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).


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