The difficulty of reading “drawings of light” and images. An unusual review – by Balázs Devescovi

március 25th, 2023 § 0 comments


Rosti., ed. Éva Fisli – Beatrix Lengyel. Budapest: Magyar Nemzeti Múzeum, 2021.

In 1858, Gusztáv Kelety (called Klette at the time) created an oil painting of his ten-year-old student, Loránd Eötvös, who later became a famous physicist. Presumably during the 1850s or 1860s, and possibly at the request of his student’s father, József Eötvös, he created a whole series of watercolours depicting Baron Eötvös’s villa in Svábhegy (Swabian Hill) and its surrounding area. The Eötvös family, as well as Ágoston Trefort’s family, used to spend the warmer part of the year here between May and October.

The mostly unknown watercolours are remarkable for many reasons. The paintings are, as it can be expected from a prominent romantic painter, great works of art. They are also significant as vedutas that show the Buda hillside in the second half of the nineteenth century, thus also containing information about the local history of the Buda hillside.

In addition, the watercolours depict people who are interesting in and of themselves. According to Zsuzsanna Csengeryné Nagy, who presents the paintings as part of a narrative, we can recognize members of the Eötvös family in the figures depicted in the paintings: “In one watercolour, two girls are playing with a tethered baby goat, on another sheet a small boy is riding a donkey. Then the mother comes into view as she is walking the garden paths dressed in a fashionable crinoline, flanked by her daughters. […] In the end, the master of the house appears in front of his vineyard and fruit trees, talking to the gardener, who is cutting the grass. In the background, the landscape, which clearly enchanted Kelety’s romantic imagination, expands to infinity again. Next to the father, his son, ten-year-old Loránd, is getting down on one knee, lost in the pleasures of catching butterflies.” (Zsuzsa Csengeryné Nagy, Eötvös Loránd és Kelety Gusztáv kapcsolata, [The relationship between Loránd Eötvös and Gusztáv Keleti] in Gábor Pogány Ö. – Zsuzsa Csengeryné Nagy (ed.): A Magyar Nemzeti Galéria Évkönyve [Annals of the Hungarian National Gallery] 1. Budapest, 1970. 190. Translated by author – B. D.)

However, it is not obvious that the average viewer will be able to spot all of this in the paintings, and nothing shows this better than my own case. I already knew about the collection and had seen many of the paintings before I recognized that even though the spectacular panorama takes over most of the space in one watercolour, the two figures in the foreground are also important, however small they may be. Accepting Zsuzsanna Csengeryné Nagy’s identification, we can see that the man wearing a hat is József Eötvös, standing next to a field or forest worker. 

I find this interesting because for me Rosti., the volume edited by Éva Fisli and Beatrix Lengyel, provides great examples for the exciting ways paintings can be viewed and interpreted, similarly to the observations I made when looking at Kelety’s Swabian Hill collection.

The volume contains the papers presented at the February 2019 conference held in the Hungarian National Museum to mark the 160th anniversary of the day Pál Rosti donated an album containing 45 photos from his journey to South America to the Museum.

The book is divided into two chapters, each containing three papers. The first chapter is called Passages, where in her essay Zsófia Bán first describes the five photo albums as a discursive object. Bán’s essay is followed by a piece by Balázs Venkovits on the Mexican section of Rosti’s journey, his Mexican travels and travelogues, as well as the role of photography in travel literature. Finally, Emőke Tomsics places Rosti’s album among the pictorial travelogues of Hungary. The second chapter examines the relationship between Humbold and Rosti, the influence of the German traveller and travel writer on Rosti, and the relationship between Rosti’s travelogue and Humbold’s work. The papers by Ildikó Sz. Kristóf and Éva Fisli investigate this historical and ethnographic problem, while Miriam Szvast’s study, which is placed between these two papers, seems slightly out of place, as it examines the afterlife of the album, which was given to Alexander von Humbold as a gift, as well as the subsequent owners of the album, how the images were presented to the public, and how the album was received.

The third part of the volume contains Rosti’s pictures. The structure of the book seems less coherent here: based on the table of contents, I did not expect that the third part, called Pál Rosti’s Photographic Collection as an Album, instead of textual studies, contains the pictures of the album, following the table of contents of the Memoirs of Travels in America, and a list of the pictures from the album of Anna Amadei (Rosty). My confusion was only exacerbated by the fact that Éva Fisli’s afterword is at the beginning of this section. The appendix contains Rosti’s biography, presented in strict chronological order by Beatrix Lengyel. The biography is called Fragments from Pál Rosti’s life and is based on Károly Kincses’s 1992 study, which it clarifies in several respects.

The most interesting thoughts in the studies concern the photos in that in addition to the fact that each author deals with the photo album in their own way, some do so in a deeper and more direct way. For example, one writes about the structure of the album, while another discusses the likely way the photos were taken. We can read about some of the details, or the absence (or presence) of people in the pictures. Some authors discuss the relationship between Pál Rosti’s pictures and the lithographs prepared by Gusztáv Klette based on the pictures in Memoirs of Travels. Other contributions focus on the relationship between the pictures and the representations of the same subject by Pál Rosti and other travellers. One contributor makes remarkable observations about the passage of time that can be experienced through the images. Thanks to all of this, the reader becomes more comfortable with the difficult activity of looking at the images, reading and seeing them.

