István Cene gál is a painter living in Hungary and his name and pictures appear in international art publications more and more frequently. He and I have been friends for several decades. I was able to follow the progress of his art and saw the main phases of his work and how amazingly quickly he advanced along the road of this wonderful, but not easy profession.
How did you fall in love with the art of painting?
– I only remember that I always liked drawing, even before I started my primary school studies. I used to spend a lot of time at my grandmother’s and she always drew pictures for me. Then we cut out the figures and I would play with them. She usually drew figures of animals and human beings. We also had “classic” embroidered pictures decorating the walls. I copied their patterns even before I could write. Painting was something different and for quite a long time I only made drawings.
When did you fall under the spell of colours?
– First I replaced my black-lead pencils with coloured ones, then with crayons, and later I started painting in water-colours. From the age of 18 I only painted in oil. The changes were gradual, but I felt that I was mainly interested in colours and they also gave me more pleasure. Nevertheless, throughout the years I have made two to three hundred studies of portraits as well. For example, once I borrowed a skull from a school and every day I depicted it in drawings from different angles. It was interesting and I learned a lot. Even so, I have to confess that I still can’t make beautiful drawings.
Who were your first masters and where did you meet them?
– At school I didn’t like the drawing classes because they were very boring. On the other hand, my parents recognised that I was spending more time in drawing than you would expect from an average child, so they had to do something with me. I was 14 years old when the art teacher Ödön Iványi began teaching me. Under his supervision, once a month, some of us drew pictures of a live model, which was a real challenge for a teenager. Unfortunately he died within half a year. For two years I was drawing pictures by myself at home and I joined art schools in summer. When I was 16 years old my drawing teacher advised me to contact the painter Péter Földi in the village of Somoskőújfalu. The next three years were very busy. He ran courses for several of us twice a week and we would work two or three hours every time. This must have been the turning point in my life and that was the time when creative art became an absolute must for me. In Somoskőújfalu we only made drawings and used crayons to represent the world of colours. I was missing paints more and more.
When did you arrive at the stage of painting?
– Painting in oil was really on my mind, but I had no experience in this field. I visited museums and looked at pictures, trying to find their secrets. I read every book in the library which had anything to do with painters or with fine arts. At that time I was about 17 or 18. Then I saw a wonderful painting by Chardin in which I could recognise what types of brushes the artist had used. I travelled to an artists’ store in Budapest and I bought canvas, two or three brushes, turpentine and 8-10 tubes of oil paint. I could hardly wait to get home and have a try with them. The fragrance of paint cast a spell on me and I still love it. In retrospect the infatuation might have been naïve, but my enthusiasm triumphed over everything else. When my first tiny oil painting – a water scene – was ready, I just looked at it and was fully convinced that it was exactly what I wanted to do. The plasticity, the effects of the surface of the canvas, together with the intensity of colours caught my soul in a moment. From that time on I only painted in oil.
What’s so good about painting?
– Imagine having something which is always different, which you can shape, control and fill with your feelings and thoughts through your own brain and hands. You start with a bleak, white surface and something gradually takes shape on it. Only your own limits restrict you. Your soul is full of memories which you may cherish for several years and, all of a sudden, these memories greet you from the canvas. With the help of colours and shapes you create a world which is only yours. It is also an eternal source of pleasure, which can capture feelings and moments. You can show it to others, who can also experience this wonder. It isn’t a coincidence that millions of people go to museums and galleries.
Do you remember which of your pictures was the first to be exhibited?
– I was painting pictures for five years before I showed them to anybody, apart from my close friends. I don’t remember the first one that was exhibited, but it might have been a pastel picture. Nearly thirty of my paintings were in my first individual exhibition.
When did you taste real success for the first time?
– The real success is that every day I can do what I love to do so much. What does the word “success” mean? There are some who are mainly interested in prizes, status and getting in the spotlight. They want to take part in the life of a relatively small group. That’s important too and I understand those who achieve their ambitions that way. At the age of about 20 I myself had similar aims, but after a few attempts I changed my mind. It was mainly the visual side of this exclusive world that I could not accept. In the early ‘90s the “professional” artists were not really in favour of paintings depicting what we actually see and I was not interested in anything else. I didn’t want to pretend and praise the leading trends of the era, as they were very far from my way of thinking and my soul. I am still not thrilled when I see such pictures, and I am not interested in them. Of course, it doesn’t mean that they are no good. They are simply not my cup of tea. For quite a long time I had some doubts whether my work was really meaningful, but my trips abroad convinced me that it was.
