Monsters by Attila Szepesi

(On Géza Németh’s Paintings) 2002

In prehistoric times, when the third planet of the solar system was nothing but burning lava splashed by the waves of primordial oceans, and when the earliest life form floating in the hot sea was just getting ready to launch the program chemically encoded inside its single cell, setting the course of natural history for the next several hundreds of millions of years, there were no other colors to paint the planet than the blues of the water, the reds of the fire and the mineral mosaics of the cliffs. The horsetails, the pine trees and the club mosses only existed in the Creator’s dream, if at all, while the primeval worms, the cartilaginous fishes and the octopuses, together with all other creatures large and small, such as the grotesque tritons and the fluorescent Protozoa, were mere phantasmagorias of the distant future. However, towering above the waters, some rocks had already existed, resembling gigantic monsters, which could have roused foreboding thoughts in the eyewitnesses – if, indeed, anybody possessing a fully functional eye would have been around. Wandering through the mountain peaks, where the only features to liven up the rocky landscape were the greenish-yellow patches of lichens and the rapid streams, an explorer would have been intimidated by these colossal formations, which radiated austere solitude and ambiguity.
Regardless of whether these crude formations had emerged from the primordial oceans or whether they had been shaped by the hot lavas rising to the surface from the depths of the planet, the final touches of sculpting them into giant monsters on guard were left to the winds and the scorching heat, with an unknown number of capricious agents possibly also contributing.
Of course, those who muse on the arches and the depressions in the gigantic forms may find themselves haunted by the ghosts of the end of times: according to the popular saying, what is very old is also very new, and what is pregnant with the moment only has momentary existence. There­fore, the dream and the conjecture of the “eternal return”, as proposed by Borges and Nietzsche, can be extended from the prehistoric rocks emerging from the hot seas to the imaginary, post-apocalyptic rocks, to the extent that our preferences and imagination permit it.
These rock formations, which are pregnant with the destructions of the past and the future alike, are anything but moderate. Just by looking at them, one gets the feeling that they submit to a higher authority. As they stand at the centre of their immovability, they give the impression that their timescale is different from the timescale of the world we live in. It does not even compare to the timescale of the shifting forests, or the expanding or shrinking deserts, or the changing sea bays.
“Stone” is the key word of Géza Németh’s painting: the stones of the beginning and the stones of the end. It is a rigid form and a dream at the same time. The reserved coldness of its surfaces, rough and hard unless covered by smooth patches of moss, only receives a touch of warmth from the occasional pastel reflections. They hide under a veil of barrenness. There is nothing appealing about this world of stone. It has nothing, which would look flirtatious in the eyes eternity. Not a loud color, not even an idyllic formation, nothing. The insects and the swallows that are whizzing by rarely cast their shadows on these rocks. The air does not move, and nor do the wings of the birds, as they weigh on the landscape, heavy as stones. Unlike Rilke’s unforgettable lark, which elevates the spring landscape with its flight, Géza Németh’s painterly world offers no uplifting miracles of the kind. Here the shadows are as heavy as stones, similarly to the air, the occasional word and the memories frozen on the face. As for these landscapes, or the quasi-landscapes made up by these stones, they, too, are far removed from the notions of space and time: not just the linear, i.e. modern concepts of it, but also the traditional, sacred versions of it.
And among these fossilized formations, these monsters of indefinite age, of which it is hard to tell whether they stand for mountain peaks or gorges, empty riverbeds, where the celestial waters no longer rush down, or spatial projections of gut feelings and anxieties experienced in light sleep, a living creature occasionally stirs. If it is living at all, that is. Because it resembles the depressions of stones, or their capricious formations, the imitations of birds or snails or worms, with only the additional patches, some red as brick and some green as moss, suggesting that the painter actually collaborates with the Creator…
According to a Chinese legend, the crevasses of some rock faces and the hollows of some trees have a tendency to swallow up unsuspecting creatures, especially insects and birds. And the impressions of the unlucky creatures are left behind on the face of the rocks and the trunk of the trees. The moss slowly grows over the impressions of owls or cockroaches.
The legend transforms the single origin of the created world into a vision, in harmony with the nature of traditional worldviews. Because in antiquity, intuitions were manifested as visions. The arbitrary facts of the world, together with the chance motifs of its space and time, held no interest for the antique soul, as it was searching for universal truths, so as to render them visible; in other words, it conferred names on the intuitions and remained indifferent to everything that really matters to the modern observer: distances measured with yardsticks and linear times measured with clocks.
