The Lark Ascending

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.

Pál Szinyei Merse: Skylark, 1882 (Hungarian National Gallery) Wikimedia Commons

These are my two Hungarian larks. There is a generous amount of irony to both of them. Compare and contrast with the lark I got to know in England: The Lark Ascending by Ralph Vaughan Williams.

The Lark Ascending is a beautiful piece of music imbued with all the daintiness we would expect from the lark as a cultural trope. Through a simple, folk-song-like melody, it evokes a lark taking wing and soaring above the English countryside. In the hundred years since its creation, the composition has become a symbol of rural England in British culture; an expression of nostalgia for its unspoilt, almost mythical state. As such, I am pretty sure that for all its popularity it is perceived as a tired nationalist cliché by some. But this is one of the perks of being an immigrant: you can love such emblems of Englishness openly and unironically without appearing nationalistic. So there. The Lark Ascending is a beautiful piece of music about the beautiful English countryside.

As works of art, all three of these larks can be enjoyed by audiences outside their ‘own’ national cultures. At the same time, all three of them evoke meanings specific to those cultures, and those meanings are impossible to discern just by reading/seeing/hearing the work itself. In Szinyei’s case, Skylark is elevated above the status of mere eye candy by the special place the painter enjoys in the history of Hungarian art as the first harbinger of modernism.

In the 1860s, while studying at the Munich Academy of Fine Art, Szinyei encountered a range of new artistic trends that inspired him to tread new ground. One of these was plein air painting: working outdoors, painting the everyday appearance of nature, rather than its idealised image. Another was Gustave Courbet, whom Szinyei also met in person when the French artist’s pictures were displayed at a large international exhibition in Munich in 1869. Feeling more and more confident in his artistic approach, in 1873 Szinyei painted his masterpiece: Picnic in May.

Pál Szinyei Merse: Picnic in May, 1873 (Hungarian National Gallery) Wikimedia Commons

Given its subject matter – a group of young people enjoying a picnic outdoors in the sun – Picnic in May lives on as an impressionist painting in cultural memory, despite the problematic nature of the categorisation.* It is undoubtedly easy to mistake it for a Hungarian version of Déjeuner sur l’herbe; although, given that everyone is being very chaste and wearing actual clothes, it can be better compared to Monet’s version than Manet’s more famous one. Certainly, the idea that some contemporary, urban people idling outdoors without any drama or moral lesson can constitute appropriate subject matter for a painting was rather modern at the time, and similar to the artistic pursuits of the French Impressionists. But Szinyei did not know the work of Manet, Monet, Renoir, or Pissarro when he painted Picnic in May. In that, he was not alone: in the early 1870s, the Impressionists were a fringe avant-garde group, not the art historical superstars they have since become. Indeed, their first exhibition – the one derided by a critic as ‘the exhibition of Impressionists’, hence giving the group its name – only opened in 1874.

Like the Impressionists, Szinyei was dissatisfied with the artistic mainstream of the time, and like them, he was sensitive to modern, anti-academic trends. He absorbed these, drawing his own conclusions. How far those conclusions matched the conclusions of the Impressionists is only a relevant question if we accept that the history of nineteenth-century art revolves around French Impressionism, and I absolutely don’t. In their subject matter and general mood, Szinyei’s paintings might be similar to Monet’s, but there are big differences in their techniques. Breaking up solid shapes by focusing on the fleeting effects of light, laying small brushtrokes of different colours side by side to build up the picture, are essential to Impressionist painting. Szinyei never painted like that: in his pictures, shapes remained well defined and colours remained solid, even if more nuanced, more saturated with light, than in traditional academic painting.

Impressionist or not, Picnic in May certainly stood out as strikingly modern from among the works of Szinyei’s Hungarian contemporaries. Although its critical reception was not hostile, it did not bring about the breakthrough Szinyei had hoped for, and he subsequently withdrew from the art world for almost a decade. The reason for this, however, was not just disappointment. Rather than a carefree bohemian, he was a Hungarian nobleman and landowner, who got married and started a family in the same year he completed Picnic in May. Taking on the social role assigned to him by virtue of his class, he moved back to Hungary and busied himself with the daily duties that came with managing the family estate in Jernye. He only painted occasionally until the early 1880s, when he moved to Vienna with his family to try to build a career as an artist yet again. This is when the Skylark was born.

Knowing that Skylark, which he exhibited in Vienna in 1883, constituted Szinyei’s renewed attempt to break into the art world, it is not hard to understand his artistic strategy. He returned to his favourite topic, the great outdoors, but added a reclining female nude painted in an academic manner. Indeed, abandoning his plein air ideals, he painted the whole composition in his studio. Filling more than two-thirds of the large canvas with the blue sky and the cheerful, patchy clouds was a bold, modern move, but the treatment of the nude also provided fans of more traditional art – and of pretty female nudes – with something to appreciate.

