Posts

Of art and uprisings

Some years ago, seeing off an Irish friend on her return flight to Dublin, we sat in Budapest Airport having a coffee in the company of an American friend. A bunch of lads was sitting way out of hearing distance. Much to the amusement of my American friend, we pegged them immediately as being Irish. We then went around the room pointing out the other Irish to him. Not believing us, he took a walk to check for himself. We, of course, were right. There’s something about the Irish that makes it easy to pick us out in a crowd.

But I never thought this would apply to artists and paintings.

There’s a lovely little exhibition in two parts currently running in the Pintér Gallery at Falk Miksa utca 10. The first, Parallel Uprisings 1916/1956, features photographs of  the Irish Uprising of 1916 alongside photos from the Hungarian Uprising of 1956, both of which had high costs in terms of civilian deaths and widespread destruction. Both would change the tenor of political and public opinion at home and abroad.

Alongside the photos from Ireland is a bilingual extract from the W.B. Yeats poem Easter 1916, in which he talks of a terrible beauty being born. Alongside the Hungarian photos is a bilingual extract from the Sándor Márai poem Mennyből az Angyal (Angel from Heaven), in which he reminds us that: ‘People born free in their native land falter because they cannot understand the fact that we will always recall: freedom is the greatest gift of all.’

Poignant words indeed. It’s a telling snapshot of two important times in the histories of the two countries.

But it was the paintings of one Ferenc Martyn (born Kaposvár, 1899; died Pécs, 1986) that really wowed me, in particular the five that screamed IRISH! And no wonder. Peter Martyn, his great-great-grandfather, was born in 1772 in Castlebar, County Mayo. He emigrated from Ireland in 1790 to join the Austro-Hungarian Imperial Army. When he retired, he settled in Hungary.

Among his Irish kinsmen, Martyn gets credit for novelist, playwright and first president of Sinn Féin Edward Martyn, and one of the founders of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Richard Martin.

As Ferenc Martyn painted his way into the annals of Hungarian art history, others also picked up on the influence of his Irish heritage on his work. In 1946, Hungarian art critic Ernő Kállai had this to say: ‘The origin of memories and associations poured into abstract forms of painting […] is not difficult to determine, knowing that Ferenc Martyn descended on his father’s side, from Irish mariners.’

I’ve said before that I’m no art critic but I know what I like and what I don’t like. And I didn’t need Kállai to point this out.

Ulysses by Ferenc Martyn

Ulysses by Ferenc Martyn

The angular shapes and lines of his 1955 painting Ulysses form a rather iconic representation of the famous book that Martyn illustrated [24 of his 27 Ulysses illustrations are in the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin].  The browns and greens of his 1943 triptych Brown Crusaders are reminiscent of a wet shoreline after a storm when the seaweed lies stodgy in the sand.

And the muted colours of Celtic imagery in his 1954 Two Ewers took me back to the Round Towers and the High Crosses. Together, they line one wall of the exhibition and, seen as a collection within a collection, they are particularly stunning.

The exhibition was opened by His Excellency Pat Kelly, Ambassador of Ireland to Hungary, and Mr Lorand Horvathy, vice-mayor of Tata, where the paintings are on permanent exhibition. Both exhibitions run for two weeks. If you’re in the vicinity, pop by.

