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Art of the Underground

JZI have a fondness for statues. I can talk to them for hours. I used to visit József Attila quite often a few years ago when life took me back and forth through Kossuth Lajos tér on a regular basis. I would sit with him a while and chat away about life in general and relationships in particular. He’s a great listener and perhaps that’s where the attraction lies – having someone to listen, without interruption, someone with no great desire to find a solution to my problem or to fix whatever ails me. Sometimes I just want to vent, to be heard.

LPOf course, with Jószef Attila, there was the added attraction that I knew the hand and mind that created the sculpture ‒ the late, great Marton László (who also created the Little Princess statue that sits on a railing by the Danube). I sat with him a couple of times, smoking cigarettes and drinking palinka, neither of us understanding what the other was saying; his English was on par with my Hungarian. He made me chicken soup once, too, when I was sick – the best chicken soup I’ve ever had. He was a lovely, lovely man whose genius is immortalised in his work in cities and towns around the country and much farther afield than Hungary. I thought of him this week when I passed by the Four Seasons and saw the new installation in the grass outside. I wondered what he’d make of it.

RI This giant statue ‒ Feltépve (Ripped up) ‒ a temporary exhibition as part of Art Market Budapest, shows a man crawling out from underneath a carpet of grass as if he’d come from the bowels of the Earth. His eyes shut, his mouth open, he looks as if he’s trying to break free. The polystyrene sculpture by artist Hervé-Loránth Ervin is something to behold. I have no idea what he had in mind but can well imagine that given whatever particular humour I’m in, this work could keep me awake at night (being the stuff that nightmares are made of) or could inspire me on to greater things, were I to think a little more about what escape and freedom could mean.

SoupThat’s the beauty of art, isn’t it? It’s all about perception. Aristotle said that ‘the aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.’ Try as I might, though, the inward significance of some art eludes me. The success of Andy Warhol is, for me, one of the great mysteries of the modern age. I remember seeing his soup thingy at MOMA in San Francisco and wondering what all the hullabaloo was about. I simply didn’t (and still don’t) get it.

Picasso was of the mind that the purpose of art is to wash ‘the dust of daily life off our souls’. And this I can relate to. I couldn’t tell a Monet from a Manet and while I have occasionally given thought to taking an art appreciation class, I wonder if it can really be taught. I know what I like and what I don’t like; it’s more about what the piece says to me than what I see. And I suppose I could apply that to Warhol’s can of soup which might well be the embodiment of home and comfort and nourishment. But does art need an explanation?

This latest addition (albeit a temporary one) to Budapest’s vast array of statues and sculptures is a welcome one, as is anything that gets me thinking. Catch it while you can.

First published in the Budapest Times 24 October 2014

Bouncing off the walls

I first heard of Tapolca when I worked on Marton Laszló’s autobiography shortly after I first came to Hungary. It’s the town were he was born and where he started sculpting. Given that we were separated by a lack of language (his English was no better than my Hungarian), we communicated mainly in sign language over neat glasses of palinka, with his wife interpreting as needed when it came to the book itself. He even made me chicken soup one time I showed up to his flat with a set of reviews carrying a heavy cold. He died in 2008 and was a truly remarkable man.

Anyway, I digress. When I looked the town up on the Web, I saw that its No. 1 attraction was not the Marton Laszló Four Seasons sculpture but rather the Lake Cave.

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Open to the public for more than 100 IMG_4410years now, this series of caves stretches out 15 metres deep underneath the town. About 5 km long in total, the waters crisscross in a convoluted system that features the Lake Cave – the one I visited. The first boat trip through the cave was taken in 1937.  The air is about 90% humid and the water temperature about 20°C. The high calcium content is good for curing respiratory diseases; I obviously wasn’t down there long enough to nullify the effects of smoking 🙂 but it would be an interesting course of treatment. The 73-step descent down under was quite spectacular and for a brief moment, brought the catacombs of Malta to mind.

Mine was the last boat through that day. I had thought I’d have a partner in crime to row/paddle while I got to take some photos, but circumstances contrived to make it otherwise. So I had to multitask.

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Pretty certain that the chap helping me into my tin tub of a boat said to hang left, I did just that, but was careful not to lose sight of the couple in the boat in front of me, just in case. The water was only knee deep, so if all came to all, I was confident that I could just tow myself back to base. Mind you, this was an option I hoped I wouldn’t have to exercise. Twice I nearly lost my paddle and almost capsized in my mad grab to hold on to it.

