THE LEGEND OF THE PALETTE OF MIKLÓS BÁNFFY

I have often been asked how and why I organized the travelling exhibition on the life and work of Miklós Bánffy. Depending on my mood at the time, I explained more or less rationally what had taken place and how. Then after awhile I too began to wonder, what had actually taken place?

The exhibition continues down its own path, and in the meantime I ponder whether it is sufficiently engaging and whether it really conveys what I had hoped to convey. This question popped up most recently when I was guiding illustrious guests, Dr Peter Vergo of the Royal Academy, art historian Zoltán Rockenbauer, and restorer Zoltán Kemény, around the Fekete Ház, or “Black House” (a cultural institute that is home to exhibition spaces, among other things), in Szeged, as well as Gergely Barki, known in his field simply as a “paint hunter”, who asked how many original works would be included in the exhibition. I took a deep breath and confessed that in addition to two works depicting Bánffy, there would only be a sword that had been made available to us by the grandchild of one of Bánffy’s manservants.

I was ashamed. At the moment this is all we have, “just this”. To reply more freely to Barki’s question, this is an occasionally colourful, but essentially black and white exhibition of prints, and it includes only a fraction of the shadowgraphs under which one might boldly post the caption, “wanted”.

My most recent vision, or hallucination, arose as I was planning the exhibition. The vision was prompted by the famous remembrances of the novelist and editor Endre Illés (of which I confess I am not entirely fond, but which remain indispensable in the case of Bánffy), specifically the section in which he describes how, as he stepped into Bánffy’s palace in Reviczky Street, the following spectacle unfolded before him:

What pleases me most in this cluttered study is that it has four desks. Two next to the window, the other two in the middle of the room.

One of the desks is almost bare. Only a few vases, and in these cheap, glazed peasant jugs one hundred, two hundred, five hundred little marten fur watercolour brushes. Here he sketches and paints. Incorrigibly, he loves sketching best.

The table next to the other window is crumbling under the unopened letters, packages of books, and bills. Hills and skyscrapers follow one another in succession. Marci, the manservant, is clearly prohibited from touching this table. But – it seems – the prohibition applies to Bánffy himself too: he does not touch anything on this table either. A dumping ground.

The third is in the middle of the room. This one is completely bare. A smooth, simple desktop. I asked him what he used it for.

“This is where I write”, he replied.

On the fourth a variety of odds and ends find temporary lodging. I saw an open book on it, lying face down. An open box that once contained fancy cakes.

A teacup full of cold, turbid tea. He sometimes tosses his hat on this table.

Otherwise the room is something like an antique shop. Family pictures on the walls, old prints, firearms, swords, various things, tasteless, mysterious, and sometimes tasteful, brought back from Venice, Naples, Rotterdam, Paris, the Scandinavian peninsula, and the Balkans, porcelains, medals, little bronze boats, pipe-bowl lids, stilettos, colourful pebbles, darning stools, and similar odds and ends. Marci and the dust battle each other with varying success.

And in the middle of the room Bánffy: in a blue ski suit, the zippers of which are yawning open, wearing beautiful, soft, tall, yellow boots (he must have inherited them from some Transylvanian prince), and two days of beard.1

The brilliance of the polymaths and their capacity for work has always been an enigma to me. This scene, fleeting but unforgettable, gave a kind of key to the story.

In the case of an ideal exhibition, limited neither by spatial nor financial concerns, the first thing would have been to set up the four desks with their profusions of odds and ends in the corners of the exhibition space. But who knows where those desktops are now, not to mention the sketching boards? Who knows where the object of the most interest to me personally may have been tossed by the storms of history, the “magician’s shop” of mixed colours, but something that to me represents far more, the incarnation of Miklós Bánffy’s spirit as a painter: his palette.

Knowing Miklós Bánffy’s tragic fate, one can hardly be surprised that the palette has been lost to the tempests of time, along with the other chattels of the palace in Reviczky Street and the belongings in the manor house of Bonchida, including the seventeen truckloads of loot that the SS troops took with them when they fled after having set flame to the house.

To borrow Barki’s phrasing, for me the most “wanted” item would be the palette.

But with neither object nor hope in hand, I entrusted myself to my imagination and strove to conjure from the available remains of his ćuvre (impressive even in its fragmented state) the colours of Bánffy’s palette, both that of the painter and that of the writer.

