I’m a firm believer in old souls and past lives. Some of us – not all of us, but some of us – have been around before. I’ve learned to pay attention to that feeling I get when I meet someone for the first time and recognise something familiar in them. An instant like or dislike. An affinity or a wariness. Something clicks. Or it doesn’t.
I can’t remember when I first met Hungarian artist Szilvia Fekete. Covid has played havoc with my timelines. I feel like I have known her forever. And a day. We’re not friends, per se. I don’t know when her birthday is or what music she likes or what her favourite anything is. But I’m drawn both to her work and to the wonderfully engaging way she has of expressing herself. Someday, I’ll get around to exploring in which life we first met. I’m sure we have been friends before and could well be again.
Regular readers will know that I don’t know much about art – I simply know what I like. Paintings either speak to me, or they don’t. At an exhibition organised by the Embassy of Ireland in Budapest to mark St Brigid’s Day earlier this year, my interest in Fekete’s Irish connection was piqued. I’ve continued to follow her work and am looking forward to her next exhibition, which opens at the Ady25 Galéria és Kiállítótér on 8 June.
This solo exhibition – Out of Seasand and the Air – focuses on the crossover between the genres of fine art and literature, the literature in question being James Joyce’s Ulysses. The Irish-Hungarian connection is an interesting one; Bloom’s fictional father was a Hungarian Jew by the name of Rudolf Virág who was born in Szombathely and emigrated to Ireland.
Fekete has no Irish relatives. There’s not a drop of Irish blood in her and yet she has an Irishness about her that you can’t help but notice. It’s in the little things. How she describes her world. Her directness. Her colourful way of speaking. As she spelt out the name of the Hungarian translator Miklós Szentkuthy, who translated the text of Ulysses, she pointed out the fada on the ó, naming it so. The fada, by the way, is a diacritic mark in Irish that denotes a long vowel.
Her dad is a big U2 fan. He’s also a fan of traditional Irish music and regularly took young Fekete and her sister to see the Hungarian Irish music group Greenfields. Better yet, he’s a fan of WB Yeats and has translated many of his poems into Hungarian. Her exposure to Irish literature was gradual and long-lasting. Oscar Wilde ranks top of her list of favourites, with Samuel Beckett featuring, too. “I was happy when I had the matureness in my brain to be able to appreciate Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.” I saw Sean Mathias’s production of the play at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in London back in 2009 and I’m still trying to get a grasp of the absurdity. I suspect it was neither the actors nor the play but rather the interpretation that confounded me.
While at university, Fekete applied for a European Exchange Programme and studied for a year at the Crawford College of Art and Design in Cork. There she studied Irish visual art, fully embracing the Irish way of life. Love of the country and the culture blossomed. “Ireland moved into my life for good”, she said, recounting how she met and later married her husband, Luke. Now, with her daughter who is half Hungarian, half Irish, she says: “Irish culture has become my culture as well.”
Fekete belongs to a group of artists, Magyar Művészkönyvalkotók Társasága (Hungarian Artists Book Association). They produce art based on the body of a book – any book. Her exhibition features three examples of book art, one of which uses pages from Ulysses.
Also included is a poem she wrote three years ago, which was published in the national newspaper Élet és Irodalom. The poem resonated with a paragraph she came across while reading both the Hungarian text and the English text of the novel, side by side, in preparation for this exhibition.
Both. Not one. Both.
I’ve tried. I have. I even bought the unabridged audio version and tried that, too. And I’m still struggling. The shame of it! How can I profess to being Irish and not have read what is arguably Ireland’s most famous book, after the Book of Kells? Fekete got her first copy of Ulysses (in Hungarian) from her Dad as a birthday present many years ago. But she didn’t read it then.
I don’t like leaving things halfway. I like to finish something when I start it. I needed an occasion. Last year was the Centenary [of the publication of Ulysses], and I finally read it.
The pressure is off. I simply have to wait for the right occasion to present itself. And then I’ll dust off the CDs and hunt for a CD player.
Another Hungarian artist, Ferenc Martyn, illustrated Ulysses in the 1950s, but Fekete is not doing that. Her bilingual exhibition (Hungarian-English) also features one installation of seashells and seven paintings that have been inspired by the novel. She explores how Joyce’s method of free association and stream of consciousness can be transitioned to visual art.
While reading the novel, Fekete allowed her mind to wander. As she read, she made sketches. The paintings she’s exhibiting were “born based on a word, a sentence, even a full paragraph”.
This isn’t the first time Fekete has used written work to inform her visual art. Her piece Szövevény (Net) was selected as part of the 2021 exhibition marking the fifth anniversary of the death of Imre Kertész, the first Hungarian to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. She’s also paraphrased Shakespeare’s Hamlet’s Ophelia in a photo series. The theoretical research, which serves as a background for Fekete’s artistic work, is also a novel: Michel Houellebecq’s Extension du Domaine de la Lutte (lit. trans. Extension of the Domain of Struggle, published in English as Whatever).
And in case you’re wondering if I misspelt the title of Fekete’s exhibition, it’s from Ulysses: “And there were vessels that are wrought by magic of Mahound out of seasand and the air by a warlock with his breath that he blares into them like to bubbles.” I think Joyce and herself would have lots to talk about.
The exhibition, which will be opened by the Irish Ambassador to Hungary, H.E. Ronan Gargan, runs from 8 June to 31 July at Ady25 Galéria és Kiállítótér – 1022 Budapest, Ady Endre u. 25. See you there.
*Artist’s portrait taken by Márk Mórocz
First published in the Budapest Times 27 May 2023