Canvas and Cult: Szinyei Merse and Tommy Ramone


Pál Szinyei Merse’s “Picnic in May.”

Photo by Gabriella Kiss.

David Holzer gets out of the cold and takes in some colorful Hungarian culture up in the Castle District.

When we left the Pál Szinyei Merse “Canvas and Cult” exhibition at the Hungarian National Gallery, it was around 7 p.m., dark and bitterly cold, but the queue of people waiting to get in still stretched from the entrance to the Gallery across the cobbles to the wall of the castle ramparts.

Earlier that afternoon, my Hungarian partner, her sister and I had stood in that queue, so I knew how those people felt.

When we’d arrived, the queue had been the shape of a letter “C” on its side. As we stood, stamping our feet and hugging ourselves for at least an hour, I’d tried to take my mind off the cold and freezing wind by counting the number of people in the queue. I reckoned it to be 1,000.

I’d assumed that, when we saw the queue, we’d leave. This would have fitted in perfectly with what I’d decided was to be the theme of this article: not being able to get into places.

The night before, a Friday, we’d gone in search of the legendary Maciművek teddy bear shop on Szent István körút, the street that leads down from Nyugati Railway Station to Margit híd. We’d intended to replace a plush puppy that had gone missing, believed stolen. It’s a long story.

Anyway, the shop had vanished, which was when I came up with my theme. I thought I was being oh-so-clever.

Art Supplies

Earlier on the day of our visit to the Pál Szinyei Merse “Canvas and Cult” exhibition, we’d scurried down the strange streets behind the Opera House on Andrássy út in search of the Művészellátó Szaküzlet art supplies shop, trying to get there before it closed at 1 p.m.

I prayed we wouldn’t find it, but we did. Sadly, it was also open. My partner was thrilled to see the Schmincke Mussini turquoise and antique gold oil paints she was looking for and we joined the queue of presumably weekend artists clutching paints, brushes and bits of wood to make into frames.

The paints were a gift for my partner’s sister and watching her face light up with joy when she was given them in that queue outside the Hungarian National Gallery was the best part of the day for me. I didn’t really get the point of Pál Szinyei Merse. But then I’m not Hungarian.

From noble Hungarian stock, Szinyei Merse was born in 1845 and died in 1920. He studied art in Munich. When the Franco-Prussian war broke out, he moved to Genoa, Italy, but returned in 1872. Tiring of harsh criticism of his work, he gave up painting for more than a decade until his friends organized a retrospective in 1894 where one of his paintings was bought by Emperor Franz Joseph. From then on, he never stopped painting.

Szinyei Merse’s reputation lies in the fact that, as the exhibition blurb has it, he was “a ground-breaking pioneer and the first true colorist in the history of Hungarian painting.”

Colorist art is where, as you’d probably imagine, color is the most important thing. The French Impressionists, roughly contemporary with Szinyei Merse, are the pioneers of colorism in art. One of the truly impressive things about Szinyei Merse is that he arrived at the same realization as the Impressionists while being unaware of what they were doing.

Independent Discovery

According to the exhibition’s illuminating biographical notes, “at the same time as them, and in some paintings even earlier than them, he independently discovered the capacity of sunlight to break up forms and transform colors, the means of constructing images with complementary colors, and the use of color values to convey tones of light.”

Like the Impressionists, Szinyei Merse focused mainly on painting people in nature.

Which brings us to “Picnic in May,” a painting so popular it’s achieved fridge magnet status. This is an especially colorful composition of a group of people enjoying a picnic on a very green hillside. Szinyei Merse’s aim, he said, was to paint “a beautiful spring day that is being enjoyed by a merry company on an excursion away from the city.”

On its website, the Hungarian National Gallery explains that “Picnic in May is one of the best known and most highly cherished works in Hungarian painting. Its value derives not only from its artistic innovativeness, but also from its theme. The image of a group of friends enjoying a picnic in a magnificent spring landscape has prompted feelings of cheer and happiness in every generation of viewers. It was this casual, simple joie de vivre, free from all sense of nostalgia, that made this painting so modern.”

I have to admit I didn’t look at “Picnic in May” the way a Hungarian would. Then again, and forgive me for the gross generalization I’m about to commit, my cultural DNA isn’t made of up decades of disappointment and despair. The chocolate box colors just didn’t do it for me. My Hungarian partner and her sister, the artist, loved “Canvas and Cult,” and that’s good enough. I was simply very happy to spend a couple of hours thawing out.

That’s not to say I don’t warm to Hungarian artists. The following morning I strolled from Andrássy út, where Szinyei Merse used to hang at the Japán Kávéház, down to the Toldi Cinema at Bajcsy-Zsilinszky út 36-38, the street that runs down from Deák Ferenc towards Nyugati. Here I had a moment of silence in front of the plaque that commemorates the great Tamás Erdélyi. Better known to the wider world as Tommy Ramone, the drummer and first producer of the mighty Ramones, he’s the only Hungarian inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame so far.

“Canvas and Cult” is now closed. The plaque to Tommy Ramone will, I hope, never fall.

This article was first published in the Budapest Business Journal print issue of February 25, 2022.

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