What happens to our favourite places when we are not around? The painter Gusztáv Keleti (1834–1902) tried to imagine. Painted in 1870, The Park of the Exile shows a once well-kept landscape garden, now abandoned and overgrown. The focus of the composition is a defunct fountain in the shape of two nymphs bathing, its dainty beauty poignantly contrasted with not only the scattered, dead remains of trees, but also a herd of pigs obliviously wandering around. The pigherd is sitting in the background under a big, old, sinewy tree, seemingly lost in thought. Further to the back, on the left-hand side of the composition, we can catch a glimpse of the mansion whose garden we have entered. The sky is overcast and the whole picture is atmospheric and moody in that late romantic way that makes us gasp at the beauty of a decayed branch, the flimsiest sprig of weed.
When Keleti painted this picture, the subject matter was crystal clear to his Hungarian audience, especially in the light of the title. The ‘exile’ was a Hungarian nobleman who had taken part in the Revolution and War of Independence of 1848–1849 and had to leave the country following its defeat. His house and garden, not tended to by anyone, had fallen into disrepair. Regular readers of this blog will now assume that this is a post about emigration – but today that is not the point. It is a post about being cut off. Sometimes, we have to leave our former lives behind, and this does not always involve travel. That was true in the nineteenth century and it is true in the twenty-first, and now, at the time of lockdowns, it is a near universal experience. One way or the other, we are all isolated from places we used to love, and we can only wonder whether they have been overgrown by vegetation or invaded by herds of pigs now that we are not there to love them.
Gusztáv Keleti was born Gustav Klette as the son of the painter Karl Klette (1793-1874), who had immigrated to Hungary from Dresden. As a young man, he worked as an instructor for the family of Baron József Eötvös (1813–1871) – Minister of Religion and Education in the 1848 revolutionary government and again after 1867 –, teaching József’s son, Loránd (1848–1919), the future eminent scientist. After the Compromise, Keleti took on various responsibilities in cultural politics and also became a prolific and much feared art critic. In his art he was a late romantic: much of what he painted drew on and rehashed eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century image types. His 1858 portrait of the young Loránd Eötvös reclining in the garden in a dreamy pose, holding a butterfly net, is based on the eighteenth-century type of the sensitive, sentimental soul musing outdoors, like Sir Brooke Boothby in Joseph Wright of Derby’s 1781 portrait. This old-fashioned streak, his meticulous, academically precise handling of the brush, and his activities as a critic inevitably positioned Keleti as a personality with organisational, not creative skills in subsequent art history writing. A man of brains, not of feelings. But romantic landscape, even if rehashed, even if carefully composed, is always heartfelt, and there is one specific emotional aspect of romantic landscape that is nowhere as explicit as in The Park of the Exile.
A romantic landscape is always about loss, even when it is about fertility and abundance. If it is abundant and alive, it changes so fast that the view captured in the painting was gone forever as soon as the artist looked away. If, by contrast, the landscape is barren, the loss is already visible. If it is unharnessed, it might represent one of the last little corners of undisturbed nature before it is, inevitably, transformed by humans. If it depicts ruins, dilapidated remains of human civilisations, then it mourns the transience of all human achievements; indeed, all things human. And however cheerful it is, it is not a real place, just an image of a place, a place where we are not present, however much we would like to be.
A romantic landscape might be an object of desire, a perfect place that only exists on canvas, or it might be a far-away destination we hope to visit someday, but never will. And even if we do – that visit will soon be over. Think of holiday snapshots you took with your camera, your phone, or just your eyes, imprinting them into your memory, trying to remember those wonderful sights until you return. Because you tell yourself you will return one day – that makes leaving easier. But you might never return.
Romanticism is about eternal longing, and romantic landscape painting captures the soft, subdued pain of not being there. There are counterarguments of course. The man seen from the back – the Rückenfigur – in Caspar David Friedrich’s famous Wanderer above the Sea of Fog seems to stand in for the viewer, to help us imagine what it would be like to stand there. But the picture of those swirling clouds is so much less powerful, so much more simple, than the clouds themselves must be. The wanderer is there and you are not, and what’s worse, he’s blocking the view. Don’t get me wrong, it is an amazing painting – but it is amazing precisely because of how it tricks us into thinking we are admiring and longing for the vastness of the landscape, when in fact what we are indescribably moved by is its artfully arranged and rather abstract image.
The Park of the Exile visualises what it is like not to be there. Old trees tumble, statues fall, weed grows in abundance. A garden that now belongs to no one, that no longer has to perform as a garden. A garden, unseen. We can see it of course, through the picture, but our eyes cannot replace the eyes that could make sense of this mess: the person to whom this garden meant home.
For an unseen garden, we have to admit, The Park of the Exile is very carefully composed. A fountain a bit to the left of the central axis, a big old tree to its right. A mansion hidden in the background, to be discerned while carefully examining the details. The figure of the pigherd, tiny, but emphasised by the direction of the light. The pigherd is of key importance to the painting. Lost in his thoughts, in a melancholy pose, he is deliberating the relentless passage of time that has devastated this garden, just as it has devastated great buildings and monuments in countless other sentimental-romantic depictions of ruins. Keleti’s brainy and erudite composition draws on this tradition of landscape painting, and the pigherd, too, is similar to the figures in contemporary dress who tend to appear in those compositions, signalling that life goes on. At first glance, the pigs in the picture seem to be the ultimate symbols of how unloved and forlorn the garden is today, but in a clever twist Keleti cast their master as the only one who understands the loss. (Given his “typical” costume, the Hungarian audience would have interpreted him as a Hungarian peasant and thus a personification of the national cause. But that aspect of the painting is not important to us today.)
These images of abandonment, of devastation, of things falling in disrepair, of nature taking back what is hers are powerful ones, and they are deeply ingrained in our culture. During the pandemic, new ones have emerged, like the lovely video of mountain goats frolicking in a small Welsh town. Some amuse us and some (like the fake photos of dolphins in the canals of Venice) even project a sense of hope, but they also embody our deepest fears.
So many places in our heads, in our own fantasy romantic landscapes. Places that meant home, places that meant love and friendship, places that moved our hearts, that exercised our minds, distant places we loved and wished to visit again, other distant places we wished to see one day. All of a sudden, our world has not only shrunk, but become strange and threatening, more so than any of the painted cliffs and thunderstorms in romantic paintings. If you go out more than you need to, if you follow your heart to just get a glimpse of a place you love, you are needlessly risking the lives of many people, as well as your own. You are a threat to your loved ones and have to keep away, enclosed in your little space, the one that is your base for now. Everything else is a landscape of dreams. Central Birmingham, half an hour away, materialises in my mind as a nostalgic vision, wrapped in an inimitable Birmingham sunset. Budapest, I hope you are still there. All the people I am longing to see – populating their own little square kilometres in dreamlike landscapes I cannot access.
How to conclude? ‘It will be fine’ rings hollow – the losses are already immense. Dear readers, I hope you and your families and friends are all well and safe, and that you will stay safe until we get through this. And then the places that we lost, the places we imagine overgrown by vegetation and trampled by pigs, will be ours again.
The two nymphs in the Exile’s fountain are posed on a pediment that looks like a shell. It might be the birth of Venus. The emergence of beauty from a place of devastation and ruin.
I am resolutely trying to finish on a hopeful note here. But that does not mean it is not ok to cry.