Tuesday, June 17, 2008

From Pest to Buda by the Szechenyi Bridge

My hotel is in Pest, which is the business side of this tandem national capital, but I did cross over to Buda yesterday in search, could we say, of the enlightenment to be found there. And how did I cross? With the Szèchenyi Bridge, another in the series of suspension bridges this blog has mentioned over the past month. It was constructed in 1849 and uses the same method and materials as in Brunel’s design for the chain bridge in Bristol. But the massive stone piers have neither Brunel’s parabola arch in them, nor Brooklyn Bridge’s ogive, but instead a nicely proportioned Roman arch. Also, the stonework bears some traditional ornament, as neither of those bridges does. And I begin to get the feeling that for Hungarian sensibility, ornament is necessary for any object or building that wants to be regarded with interest. It’s quite clear that the Magyars are an artistic people, I mean, the majority. And the difficulty they face is that they are isolated from the rest of the world by a difficult language, neither Germanic nor Slavic nor Romance. I admit I was daunted by the prospect of trying to get along as a traveler who doesn’t know a word of the local lingo. But anyone in an official position here knows enough English (the world’s current lingua franca) to answer your questions, and willy-nilly you do begin to learn a few words of Hungarian.

I tried out a phrase or two yesterday when I called my friend Eleanor Perènyi, who at the ripe age of ninety years lives in Stonington Connecticut. I met her there in the early seventies and count myself lucky to have known her and learned from her over the years. She has a fierce intelligence and knows more history and literature than is at all plausible for someone without a university degree—anyway, more than I do, even though having one. Her deep education comes from travel, reading, attending performances and getting to know the thinkers and artists she encountered over her long life. In the late thirties she traveled to Budapest with her mother and met a young Hungarian baron at a dinner party, a man whom she not long after married. She settled down in a part of Hungary then known as Ruthenia, where there seems to have been something like a baronial castle. My geography is a little shaky but I believe Ruthenia was parceled away after war and no longer belongs to Hungary. Eleanor had come back to the States with her young son during the fighting, and she was never reunited with her husband, who lived a couple of decades into the Communist period. She has written a fascinating memoir about her experiences titled More Was Lost. She also wrote a brilliant biography of Liszt and his circle. And to top it off, a best-selling garden book titled Green Thoughts. How many pleasant evenings I remember sitting on her back porch over drinks and looking out at the charming garden she had made. “Pleasant” in this case doesn’t mean placid, because discussions were always sharp and energized by liberal politics. Part of Eleanor’s identity comes as a heritage from her ancestor Robert Owen, the Welsh social theorist who came to America and founded a utopian community called New Harmony in what’s now the state of Indiana. So it was heartwarming to put in a telephone call from a city that was once a capital for her.

And quite a city it is, mega-scale in so many ways. The Parliament Building is larger than London’s, also neo-Gothic, but with a huge baroque dome added for good measure. All of the palaces and public buildings seem crushingly monumental, and even the city’s stretch of the Danube is very broad. I began to understand why Liszt’s music is as grand as it is. And some of the churches are very large, too. (Brought up as a Protestant, I was surprised to see not one but two old Lutheran churches in this very Catholic country. But apparently there has always been a German-speaking community here, and not all of it drawn from Catholic Austria.) I’m told also that the Budapest synagogue is the largest in Europe, and it certainly seems to be—a huge brick structure with paired towers and an interior cemetery shaded by plane trees.

Which brings me to another connection to Hungary. In the early seventies, I lived with the architect Walter Brown in New York and, during our five years together, got to know a lot about his Hungarian ancestry. His mother was born in Hungary but had died before I first met Walter. I did meet his grandmother Pepi, who, unlike her husband, survived transport and imprisonment at Auschwitz. After the war she came to America and made her living as a cook in Catskill hotels that needed kosher meals; she also taught Walter some traditional Hungarian recipes. Her family had been prosperous farmers somewhere in the country, I don’t know where exactly. Their being well-liked and respected by their neighbors didn’t prevent them from being transported, however. I recall listening as she told stories about that unsummarizable era. Walter has only ever been to Hungary once, and his mother and grandmother refused ever to come back.

A strange thing: when I went to the Hungarian National Gallery, I saw a painting by the 17th c. artist Gerrit Dou, purportedly of Rembrandt’s mother. I’ve always had a soft spot for Dou, and paid close attention this time as wel. Then it struck me that the sitter looked exactly like grandmother Pepi. She died many years ago, but it was as though I’d rediscovered her here.

The core of the gallery was the Esterhazy collection, donated to the state more than a hundred years ago. There are quite a few surprises in it, including yet another large Pieter Brueghel, titled John the Baptist Preaching in the Wilderness. Even without a proper cleaning I can see that it is a brilliant painting, filled with characteristic touches. Equally moving were the El Greco canvases, including a very atypical portrait of the Magdalene. So atypical as not to seem by El Greco at all; but the label says it is, so I bow to superior scholarship.

And some powerful Courbets, including a large-scale picture of two wrestlers I’ve never seen even in reproduction. It was not included in the Courbet show in New York I mentioned back in March. Another surprise was a Gauguin snowscape, not at all a characteristic subject for the great painter of the South Seas. And the brushstrokes looked wispy and feathery like Renoir’s. But then real artists always have a surprise or two up their sleeves, and the signature was the GAUGUIN we’d all recognize.

There was also a temporary show of photography involving human subjects, a huge grab-bag of well known and less well known photographers. Among familiar names like Stieglitz and Cartier-Bresson and Dorothea Lange were others I’d never heard of, several of them Hungarian. The show also gave Brassaï’s real Hungarian name (Gyula Halasz), before now unknown to me, just as I hadn’t known he was Hungarian. Kertesz of course I already knew about, but it was tonic to see so many of his works again. A huge gathering of images, as I said, and all to do with human subjects. Which inevitably involved social tragedy and politics in some of the works. Not that I automatically approve of atrocities being photographed. It is a kind of exploitation, and the only justification for it is the possibility that it might contribute to the will to change the way things are. It can also degenerate into a detached, voyeuristic form of thrill seeking. You certainly don’t want to fall into thoughts like, “Oh, I’m such an ethical person since I execrate events like those represented here.” Viewing depictions of the disasters of war is not intended to make us feel good about ourselves. But there’s no getting around the impact of the photographic record as compared to a journalistic account, and some people have speculated that the photograph taken during the Vietnam war that showed a naked little girl fleeing an attack shortened the war by a year.

This blog is jumping from thing to thing, but then my visit here has been sort of improvised and ad hoc, and the results are what they are. I have more to say, more things to report, but they can wait. Just glad I have this means of telling about the trip to my dozens of friends, whom it's impossible to write as often as I'd like,

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