The evocation of these colours also seemed to offer a solution to the problem of how to present the world of an artist whose life-work has survived only in fragments. The fragmentary nature of his oeuvre is a consequence not simply of the destruction of much of his work, the many vicissitudes of history that he was compelled to endure, or the possibility that some of his work remains hidden or undiscovered, but also of the fact that he himself was a man of some secrecy. Quite understandably he hid from the public eye during his time as superintendent of the Hungarian State Theatres. He left many of his works unsigned, or he presented them to the public collectively, with fellow artists and collaborators. He used the name Ben Myll to present his cartoons of politicians when serving as a foreign minister. He did not hide from the public the fact that in 1934–35 he designed the costumes for performances of the play The Tragedy of Man by Imre Madách, but this was hardly noticed given his work as the director.

How did people characterize his tendency to withdraw from the public eye?

In the years before the First World War Hevesi was only able to create truly expressive scenery for the stage of the Opera House, scenery that captured the mood of the play and the vision of the dramatist, in collaboration with Miklós Bánffy and Jenő Kéméndy. In this great trio of the history of Hungarian art for the stage Sándor Hevesi was the bold reformer, Miklós Bánffy was the modern visual artist, and Jenő Kéméndy was the brilliant technician who realized their vision. (…) It is difficult to separate the work of the three artists. The publicity brochures always indicated who had done the scenery, but the playbills did not always include the names of the stage designers. (…) Miklós Bánffy never once had his name included, though on occasion works that were demonstrably his were attributed to Kéméndy. This in all certainty was in accordance with his wishes. In the various articles and reviews on the performances to come, however, mention was made of Bánffy too. (…) in Magyar Iparművészet… plans of his are presented that demonstrate a high standard of draughtsmanship and artistic inventiveness.2

BÁNFFY’S COLOUR SCALE IN HIS COSTUME DESIGNS FOR THE OPERA,

OR THE NIGHT’S SHADES OF BLUE

One of Bánffy’s most striking and immediately discernible contributions as superintendent of the Hungarian State Theatres was the inclusion of a Mozart cycle in the programme of the Opera House. In 1913 two of Mozart’s operas were performed, Die Zauberflöte and Die Entführung aus Dem Serail, and one ballet, Les Petits Riens. Bánffy played a prominent role in the creation of the visual effects for the performances of each of the three works. Of the three, Die Zauberflöte was the biggest sensation, so it is fitting that the costumes that constitute one of the central elements of the exhibition are from the performances of this opera.

The costume for the Queen of the Night is a harmonic mix of blue and ebony counterpointed by silver and gold. The visual world created by Bánffy caused quite a stir in the reviews at the time. Instead of a conventional costumery and stage design, he evoked the world of Rococo tales from which Mozart also had drawn inspiration.

Sándor Hevesi, Bánffy’s artistic confrčre, penned an insightful analysis of Bánffy’s innovativeness, noting in particular the novelty of the costumery, Bánffy’s utter rejection of the prevailing conceptions of the time, and the influence of the most modern French tendencies.

Count Miklós Bánffy touched a sore point in stage design for the opera when he decided to give the audience Mozart, but with an intrinsic fidelity… To put it bluntly, Mozart had to be performed in “Rococo”. This intention on Count Bánffy’s part created quite a tempest even before the premičre, particularly in the coffeehouses, among the sages of the newspapers. (…) Mozart’s music, however, is of commanding force, and it does not tolerate coercive staging, first and foremost it does not suffer being confined to an Egyptian frame when Egypt itself is little more than a symbol to it, a land of fairytales. (…) Die Zauberflöte is a colourful Rococo tale, with Freemasonry tendencies and symbols and the typical figures of 18th century Italian comedy, and Count Bánffy’s designs, decorations, and costumes brought this world to life on the stage of the Opera House. (…) It is more than certain (as we have had occasion to see many times) that no one will realize, for instance, that the three ladies in waiting who are attendants to the Queen of the Night are indeed ladies in waiting if they come out on stage wearing 4,000 year-old Egyptian costumes. Thus no one will understand their tercet either. The Rococo mise en scčne makes this completely clear, and this clarity is an indispensable component of every theatrical performance. (…) Regarding Die Zauberflöte, there is no such general consensus, but there is a skewed tradition dating back half a century over which we have simply leapt, that we might return to the genuine, original, proper tradition. Indeed the Opera House is not alone in implementing such reforms. At the moment the Théâtre des Arts in Paris is moving in a similar direction in its historically informed performances of the operas of the 17th and 18th centuries.

The Rococo hooped costumes conjure the fashion of the Regency. One discerns some Oriental influence in the tastes of the era, in particular the popularity of the fluttering silks, which gently trace the shape of the body. The typical silhouette of a woman resembled a letter “A”. In accordance with the fashion of the times, the Queen of the Night wears her hair in a chignon on the crown of her head, and her neck is adorned not with jewels, but rather with a ribbon of bows. The bodice of the very low-cut dress falls in ruffles on her petticoat.

