Hungarian Impressionism: A Counterpoint

In my previous post I discussed three artworks that share the motif of the lark, musing on the local rootedness of art and the cross-cultural understanding of deeply ingrained cultural tropes. One of the works was Skylark by the painter Pál Szinyei Merse, an artist often associated with Impressionism. In the post I argued that although Szinyei’s landscapes share with the French Impressionists a modernist search for new modes of expression, this in itself does not make them impressionist paintings. Given that he had never travelled to Paris, Szinyei had not encountered impressionist painting, and consequently could not emulate impressionist painting techniques. ‘In his pictures, shapes remained well defined and colours remained solid, even if more nuanced, more saturated with light, than in traditional academic painting.’

After publishing the post, I had a really interesting conversation with an art historian friend, which has left me wondering.* As my friend pointed out, we rarely have an accurate idea of what artists really knew about; we just pretend we do. Yes, we read their letters, diaries, we try to track their travels. But do we have access to all the conversations they had, all the bits of info they overheard at the pub, all the little pieces of news they read and made a mental note of? Of course not. What if Szinyei had heard about the Impressionists from someone who had been to Paris? Indeed, in an autobiography he remembered how artists who had been to the Paris World’s Fair of 1867 had described, with much excitement, the new modern French landscapes they had seen. Hearing about the fresh colours, the effortless compositions he had never seen, seemed to confirm, “ab invisis”, his own artistic goals.** Conversations such as these must have happened every day, many of them unrecorded. For instance with his close friend, the German painter Wilhelm Leibl, who had met Manet in the French capital in 1870. What if Leibl described some interesting new paintings to him? What would he have made of that?

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

Now, you might say, just hearing about paintings does not amount to much. He would have had to see them with his own eyes to be properly influenced by them. But taking this for granted is, again, a sign that we are not completely attuned to the mindset of nineteenth-century painters. Colour reproductions are so easily accessible to us – especially in the internet age, but they had been common long before –, that we rarely stop and adjust our minds to an age when it wasn’t so. In Munich, a thriving artistic centre, Szinyei of course had access to a wide range of original artworks in museums, at exhibitions, and in artists’ studios. But what was not there was only accessible via black and white reproductions: mainly lithographs or engravings which – given that they constituted artistic techniques of their own – could not provide an accurate idea of painting techniques down to brushstrokes. Photography was catching on, but it too was black and white. Furthermore, only a limited range of artworks were reproduced in these ways. In a far larger number of cases, people in Szinyei’s time had to rely on textual descriptions. Consequently, these were valued far higher than we can today imagine.

At this point I was reminded of something I read many years ago. In his book Desire and Excess: The Nineteenth-Century Culture of Art Jonah Siegel explained how textual descriptions played a crucial role in the English critic William Hazlitt’s appreciation of art. Hearing about paintings and then finally seeing them in real life – protracted, dreamy longing and subsequent quick satisfaction – was a recurring theme in Hazlitt’s writings. Around 1800 he set out to France, planning to view the artworks at the Louvre. In order to prepare, he pored over a catalogue lent to him by a friend. It was just pure, factual text, but it was enough to excite him. ‘The pictures, the names of the painters, seemed to relish in the mouth. There was one of Titian’s Mistress at her toilette. Even the colours with which the painter had adorned her hair were not more golden, more amiable to sight, than those which played round and tantalised my fancy ere I saw the picture.’ Indeed, as he continued, ‘not to have been disappointed with these works afterwards, was the highest compliment I can pay to their transcendent merits.’*** Simply imagining what the paintings looked like was so gratifying that actually seeing them threatened to disappoint, and there was no chance it could provide a more fulfilling experience.

Pál Szinyei Merse: Lovers, 1918/19, late second version of original painted in 1870 (Hungarian National Gallery) Wikimedia Commons

In the early 1870s in Munich, Szinyei was eager to try something new. He was intrigued by modern experiments he came across, including the 1869 display of Courbet’s paintings, as well as some new trends he encountered in studios in Munich. Leibl himself, with his riveting loose brushstrokes and his stories from Paris, must have played a role. What if he told Szinyei about a painting by Manet that had sparked controversy when first displayed in 1863? What if he told him French painters were increasingly interested in finding new ways to represent the outdoors, the leisurely pursuits of the urban middle class? They must have discussed, for hours on end, how painters there were abandoning the heavy, lush colours of academic painting for brighter hues filled with light. And Szinyei absorbed all of this, rolled it around in his head, connecting things he saw with things he had heard about, visual pleasure with intellectual experience, and then, when he had thought it all through, he produced his own version of a cheerful group of friends enjoying themselves in the sun.

Yes, this still means that his technique was not ‘Impressionist’ in the strict sense of the word. And – to me at least – it still means that the question of whether Szinyei was an Impressionist or not is not particularly relevant or edifying. But it does make us think more deeply about what we mean by artistic influences. Would Szinyei’s interest in a certain artistic trend only be proven if he followed it to a T? Is what we today consider as the most important characteristic of a trend necessarily what he would also have focused on? Would it be imperative for him to focus on that particular thing for us to accept his engagement as genuine? Even if his lack of travel and lack of access to colour reproductions mean that his perception of those artworks was radically different from ours?

In the end what it all boils down to is creative reception. Regardless of whether an artist gets the information standing in front of an artwork at a museum, from an extra high resolution image on the Google Art Project, a colour print in an album, a lithograph, a catalogue with mere text, or a discussion with a friend at a pub over good Bavarian beer, it will be their choice what to do with it. What comes out in the end might be completely different from the work that inspired it. But they might still be part of the same greater whole.

And one more thing. Does our easy access to colour reproductions really give us such an advantage over nineteenth-century art enthusiasts? These images might present one aspect of the paintings – their colour – more accurately, but in other ways they are still far from the real thing. Sometimes a colour reproduction creates the same intense longing as the descriptive catalogue did in Hazlitt, so that subsequently encountering the real artwork might still cause disappointment. And at other times, the real work is so much more beautiful and subtle that even the best photographs fail to do it justice. Impressionism, in particular, suffers from being trivialised in countless reproductions, on fridge magnets, scarves, and mugs, and all kinds of merchandise, so that it is easy to think of it as boring, as too easy to consume. I have to admit I used to have this feeling. I used to say my two favourite Impressionists were Manet and Degas, the two who weren’t really Impressionists, hahaha. But then, some months ago, back when it was still possible to travel, I was standing in the Art Institute of Chicago surrounded by Monet’s water lilies and views of London, overwhelmed by the dazzling, complex webs of colour created by those tiny brushstrokes. The most intriguing surfaces I have ever seen. Placing one of my bad photographs here as proof would be just as futile as trying to describe them in my clumsy words.

Nóra Veszprémi

* Many thanks to my friend Judit Boros, whose comments inspired this post.

** Quoted in German translation in Béla Lázár, Paul Merse von Szinyei, ein Vorläufer der Pleinairmalerei (Leipzig: Klinkhardt und Biermann, 1911). (Search the page for “ab invisis”.) For the Hungarian original see Anna Szinyei Merse, ed., A Majális festője közelről: Szinyei Merse Pál levelezése, önéletrajzai, visszaemlékezések [ The Painter of Picnic in May from Close Up: PSZM’s correspondence, autobiographies, memoirs] (Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1989).

*** William Hazlitt, quoted in Jonah Siegel, Desire and Excess: The Nineteenth-Century Culture of Art (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2000), pp. 169–170.

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