RENÉ GUÉNON, the French thinker born in 1886, who is often called the father of the Traditionalist School, lived from 1931 until his death in 1951 in Egypt, where he became a follower of Sufic metaphysics. Writing about Cain and Abel, or about the differences between settlers and nomads in general, in his book entitled “The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times” he pointed out the following: “Biblical symbolism presents Cain as a farmer, and Abel as a shepherd, and therefore the two of them represent the two types of people, which have existed since the beginning of human history, from the time when humankind was divided into communities of settlers who dedicated themselves to the cultivation of land, and nomads who engaged in animal husbandry. It is necessary to point out that these two occupations have a fundamental and primordial significance in the eyes of these two types of people: by comparison, all the other occupations are of secondary and supplementary importance.” After a detour into history, he continues: “The people of settlers – precisely on account of their being tied to the land – at one point will start to build towns. One could even say that the earliest town had been founded by Cain, himself. Or one could even go further, pointing out that this foundation could not have happened while he was engaged in farming, which clearly shows that the condition of being tied to the land has two stages, with the latter of the two representing a relatively more pronounced form of the conditions of being tied to the land and spatial shrinkage.” From this, the author concludes the following: “The creations of a settled people are the works of time: these people are confined within a small area in space; they carry out their activities in the temporal continuum, which appears to them as infinite. By contrast, the nomadic people do not build anything enduring; they do not work for the future, which does not really concern them, and concentrate on space, which they conceive as infinite… The symbolism of Cain and Abel is related to this: the principle of shrinkage, which is represented by time, and the principle of expansion, which is represented by space.” Next he concludes that – mutatis mutandis – “time consumes space, just as the settled peoples eventually absorb the nomads, and, as we have mentioned earlier, this lends social and historical significance to the fact that Cain murdered Abel.”
After this little detour, which may have looked irrelevant from the viewpoint of our subject matter, even though it was necessary in order to enable us to lay the “groundwork” for a discussion of Guénon’s art philosophy, or rather, for his line of reasoning, which he based on the fundamental difference between the cultures of settled people and nomads, respectively. “The lifestyle of the nomads is mainly related to the animal kingdom, which, just as these people themselves, is characterized by great mobility; by contrast, the lives of settled people revolve around two worlds incapable of movement: the worlds of vegetation and of minerals… Settled people primarily concern themselves with visual symbols, or images that are constructed from various visual elements; and these pictures in essence can be traced back to considerations that are more or less geometrical, as they form the origin and the basis of all ideas related to space. On the other hand, images are forbidden to nomadic people (along with anything else that could tie them to a particular place), and therefore they use symbols that are audial; in other words, they work with symbols that are compatible with their itinerant lifestyle… The settled peoples create plastic arts (architecture, sculpture, painting), in other words, the art forms that unfold in space. The nomadic people, on the other hand, create the phonetic arts (music, poetry), the constituent elements of which unfold in time…”
To all this, the Frenchman turned Sufi adds something else (and from the viewpoint of our subject matter this is what matters most): the “plastic art” of the settled people points in the direction of crystallization or “fossilization” – my special emphasis is on the word “fossil” – while the “phonetic art” of the nomadic people has a tendency towards “etherization” or some final sublimation…
Here are a few motifs from Géza Németh’s early paintings dated from the 1960s. Cold and lonely rooms, with depressing neon lights trickling down the walls. Scores of yellow chairs made of wood, with a few disconsolate figures sitting here and there, each faceless and wordless, and each locked in deep loneliness despite being in the company of others. Mounted on the wall above their heads, there are coat hangers, looking rather like gallows. The multitude of chairs lends a frightening aura to the picture’s space filled with pain and tension. The repetition of identical motifs often has a horrifying effect. These chairs are every bit as personal as those shadows of ghosts who are seated on some of them. They are a bit like the Chinese soldiers on horseback, buried under ground: the variously interpreted warriors in the mythical Emperor Si Huant-ti’s army of stone. All have the same face, the same unblinking eyes and steady gaze, as they watch the passage of time for centuries like mountain peaks, which only yield to the wind, the scorching sun or the freezing cold.
