curiously, this translates into Biblical myth. An Austrian image of Pontius Pilate and Jesus pictures the Roman colonist as bulbous-eyed and pointy-moustached – a dead ringer for the Wallachian butcher. A 17th Century Viennese pastoral scene shows regal hunters in the foreground overlooking an image of peasants spiking the rumps of heathens with sharpened timber – as though impaling was a rural pastime.
But there is not enough material from Tepes’s period, so the exhibition is padded out with turbans, caftans and sabres from the 15th and 16th century and anecdotes about rulers of nations between Lithuania and Constantinople.
Then the exhibition jumps into the 18th Century and enters Moravia, where it elaborates accounts of vampires. Peasants blame mysterious deaths in villages on the dead who walk at night, so they dig up graveyards and disinter bodies. When they find a corpse that has not fully decayed, the villagers chop off its head and burn the body. Villagers recount how people become hungry for human blood if they eat the flesh of an animal which a vampire has consumed or if they are buried in the same cemetery as a vampire. These accounts fuel vampire and zombie myths – but how does this relate to Vlad Tepes?
This exhibition should either focus on Dracula – the legend, its influences and its impact or Vlad Tepes – the myth and the reality, instead it further distorts an international understanding of Romanian culture and history by creating a hybrid of alive and undead.
Dracula Voievod and Vampire
In collaboration with the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna and Ambras Castle
National Museum of Arts (MNAR),
49-53 Calea Victoriei.
Until 10 October