25 January 2017

Homeward Bound – Luminism and Transcendentalism in László Paál’s Fontainebleau Forestscapes


László
Paál (1846–1879) is renowned internationally as an extraordinary landscape painter, connected with the Barbizon School whose work had influence not only on his friend and compatriot Mihály Munkácsy, an extremly popular master in mid to late 19th century Paris, but also on Eugen Jettel, Emil Jakob Schindler, Max Liebermann and the expressionist Carl Frederic Hill. Munkácsy and Paál were exemplars of steadfast friendship between intellectual and political luminaries with strongly differing character traits in the 19th century – one only has to recall the close and loyal bond between Byron and Shelley, Széchenyi and Wesselényi, Arany and Petőfi.

While international artistic success and the emphasis on his Hungarian nationality ran in parallel lines in the case of Munkácsy, Paál’s close tie to his much-missed homeland became a more indirect though decisive source of inspiration for his luminist aesthetics. A formative aspect of his poetics, his cultural identity was deeply rooted in the absence and the memories of a much-missed home. Maturing into an influential artist and leaving his motherland behind were mutually inclusive imperatives for a promising talent born in a small village of Transylvania in the mid-nineteenth century, and so, he settled down in a flourishing cultural hub far from Hungary to develop his personal style. Early in his career, he became greatly inspired by the work of Gustave Courbet and other representatives of the Barbizon School of landscape painting, a movement he himself became a part of later in his life, cut short by an untimely death in 1879.

It is of general consent that his career reached its peak in the last prolific years between 1875 and 1877. The compelling mastery he achieved during this time has its manifestations in three mesmerising forestscapes out of many others, masterpieces that this study endeavours to interpret, delineating how the luminist tendencies inherent in these paintings put them in dialogue with not just the realism and impressionism of the Barbizon School but also with the romanticism and transcendentalism represented by Paál’s overseas contemporaries. These paintings are linked by the same incessant movement toward a home always elsewhere, toward an unknowable, invisible place, which transforms Paál’s forestscapes into objects of contemplation on the transcendent. The aesthetics that unfold in the pictorial representations of the Fontainebleau closure near Barbizon are entitled In the Forest (1875), The Forest at Fontainebleau (1876), The Depth of the Forest (1877), and will be discussed on the basis of their luminist sensibility also prevalent in the Hudson River School of landscape painting between 1830 and 1880.

 

FROM ZÁM TO BARBIZON

 

László Paál of Szekler ascendancy was born in Zám, Hunyad County, Transylvania a small village with a population approximately of 1,000 at the time. His family first moved to Odvos, Arad County, then to Berzova. He completed his secondary education in Arad, where he met Munkácsy as early as 1862, who later became his close friend. His first master was Péter Nagy, an alumnus from the Viennese Academy of Fine Arts. Upon his father’s wish, he went to study law in Vienna, but instead he became a student of Albert Zimmermann at the Academy of Fine Arts, a secret he kept from his family for over a year. In 1869, he enrolled in the Munich Academy on a state stipend, a year later to the Netherlands with his newly befriended fellow painter, Eugen Jettel. Thanks to the unremitting persuasion of Munkácsy, he moved to Düsseldorf the same year before sojourns to London, Belgium, and again to the Netherlands for a second time. After Munkácsy moved to France, he urged Paál to join him, which he did in 1872. They spent a few months in Colpach, and after the summer the young painter moved to Paris, but he spent the better half of the year in Barbizon near the Fontainebleau forest enclosure. He was buried in the cemetery of Charenton-le-Pont in 1879.

The ensuing sections of this paper aim to show that this surprisingly quick foray into the heart of cultural Europe is motivated in Paál’s fast-paced personal life as well as in his professional career by the same artistic impulse and drive. For his travels across the cultural centres of Europe represent two counterpointing journeys in László Paál’s pursuits. He moved from one European city to the other until he found his cultural home, in search for artistic possibilities to develop his own poetics, aesthetics and form-language, yet simultaneously, painting by painting he continued on his spiritual peregrination toward home, a location of unceasing displacement: the ultimate subject matter of his landscapes.

