Rivers, Lakes, Seas – Vitalizing Water. Water Motifs in 19th Century European and Hungarian Paintings

Vaszary Gallery, Balatonfüred - 15 June – 17 November 2019

As tradition has it, one of the four basic elements constituting this world is water whose motif – the symbolism of the clear, liquid material – has been present in numerous forms in ancient myths from the very beginning. The water motif pervades the pagan belief system and presently practiced religions in several ways. We may be familiar with it as the definite element of creation myths, the water of life, the spring of birth, and it also appears as the fertilizing rain falling from the sky. Connected to images of the deceased it may provide the scene for burials or a river ensuring the transfer (transition) to the other world. The rivers that help the cleansing and rebirth process, the ritual baths, the bathing rituals where hands and feet are washed as well as the “sacred” fountains are all part of the human culture, but we may also read about threatening floods that punish sinful humans. Mythological stories and tales tell us about gods born from the sea or special water beings while narratives in legends and Biblical writings preserved the memory of the saints striking the rock to squeeze water out or the figure of the chosen prophet parting the sea to open a dry ground.

Several healing and sacred rituals as well as folk customs enhancing fertility are also connected to water. Psychological interpretations consider water as a manifestation of the personality’s deep structure, the symbol of unconscious contents. Last but least the water topic has been an inexhaustible storehouse of artistic and literary works as well due to the varied forms in which it was presented.

This very diverse motif offers various approaches: its interpretation is possible from the point of view of cultural history, the history of religions, folklore, literary history, medical history, the history of science and ecology. At the joint exhibition of the Vaszary Gallery and the Fine Arts Museum-Hungarian National Gallery displays European – mainly French – and Hungarian works of the 19th century. The choice of works was primarily defined by a selection of water motifs related to ordinary life. By displaying a series of representative paintings from the age of Classicism, Romaniticism, Realism, Naturalism, plein air paintings and Impressionism the exhibition displays the artistic and stylistic image characteristic of the age.

The more than fifty paintings at the exhibition – partly mixing the Hungarian and English works, partly pairing them up – are grouped around the following topics:

 Waterfront landscapes (rivers, lakes, seas)
Nourishing water, slaking thirst (wells, carrying water, drinking, fishing)
Bath, bathing, Arcadia motif (the symbol of purity and innocence)
Water in mythology and in the Bible (storm, baptism)
Water experiences (boat tours, walks, games)
Water as an atmospheric element (hazy, foggy landscapes)

The works depicting the Balaton motif evoke the waterfront of the primus’s summer house at Balatonfüred built in the early 1890s and hosting the present exhibition as well as a greater selection of sea paintings by János Vaszary giving tribute to the former owner and church leader.

The main specialty of the exhibition is the display of the rock landscape painting from 1872 by Gustave Courbet, father of the Realist painting and an influential French artist; his lyric style is underlined by the rich shades of greens and browns.

A unique event in the seven-year exhibition history of the Vaszary Gallery is the co-exhibition of the two definitive masters of the Barbizon School, Jules Dupré and Charles- François Daubigny. Next to their works a painting by László Paál’s is displayed. In the last six years of his life the Hungarian artist was also working at Barbizon, a village not far from Paris, and with his intimate landscapes he fitted harmoniously to the French artist colony. Emotionally charged landscapes by Mihály Munkácsy also attest his familiarity with the works of the Barbizon School. The intimate genre painting also on display is an important piece in his work, in which he depicted a girl taking rest while carrying water in the garden of the Colpach Castle, Luxemburg.

With his art concept, Paul Gabriël, painter also had connections to the art colony, founded in the neighborhood of the Fontanaibleu Forest, when he was working at the Oosterbeek Art Colony known as the birthplace of local Impressionism and referred to as the “Dutch Barbizon”. Based on a close observation of nature, his painting entitled Morning Dew implies his familiarity with the emotionally rich Barbizon landscape concept.

At the exhibition the works of the Scottish Edward Arthur Walton, a founding member of the Glasgow Boys artistic group, is represented by one painting. Just as Walton’s Hungarian and Dutch contemporaries mentioned above, he was also influenced by the Barbizon plein air painting and the Dutch atmospheric landscape paintings.

