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Family/Reloaded/In the Present
This present period of being confined is incredibly difficult but it also opens up the space and opportunity to revise old habits in the way we live and to get to know the people who are always around us anew. One of the most beautiful aspects of this is the strength that holds a family together. Our daily routine simplifies the relationship between family members. Valuable moments and important sentences go unnoticed because we have no time for them and because the family keeps running like a well-oiled machine anyway. The increasing restrictions imposed upon us because of the Coronavirus are making people, family members, turn towards one another. Moments linger, sentences are formed into texts, we look into each other’s eyes and there is time to pay attention.
The virtual mini tour below presents paintings about families and children, in which the strength that holds families together is present as well as the subtle innocence and profundity of childhood underlying everyday life.
In each of the descriptions below we have formulated questions that might provide the opportunity to gain experience and embark upon an adventure even while stuck at home. The works of art speak to us all, and are always open to interpretation: the answers and ideas stay with you, are about you and for you.
- Madonna, in the Church of Philip and Jacob in Toporc, 1415–1425
- Viktor Madarász: Ilona Zrínyi in the Castle of Munkács, 1859
- Lajos Deák Ébner: Fifine, 1875
- Gyula Benczúr: My Children, 1881
- Bertalan Székely: Boy with Bread and Butter, ca. 1875
- Bertalan Pór: The Family, 1909
Madonna, in the Church of Philip and Jacob in Toporc, 1415–1425
The Madonna in Toporc is a typical representation of the type known as the Beautiful Madonnas. These kind-looking and standing depictions of the Virgin Mary playing with her child can be regarded as the direct predecessors of altar statues. The subtlety of the face and softness in the movements do not depict a state of being that is unattainable for ordinary people but rather a close relationship between a mother and a child, which is one of the most important, and at the same time ever-changing foundations of our lives.
Some questions might well arise unbidden in our minds during this time of being confined at home: what kind of relationship do I have with my child, my children? Where do their and my own boundaries begin, and how far might they shift?
Viktor Madarász: Ilona Zrínyi in the Castle of Munkács, 1859
Viktor Madarász produced this painting with a historical theme during his sojourn in Paris, which shows Ilona Zrínyi faced with the verdict of the Habsburg court after the fall of Munkács castle. Although Munkács appears as the location of the event in the title, this painting is actually about the decision to separate the family, thus proclaimed in the Viennese court. The sixteen-year-old Julianna was taken to a cloister run by the Order of Saint Ursula, while the twelve-year-old Ferenc Rákóczi was sent to a Jesuit monastery in Neuhaus, never to meet his mother again. Ilona Zrínyi’s straight and taut bearing represents her dignity as a defender of the castle and at the same time her pain as a mother, which she is suffering at the prospect of losing her children. The young Rákóczi, slightly withdrawing from his mother’s protective embrace, looks downwards but still appearing brave and defiant, while Julianna, resigned to her fate and enveloped in pain, bows her head, shutting off the world. This triangular composition holding the mother and her children in a tight unit is a powerful representation of a woman who will not deny her faith nor renounce her maternal dignity. Madarász provides a downward counterpoint to this: a looser triangle with the conspicuous figure of the notary with his bent back slavishly bowing down to any authority, and that of the seated, cocky, arrogant soldier.
Although this is a picture with an historical theme, the figure of Ilona Zrínyi has a relevance far beyond the late seventeenth-century events. She is a woman and a mother who holds together even in the most difficult circumstances. Where do difficult circumstances begin for an individual and a family when in quarantine? To what degree do the usual roles in a family change? How does a parent and a child experience being confined? With resignation, with defiance…?
Lajos Deák Ébner: Fifine, 1875
Lajos Deák Ébner first encountered French painting that introduced a new expression of form at the Vienna World Exhibition of 1873, which inspired him to move to Paris in that same year. He met Mihály Munkácsy and László Paál in the French capital and discovered the experiments in the realistic depiction of nature when meeting the painters of the Barbizon school during his trip there. He threw himself into studying the effects of light in nature and the compositional power latent in colours. Simultaneously, he continued his portrait painting, a genre which defined his early studies in art. One of the exquisite examples of this is his work titled Fifine.