 

HUNGARIAN ART VERSUS HUNGARIANS IN ART

 

From an historical aspect, it is necessary to place Paál’s oeuvre in a wider cultural context. In his day, the cultural facet of historical events, social processes and political agendas transformed the globe into an arena for different trends in style, poetics and aesthetics. Competing ideas on how to reinvigorate and surpass the fossilised tenets of academism, the imperative to gain power and precedence in the cultural field provided a forceful impetus for the formation of new schools of painting. In quite a limited span of time national schools of landscape painting emerged in an unprecedented number all across Europe, whence their influence reached overseas. The Düsseldorf School in Germany, the Barbizon School and impressionism in France, the Macchiaioli in Italy, the Heidelberg School in Australia, and the Hudson River School in the United States of America were all entering the battleground to gain momentum, artistic influence and dominance so they could achieve international visibility. Painters – in their plight and endeavour to carry out attacks on the exhausted formalism of academic painting style – strove everywhere to elaborate their own aesthetics and disseminate their formal innovations as vernacularists working toward idiosyncratic approaches. When tackling a vexatious dominance of academic portrait painting that urged artists to construct their own unique style, landscapists found themselves in a multifarious cultural scenery.

It is not without puzzlement that one detects some striking similarities between the form-languages created by quite a few of the painters belonging to the Hudson River School, whose aesthetics was heavily influenced by romanticism, and those from the Barbizon School (László Paál among them), who are labelled as representatives of the realist movement of landscape painting in approximately the same period dated to the mid-nineteenth century. Certainly it would not only be oversimplifying, but blatantly misleading to state that European realist aesthetic developments proceeded in tandem with their romantic counterparts in the United States. William Morris Hunt trained with Jean-François Millet between 1851–1853 then brought Barbizon mannerism and principles to Boston, Homer Dodge Martin visited Barbizon in 1876 and also became captivated by the experience. Despite these obvious links created by a new generation of American painters who trained themselves in Europe, the cultural context was a decisive factor in interpreting and elaborating the aesthetics of landscape painting.

The Barbizon School was created in the 1840s as a powerful attack on the canon of academic painting with such artistic innovations as naturalism and close attention to detail in plein-air landscape painting. While pursuing their quest in search of a realist style that relieved itself from the constraints of classicising didacticism and meticulous studio painting, the major representatives of the School (Camille Corot, Théodore Rousseau, Jules Dupré, Jean-François Millet, Charles-François Daubigny, Narcisse Diaz de la Peña among many others) developed a prosaic idiom distinctive and unique in the international context. Beyond the Atlantic, the emergence of the Hudson River School was a direct result of a clash between two factions of painters within the National Academy of Design. Even the president of the Academy, T. Worthington Whittredge was among the members of the new movement. In the 1850s Albert Bierstadt, Frederick E. Church, Jasper F. Cropsey, Asher B. Durand, Sanford R. Gifford needed to attain substantial academic recognition in New York, where the loose-knit group of landscapists were based. However, neither their impressionistic technique, nor the tendency to choose less figural subject matter for their landscapes of the Hudson Valley seemed to improve their chances for patronage in a cultural scenery monopolised by an older generation of Academicans. Influenced by the English-born Thomas Cole’s romantic grandeur and impressionist style, their art investigated the American Sublime in landscape painting. Notwithstanding similarities between the two schools, the differences seem far more important for this study. So as to be able to unravel parallels between the luminist tendencies and characteristics in László Paál’s oeuvre and some of the paintings created by Hudson Schoolers, one has to cast spotlight on two major differences. The first one is centred around the utter relevance or relative unimportance of national identity as a formative or, on the contrary, inconsequential component in the construction of innovative poetics, whereas secondly, the intimacy of perception will be contrasted with the grandeur of sublimity in landscape paintings.

While the competing schools of landscape painting in Germany, France and Italy were in no need to justify their claim to attain international stature, in the case of their American rivals the situation was somewhat different. Even as late as 1880, in the journal Art Amateur a Boston writer summarised the European criticism levelled against American artists in the following way:

 

[In] America, being an untamed wilderness, nature was the proper study of American art. Destitute of the schools with their masters and models of European critics, without the monuments of an old civilisation, the palaces, castles, and cathedrals, the galleries of old masters, the vistas of a long and great history, the American savages in art must show their inspiration

... as the aborigines show their religion, from the woods and waterfalls, from the great rivers and mountain ranges of the American continent. ... A generation of artists has arisen in America not content to be simple untutored savages in art. (Boston Correspondence 6)