The hooped petticoat, which has the form of a cupola, is a bit flattened in the front and in the back, so it is slightly more elliptical than circular. The richly pleated outer skirt contrasts strikingly with the petticoat underneath it. The outer layer is ebony velvet, which clashes both from the perspective of colour and material with the ultramarine blues of the silk shantung.

But two layers of the outer skirt are visible. The lower layer, an aubergine-purple, harmonizes with the ebony gusset of the bodice. This is followed by purple and ultramarine blue, layers that seem to melt together. The gradually lightening shades create a harmony of colour and composition that resembles the petals of a flower.

EBONY BLACK

According to József Nagy, a scholar on colours, black “is one of the neutral, heavy colours. Many do not even consider it a colour, though according to modern scholarship on colour the same processes take place when we perceive other mottled tones, only the final stimulus has a different effect. We see the colour black when we mix greenish blues and ultramarines produced out of crimsons because these colours swallow one another and nothing remains that would be reflected. (…) The colour of night is itself very sorrowful. (…) In general it is the colour of mourning in Europe, because it makes a profoundly moving, oppressively grave, captivating, frightening, or even solemn impression.”4 Nagy’s comments affirm Bánffy’s unrivalled sense of how to handle colour.

The other extremely important colour of the costume is ultramarine. It is not as prominent, but still contributes significantly to the creation of the dark, three-dimensional quality of the costume.

“It is a thought-provoking colour of otherworldly serenity, a colour that prompts concentric reflection and beckons us into the infinite. According to Hegel the primary element of blue is darkness. The colour seems blue when seen through a lighter but not entirely translucent medium. (…) Blue is an ancient prime colour that expresses cold withdrawal. Its unattainable coldness calms anyone, it reminds one of the coolness of water and emanates inner peace, soothing and softening space, and at the same time broadening it. (…) Blue is always passive, if we perceive it from material space. It draws one to it (…), it symbolizes mysteriousness, power, the ungraspable, yet present, the infinite and immortality.”5

This colour appears on the upper third of the bodice in a sort of concluding semicircle, creating a counterpoint to the lower ruffled line of the waist and repeating the elements of the lining under the ripples of the outer skirt, which give a kind of playful lightness to its otherwise grave solemnity.

AUBERGINE-PURPLE

This tone of purple is a kind of transition between black and the ultramarine blue. It is created through the addition of a shade of crimson or scarlet to the ultramarine. Thanks to Bánffy’s excellent sense of colour, the cold colours of the costume for the Queen of the Night formed the third element with which the qualities of darkness were conjured.

“Purple interprets the almost implausible mood of the world. It is cold and mournfully solemn (…) the complementary contrast to yellow. (…) Purple is the colour of mysteriousness, depending on the contrasts it sometimes conveys joy, sometimes a threat (…) if dark piety is permeated by light, clarity, and reason, then subtle and winsome nuances of colour are created. (…) Purple can be understood as the tension of fundamental force (…), or as the colour of the tension of a medley of tones.”6

This tone, aubergine purple, appears in three places on the costume. It is the fundamental colour of the underskirt, forming the lower third of the dress and forming a sort of lighter shade of ebony. It also appears as one of the most visually dramatic elements of the bodice, forming the foundation of the insertion. And finally, the silk stockings, which are a slightly lighter nuance of purple, complete the costume of the Queen of the Night.

The three elements create a kind of visual rhythm and seem to make the costume flutter with subtle shades of colour.

THE COSTUMES FOR THE TRAGEDY OF MAN,

OR THE GREEN GLEAM OF LUCIFER

The performance of The Tragedy of Man that was put on stage as part of the open-air festival in Szeged was from the outset in the crossfire of heated disputes. The very question of whether or not Madách’s play, a Faustian blank verse drama of the plight of Adam and Eve through history, was appropriate for an open-air performance was the subject of debate. Questions arose as to how the space should be arranged, who would be the ideal state designer, and even where they would get the wood they would need in order to construct the stage itself, where they would find the necessary extras, and according to what schedule the national railway should send the “tragedy trains” to Szeged. Though volumes were written on the famous performances, usually only passing mention is made of the fact that in addition to serving as a director, Bánffy also designed the costumes for the main characters. Black and white pictures have survived, but the only professional witness to offer a glimpse into the dazzling visual world of the performance was Margit Bethlen, the leading theatre critic from Transylvania.