In what sense?
– In 1989 Tibor Csernus had a wonderful exhibition in the Budapest art gallery with pictures painted in the style of Caravaggio. Well, he was not praised to the skies, because depicting what we really see – or even figurative thinking – was out of step with the actual trends of Hungarian art. This way of thinking held its ground for quite a long time. Anywhere I went to look at exhibitions of contemporary artists, I only saw that nothing was important apart from avant-garde and abstract elements. I remember that in the early ‘90s I visited the Ernst Museum to see an exhibition by the Young Artists’ Studio. Ádám Kisléghi was the only artist who had a sacred picture with a figure in it. The same was true of the different types of spring and autumn exhibitions. So, what could I think of my own pictures, which were then mainly surreal? They simply did not fit the prevailing trends and quite often I had the impression that I was heading in the wrong direction. Of course I got encouragement from many people, who urged me to do what I liked and not to pay any attention to others. My friend Jóska Pál, Professor Lajos Végváry and I spoke a lot about it when my exhibition was opened in Miskolc. This pondering state lasted for a while, but then I had a chance to visit galleries in Paris, London and Rome. I was very glad to find that many trends live peacefully side by side and several galleries even specialised in some of them. I saw that visual art was living and even flourishing. I did not leave any of the galleries with the feeling that my pictures would not be fit for them. I recognised that it is very important to travel and look around in the world, because this way we can experience how colourful and interesting it is. Nothing is only black and white and nothing can be exclusively and absolutely true. Apart from this impression, during my first trip to Paris I gained a lot when I met the artist István Sándorfi.
After the opening ceremony in Hague (Netherland) in 2005
What made such a strong impression on you?
– When we paint pictures, we may experience and recognise many influences as we see what others are doing. There are works of art which we may or may not like, and there are also moments when we experience really deep feelings which reach our hearts. These are “moments of shocking impressions”. We don’t have them too often. When looking at original paintings by Rembrandt, Caravaggio or Vermeer I had this feeling several times, but when I saw contemporary works of art this experience was not exactly frequent. Only works of Földi, Csernus and Sándorfi had this effect on me. I saw the first pictures of Sándorfi on the Internet. I liked them very much and was puzzled because he was Hungarian but, so far, I had not come across his pictures. Soon it became clear that he was living in Paris. I made a decision to visit him. After we had exchanged a few letters, he received me and gave me a hearty welcome. This was my first trip to Paris and the town itself also captivated me. Sándorfi’s old studio was a real marvel to me. Everything I saw represented what a painter would dream about: large, finished and semi-finished pictures on easels, photos, lithographs, brushes, paints, solvents… Sándorfi had a technical skill which I have never experienced before or since our meeting. His paintings are detailed, like photos are, but still enigmatic and picturesque. They are not images of photos, as they also convey emotions. In that studio I had the impression that the artist had already painted everything I could ever dream of. It was a strange feeling, but at the same time it also gave me inspiration. We spent hours talking. I learnt a lot from what I saw and heard there. As we know, painting pictures is mainly a spiritual process, so my optimism was recharged; there is a meaning in my work, and there is a future for painting pictures that depict real life.
You met several times, didn’t you?
– Yes, till his death we were in close contact. I visited him in Paris three times and three or four times we also got together in Budapest. Once in a while we met for dinner or coffee. I most definitely enjoyed talking to him, because he was really intelligent and pleasant. At that time we could not see his pictures in Hungary. Later, with Kálmán Makláry’s help, he had several exhibitions here, too. When I visited him the last time in Paris, we met in his new studio. There was also someone from an American gallery, probably from Santa Fe, who invited him to go there. Nevertheless, he wanted to have exhibitions in Hungary and was even thinking of moving here. I also had a plan to meet another painter genius, Csernus, in Paris. Sándorfi even called him on the phone to ask if I could visit him, but unfortunately I did not have enough time and I still regret it. There are certain things which we simply must not put off, because later the opportunity may not present itself again. I am very sad, even now, that I did not go to meet him.
What did you want to find in the museums of Europe?