The other painting depicts two women, or two profiles looking rather like masques. They show no traces of conventional beauty. Instead, the repulsive greens of mildew and the reds of raw meat dominate. A little girl is shown staring off into space, looking frightened and mistrustful. Further away, two toothless old men are sitting over a bowl of black cherry soup. Although looking each other in the eye, they have nothing to say to each other.
While neither of the compositions is visually appealing, they are certainly candid. There is no yearning, no nostalgia, and no consolation here. The picture makes no effort to flatter, no sly attempt to pass off as an objective pictorial chronicle, keeping one eye open for the viewers’ reaction – the reaction of the non-existent art critic, who must be beguiled…
When Géza Németh started out as a painter, pictorial sociography was almost the order of the day for any aspiring artists who wanted to be successful. Németh resisted the lure of becoming “eternally famous for a moment”. He could clearly see that the path chosen by his colleagues - turning other people’s expectations into pictures – led to nowhere. Or if it did lead to somewhere, that was schizophrenia and self-surrender.
He stepped aside and looked inward. Although he still did not have eyes of a visionary, he knew what it was that he had to keep away from. Pulling stunts or towing the line was not his way. Painting chickens scraping around the haystacks or an iron smelter striking a heroic pose could have earned him instant success. But he knew that it was visions, not programs, that a good painter needed. Just as a person cannot outwit his destiny, and just as he cannot avoid it, a painter cannot be wiser than the vision that grows inside him. But if he wants to capture that vision, he must be patient. He must take things in their stride, as people used to say in the old days.
The locations where Géza Németh worked, from Szeged to New York, are mere biographical details, and so is the circumstance that – after a little detour – he took a degree in architecture. He knew all along that “he would be a latecomer”, but he also knew that the things he would be late for had no real value. Being late was the price he had to pay for attaining his freedom, for having a vision. Staying away from all the groups, he traveled the spiritual journey that all artists should travel alone, if they want to join the circle of the chosen ones. People who are eager to join groups may soon discover that it was merely a will-o’-the-wisp that they followed. For a moment it may seem that they are witnessing the birth of a new school, but once the fashion has faded, they find that the path of the solitary soul would have taken them further on the road. This should not be surprising, because those, who see things the way that all the others in the group see them, do not really see anything, and in fact sharing a method, and the entire hullabaloo around it, is their way to compensate for a sensory deficiency. Géza Németh’s solitary journey seemed to come to an end in the late 1970s. All the searching, along with all the hesitant brushwork and all the desperation to find a vision, now came of age. It may not have come as quickly as he would have liked it, but the painter finally acquired all the things, which truly had been his from the start. Instead of becoming what he always wanted to be, he became what he had always been. Simple as it may seem, this sacred gesture is nevertheless the most complicated.
Kosztolány’s aphorism, whereby “Poets start reaping the harvest, when their crops have been destroyed by a hailstorm”, actually also applies to our painter. It was reduction taken to the extreme, instead of gradual enrichment, that earned him his vision. He feels an urge to peel back one surface after the next, and when something valuable seems to turn up, he peels back that, too. For him, that is the way forward. The barren world of a stone desert in “Scorpion”, a painting dated from 1979, gives the spectators a haunting view. At the imaginary center of the composition stands a strange, rock-like formation, which is partly covered, just as the central character is in Brueghel’s famous painting, “Icarus”. The Scorpion, because that is what it is, has the same rocky texture that characterizes the entire setting. It is a moss-like formation that blends well with stones, although its khaki color makes it stand out. Studying it, one is reminded of the birds and other creatures disappearing in the fissures and hollows of rocks and trees according to the Chinese legend, which also blended well with the material of the rocks and the trees. It is not a real scorpion, but a reminder. But whether it reminds us of life before its arrival or in retrospect, we do not know. All that is unequivocal in Menyhért Tóth’s “primordial paintings”, namely that his bulls, birds and human figures born out of mist, mud and dreams all belong to the beginnings of time, of the crisps moment of creation, is far from being unequivocal in Géza Németh’s paintings. His stone formations, along with the creatures and creature-like motifs that populate them, sometimes refer to the beginnings of time and sometimes, in fact mostly, to the end of time.
