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