 

Untutored savages in art indeed they were not, and neither was the twenty-year old László Paál, who had to abandon his hometown of Odvos in Transylvania and spend the rest of his life in the cultural hubs of Europe to become the exceptional painter we know him today. His revered and beloved friend, Munkácsy also gained international fame chiefly as a European artist. As one of his monographers states:
 

Although he was proud to be Hungarian, and he used every opportunity to say so, as a painter he worked not in the aesthetic force-field defined by the poles of Hungarian realism versus academism, but in the framework of French realism at first, and of international eclecticism based on stylistic pluralism later. (Boros 34)

 

The extent to which the cultural identity of Munkácsy was seen as that of a Parisian was so great that when in 1886 the Hungarian-born Joseph Pulitzer greeted Munkácsy on behalf of the Hungarians of New York City at a banquet held in the painter’s honour, he addressed the celebrated artist’s audience by the ensuing harangue: “[we] welcome him because he represents two of the most beautiful countries in the world – Hungary, the land of his birth, and France, the land of his adoption” (qtd. in “Long live Mihály Munkácsy”).

The above excerpts demonstrate that while French, Austrian, German, Italian artists had the advantage of a strong European cultural identity, on one end of the scale, a new generation of American landscape painters were forced to construct their own cultural identities measured to and compared against a domineering European one which – on the other end of the scale – was relatively easy to be absorbed and assumed by painters from the fringes of Europe, even if at the price of distancing themselves from their national identities. So, as far as formations of cultural identities are concerned, one can detect a very peculiar situation in the mid-nineteenth century, where the centre of European cultural scenery functions as a mirroring surface for such far-flung regions as the Hudson Valley and Transylvania.

However, there is a very significant distinction between these polarities, namely, that the Barbizon School of painting served as a point of reference for contemporaries overseas in their effort to create a suis generis identity, while Paris (and other cultural hubs of Europe) along with Barbizon offered – to use the Foucauldian term – a heterotopia for Hungarians, a place of utter otherness, lack and presence at the same time. When explicating his concept, Foucault relies on the metaphor of the mirror, as a locus incorporating an image that is not there and does not exist, but which is also a heterotopia (i.e. place of the Other) because the mirror as a real object also shapes formations of identities through the process by which one relates to his or her own image.

For American landscapists, the Hudson River Valley as a geographical location was an experience of the American Sublime, the aesthetics of which, with its romantic transcendentalist quest for the New Eden, played a formative part in the construction of a uniquely American cultural identity. The Fontainebleau forest for most of the representatives of the Barbizon School meant a scenery endowed with immense possibilities to capture the immanent values of nature with romantic realism, and in their case, a different type of spirituality linked nature with the everyday life of people. But for a Hungarian painter coming from a remote corner of Europe, the same French forest provided something completely different: a heterotopia, a distancing place for one to relate to his own identity inflections, a location for self-reflection and meditation on the nature of existence stripped of the distorting effects of immediacy. After Paál’s first attempts, the still-life element in his landscapes gave way to a pure vision of the scenery, which is a feature of his work that is almost unparalleled by his fellow Barbizon Schoolers. It is not often that the beholder sees as numerous people in Hudson River landscapes, nor in pictorial representations by Paál, that one could call those paintings with figural subject matter. The absence of portrayals in pictures by Hudson River Schoolers and László Paál displays traits of a luminist susceptibility that can be interpreted as a characteristic of distinctly palpable and congruous spirituality, the source of which, however, is contingent on the different cultural and national context Hungarian and American artists were placed within.

 

PAINTERS OF LIGHT

 

The term luminism usually associated with mid-nineteenth-century American landscape painting is rarely considered a separate artistic style but rather a sensibility, a tendency, a mode inherent in the aesthetics cultivated pre- eminently by the Hudson River Schoolers. A still, serene, meditative atmosphere subduing lucidity, an effect achieved by fine graduation of tonality and texture is the most characteristic hallmark of this approach. The literary, philosophical sources for such an inspiration include the writings of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson pre-eminently. More of a disposition than an organised movement, luminism never had leaders or members, yet certain depictions by artists associated with the Hudson River School (Fitz Hugh Lane, Frederick E. Church, Edwin Lane, Martin Johnson Heade, George Inness, Jasper F. Cropsey, Thomas Moran and John Kensett) are labelled as luminist paintings. Luminism, which later found its continuation in the intuitive spirituality of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century tonalism, avoided impressionism’s romantic exuberance by employing a reduced poetics. Apart from landscapes by the Hudson River Schoolers, particular works of Ralph A. Blakelock and the Barbizon School in Europe can be interpreted as realisations of this reduced aesthetic, where the meticulously rendered details or, as an opposite approach, the blurred patches of colours serve one single purpose, which is to create, by laying emphasis on light and its effects, an ambience that is evocative of the unknowable.