Critics in Vienna did not, however, appreciate Skylark. Hurt in his pride, Szinyei gave up painting yet again. In the 1890s, his friends paid the young painter Tivadar Zemplényi to set up his easel on the Szinyei estate, hoping that seeing him work would melt the elderly painter’s heart and draw him back to his vocation. The ploy worked, and Szinyei started exhibiting again. By then, he was admired by young modernists. The art historical legend of Szinyei, misunderstood forefather of Hungarian modern art, was born.

All this should help understand the cultural meaning of Szinyei’s Skylark within its Hungarian context. As part of Szinyei’s oeuvre, the picture exemplifies the early burgeoning of modernity in Hungarian art, and for that we are happy to forgive a tiny bit of kitschiness. But what does it mean in the context of other larks? How does that transform its song?

Besides the motif of the songbird, there is something else the three artworks explored in this post have in common. Having settled on his estate, Szinyei mainly painted – when he painted at all – subjects close to him: the local landscape, as well as his family and friends. He became the painter of the Hungarian landscape, but instead of making the ‘Hungarianness’ glaringly obvious by painting well-known sights with a symbolic relevance, as some of his contemporaries tended to do, Szinyei expressed the understated beauty of places he was familiar with. Painted in Vienna, Skylark is an exception to that: the landscape setting was created from memory and with the help of plants collected in fields around Vienna. But while this fact is known to art historians, in popular culture Skylark works together with Szinyei’s other paintings to build up a nostalgic image of ‘our’ landscape in cultural memory. Those who look closely can even discern a small, modest symbol of Hungarianness in the lower right-hand corner in the form of the poppy, a flower often associated with the Hungarian countryside.

Pál Szinyei Merse: Field of Poppies, 1902 (Hungarian National Gallery) Wikimedia Commons

Kosztolányi’s Skylark is not concerned with the landscape, but its local specificity is more pronounced than that of the Szinyei painting. The deep psychology of the toxic, codependent relationship between parents and daughter is a universal theme that speaks to readers within and outside Hungary, even a hundred years after the novel was first published. At the same time, the characters are strongly rooted in both place and time: they are representatives of the formerly landed, now impoverished Hungarian lower nobility, whose hopeless clinging to the remaining vestiges of their now irrelevant social status was depicted in countless novels and short stories at the turn of the century. In presenting the family as both tragic and slightly ridiculous, Kosztolányi tapped into this literary tradition, while also providing a poignant portrait of daily life in small-town Hungary.

And then, of course, there is The Lark Ascending. The English countryside was Vaughan Williams’s favourite subject, and in the case of most of his compositions he specified the actual location they referred to, but The Lark Ascending is an exception: it is intended as a general apotheosis of rural England. It has also provided the title for an interesting book by Richard King which I am reading now. It is about ‘People, Music and Landscape in Twentieth-Century Britain’, and provides an open-minded, twenty-first century perspective on an issue that also preoccupied the nineteenth century: that people’s relationship to local scenery, especially the landscape, decisively shapes the culture produced in a certain place.

There are many sides to this issue, and some of those sides are dark. Of course locality influences artistic production. One of the reasons why Szinyei could not have been an Impressionist was that he was a Hungarian landowner, not a bohemian artist in metropolitan Paris. His relationship to nature and his perception of its role in contemporary society was fundamentally different. He may have painted an outdoor picnic, but he never would have painted the Folies-Bergère; he never would have seen the landscape through the eyes of someone who frequents the Folies-Bergère too. And the Folies-Bergère and the enormous urbanisation of Paris were just as integral to the landscape of French Impressionism as the garden at Argenteuil.

This is an easily graspable art historical observation – so where is the dark side? The dark side is that, taken to the extreme, this principle creates an untraversable rift between cultures. If all cultural production is rooted in place, where is the space for exchange, for mixing, for the migration of ideas and people? Writing about the interwar period, King explains how many enthusiasts of the English countryside and its traditions inevitably veered towards fascism. But we do not need to invoke fascism and the Nazis to see the dangerous pitfalls created by the idea of rootedness. It may have been impossible for Szinyei to be an Impressionist, but that does not mean, should not mean, that an eye trained on French Impressionism cannot appreciate his work. I might be – I suspect I am – unaware of a number of connotations of The Lark Ascending, but that does not mean my enjoyment of it is not heartfelt. In my mind, it is connected to a Szinyei painting, and while this connection has no scholarly relevance whatsoever, it makes both works of art more important to me. And somehow, like a drop in the ocean, on a very minor level, it helps sustain the great, amazing, interconnected mess that is global culture.

But hey, if you think national cultures are like impenetrable castles, each shackled to its own patch of soil, try telling that to the lark. How light and free, how unrestrained is the songbird as it takes flight? As it looks down on its beloved home from the skies above, the lark absorbs the uniquely beautiful local landscape, translating it into a sweet, melodic, wordless song for everyone to understand.

Pál Szinyei Merse: Balloon, 1878 (Hungarian National Gallery) Wikimedia Commons

* See Anna Szinyei Merse, Szinyei Merse Pál élete és művészete [The life and art of PSZM] (Budapest: Hungarian National Gallery, 1990) for a detailed examination and refutation of the idea of Szinyei as an Impressionist.

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