– I’ve already mentioned that I have read almost every book in the library about painters. Accordingly, I was really excited to see the original pictures, because they are totally different from the ones in photos… In the museum we see their size, the tones of the colours are also much more subtle, and they express energy. In short, they are totally different. When seeing the original pieces of art we can learn a lot from them. We see the surface effects. In many cases the pictures which I really liked were not the ones we often see in books, but the unknown ones which I happened to discover. I have been to Paris, Rome, London, Amsterdam, Vienna, and I could continue the list. For example, once I made a determined search for the paintings of Vermeer and Caravaggio all over Europe. In Rome I saw his pictures which are still in the church where he painted them. It turned out that I had to wait two hours until the church was opened, but I got in. At several places the lighting of the pictures is operated by coins, and only for a few minutes. Quite often, if I wanted to admire pieces of art for a long time, I had to wait for groups of tourists. Caravaggio has three very important pictures in Rome, in the San Luigi dei Francesi: the Calling of Saint Matthew, Saint Matthew and the Angel and the Martyrdom of Saint Matthew. The first one is in a narrow side-aisle, where it is practically impossible to stand in front of the picture, and one can only see it from the side. These pictures are three and a half metres high. They completely fill the space, this way giving a unique effect. In a museum the best pieces of art are displayed in central locations, but here “it is simply there” because it was originally put there. These experiences are unforgettable. I had a similar one with Vermeer’s The Milkmaid in the Rijk Museum. No book can render the blue and yellow colours in which the woman’s clothes are painted. In the 17th century these painters had skills and knowledge which we can only dream of now. They knew everything about colours, light, space and, of course, about the materials which they used for their work. In Amsterdam there is a Rembrandt picture, Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem. I don’t believe that anyone, anywhere in the world, could paint any picture which is better than this. It is simply perfect. Rembrandt’s use of colours – coming either from the outside or radiating from the inside – is simply unparalleled. He pays attention to tiny details, but doesn’t get lost in them. He uses cold colours in such a way that his pictures are almost aglow with the warm tones. I could speak about these experiences for ages, but now I can only say that we must definitely go and see everything personally.
Do you still continue this search and examination?
– Yes, of course. Recently some friends of mine and I went to Albertina, where we saw pictures of Helnwein and Gerhard Richter. Contemporary masterpieces are also very important, not only the old classics. Now it is a bit difficult to find what we really want to see, because marketing and “hype” come before everything else. But if I really like something, I want to see it in the original.
It is understandable that the galleries go to any length to sell pictures. Nowadays marketing has a major share in every field, but where can you notice “hype” in fine art, and why does it bother you?
– It doesn’t bother me. It was only a passing remark. If somebody paints nice pictures, it is not enough. We are living in a world abundant in pictures, so it is very difficult to attract attention. Now fine art has reached a stage when it is almost impossible to conceive something which has not already been painted earlier in some form. In Rome in the 16th century abstract motifs of decoration were used on the floor of St. Peter’s Basilica. Later, in the 20th century, this form of art also appeared on canvases. It’s obvious that something really unusual is required to catch attention, and that’s why we can find corpses of animals preserved in formalin – as works of art – in museums. Shocking effects are applied to convey messages of art, built upon three main foundations: sex, cruelty and immense grief. We don’t have to say much about sex, it obviously attracts attention. Cruelty is also a convenient topic to catch glances. It’s similar to sunset scenes, but at the other extreme. Immense grief means that we are living the worst possible world, and only topics of sadness can be accepted as art. For many the starting point is that one cannot create anything valuable in the state of happiness, as art needs total depression. When I visit an exhibition I see so many pictures with sad topics that I lose my joy of life. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why contemporary art finds it hard to attract an audience. There are too many forms of negative energy, and in the meantime we forget about beauty. However, our world is full of tiny wonders. Even our life on the planet is a kind of marvel, as a result of which we can see and feel what is around us. Csernus was definitely brave to paint his picture Swans at the end of the 20th century. I am fully convinced that he was attacked on all sides because of it, but the painting is absolutely fantastic… I don’t say that there are good and bad, precious and worthless things in art; I only know what I am interested in. If something doesn’t interest me, I simply do not care about it. “Hype” is just a tool to convince me that I should change my viewpoint.
What do you mean when you say “depicting what we actually see”?
– That’s a short way of expressing it. It refers to the type of painting for which the real image is important instead of abstraction. The topics may be abstracted, but the mode of expression is already realistic. It may involve many elements reaching from the natural to figurative.
Through what stages and styles have you arrived at where you are, depicting what you actually see?