It is intriguing, yet not without logical consistency, how two sets of ultimately different painting techniques may realise the same artistic effect. One of the most noteworthy characteristic features of the Hudson River School artists was their close attention to detail. This stemmed from a belief that everything in nature was a phenomenon that was directly connected to God’s creation and thus had to be portrayed exactly in accordance with their utter significance. Certainly it is not difficult to see how this premise may lead the artists toward forking paths: one leading them to bring this endeavour to its extreme conclusion in the movement of pointillism, or – as a counterpart – prompt the painter to employ impulsive brush strokes and smeared patches of colours to create a smooth surface that invites the observer to delve in deeper and deeper spheres behind the two-dimensional plain of the painting. Whereas pointillism pushed the random spontaneity of impressionism to its extremes, the suggestive expressionism created by the latter technique involves possibilities to capture transcendence in nature.

 

TRANSCENDENTALISM AND THE HUDSON RIVER SCHOOL – GEORGE INNESS


 

In the United States after the American Revolution, the cross-currents of nationalism and romanticism provided a new ground for the admiration of nature’s beauty. In his “Essay on American Scenery” (1835), Thomas Cole, a painter revered as the founder of the Hudson River School of landscape painting, answered the European criticism summarised forty-five years later in Art Amateur cited above:
 

Though American scenery is destitute of many of those circumstances that give value to the European, still it has features, even glorious ones, unknown to Europe. ... [I]n civilised Europe the primitive features have long since been destroyed or modified. ... And to this cultivated state our western world is fast approaching; but nature is still predominant, and there are those who regret that with the improvements of cultivation the sublimity of the wilderness should pass away; for those scenes of solitude from which the hand of nature has never been lifted, affect the mind with a more deep toned emotion than that which the hand of man has touched. Amid them the consequent associations are of God the creator – they are his undefiled works, and the mind is cast into the contemplation of eternal things. (Cole 8)


This short excerpt by Cole epitomises the American effort to construct a unique cultural identity in defence against a European dominance by unifying romantic notions of “nature”, “wilderness”, “solitude”,
deep toned emotion”, and the idea of “God” associated with “contemplation” on “eternal things”. There is only one Barbizon painter whose poetics involves all these elements, and he is an artist of Hungarian origin defending his cultural identity against Western European dominance.


George Inness, The Home of the Heron, ca. 1893, oil on canvas, 114 x 76 cm. The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago


Thomas Cole had an overwhelming influence on a second generation of Hudson Schoolers. With his mastery, he was an inspiration for George Innes as well, whose career was prompted not only by the style but by the transcendentalism in Cole’s work. Deeply rooted in religious thought, the work of Inness can be interpreted as an embodiment of the transcendentalist vein in Hudson River landscape painting. His person presents a
direct connection between the Barbizon School and the Hudson River landscapists. In the early 1850s, Inness travelled to Paris several times and got acquainted with the art of Fontainebleau painters. The magnetism he saw in their work soon turned him into the most prominent exponent of the Barbizon style in landscape painting. It was also during this period in Paris that he was introduced to Swedenborgianism, a mid-eighteenth-century Christian religious movement founded by Emanuel Swedenborg in Sweden. The famous motto by Inness: “You must suggest to me reality, you can never show me reality” (qtd. in Bell 17) is a succinct paraphrasing of Swedenborg’s instructive religious views:

 

It was hence made evident to me, that man is such in the whole, as he is in his will and in his thought thence derived, so that a bad man is his own evil, and a good man is his own good. From these facts may also be evident what is to be understood by man’s book of life, which is spoken of in the Word: the meaning of it is, that all things belonging to everyone, both his actions and his thoughts, are inscribed on the whole man, and that they appear as if read out of a book, when they are called forth from his memory, and as if seen in effigy, when the spirit is viewed in the light of heaven. (Swedenborg 99)


It is titillating to note that a representative of the Hudson River School, while travelling in Paris in his quest to augment a unique cultural identity still under construction,
finds two sources of inspiration he imports to the new world, one of which is the Barbizon influence, the other is the Platonist tenets of Swedenborgianism. In the intersection of these two influences one finds a luminist sensitivity that informs the works both of Paál and Inness as evidenced by his famous landscape, The Home of the Heron.

