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
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The Truth about Charlie: The Painter Károly (Charles) Brocky and the Limits of Art History

Dear readers, I feel like I owe you. And not just you, but also Charlie, my imaginary friend. A few months ago, I set out to write a post about him – Károly/Charles Brocky (1807–1855), London-based painter of portraits, genre scenes and female nudes – and what came out was a post about Brexit. It was a conversation that had to be had, no doubt. But it eclipsed the central topic: a ‘fascinating and illuminating’ one that would have involved, as Charlie himself put it, ‘migration, cultural exchange, and some outstanding art’. I still owe you the truth about Charlie.

But is there a truth? And if there is, whose truth is it? And how do I access that truth? Being an art historian, my go-to method is of course to gather as many sources as I can and assemble them like pieces in a puzzle. I am not the first to attempt this, and certainly not the most serious. Thanks to more than a hundred years of research, we do have a nice amount of information about Charlie. The puzzle pieces are numerous, and they sometimes fit together quite well. Nevertheless, as you will see, these puzzle pieces are often more like intricately cut gems: they glisten in the light in different colours, depending on which way you hold them. Their ‘truth’ is multifaceted and elusive. We know a lot about Charlie – but what we know can be subject to different interpretations.

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Two Journeys Down the River

Times change, ideas change, even countries change, but the geographical formations we inhabit remain the same. The river known to Slovaks as the Váh, to Hungarians as the Vág, and to its German-speaking friends as the Waag, was the same river in 1820 and in 1930 as it is today, even though it once flowed through Upper Hungary, later through Czechoslovakia, and now through independent Slovakia. The ruined castles it meandered past were the same castles, even though they accumulated new layers of history as the years passed. That history was interminable like the river and mysterious like the castles and allowed people of various political persuasions to pick and choose the events that suited them. But the river, and the castles, and the surrounding landscape, that changes with each season, yet never goes away, all serve as reminders that all those events belong together; that that history is fundamentally one.

Around 1820 the German-speaking Hungarian author Baron Alajos Mednyánszky travelled down the Waag and wrote about its castles, exploring them as vestiges of the shared history of the peoples of the Habsburg Empire, who, to him, belonged together like members of the same family. Subsequent Hungarian authors mined his stories of the Vág to find building blocks for a national narrative of Hungarian history. Around 1930, the Czechoslovak artist Ferdiš Duša recorded sights by the Váh to promote Slovak patriotism. Yet, all these endeavours were part of the same artistic and literary tradition, flowing relentlessly like the river itself. Duša’s journey was haunted by Mednyánszky’s. I wrote about this for another blog. To read it, click here.

Tomas Pochmarsky

Ferdiš Duša: Hričov, 1933, Slovak National Gallery – photo: Webumenia

Ruined Castles – A Hundred Years Later

A few years ago, an early post on this blog looked at ruined castles in what was once Upper Hungary (today’s Slovakia) – or rather, it looked at their representations in image and text. Such ruins are perfect symbols of History in all its formidable, mysterious glory: they are fragments of a past which we strive to piece together, never perfectly or completely, from tiny fragments usually much more flimsy than their monumental walls. They have survived through centuries, even though their battered bodies bear the marks of old battles, wars and neglect; the turbulences of history. They have seen it all. The post talked about a trend in early nineteenth century history writing which focused on such castles, led by a fascination with the aspects described above. It used the places marked by the castles as anchors in the wild and still unharnessed currents of history. Because it focused on spatial relations, rather than teleological, coherent, chronological narratives, and because it celebrated the fragment in its openness, this approach to history was well suited to telling the stories of a multi-ethnic region like Upper Hungary. Read that old post here: Ruined Castles and the Layers of History: An Emotional Approach

The spatial, fragmented approach to history was soon overshadowed by one that aimed to tell linear national narratives. The castles still marked out space, but soon that space itself changed: after the First World War, in the Trianon Peace Treaty, two thirds of the former territory of the Kingdom of Hungary were allocated to Hungary’s neighbours. What was once Upper Hungary was now in Czechoslovakia. What happened to the national narratives that incorporated, with a self-confident assertiveness, the territories that were no longer part of the country? How was historical memory reframed? Did the time come for a spatial history again? I wrote about this for a different blog, on the website of the research project I am currently involved in. You can read it here: Place, Memory, Propaganda: The 1930 album Justice for Hungary!

Trencsen1

The Castle of Trencsén (now Trenčín, Slovakia), in Ottó Légrády, ed., Justice for Hungary! (Budapest: Légrády Brothers, 1930), p. 50