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While I was struggling with this multitasking, I was reminded of the blond who couldn’t walk and chew gum at the same time. Not alone had I to watch the roof in case I banged my head and was knocked unconscious, I had to steer the boat down the centre of the narrow channels and balance it and take photos and remember to breathe. Gum-chewing would have over-tasked a system already on the verge of burnout. At one stage, I couldn’t hear myself think as I bounced from wall to wall, my little tin boat making quite the racket as it scraped off the limestone walls, all the while I cursed an absence.

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The English-language site of the BFNP (Balaton-felvidéki National Park) calls it a ‘torturous cave system‘ and I for one agree. That limestone may look soft and pillow-like but it’s as hard as a… rock? The cave was formed in Sarmatian limestone 13.7 million years ago… get your (sore) head around that one! It was quite amazing to think that there I was, cursing like a Moore Street fishwife, beneath walls that have heard a lot worse than I could ever have come up with. And if they could talk!

I was a little disappointed afterwards that I didn’t spot any of the Phoxinus phoxinus – the small fish that live in the cave – but then I was too busy bouncing off the walls to notice.

Well worth a trip if you’re in the neighbourhood.

A man worth knowing

Be free to eat, drink, make love and sleep! (from Ars Poetica, 1937, trans. by Michael Beevor)

When I was in the habit of making a regular Tuesday morning visit to Buda, I’d stop by the statue of József Attila on the way back to Pest and spend a quarter of an hour or so catching up with him, getting his advice on whatever catastrophe had manifested itself in my life that particular week. I was new to Budapest and was missing the solid, uncomplicated strength that can only be found in a solitary male mind. My friends were few and my life verged on troublesome. Back then, even my issues had issues. József Attila was just the company I needed. He would listen to me for as long as I cared to speak, never interrupting with suggestions of what I should do or ways in which he could fix my problems. He understood me enough to know that I simply needed to vent – and by venting aloud, I would often arrive at my own solutions or else write off the problem as one not even worth bothering about. I just needed someone to listen. Those mornings spent sitting by his side on the banks of the Danube in the shadow of Parliament were nothing short of glorious.

Be what you really want – a man (from No forgiveness, 1937, trans. by Anton N. Nyerges)

József Attila, arguably Hungary’s greatest poet of the twentieth century, spent his life in poverty, suffering from depression, first attempting suicide at the age of 9 and finally achieving it at 32. And yet he had a faith in life’s beauty and an insight into its intricacies that is denied to many. Perhaps it is this melancholy that so attracts me. While I, too, have suffered from depression, the tablet treatment available to me is far more palatable that the spells in psychiatric wards that he endured. Unlucky in love, his affair with a middle-class girl in the 1920s led to a nervous breakdown. He, more than any other man I know, could understand what it is to be caught up in the throes of unrequited love; to weigh societal norms and social acceptance against a baser need to love and be loved. Sitting as he does, knees splayed, head bowed, hat in hand, he is, for me, the epitome of a silent strength that makes me wish I had been born a little earlier so that I could have met him, in the flesh.

When I heard that the government was planning to restore Kossuth Lajos tér to its pre-1944 glory and transplant him to some other part of Budapest, I was upset – perhaps a little irrationally so. I don’t profess to understand the ideology behind the proposed move. I doubt I will ever really grasp this Hungarian hankering for the past. And I am acutely aware of how little I know of the real essence of the country’s history.  I am simply reacting to the thoughts of a dear friend being forcibly evicted from his home (somewhat ironic really, considering the plight of so many still trying to deal with foreign currency mortgages).

I love you as the living love life until they die. (from ODE, 1933, trans. by John Bátki)

A couple of years ago, I ran into a woman at the nagyvasarcsarnok. We were both queuing for bread. I let her go ahead of me as I was busy translating my numbers and readying myself to deliver my ask in Hungarian. We got to talking and she told me that her husband was looking for someone to work with him on his autobiography. She told me he was a famous sculptor. Perhaps I knew him. Marton László. The gods were indeed smiling on me that day as I would soon get to shake the very hands that had immortalised József Attila.  Marton László’s statue By the Danube, which was erected in 1980, is the very one I spent my Tuesday mornings in conversation with. Sadly this great man died last year. We spent a few afternoons chatting over palinka, him in Hungarian, me in English, with his wife translating as needed. Once he made me chicken soup, to get me over a rather nasty cold. I’ve wondered lately whether he and József Attila  are discussing the move in heaven.

There is no place among the living creatures for me. (from It deeply hurts, 1936, trans. by Thomas Kabdebo)

This weekend, on the 3rd of December, 74 years ago, József Attila committed suicide in Balatonszárszó by throwing himself under a freight train. So many years later, his fate once again lies open for discussion. Will he be allowed to stay where he is, on the banks of the Danube, or will be be moved elsewhere to make room for a past recreated?

First published in the Budapest Times 2 December 2011