According to legends, Géza Mészöly, one of the most prominent representatives of intimate landscape painting, also visited Barbizon. The peasant figures on his exhibited paintings are perfectly merged with the surrounding nature. He walks newer paths when using a light brush technique painting his work full of sunlight and titled Lido during his honeymoon to Venice: the Impressionistic attitude of this painting preserves the influence of the time he spent in Paris.

The joint display of Hungarian painters and Austrian artists working at Szolnok gives the opportunity to reveal the international and national parallels. For three decades from the 1850s August von Pettenkofen worked at Szolnok each summer. His realist painting are genre paintings depicting the everyday life of the Hungarian cities and the village surroundings located at the Great Plain. Following Pettenkofen more and more Austrian and Hungarian painters traveled to Szolnok where one of the first art colony was later established and founded officially in 1902. Pettenkofen’s paintings about the Tisza River waterfront and the valuable examples of Hungarian plein air paintings can be paralleled by the water carriers of Sándor Bihari or the waterfront landscapes of Lajos Deák-Ébner. Based on his summer sketches drawn at Szolnok, each winter Deák-Ébner painted his compositions in his Parisian atelier at the Boulevard de Clichy – his paintings were successful at the Paris Salon, in London, Antwerp and in Munich.

In the works of László Mednyánszky, represented with several of his paintings at the exhibition, the emotionally charged hazy, foggy waterfront landscapes depicted with a special sensitivity and showing similarities with the Austrian atmosphere painters, received a greater emphasis. Touched by Buddhist philosophy, similar to the attitude of the Symbolists, besides the evanescence of the moment, Mednyánszky was able to picture the infinite flow of time. In 1875, 1877 and 1879 he visited the village of Barbizon three times. From his youth he also roamed the landscapes of the High Tatras. Two waterfront landscapes of different atmospheres painted with oil at the Tatras became part of this exhibition.

Mythological and Biblical waters are also included at the exhibition by displaying the works of Károly Markó, the elder, and his disciple, Ferenc Klimkovics. They painted in a Classicist spirit and their works reflect the influence of the 17th century French painters, notably Claude Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin.

One sensational piece of artwork at the exhibition is the painting by Gyula Benczúr, Starnberg Lake, restored specifically for this exhibit. The waterfront landscape so far unknown to the wider public was found at the Bozsó Collection, Kecskemét. The artist is mostly known for his representative historic tableaus and for teaching at the Munich Academy from 1876. His painting depicts the lake with a subtle lack of formalities – almost the entire picture is filled with the water waves – a lake at whose waterfront at Ambach he built his summerhouse between 1883 and 1885. The same lake served as the location for Pál Szinyei Merse’s painting, Bathing House with a Boy at the Starnberg Lake suggesting a familiar and intimate atmosphere. Influenced by his friend and fellow painter, Szinyei, Beczúr began to apply plein air solutions in some of his paintings.

Members of the Nagybánya artist colony, founded in 1896, were also following in the footsteps of Pál Szinyei Merse, among them Béla Iványi-Grünwald, Oszkár Glatz and one of the head masters of the colony, Károly Ferenczy. By contemporizing the Hungarian language of painting, and with their plein air and Impressionistic approach these artists became founders of the modern Hungarian painting.

By their choice of themes and style two paintings may be paired up: Old Sailor by Jules Adler painted in 1900 and the painting born a year later depicting an old Dutch Fisherman by Izsák Perlmutter, an artist who lived in the Netherlands between 1898 and 1904.

The present exhibition finishes in a separate room by grouping the sea paintings of János Vaszary. At the summertime he was inspired by the eventful bathing resorts of the Adriatic Sea and the Riviera; in the 1920s he spent his summer vacations at the Gulf of Venice and Trieste, in Pirano, Rimini and Pesaro, and he also visited the ports of Nervi, Viareggio and Portofino. At each location he depicted the waterfront view, the colorful cavalcade of fishing boats and sailboats, the secretly observed scenes of summertime bathers. During his travels in the 1930s he also visited Assisi, Portoros, Alassio, Rapallo, Miramar, San Remo, Taormina and this was to become the most productive and spectacular period in his work.

Today the most severe problem of the Earth is the presence or absence of sweet water supplies. Using the language of art and aesthetic means, the series of paintings displayed at the Vaszary Gallery all speak of the importance of water, of its indispensability, of the water needed for the body, the soul and the spirit.

Joint exhibition by the Vaszary Gallery and the Fine Art Museum – Hungarian National Gallery

Curator of the exhibition: Edit Plesznivy art historian

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