'Light' From Hungary

photo: ile saint louis, wednesday

The the purpose of this piece, 'Paris' light has to
substitute for Hungary's.

Is Brighter Than You Thought

Paris:- Wednesday, 10. October 2001:- This morning I should have leaped out of bed, bustled about getting organized, and raced outside. Instead I stayed in bed where I was a lot warmer than when I has gotten into it.

Finally, I lost the argument against facing my apartment's lack of heat, and made up my mind to go to the press show for the opening of 'Lumières Magyares' paintings at the Hôtel de Ville.

But I had breakfast first. With new winds blowing through the city's cultural affairs organization, it is impossible to anticipate what will be on the menu for the 'starving journalists' buffet, even if it is scheduled for the lunch period of the day.

Also, the invitation mentioned a time-zone of three hours for the reception. Could this mean the conference to go with it would be extra long, or would the buffet's selection be extra large? Or half-and-half?

Opening and looking out the street window gave no accurate impression of today's weather - not its light and not its warmth, if any - other than it seemed warmer than inside. 'What to wear' was hinted at by last night's experience outside - it wasn't overly cold.

I might meet the mayor, so I put on a tie. I might meet a polar bear, so I put on a winter coat. What I didn't anticipate from seeing my street's blue canyon, was bright blue sky everywhere else. Okay, I thought, so I will be a bit warmer today than necessary.

In the métro, the day's transport semi-strike is announced. "Twenty minutes between trains on line...," squawk the speakers, the rest drowned out by the métrophoto: rue des barres, wednesday train's doors closing. The train advances 100 metres and stops in the tunnel. Silence. No métro trains pass going towards the Porte d'Orléans.

Real Parisian light and shadows in the Rue des Barres.

About the time it is 'getting warmer than necessary' the train starts up without any warning 'beep.' Then it bumps and grinds its way down to Châtelet, and the métro's line one makes it the rest of the way - one stop - to the Hôtel de Ville station.

At the reception area for the exhibition in the Salle Saint-Jean, I am directed to the 'conference' when I ask if I can take photos. The projected photos of the paintings and Madame Anna Szinyei Merse's commentary reinforce the idea of getting a photo to bring back.

There are not too many 'starving journalists' taking in this conference, but back across the way there are a fair number of them attacking the buffet when it is over.

One familiar face drifts up to me and says my name, which I know pretty well, but I have none for this face. I should have, because I dreamed something vaguely along this line not many hours earlier.

"Michel Daubert," the face says. Right! We only worked together for about six or eight years at the magazine for kids before he went to the TV-magazine, 'Télérama' - where he also introduced me to the editors who buy funny drawings. That - the last time - was ten years ago at least.

"We're not looking any younger," is the cleverest thing I can think of saying.

I don't ask, but I guess the reason Michel is at this reception for this exhibition of Hungarianphoto: matinee dans une petite ville, adolf fenyes, ©hungarian national gallery, budapest 'Impressionist' painting, is because Télérama is sort of 'Le Monde' of French TV-magazines, and everything is its business. If you ever finish reading an issue, its TV-program part is two weeks out-of-date.

'Matinée dans une Petite Ville,' by Adolf Fényes ©Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest

Catching up on the news of the rest of the crew who were at the kid's magazine causes Michel to get to the buffet only in time to get a glass of strong drink. The nibble things have been rendered into empty plates.

Here again, looking for signs and portents of the city hall's new regime, I conclude there has been another change of policy. Booze is back - Champagne and whisky, although only in limited supply - plus juice and water. The 'free lunch' is skimpy though - 'starving journalists' will have to display restraint with both.

Michel says he has work to do and so do I. After taking a tour of the 73 paintings by 29 artists I go back and ask for permission to take photos again. This only gets me an offer of the available diapositives, so I press for more.

More turns out to be talking to the head Conservator of Budapest's Hungarian National Gallery, who is none other than Madame Anna Szinyei Merse. When I mention the 'Munich-connection' for the Hungarian painters she asks me if I speak German.

I did, or do, if I can turn on the language switch in my brain. This is rusty, and it comes out half-German and half-French, creating a double-fault horror.

But for Madame Merse my ears work okay, except I keep trying to remember what the 'Neue Pinakothek' in Munich is called exactly. It is on Prinzregentenstraße at number one, and used to house the discopalast, 'P-Eins,' as well as the gallery.

For knowing bright stuff like this, Madame Merse disappears to make an extra effort to get me permission to take at least one photo. I already know I which one I want you to see - in French it is, 'Matinée dans une petite ville' - done in 1904 by Adolf Fényes.

This has been used for today's invitation card, for today's press release, and is on the exhibition posters all over Paris. Everybody seems to agree - including me - that this painting best sums up what this show it all about.

I will skip all of the socio-political background to the 1870-1914 period concerning the Austro-Hungarian Empire, to come to the heart of the matter.

As in France at the time, some Hungarian artists felt that it was time to go outside to paint real scenes - to get out of their stuffy ateliers and away from the predominant schools of painting, which revolved around the official academies, which were overloaded with somber palettes and tired notions taken from classical literature or an even more tired monarchy.