 
 

GRANDEUR VERSUS INTIMACY – RALPH ALBERT BLAKELOCK


 

While the Hudson River transcendentalists were celebrating the natural grandeur of America with a patriotic zest and enthusiasm that hailed the homeland as a gift from God, the same spirituality in the case of Paál, who was far from his treasured trees and streets in Transylvania, was portent with a serene preoccupation with lacunas, absence, and reminiscences on life as in the past tense. He was still creating paintings that can be labelled as luminist but on a darker note than most of his American predecessors and contemporaries had done. Ralph Albert Blakelock, whose treatment of light seems closest to the poetics developed by Paál, is definitely one of the exceptions here.

With its never-ceasing interest in nature, Blakelock’s style has its origins both in the Hudson River School and the Barbizon School, uniting a preoccupation with the American Sublime in the former with the painterly intimacy of the latter. Intimacy in landscape painting seemed a characteristically European prerogative at the period. While the New World was in pursuit of national grandeur in nature so as to fend off European accusations for the lack of it, it was the exceptional transcendentalist painter who found serene intimacy in landscapes the way Blakelock did.

Just as Blakelock is an irregularity in the history of American landscape painting, Paál in a way was also an anomaly in the Barbizon School. Paál, as opposed to most of his fellow painters in the Barbizon School, spent as much time in nature rendering his paintings as he possibly could. The peculiar style he created was not accepted with the same critical enthusiasm Monet and Renoir received as representatives of a younger generation attracted by Fontainebleau Schoolers. As was the case with Blakelock, success came too late for him, he had not the chance to enjoy the enormous popularity his works came to achieve after his death. Besides these similarities, it is not an overtly conspicuous resemblance between Paál’s oeuvre and that of his American contemporary, but rather the spirituality in their poetics of absence that falls in comparison in the transcendental qualities of the Fontainebleau landscapes and Blakelock’s Moonlight.


Ralph Albert Blakelock, Moonlight, ca.1885, oil on canvas, 68.7 x 81.3 cm. Brooklyn Museum, New York City

Paul Auster, the noted contemporary American author, included an essay in his novel
The Moon Palace on Blakelock’s famous painting. Except for the fact that, instead of the abysmal vortex of light framed by dark foliage in the Fontainebleau landscapes, here it is the celestial body of the Moon that represents the lacuna or fissure, the essence of Auster’s words may well have been written on many of Paál’s (and other luminists’) masterpieces as well:

 

The paint beneath the cracked glazes that covered the surface shone through with an unnatural intensity, and the farther back I went toward the horizon, the brighter that glow became – as if it were daylight back there, and the mountains were illumined by the sun. ... Tinged with the yellow borders of clouds, it swirled around the side of the large tree in a thickening flurry of brushstrokes, taking on a spiralling aspect, a vortex of celestial matter in deep space. ... [T]he more I thought about it, the more this serenity seemed to dominate the picture. ... If men can live comfortably in their surroundings, he seemed to be saying, if they can learn to feel themselves a part of the things around them, then perhaps life on earth becomes imbued with a feeling of holiness. ... Perhaps, I thought to myself, this picture was meant to stand for everything we had lost. It was not a landscape, it was a memorial, a death song for a vanished world. ... There were dozens of pictures similar to the one I had found in the Brooklyn Museum: the same forest, the same moon, the same silence. The moon was always full in these works, and it was always the same: a small, perfectly round circle in the middle of the canvas, glowing with the palest white light. After I had looked at five or six of them, they gradually began to separate themselves from their surroundings, and I was no longer able to see them as moons. They became holes in the canvas, apertures of whiteness looking out onto another world. Blakelock’s eye, perhaps. A blank circle suspended in space, gazing down at things that were no longer there. (Auster 137–141)

 
 

BEYOND THE WOODS

 
 

