Saturday, 6 December 2008

Károly Lotz, Hungarian National Gallery

Sorry for the shortage of updates this week. I've been scribbling notes in the margins of my thesis in advance of the viva, walking around a lot, and reading Proust in the bath. I've been looking up calls for papers in order to figure out who is going to be the unfortunate recipients of my thesis chapters. I've been getting rained on. I've been to see Ridley Scott's Body of Lies at a multiplex in the mall next to Nyugati Station (B+, Ridders), eating falafels and burritos and pastries, conceiving of articles for which I might plausibly be paid, fidgeting with a poem, and trying to muster the energy to sort my CV out properly. Mostly, though, I've been visiting museums. Yesterday we took in the National Museum, which helped fill in some of the gaps in my (fairly rudimentary) narrative of Magyar history, and on Tuesday I made a solo jaunt over the Erzsébet Híd (returning, incidentally, by the beautifiul Lánchíd at rush hour) to explore the dauntingly vast Hungarian National Gallery.

I'm sure I'm not the only one who suffers 'art fatigue' in big museums. Let's get things straight: as I've got older, I've fallen more and more in love with gallery-traipsing and, to my surprise, my preferences have shifted away from modernist painting (which isn't to say I don't enjoy and value it) to older works. I like battle scenes, Giotto frescoes, Piero della Francesca, apocalytpic Dutch paintings, Cotman, Turner, and - in particular - stuff from the latter half of the nineteenth century. It's the way realism shimmers on the edge of itself, not quite kitsch yet, but riddled with self-doubt. And yet it's also, truculently, not Cubism or Futurism.

Academic painting strikes me as particularly interesting because its techniques were adapted by figures who I'm perhaps more familiar with in my day-to-day interests, namely the surrealists. You find that Classicism in Dali, but for my own work, I've followed it more closely in Tristram Hillier and Paul Nash. Classicism's usefulness to the Surrealists is perhaps obvious: it has, precisely, an 'unrealistic' quality to the twentieth century mind when measured against the hurly-burly of Balla or Modigliani or Braque. When Clement Greenberg talks about academic painting as being kitsch, he is gesturing towards the unreality, even the archetypicality, that the surrealists found in it. Its 'life' had come to represent the dream-world.

So, via that digression...I do get art fatigue. By the 5th or 6th room of a big institution like the NPG or the Tate I'm looking without seeing, and my walking pace increases. So it's often something in the very first batch that grabs me. In this case, it was the work of Károly Lotz, a German-Magyar academic painter and muralist who died in 1904. What fascinated me is that each of his works seemed to have been created in the very last moment, art-historically speaking, in which they could not be entirely kitsch. He seemed to pass from Romantic-Naturalist themes that performed the characteristic early-nineteenth century gesture of ennobling the land and people of an imperially-subordinate country (see Stud in a Thunderstorm, of 1862, above) to quasi-decadent depictions of beautiful women lazing around naked in Hellenistic surrounds (see Bathing Woman, of 1901, below). Both strike we as rather wonderful examples of compromised realism; both would be amenable to a surrealist cannibilisation.

Anyway, that was Lotz. After that, I played an exciting game of grandmother's footsteps with the museum attendants (they love following me: why?) and gave the nineteenth century section another hour or so. By the time I staggered upstairs to look at Hungarian modernism, I was pretty much out of appreciation, so I'll start there next time. My problem with modernist art is its susceptibility to becoming derivative very quickly, and much I saw in there seemed at first to be in imitation of the 'big' interwar painters. Of course, this can be interesting in itself - so next time I'll have to avoid becoming sidetracked by Lotz's women (I'll forego the pun this time).

Anyway, I'll get more on here soon. Back in England for a fortnight on the 15th, to face THE VIVA.

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