Rosti’s biography by Beatrix Lengyel deserves particular attention. It shows that Rosti was a truly remarkable figure of the nineteenth century, who engaged in a wide range of activities. In addition to being one of the first photographers, he also produced excellent travelogues and made his mark as an athlete, rowing and sailing on the Danube. He was also a patron and organizer of music, a patron of fine arts, and organized cultural events.

The editors hope that the publication of these studies, the Hungarian and English versions of which are presented side-by side, will inspire further international research. This is probably why the Rosti Domino discussion series was launched, which began with the book launch of this volume on 20 October, 2022 in the Great Hall of the National Museum. During this event, I discussed with the two editors “how much of a shadow Eötvös casts on Rosti’s figure today, whether we can consider Rosti an emigrant of 1848 based on contemporary sources, and how the ways nature is depicted in the text of the illustrated travelogue Travel Memories from America (1861) and in the South and Central American photographs of the Rosti album (1858) are related to each other.” 

This takes us back to Klette’s watercolour series of Svábhegy. József Eötvös’s shadow definitely overshadows that of Pál Rosti, and it is also clear that Rosti’s person and his more than adventurous life deserve our attention. Lengyel provides excellent examples for this when she retells events known from Eötvös’s biography from Rosti’s perspective. This is how we learn that on 11 May, 1865 “according to József Eötvös’s diary, he returned to Pest on this day after visiting Rosti in Pentele, traveling on the Danube by steamship” (231). From Eötvös’s point of view, this was a significant journey because when he saw the town of Ercsi from the boat, he remembered his childhood, and sensing that he was ageing, he recorded his wish to be buried in Ercsi where he grew up. An even stronger example is Eötvös’s last trip together with his son, which looked like the following with Rosti in focus: “August 1870. Relaxing in Karlsbad (today Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic) with his brother-in-law József Eötvös. 3 September, 1870. He and Eötvös travel to Regensburg to see the German pantheon, Walhalla” (235).

At the same time, Lengyel first mentions in a footnote of Rosti’s biography that Gusztáv Keleti was the tutor of Rosti’s nephew, Loránd Eötvös, but she then refers to Zsuzsanna Csengeryné Nagy’s paper and notes that she “identified all the figures that appeared in Keleti’s watercolours painted at Svábhegy as members of the Eötvös family.” She goes on to suggest that “however, one of the characters is a man with a hat, in whose case we can consider that it is not, as Csengeryné presumes, József Eötvös, but Pál Rosti, as the depiction strongly resembles the figure seen in the images featuring Rosti in István Birly’s book” (247). This, however, could be a case of overfocusing (perhaps there is no such word, but over-exposure means something different).

I do not believe that we will ever get a definite answer to the question above. We can see this particular “man with the hat” in at least four pieces of the watercolour series. Similarly to the pose shown in the wide panoramic picture mentioned above, where he stands with his feet apart, he also has his back to the viewer on a moonlit evening in front of the veranda in the garden of the Eötvös villa, looking at the celestial body above. In the depiction of the Karthausian residence, he is sitting in the grass, further away from the building and the other figures close to it, probably holding a sheet of paper in his hand. (He may be reading what is on the paper, or he may even be drawing on it, which is especially exciting because there is a pencil drawing of the Karthausian residence and the Eötvös villa by Pál Rosti.) And if we zoom in on the image, we can see the “man with the hat” on the veranda of a villa next to a lady, watching the children who are playing in the garden in the watercolour held in the Hungarian Historical Gallery of the Hungarian National Museum.

I consider the “man with the hat” to be the same person in all the paintings (although due to the small size of the figures, we cannot be sure), and following Zsuzsanna Csengeryné Nagy, I see József Eötvös in him. For me, the fact that the “man with the hat” occurs in the paintings several times suggests that it is the head of the family who is depicted. It is more logical to see a father with his family in the watercolours, who is watching his children play in the garden next to his wife than the younger brother of the children’s mother, although Eötvös’s brother-in-law may also have been a frequent guest on Svábhegy, and he could have watched his nephew and nieces alongside his sister. Therefore, Beatrix Lengyel’s suggestion cannot be ruled out completely, and we can also find confirmation of the idea in the above-mentioned connection between Rosti’s and Keleti’s picture of the Karthausian residence. The “man with the hat” looks more like an artist (or the hero of a western movie), which undoubtedly fits Rosti better than his brother-in-law. We are faced with the philosophical problem that emerges in Michelangelo Antonioni’s excellent movie, Blow-Up (1966): we cannot know what the truth is (what has happened, what is in the picture, what we are looking at).


Tagged , , , ,

Vélemény, hozzászólás?