There are dozens of pictures similar to” one another in Paál’s oeuvre as well. Depicting the same view and landscapes, addressing the same themes at different levels and under slightly changing circumstances enabled him to exercise his artistic imagination while probing into the innate depths of what he knew to be the core of his creative self. In a letter Paál wrote that for him it was paramount to “express the poetry within [his] soul” since the most essential task at hand can be none other than a mission “to acquire the power by which the obscure phantasm that dwells formlessly in our bosoms can be expressed in the most pristine fashion, thus, be made accessible to all”1 (qtd. in Lázár 311). Realism as a negative definition against the formal restraints of academism allowed for a wide variety of interpretations on how to utilise the possibilities offered by a newly acquired freedom.

Paál’s exceptional achievement is to capture with mastery the otherwordly nature of light across foliage and clouds. The authenticity, the strong presence that radiates from these paintings gain their power from the painter’s contemplative presence that approaches non-being. His ability to retain and envision the poetic sense of the evanescent phenomena inherent in nature stand out and apart from the works of his fellow painters, plenty of whom did but sojourn among the same trees. For the Frenchmen being in nature was primarily an artistic endeavour. Daubigny, for instance, famously constructed a floating studio on a boat which ploughed the waters of the Seine in search for newer and newer picturesque sceneries. For years on end, Paál kept gazing the same spot in Fontainebleau, a forest reminiscent of the trees in his childhood, a memory of his bare existence in his home Transylvania, the very name of which translates to “beyond the woods”.

Paál’s works reveal the deepest fascination with capturing the transient play of ambience and light with transcendent quality. With his smeared patches of colour, the boundary between the generic and the specific becomes blurred, the fleeting moment becomes suggestive of eternity, an effect only heightened by the subversive absence of human presence, which, in some of his works, is indicated by an indiscernible figure out of centre and focus. The lack of any movement whatsoever transforms these depictions into contemplation and meditation on serenity, distance, the sublime, lack, absence, the past: on imaginary and real entities not present. Darkness is expressive of light, the deepest of shadows are juxtaposed with fading/reviving radiance in a moment of undecidability, which draws the observer deeper and deeper in the gaping abyss that these aporias tear open. Paál’s works of art hold potent appeal for those who are predisposed to the idea of Emerson’s transparent eyeball. The following words first published in 1836 and penned by the foremost prominent founder and exemplar of American transcendentalism are reverberating in Paál’s luminist paintings:

 

Every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact. Every appearance in nature corresponds to some state of the mind, and that state of the mind can only be described by presenting that natural appearance as its picture. ... Light and darkness are our familiar expression for knowledge and ignorance; and heat for love. Visible distance behind and before us, is respectively our image of memory and hope. (Emerson 32)

 
 

SERENITY IN ISOLATION


 

László Paál lived the life of a recluse in Barbizon. His isolation was partly a consequence of the fact that the style he created did not perfectly align with the main trends fashionable to the audience of the Parisian Salon. He earned the long desired “mention honorable” in the evening of his life, when his prolonged illness, another cause of his isolation, prohibited him from working. A third reason was an introverted trait in his personality, the fact that, unlike Munkácsy, he did not have the skills for, nor any interest in, promoting himself and his work by networking the circles of art dealers, patrons, collectors and connoisseurs. Not only did Paál have no shrewd appreciation for economic possibilities in his chosen art and trade, but – as early as in his childhood – he had already been conditioned for the life of a spendthrift by his father’s squandering lifestyle. As he writes in one of his letters:

Impede destiny I could not, and so I am reduced to destitution... My father and brother are in debtor’s prison, their names stained... My mother has become an invalid, she has almost completely lost her eyesight, and now is without any help or assistance... It’s a wonder that I haven’t gone out of my mind yet...2 (qtd. in Bényi 47-48)

 

These aspects of his life combined together made him predestined to gradually progress towards utter introversion, a path that unfolds conspicuously in his oeuvre. The road he took around 1873 is dotted with milestones in his paintings on the same topic, which mark the stages of this psychological process. Besides the three landscapes already mentioned above, the most well-known examples rendering the alterations in the composition of his soul can be found in such landscapes as Sunset (1873); Forest Path (Woods of Fontainebleau) (1873); Skirts of a Forest (Gloomy Landscape) (ca. 1874), Birch Forest (1875); Autumnal Mood (ca. 1875); Forest (1875); Road in the Fontainebleau Forest (1876); Forest Path (1876); In the Forest of Fontainebleau (1876); Inside the Forest (1876); Barbizon Forest (1877). The flow of dramatic changes that characterises these years are framed by the blithe spirit radiating in After Rain, Autumn Mood (Sun-Down) (1873) and the gloomy serenity of The Depth of the Forest painted two years before his death in 1879.