In 1896 the time was ripe in Hungary, with its celebration of a thousand years of being. In the same year, the artists' colony of Nagybánya was founded, following the earlier colony of Szolnok. Both were triggered by the painting, 'Picnic in May,' done by Pál Szinyei Merse for Vienna's Universal Exposition in 1873.

By the '90s Hungarian artists were well aware of trends in Munich, at Barbizon and in Paris. Many had visited and worked in these places, and returned to Hungry with their experiences.

But to say all experience was 'imported' is misleading because Merse's 'Picnic in May' preceded everything that came later. It only took until 1902 to put the official 'stamp of approval' on it all.

We are all pretty much aware of the revolution caused by 'open air' painting done in France, which is largely labeled 'Impressionism.' It was not accepted overnight, but it is still a big hit today.

One of its practitioners, Vincent Van Gogh, was especially good with strong colors, after having started out in the mutedphoto: pont neuf, thursday greys of Holland. If you saw last winter's exhibition called 'Méditerranée' you will have seen that few 'Impressionists' other than Paul Signac were really comfortable with all the light and color down south.

Some light, but mostly shadow on the Pont Neuf.

Now imagine what it might be like to be an 'Impressionist' in an artist's colony some 450 kilometres east of Budapest - in Translyvania of all places. Would you expect gloom? Fog?

Well, I did. What I did not expect are the colors in this show. I had forgotten that the sun does shine in Munich. I had forgotten that landscape does have color on bright days, even in mittel-Europa. I had forgotten that all sorts of architecture is enlivened with bright colors - very much more so than in Paris.

And finally, I had no idea that Hungarian painters would chose to depict sunshine, bright sunshine. And to drive the nail home, they put in shadow too - not fuzzy, not sort-of, but dark and defined - real.

So what you get in this exhibition is a taste of dramatic 'Impressionism,' even if it sounds like a contradiction. Small wonder the show has been called 'Lumières Magyares!'

My reaction to this may be because of ignorance. For all I know, outside of the reproductions in the books I've got, the world is full of color-crazed 'Impressionists.'

The closest hint I have is Max Liebermann's ' Restaurant en plein air,' painted in 1905. It looks like it was painted in the Luxembourg gardens, possibly in today's weather. 'Fresh vibrations of instant impressions' could sum up all 'Impressionism.'

Solving problems, Pál Szinyei Merse's solution - "It was immediately clear to me that I'd never get an equal of the sun's light with lead-white but with - in contrast - thanks to a knowledge and a profound study of the complementary colors. In tricking the eye with the secret of the interaction between the colored surfaces, I can create an impression that gives an illusion of a scene saturated by sunlight."

That's it. It is not good enough to be painting outside by the light of the sun, the painter has to figure out how to reproduce the light the sun makes - by trickery.

Painting after painting in this exhibition demonstrates how different artists have tackled this problem, but I can't help but think that their biggest problem might of being having any sunlight at all in Transylvania.

This must be a false doubt, because most of the paintings here are right out in sunlight in a way I've never seen before. A couple of horses are broadside to a bright and setting sun as if they are getting a flash from it. Their shadows are away from the viewer, mostly hidden behind them.

This makes them nearly all light, with only 'impressions' of shadows, to reinforce the light. The brain remembers this from real life - the long shadows of near-sundown.

Madame Merse returns after I have made two tours of all the paintings and says she has obtained an 'exception' for me, to photograph one painting. Without a flash, of course.

Of course. A flash would probably kill it. The Salle Saint-Jean is well-lit, mostly with a high ceiling, and the painting I want is out in the open getting as much light as possible.

This is 'Matinée dans une petite ville,' which was done in 1904 by Adolf Fényes. It mightphoto: bench, jardin des plantes, friday be some houses on the outskirts of a town, but it is probably of a village in the country - it has a rural look - an eastern European rural look.

In season, in the Jardin des Plantes - more light and shadow.

If you are in doubt about seeing this exhibition, taking it in just for its east Europe 'look' is enough of a good reason. On the other side of the Rhine, the colors change - they are more vivid, especially in the hands of Impressionists who have figured out the 'trick' of the light.

After two tours I am hoping that Paris' light is still doing what it was when I came in. Seeing this exhibition has given me the desire to go out and try to catch the 'light.'

But I want to do this by showing it more in a 'Hungarian' way. This means not shooting directly at the shadows, but as much at the light as possible, while including some dense shadows to increase the 'impression' of how bright it is.

As it turns out, Paris' bright October light continues from today until Saturday - a rare thing.

Lumières Magyares - or 'The Color Tendencies of Hungarian Painting Between 1870 and 1914.' This exhibition continues until Sunday, 13. January 2002. Open from Tuesday to Sunday, from 11:00 to 19:00. No entry charge. In the Salle Saint-Jean, in the Hôtel de Ville, 5. Rue Lobau, Paris 4. Métro: Hôtel de Ville. InfoTel.: 01 42 76 51 53.

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