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
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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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