Compared with paintings by other representatives of the Barbizon School, these forestscapes reveal traits very different from the vivid tonal qualities, the expressive colouring, the softness of form, and the loose brushwork that are generally considered as prominent stylistic features distinct in the realist impressionism of Barbizon artists. One senses the charms of romantic grandeur, the picturesque accompanied by a certain lightness of mood and atmosphere that informs such depictions as Charles-François Daubigny’s The Crossroads of the Eagle’s Nest, Fontainebleau Forest (that he painted in the 1840s, the early days of the Barbizon School), in Théodore Rousseau’s Forest of Fontainebleau, Cluster of Tall Trees Overlooking the Plain of Clair-Bois at the Edge of Bas-Bréau (1849-1855), Forest Floor (undated), or later, in Narcisse Virgile Diaz de la Peña’s The Forest in Fontainebleau (1867), and Forest of Fontainebleau, Autumn (1871).

 
 

HOMEWARD BOUND


 

Paál’s aesthetics, which had matured into an unmistakably distinct style by the early 70s, stemmed from a different sensibility. Paál painted a very peculiar landscape in 1871, when, as a detour from his study trip to Belgium and the Netherlands, he travelled back home to his beloved Berzova in Transylvania. The Road to Berzova (1871) was painted as a tribute – not to the homeland – but rather to the memory of his home.


Narcisse Virgile Diaz de la Peña, Forest of Fountainebleau, Autumn 1871, oil on wood, 78 x 64.8 cm. Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

The painting is a frozen image of time containing a stillness and tranquil placidity that creates an atmosphere with dream-like qualities. The locale, the particularities of a
village street are elevated to the level of sublime eternity in the evanescent, translucent glow against the background that pours down from the skies through the orange foliage and into the rusty red hues of the street. A street which is more like a stopped river of reminiscences than a realist depiction of the subject matter in a streetscape.


László Paál, Road to Berzova, 1871, oil on canvas, 99 x 131.5 cm. Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest

Another picture he painted that year, entitled On the Way Home, leads the gaze toward a whiteness that is only suggested by the ambient of clouds in the background the same way as his late Fontainebleau forest depictions draw the observer’s existence to disappear in the radiating fissure that opens up between the curtains of darkened colours. Bearing a semblance in arrangement and structure to Road in the Fontainebleau Forest (1876), the painting is not portent with academic symbolism or allegorisation of the road as a metaphor for life. In its stead, Paál’s landscape presents the observer with much more than a chance to behold and contemplate, it performs the act of transgressing from one state to another by the overpouring presence of shimmering light that gradually devours the lower half of the painting. This overpowering glitter counterpoints the movement of the perceiver’s gaze directed by the road towards the invisible and unknowable home that is hidden behind the plain of the landscape.

These two paintings are tokens of a preparatory stage that precedes and directly leads to the aesthetics best exemplified in the Fontainebleau forest landscapes created during the painter’s prime period. The reminiscences and sentiments that are expressive of Paál’s strong attachment to his Hungarian cultural identity and love for his homeland are not exclusive to these depictions, but encapsulated in the Fontainebleau forestscapes as well.

 
 

THE FONTAINEBLEAU FOREST

 
 