– I have always painted what I actually see. When we start painting, we are looking for a way forward, and we try many things. We try to find what is close to our way of thinking. For example, those who are not patient enough shouldn’t start painting pictures with details of a photo. For those who like painting with quick and aggressive strokes, expressivity may be the proper path. I have always enjoyed and still enjoy painting as a manual activity, which means I like painting slowly. Right at the start of my career I liked the lifelike pictures of painters who observed details. This is the reason why I like pictures of the sea by Aivazovsky, the great Armenian painter, the landscapes by Shiskin or Dali’s surreal artworks so much. I set out to follow their trail. I painted traditional landscapes only very rarely, as studies, but I was happy to depict surreal scenes. Apart from natural expression I am also in favour of the abstraction of ideas. Many times I put a little element in the centre and composed my picture around it. One idea is often followed by another one immediately. Sometimes it happened that I had no idea what the picture would show when I started the work. It was very exciting to work this way. It also turned out that one picture of one and half metres was not enough for my “avalanche of ideas”, so I painted five pictures of the same topic. They are The Last Butterflies.
Did you have any difficulty with the technique?
– The only problem was my lack of technical skills. Painting in oil is a really difficult activity, and it is not an exaggeration to say that we keep learning it nearly until the end of our life. However, it is an area of endless possibilities and it also involves some chemistry. I kept finding more and more difficult topics, but I had to develop my skills. Many times I knew what I wanted to render. The picture was ready in my brain, but I could not depict it exactly and precisely. Sometimes it happened that I had an interesting dream and the next day I made a sketch of it, which became the basis of the next picture. Gradually it became a standard process and one picture led to the birth of another one. At that time my pictures, mainly Frottages, were quite large, measuring one and a half or two metres. I have happy memories of that period.
The period of learning…
– Yes. For a while I also studied the history of art. I decided to paint some pictures typical of the most important periods from the beginning till now and take them to an exhibition. I painted pictures of the Mayas, the Olmecs, the ancient Greeks, then I came to the art of Egypt which kept me there for 3 years. Altogether I have painted 36 pictures of Egypt. In retrospect it was a trap and I had considerable difficulties in getting out of it. Towards the end it was not ancient Egypt that was important but the relationship of light and shadows. I paid more and more attention to tiny details and by that time I had the technical skills to show what I wanted to. I was also interested in what I saw directly around me, in my studio and the memories of my travels. I took very many photos and painted the new paintings according to them.
Do you still work this way?
– Practically, yes, but I spend even more time in making the proper base and the colours which I use are also more and more special. Slowly I became able to judge which brands of which makers are the best for me to use. I use different types of canvas for different sizes. Over the size of 80 cm I put the canvas on the stretcher myself. The base and laying the first coat of paint are very important. I treat every canvas. Nowadays I can mix paints and get the right tones of colours easily, but it requires 20 years’ experience. I also make exact preliminary drawings and make progress in space layer by layer, from the back to the front. Later I continuously make the dark tones deeper and apply the lights. At the start I use relatively thicker layers of paint, and later the thickness gets reduced continuously. It is a slow process, because the lower layer has to dry.
How typical is this technique?
– I guess those who want to paint pictures with many details use something like this, but every artist has his or her special tricks.
In what aspects are you different from the other artists who use this technique?
– For example I never use black, and also use very little white. Now I make almost everything gentle and leave rustic strokes applied to the canvas very rarely. The differences are mainly in the topics. I paint practically everything which gives me pleasure. Usually several pictures are needed to depict a subject properly, but when I have the impression that I have already given enough attention to a certain subject, I can plunge into a totally different world of topics. From time to time I need challenges.
The ‘Light and Shadows’ period was a significant stage of your development. What was in the centre of these pictures?
– With them I wanted to put thoughts and ideas in the foreground and I didn’t want to tell stories. I simply wanted to depict reality. When I travelled abroad I was roaming the streets, I took photos and tried to catch the atmosphere of the places. I didn’t aim my camera at the most important sights, but mainly at scenes in ordinary streets, to capture an image of how things happen in Paris or London every day. I also received photos from friends which I could use. When the flowers were blossoming in my garden in the spring, I went out and took several hundred photos at different times of the day. I painted more and more pictures of my environment. I live in a small village in the hills, so there is plenty of beauty around me. For example, my parents have a small vine arbour. In the autumn I waited for a month to get slanting light to make the pictures worthwhile. It may sound strange, but after some time I could see light through the eyes of a painter and was looking for reasons to paint the effects of light in different situations. It is simply stunning how the light leaves shadows among the blue clusters of grapes. These are only passing moments, because after a few minutes the effects of colours and lights are totally different. That is why I have to catch them in photos. It may be that these photos are left in a drawer for half a year or even years before I look at them again and find something very special in them. In the winter I arrange scenes myself in my studio and select the objects very carefully. The shadow of an illuminated glass bottle itself is interesting enough to have some objects around it. I try to find the harmony of colours. If there are too many warm tones, I want to find something with a cool shade to compensate them. I also cast light from the side, just to make the effects in a scene a bit more complicated. I simply paint what I see, and do not want to change the world, because that would be entirely impossible.