1934 was a significant year for The Tragedy of Man. The premier performance of the German translation in the Burgteater in Vienna under the direction of Hans Robbeling was met with great enthusiasm. The stage design, which enjoyed widespread recognition for its innovativeness and was modern in even the smallest detail, became a kind of a reference point, a basis for comparison of other performances in subsequent years. Margit Bethlen wrote in Pesti Hírlap:

I can state with both pleasure and patriotic satisfaction that I was pleasantly surprised. There is yet room for further development… and even I, as someone who knows Miklós Bánffy’s and Oláh Gusztáv’s artistic conceptions and technique, gazed on in wonder. Beyond everything that was realized through the images, colours, motions, and mass effects, it had a kind of unnameable inner beauty, let’s say perhaps an intuition or understanding that cast Madách’s masterpiece in an entirely new light.7

And while her assertions concerning the performance in general and her conception of tragedy suggest that as an onlooker she was favourably inclined, her comments concerning the scenery were precise.

Indisputably she too considered the projected scenery one of the strengths of the performance, as well as the simplified use of individual colours as symbolic props, a simplicity that drew emphasis to the clear world of colour the lighting of which Bethlen also considered worthy of a few comments:

The general effect is achieved through the unusual artistic play and use of light and shade. I always knew that one of Bánffy’s and Gusztáv Oláh’s strongest sides was their sense of colour, but what they created in this performance is worthy of comparison with the works of the greatest painters.

She notes several times that Lucifer appears “in ghostlike pale green light” in all the scenes of the Tragedy. Of these, the Roman orgy stands out, in which his head is surrounded by crimson roses, forming an unusual opposition “with his wild black hair, and thus the green light that encircled him seemed even more ghostlike. This light has become such a part of the figure of Lucifer that I cannot imagine ever having seen him except in this frame of superhuman light”.

This manner of representation is unusual indeed, in other words the use of greenish-yellow light as an attribute of Lucifer. It also illustrates one of the cardinal theses of modern theories of light, though we will never know whether this was merely a matter of Bánffy’s instincts as an artist or a deliberate gesture prompted by his familiarity with cultural history.

Although on several occasions the work calls attention to the shaky ground of the designation of colours according to culture and era, it is nonetheless advisable to be cautious, for “even remaining within geographical and historical borders of civilizations that can be tied to Europe, we can unravel the threads only at the cost of considerable difficulties:8 (…) for in the case of archaic designations of colours the undeniable ‘frugality’ can – to an extent not negligible – be attributed to the fact that certain colour qualities can be referred to by citing their own complementary polarity”.9 It is beyond question that the greenish-yellow light is identified as the principle of the fallen angel.

According to the archaic view, colours of high luminance are not only immature, but often perverted. (…) The origin of time and colours is one and the same: Lucifer Falsus – the false bringer of light – who essentially awoke to a limited self-consciousness is “a reflective surface” or “filter” (…). Greenish yellow is the most luminous of colours perceived by the human eye, as such it is the chromatic Hypostasis of White, but in spiritual experience and comprehension it is more than this. This is the outer fluid of the earthly human world.10 (…) We have thus seen: the human perception of the primordial yellowish-green colour was caused by the reflected light of Lucifer, more precisely the flickering of decreased intensity that Satan absorbed from the immeasurable Light, and in his hubris believed to be his.11

There is an interesting parallel here. The critical text, which was written some eighty years after the performance, makes mention of the visual effects of the light encircling the figure of Lucifer, implying both the exciting innovativeness and modernness of Bánffy’s use of light and also suggesting a historical and cultural universality.

Margit Bethlen concludes her critique with the following remark: “Bánffy achieved what no one else had been able to attain previously, that we come to know an entirely different world, unusual, unimaginable to us, with other possibilities and other colours, a life different from the one we know.”

Bánffy was not an avant-garde innovator, but with captivating artistic talent and inventiveness he almost contemporaneously played the role of intermediary for the epoch-marking innovations of the great reformers of the theatre, the Swiss Adolphe Appia, the Englishman Gordon Craig, and the Russian Lev Bakst. He approached the theatre primarily as a visual artist. His incredibly successful but short career in set and costume design enriched the world of the Hungarian theatre and placed the art of stage and scene design on a new track.

Translation by Thomas Cooper

NOTES:

1 Dózsa, Katalin F.

2 Hevesi, Sándor: “Mozart és Beethoven az Operaházban” [Mozart and Beethoven in the Opera House], in Magyar Iparművészet, 1913/4.

4 Nagy, József: A színek harmadik világa [The Third World of Colours]. 2010, MedianKiadó, Pozsony, p. 40.

5 Op. cit., pp. 34–35.

6 Op. cit., p. 39.

7 The critique was found in a collection of articles in the legacy of Carola Szilvássy, wife of Elemér Bornemissza.

8 Orosz, László Wladimir: Szivárvány hídon át [Across the Rainbow Bridge]. Norna kiadó, Miskolc, 2006, p. 22.

9 Op. cit., p. 23.

10 Op. cit., p. 50.

11 Op. cit., p. 54.

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