If one compares the aforementioned two landscapes with the late depictions of the Fontainebleau closure, ostensibly it is Paál’s lambent skies, darkly silhouetted trees that produce a similar meditative effect. Placing a hypnotically radiant sphere of light in the midpoints of his three paintings, Paál inserts a white centre in the structure that conveys a mesmerising sense of transcendentalism. The paintings are entirely emptied of incident; the introspective treatment of a scenery that lacks any specificity whatsoever captures the otherwordly nature of intricate shades of light across foliage. The strokes of paint foreshadow postimpressionist detachment from representational accuracy; a feathery brushwork imbues the plain of the picture with fleeting patches of colours and blurred outlines, the visual sum of which is condensed into a suggestive atmosphere. The effects, textures and ambient created by the exquisite treatment of fading colours carry a doomed sense of nostalgia for a present lost. The intimate expressiveness of the feeble, glimmering light at the edge of the fissure is heavy with a premonition contemplating lack and absence. The only movement indicated in the picture is the movement of the eye of the beholder instigated by a desaturation of hues. The observer is gradually drawn deeper and deeper into the overwhelming maelstrom of white light at the bottom of the lacuna, where all colours disappear. In all three of the paintings the effect of muted colours fading into pure whiteness arrests the gaze of the perceiver with an intimacy evocative of a communion that subverts, dissolves the essence of the identity, thus creating a gateway towards the unknowable invisible. The omnipresent transcendentalism of these landscapes is suggestive of the same quality in those Hudson River landscapes that display a similar susceptibility for and manifestation of luminist tendencies.

THE ABSENT GAZE

 

Paál suffered from at least two chronic diseases that had been enfeebling him for years until in the summer of 1877 he seriously injured his head. After the accident his condition became more and more debilitating. Two years before he passed away, Munkácsy painted of him a most uncanny portraits. In this painting, in profile dark gaze is directed towards something that is out of frame, something that cannot be known. Paál is there and not there at the same time in a transitory state of disappearing in the lambent radiance emanating from within the centre of the painting.


László Paál, Forest at Fontainebleau, 1876, oil on canvas, 75 x 55 cm. Private collection, Paris

Despite the fact that László Paál was acclaimed abroad as a unique and significant painter of the Barbizon School, in Hungary he was barely known before finally an exhibition was held of his work in 1902. His premature death marked the end of a misprized painter’s career but also a timeless beginning in the mesmerising life of his art.


 

NOTES

1 My translation; original: “... lelke minden költészetét akarja kifejezni ..., ... az erőt sajátunkká tenni, a mi által homályos álomképünket, mely a kebelben határozatlan alakban él, világosan, mindenkire nézve érthetően fejezhetjük ki.

2 My translation; original: A sorsot fel nem tartóztathattam, s nyomorba jutottam... Apám és bátyám börtönben vannak, nevük meg van becstelenítve... Anyám beteg, csaknem egészen megvakult, minden gyámolítás nélkül áll most... Kész csoda, hogy egészen meg nem bolondultam...

 

 
 

WORKS CITED
 

Auster, Paul. Moon Palace. New York: Viking, 1989.

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Bényi, László. Paál László. Budapest: Képzőművészeti Kiadó, 1983. Print.

Boros, Judit. “Egy magyar festő Párizsban. Munkácsy Mihály pályája 1870 és 1896 között” [A Hungarian painter in Paris. Mihály Munkácsy’s career between 1870 and 1896]. Munkácsy in the World. Ed. Ferenc Gosztonyi. Budapest: Magyar Nemzeti Galéria – Szemimpex Kiadó, 2005. Print.

Boston Correspondence: The Museum Exhibition – American Art Changing Its Field – Figure Painting in the Front Rank – Landscape and Statuary. Boston, Nov. 14, 1880”. Art Amateur 4 (December 1880). Print.

Cole, Thomas, and Marshall B. Tymn. The Collected Essays and Prose Sketches. St. Paul: J. Colet Press, 1980. Print.

E. “Mr. Inness on Art-Matters”. The Art Journal (1875–1887) 5 (1879): 374. Print.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Nature, Addresses, and Lectures. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1883. Print.

Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things. New York: Vintage Books, 1971. Print.

Howat, John K. American Paradise: The World of the Hudson River School. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1987. Print.

Lázár, Béla. “Egy s más Paál Lászlóról” [This and that on László Paál]. Művészet, Vol. I., No. 5. sz., 1902. Print.

---. Paál László. Budapest: Művészeti Könyvtár, 1903. Print.

Pulitzer, Joseph. “Long live Mihály Munkácsy: His countrymen in New York welcome the Hungarian painter”. The World, 24 November 1886. Print.

Swedenborg, Emanuel. Gems of Heavenly Wisdom. Ed. J. Stuart Bogg. London: James Speirs, 1887. Print.


Mihály Munkácsy, Portrait of László Paál, 1876-1877, oil on wood, 45.8 × 37.7 cm, Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest






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