By the way, what is the world of Hungarian painters now, generally?
– It’s not all beer and skittles. It’s not easy to make a living from the art of painting. Everybody tries to make ends meet: galleries and individual artists alike. To make matters worse, in Hungary pictures painted before WWII are very much preferred to the contemporary ones. According to my experiences in foreign countries the situation is different, so the Hungarian galleries try to find customers there.
What are the international trends?
– I don’t have an overall picture of them, but in my experience the contemporary art of painting has a much higher prestige abroad. There are many artists, but with the help of the Internet more and more people can send their work to any part of the world. As I mentioned, pictures depicting details are having a renaissance, but in foreign galleries one can see and buy practically everything in every style.
How do you find your own place in this world?
– Recently I have had pictures displayed at more and more exhibitions abroad. This year my exhibitions in Shanghai and Taipei are confirmed, but one in Seoul may also be possible. This is the third year that my paintings have been at the Art Revolution Taipei. I am proud to say that I have already had pictures in the Chinese Contemporary Art Magazine and in Art Investment as well. My co-operation with the art gallery in Taiwan is excellent, and in the second half of the year I am mainly painting pictures for them. I do what I have to, paint all day long, and keep up my spirit of optimism. I have never contacted any gallery to ask to exhibit pictures in them. Nevertheless I have had more than forty exhibitions in Hungary and abroad.
Exhibition in Taipei
Could you mention some which were very special to you?
– The first one is always very important, because it is a kind of introduction and one never knows how the pictures will be received. The first one at a distance from where I lived was also special. It was an exhibition in Miskolc, a big town in the northern part of Hungary. I was able to put quite a few pictures on display there and the feedback was promising. That time I was attending a course there and very many people came from the Faculty of the History of Art – for example Professor Lajos Végváry and Miklós Losonci, who later opened several of my exhibitions. We can learn a lot from every exhibition, because we have to select the pictures and find some system in them. The faults became obvious immediately. József Pál, the poet and former editor of the magazine Palócföld, first came with me to the community house in Tatabánya. Later he and I were at the opening of very many exhibitions. Tatabánya was the place where I recognised that the pictures must be large enough. The chats during the long journeys and the well-prepared opening speeches were very important for me. He had a special gift for arranging an exhibition to show the paintings at their best for the viewers. His broad sphere of vision in the area of fine art and literature influenced me strongly. Unfortunately he is dead now. My first foreign exhibition at The Hague, Holland was another important one. The experience of travel and the unknown environment were very exciting. I didn’t know what to expect. In Salgótarján, a town close to my village, nearly five hundred people once came to the opening of one of my exhibitions. That was the “Egyptian Symphony”, at which the Egyptian Cultural Deputy Minister, an attaché and many others were also present. The paintings exhibited there have also been taken to five other towns. As the years went by I had fewer and fewer exhibitions and finally just one a year. This way I could keep its charm and was able to paint new pictures. My last exhibition in Salgótarján in 2010 was important because the previous year I had received a “Prima” award. For this exhibition I collected the best pieces of the “Light and Shadows” period and never saw them together again. I have paintings on permament display in some galleries in Budapest but in recent years I have had new pictures displayed almost exclusively abroad, mainly in Taipei.
What role does the Far East have in today’s inter-national art trade, and especially for contemporary pictorial art?
– As I see it, the market of the Far East is gaining importance. It is a vast region, which is developing by leaps and bounds. The most important galleries and auction houses all have a presence there and earn considerable profit from the region. When pictures of my paintings are in the Chinese Contemporary Art Magazine or in the catalogues of exhibitions I always receive complimentary copies of them. The professional pictures which I see in them reinforce my belief in their development and I am proud that I can be a part of it.
What plans do you have for the near future and further in time?
– I am working continuously, and that is the most important thing. I have many ideas which I want to realise. I am also planning to paint large-sized pictures. Sooner or later it will be high time for me to travel with my pictures to Taiwan. It would be a memorable experience… Things are changing all the time, but the most important thing is that I should be able to paint, and what I paint should give as much pleasure to others as it gives to me.
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