Once, my good acquaintance – a well-educated woman, a pianist – came around for a chat. We were talking about music and then about art in general.
I started to tell her about the impressionist works I had seen in the Magyar Nemzeti Galéria. My acquaintance was surprised: “There were impressionists in Hungary?” This sounded like “there was actually world-class painting in this country?”
More than Just Impressionism
Before an accidental visit to Budapest, I had heard almost nothing of Hungarian art, as well.
It isn’t easy to buy books on the subject in Russian or English. Even wise old English-language Google seems ill-informed about Hungarian painters; all we can learn about many of them is a short Wikipedia article. What terrible unfairness! Their pieces are a wonder.
I’ll show you Károly Ferenczy’s Birdsong as an example.
On Wikipedia, Ferenczy is mentioned as an impressionist. That’s true to some extent. He studied in Paris, the birthplace of impressionism; he was a contemporary of Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir and Edgar Degas – of course, their ideas influenced him. This artist liked to depict dynamic everyday scenes finding the unique momentary effects of light. Nevertheless, he wasn’t just a representative of the popular movement.
The art historian Nóra Veszprémi writes:
Maybe painting the effects of light wasn’t the central concern of Ferenczy’s art after all. Maybe he was preoccupied with something else – with the human body, with sensuality and desire, and with the representation of unattainable ideal beauty.
Ferenczy’s paintings are very meaningful. His pieces make us feel and think at the same time.
Between the Ground and the Sky
A girl hears a bird singing and looks up. It’s very important for her to find the little singer among the branches: pay attention to how she throws her head back.
Why do these sounds fascinate the young woman so much?
She is pregnant. The baby she’s carrying is probably her first child.
Having faced the mystery of life, the girl is reexamining the world in which she lives. I think she tries to understand whether it’s good enough for an innocent kid.
The birdsong is beautiful. Let the bird will turn out to be beautiful, too! Let the whole universe be beautiful…
The color of her dress expresses her state of mind. Red is associated with blood and fire, love and passion, courage and sacrifice.
In this painting, red appears extremely bright against the soft, cold background.
The white birch trees represent renewal. Being a person from Russia, I also can’t help comparing them to the girl herself; there are numerous folkloric Russian songs in which they symbolize a shy maiden.
The composition is unusual. We see neither the sky nor the ground, only the thin birch trunks connecting one world with another.
In order to appreciate Birdsong and realize why it works, take a glance at a pencil study of this painting.
Both the ground and the heavens were originally visible. The young woman was sitting in a very graceful, but unnatural pose.
Our girl, the one who is painted on the canvas, moves spontaneously and doesn’t attempt to impress anybody. We believe her feelings are real.
When visitors stand in front of Birdsong by Ferenczy in the gallery, they are throwing their heads back just like the mother-to-be in the painting: Where is this bird? It’s beautiful, right?