Friday, 28 August 2015

Budapest: first full day
Thursday 27 August, Csontváry etc

Athens in Moonlight, 1901

With 30C in the shade the sensible thing is to go out in the morning then either rest in the afternoon or visit somewhere indoors, ideally with some air-conditioning. Well, we reversed that.

It was not a comfortable night with a full moon. It never is, especially on the first night away, so I had a little under four hours sleep, waking at early dawn. The idea was to  show our briefly visiting friend Stephanie round the city, not disdaining the most popular tourist sites, such as the Vár (or Fort / Palace) District.

As you may imagine the fort is up a steep hill. It is on the Buda side and overlooks Pest, almost opposite the grand parliament building. Normally a bus takes you up the steep gradient but there is a thorough redesign and rebuilding going on in what used to be called Moszka tér (Moscow Square), now renamed Széll Kálmán tér. Hungary loves a political renaming so streets jump in and out of bed with whichever celebrity, historical figure or cause is deemed of attention by the government of the day.

This square is vast and serves as a major junction for Metro, tram and bus lines but it is one great building site for now and the Vár bus seems to have relocated elsewhere. No matter, we climb the hill on foot, look around a bit, stare out over the Halászbástya (Fishermen's Bastion) walls at the Danube glowing like mercury. Then we see there is a big Csontváry retrospective at one of the Palace buildings so we go in.

Csontváry is an extraordinary figure. At the age of 27 he has a vision. It's a calling. He labours on for thirteen more years A pharmacist till the age of forty he decides in 1893 to go to drawing classes and learns to draw portraits, a little stiffly, but in the approved academic manner. But that's just a start. He doesn't stick with classes but sets to painting in his own way. He paints butterflies and birds and other animals. He paints portraits and views. He goes on the road, first to Europe then beyond to Jerusalem. His paintings grow increasingly mystical and grandiose. Some of his later works are vast, wall-sized prophetic scenes. He dies in poverty in 1919 having made some reputation abroad but neglected in Hungary.

What is he like? He is various. At some points he reminds me of Le Douanier Rousseau touched with early Chagall, at other times (in his colours and skies) of Nolde. His figures can be as gestural as L S Lowry's, his objects float against dark backgrounds somewhat like Alfred Wallis's, but there is always a romantic grandeur at the back of the pictorial idea. Best of all are his middle to later period paintings of places, generally of buildings with figures in front of them and an extensive landscape or townscape behind. This is where the visionary aspect of his art comes most subtly to the fore. His trees sparkle with small raised dots of light. His figures move out of a scumbled patch of rich colour. The perspective is wrong but that becomes simply another aspect of vision. Something is happening not just in the symbolic or iconographic sense but linearly, formally, at pictorial depth. There is a genuine enchantment there especially in his Italian and Greek periods.

At certain points in the exhibition there is a film where an actor speaks as Csontváry. Unfortunately what Csontváry says is generally a blend of cliché and megalomania, and indeed the last room in the exhibition is labelled Megalomania. It is very well worth Googling his images, though his treatment of paint will not strike you on a screen. It is that squidgy stuff on canvas.


In the afternoon we decide to go to the Zoo. This is an act of madness under the circumstances though the zoo is itself a real art nouveau monument. The animals stare past us, concentrate on eating or contemplating the blank air. They are otherness in the flesh, the living clichés of themselves as we have made them. But they retain their pride - chiefly through indifference. Among the gazelles and giraffes a genuinely wild creature scampers across the floor into a pile of straw. It is a field mouse, The mouse, or its kin, reappear in several enclosures. They are in overdrive, stopping every so often to get their bearings and breath then stepping on the gas like tiny boy racers.

The adult elephant looks forlorn, the young one splashes in the water. It is pretty hot out here. We amble on and find ourselves at the edge of the children's zoo. Our hands are stamped with purple camels and we are allowed to continue. There are donkeys and ponies and a beautifully preserved empire-period roundabout with ornate carriages and a serious crowd of fairground horses. Perhaps this is what it's about really.

On return home we have half an hour's rest before heading over to L and G's in the next road, for dinner with Yudit Kiss, whose The Summer My Father Died I translated a few years back. Small and full of a kindly but furious energy we talk of this and that and finally about the plight of the migrants. Yudit's twenty-one year old son, Áron, is with us and we get involved in varying analyses of the situation. Over the last ten years I have developed an allergic reaction to the word 'discourse' but then I am not twenty-one. The discourse of the discourse is a media conspiracy about the media.

That is not fair. He is passionate in his views and very intelligent. I am an ageing gentleman who has worked with cultural theorists and finished up liking some of them very much. I have entered the discourse of ageing. In fact it is midnight again and I am quite tired.


Paul H said...

Apparently, Picasso is allegedly to have said after viewing at exhibition by Csontváry, "“I did not realize there was another great painter in this century aside from myself." It does sound slightly apocryphal and one of those things Hungarians tell themselves over and over again to justify their unique contribution to world culture. Nonetheless, Csontváry is a great painter and deserves a much wider audience. I saw an exhibition of his last year in Pécs - perhaps it is one that has moved to Budapest - and was staggered by the breath of his imagination and creativity.

George S said...

He is a strange artist, Paul. There is a kind of greatness in him but it's not in the biggest most ambitious works that leave me a little cold. It is in that 1902-1905 period of medium-sized works.