First published in the Budapest Times 15 April 2015

Common ground

Ever since I saw Andy Warhol’s rendition of a tin of Campbell’s soup in the San Francisco MoMA, modern art has confounded me. For the most part, my singular lack of appreciation for modern art doesn’t come between me and my sleep. I know what I like, and, better still, I know what I don’t like. Yet I was struck again by this inability to ‘get it’ when I stumbled across the Common Ground Exhibit in New York a couple of weeks ago.
In yet another attempt to understand where I’m going wrong, I consulted the great minds that have gone before me: Napoleon’s A picture is worth a thousand words. Yes, and most of them are unprintable. Oscar Wilde’s A work of art is the unique result of a unique temperament. That I can identify with – if unique is a polite way of saying ‘completely bonkers’. Albert Camus’ A guilty conscience needs to confess. A work of art is a confession. Isn’t that what confessionals are for? Van Gogh’s
If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced. And you can still keep them in your attic!  Finally, I hit on Aristotle’s The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance. Now we’re getting somewhere. Inward significance.
But how to find the inward significance of this giant ketchup bottle (2001) by Paul McCarthy? According to the New York Times, ‘Mr McCarthy’s ketchup bottle, aligned with the dome of City Hall, makes a kind of Neo-Pop-psychoanalytic connection between patriarchy and power, with Mr Bloomberg playing the role of a creepy authoritarian rather than a benevolent daddy.’ Now I ask you, how would I ever have come to that conclusion on my own? How many years of education would I have needed to recognise the significance of this piece? What would I have needed to have experienced in my life so far to make that giant ketchup bottle more than just a giant ketchup bottle?
Christian Jankowski’s granite slab was more up my street. This I could get. Or so I thought. A simple expression of the artist’s wish to be buried ‘somewhere on common ground’.  The inward significance in this case is very much mirrored in the inscription. A case of it being what it is and no more. And I checked with the New York Times… and I got this one right!
In Thomas Schütte’s Memorial for an Unknown Artist (2011), I can see the angst of not being recognised. The frustration of no-one knowing your worth. The tragedy of great talent remaining undiscovered. The hands-to-head feverish clutching seems vaguely familiar. Do I recognise it as something I have experienced myself? Is this inward significance thing more about my innards than those of the artist or the art form? Do I feel as though my talent is unrecognised? Am I hiding my light under the proverbial bushel? Sweet Mother of Divine Jesus… do I need therapy?
Stop! Enough! Give it up, Mary, and admit that you have neither the wherewithal nor  the inclination to be arty. So most of it goes over your head… that’s not a bad thing. Just think of the damage it might do if it actually got into your head!
‘Common Ground’ continues through Nov. 30 at City Hall Park, Park Row and Chambers Street; (212) 223-7800, publicartfund.org

Light from a big sky

Late afternoon. April. South Africa. The sun starts to set and this particular part of the world is bathed in a godly light. Cecile B. de Mille comes to mind. The clouds move, slowly changing shape, as if an invisible choreographer is directing them across the sky. The same ingredients: sun, clouds, sky and yet no two afternoon skies are the same. As we travel back to camp, we meet our neighbours. Tired from a day foraging for food, they laze around in the evening sun. We pass a baboon, engrossed in picking fleas from his mate’s tail. Focused on the task at hand and paying no attention to our kombi. We may as well be invisible. The sunlight catches him just so and adds a reddish tinge to his coat and dresses him for an evening at home with the family.

We turn a corner and see a lioness, stretched out on the side of the road, enjoying what’s left of the heat of the day. She radiates pure gold and seems so placid, so tame. On guard, protecting the cubs I know are nearby, she appears so approachable. And yet I know that if I reach towards her, that will change. In a flash. All the godly light in the world won’t change the fact that she is wild – not wild in her world, wild in mine.

A zebra, black and white in the noon-day light, turns biscuit brown as he grazes beneath the lowering sun. Yet another trick of nature as all its forces work together to change the shape of things as we see them. To show us that nothing stays the same, not even for a little while. Things are constantly changing, however minutely. How we see things depends a lot on when we look. Nothing is certain.

The silhouettes of dead trees stand still against the sky, blacked out by the sun. As the French artist George Rouault so insightfully said: A tree against the sky possesses the same interest, the same character, the same expression as the figure of a human. It’s like being at a private screening of evolving art; a gallery open to the world but empty now, save for the four of us and nature.

It is at dawn and at dusk when the true magnificance of the bush comes to be. It is during these quiet transitions between time that I am most a peace, suspended in world where nothing matters but the now. And a tiny piece of me wishes I could stay.

Save