Is art universal, or does it belong to the smaller community that produced it? All art comes into being in a specific location and is hence permeated by cultural meanings with a local relevance, but how far does this impede wider understanding? Can we access each other’s art at all? Is all meaning rooted in place?
Take the little lark. A bird with a humble, unassuming appearance, but with a famously beautiful voice. The song of the lark is a reference point in all cultures where the bird is known. Many of us – ignorant city dwellers – would not even recognise the song of a real lark if we actually heard it, but we still know it is simple, pure, and heartwarming. This is a cultural trope we share all over Europe.
Then, when we start looking at the specific notions associated with this trope in different cultures, the well-known image of the lark multiplies like in a kaleidoscope. A Hungarian example is the novel Skylark (Pacsirta) written by Dezső Kosztolányi in 1924. The title refers to the central character, who is by no means dainty and carefree like a lark. She used to sing, but she no longer does. She is a sad, lonely, plain woman approaching middle age, living with her parents with whom she is enmeshed in a distinctly unhealthy way. The depressing toxicity of their seemingly loving relationship is exposed when she leaves for a week to stay with relatives.
But then we also have another lark, one flying wild and free in the top right-hand corner of Skylark, a painting completed by Pál Szinyei Merse in 1882. The central motif is, however, not the bird, but the nude woman lying in the field gazing at it. We see her from behind, and the bright blue of the sky, the softness of the fluffy clouds, the flowers dotted into the emerald grass cannot distract from the blatantly obvious fact that the painting’s real raison’d’être is to showcase her perfectly round buttocks. Szinyei’s Skylark is an impressive painting, much beloved in Hungary today, but it would be hard to deny it comes dangerously close to kitsch.Continue reading