This portrait with no background and its focus on the face of a little girl, captures a moment, which in everyday life might well go unnoticed despite being expressed by a child as much as an adult. The charming Fifine does not look out from the picture with a carefree, ever-cheerful expression but is rather lost in pensive thought. Despite this, Deák Ébner’s portrait is not that of a “precocious” child thanks to his finely arched brushstrokes and restrained tones. With her large eyes and slightly tilted head, Fifine carries within her a charm deserving of love, which is quite typical of children around the age of five. Her loosely folded arms and childlike fingers that she is just spreading out demonstrate a momentary kindness that at the same time emanates from deep within.
When do we see our children like this? Are we capable of noticing such moments? To what degree does a child’s life and thoughts change in a time of being shut in?
Gyula Benczúr: My Children, 1881
When portraying his children, Gyula Benczúr, known primarily for historical paintings, went against the prescribed norms of portraiture prevailing in his own era and faithfully showed the differences in the personalities of Olga, Elza, Gyula and Ida. The long and narrow shape of the picture may seem a little unusual, especially since it is a group picture. However, this was not a pioneering experiment for Benczúr but function taking precedence in the compositional principle since the portrait of the four children was an “overdoor” (i.e., a picture placed over a door), in this case in the artist’s holiday home in Ambach near Munich. These pictures above entrances were often attributed with the power of protection, and in all probability positioning the portrait of the children in this form also played this role.
If you started painting, how could you convey the personalities of your children or those of other family members? What kind of colours and features would you use? Maybe you now have the time to properly look at those photos, which you might not necessarily put up over the door but which have languished on our shelves and tables for years.
Bertalan Székely: Boy with Bread and Butter, ca. 1875
According to most art historians, this painting depicts Bertalan Székely’s little boy Ármin, who died prematurely, in a moment capturing a gesture that is unusual but very much child-like.
Székely did not paint the boy in a typical moment of play but in one that was at least as much a defining moment for the child as playing: touching and holding food. This snapshot of a single moment creates a wonderful transition between portrait and genre painting. The incompletion as well as the stark red and white patches amplify a spontaneous moment, which was otherwise quite far from Székely’s idealised portrait painting. The movement, the facial expression and the colours lend naturalness and immediacy to the composition.
What makes a child a child? How long does a child remain a child? How long do we let them be children?
What’s more important: to be able to write, read and count at the age of six, or to have the courage to draw on buttered bread while nobody is watching?
Bertalan Pór: The Family, 1909
Bertalan Pór’s family group portrait depicts his relatives from Upper Hungary, who had moved to Budapest in the hope of a better life. However, the opportunities they had expected came to nothing with no prospect of moving on from their cramped flat in Józsefváros, a poor quarter of the capital. Pór’s picture could therefore be all about being resigned, feeling lost and giving up, yet, by adopting the painterly tools, composition and form of expression of the great masters of the past, he elevated the family from despair into a powerful state of togetherness in this depiction.
The depiction of the family members in relation to each other creates a strict geometrical order. This is, however, softened by the resignation and melancholic acceptance conveyed by their detached and averted gazes. The masterly combination of softness and hardness allows the picture to move beyond a state of mind of being trapped in life. The straight and almost stiff bearing of the mother sitting in the middle and her folded arms simultaneously express her detachment and her strength to hold the family together.
History is portrayed very differently in this painting by Bertalan Pór than in Madarász’s picture depicting Ilona Zrínyi. There are no great, heroic and spectacular battles in this family’s story: this was already the twentieth century, where battles took on different forms and were played out in different settings.
Every family has its own history, its own battles. Where do they start? What were the great turning points in our own families? What implications does the present situation have for us?
We wish you all good family conversations and moments of discovery; let’s make the best of this quarantine.