Sometimes the picture space, which has an overall tone of gray, is covered with polished or broken crystal-like formations, and at other times it is filled with green and blue formation resembling wrinkled paper. Only the shadows indicate the passage of time in a world that apparently stands still. The actual season or time of day is of no interest. This also applies to the painting “Chimney”, which is dated from the same period. The central motif of the painting, bearing some semblance to a giant Adam’s apple made of stone, reminds us of a stage set, as do the crooked brick structures in the background. Nothing suggests the existence of life, not even a symbolic reference as the scorpion before. The only thing that is certain here is that the picture’s dream-like, post-human and post-civilization world has an eerie atmosphere.
The angel of destruction hovers above the paintings entitled “Bay” and “Forest”, both dated from 1985. It is a desolate world made of stone, with dream-like forms and giant formations without memoires, which foil all attempts by the viewer to project onto them any memories of life, such as frothy water or foliage. The picture shows the ruins of archaic cultures, along with the cosmic landscapes and their unfamiliar features. The hard and occasionally rounded surfaces, polished by water and wind, indicate the possible presence of slime, perhaps the final memento of life, which has, by now, completely lost its structure and form. In other respects, everything comes in the shape of peeling surfaces, of matter piled up in the manner of torn masques, which hardly remember, and much less remind us of, their own origins: the cosmic material carrying the possibility of life, which has lost its already cold past, analogous to the substance of some of the planets in the stellar system Tau Ceti: the ethereal ash, the debris of creation, and the painful waste matter.
The paintings “Presentation”, “It Has Come”, “Lagoon” and “Storm” – all dated from the late 1980s – makes us believe that we are actually looking down from a cosmic altitude on a landscape carved up by geological formations. Trenches, spirals and smoldering shadows crisscross the pictures’ uniform space, along with a gigantic form resembling an extended skeletal hand. It is almost as if a blurred eye looked out from the enormous whirlwind, which is reminiscent of a wrinkled mountain or a hurricane. This should remind us of the mediaeval belief that the blue lakes in the highest mountains are connected to the distant sea through hidden, underground tunnels. Hence their name: the Eye of the Sea. A fossilized world unfolds in “Wave” and “Wings”, two large-scale compositions completed in 1986. The first one features a series of wavy lines, similar to the one formed by Hegyes­tû (Sharp Needle) in the Káli Basin, north of Balaton, consisting of “organ pipes” made of basalt. Waves fossilized into stone seem to float here, without giving the impression of weightiness: they are like the light stones of Badacsony, which float on top of the water, as if they were the solidified remnants of volcanic foam. In “Wings”, the other composition, an observer with a lively imagination can detect the stumps of amputated wings. This painting, too, evokes the imagery of a stone world after the final judgment, just like all the other works suggesting lively motion, such as JÉGMADÁR, “Blue Butterfly”, “Tapir” or “Firebird”.
In “The Reign of Quality and the Signs of the Times”, the Frenchman turned Sufi, whom we have quoted earlier, ruminates about the universal epochs (the timescale of which is inconceivable to the human mind), pointing out that the manner in which they follow one another confirms the existence of the “eternal return”, a concept cherished by both Nietzsche and Borges. The end is also the beginning, and the phases of the universe have a cyclical character, rather than a linear one. All that is pregnant with destruction in these phases is also permeated with the mystery of birth. It is not possible to know more about the imaginary teaching of the eternal return. Perhaps it is not even possible to suspect more about it, since the methods of analytical study are totally inadequate in this regard. All the highbrow explanations bounce back from it, as scholars desperately try to avoid the subject, because they cannot write dissertations with numerous footnotes about it.
The stone world, of which Nándor Várkonyi talks in his books, originates from prehistoric times. The man of that era – the ‘homo magus’ in the author’s words – is seen as a hero who has received the gift of cosmic space and sacred time. Having overcome his own fallibility, he, who had previously been cast in a secondary role, became the main character. He erected dolmens and menhirs of rocks, along with burial monuments and perhaps even cosmic symbols, the purpose of which have still not been determined. He produced monsters of stone, which survived even the greatest cataclysms, and were only vulnerable to the steady destruction by winds, the sun and the cold. However, the pace of this destruction is too slow for the human eye to see.
Even more disconsolate is the stone desert, which threatens the souls after the end of history. The desert destroyed by the blessings of civilization, where shapeless stones float in gloomy space devoid of vegetation, along with the requisites of human life, such as ruins and rusty machines, tree trunks eaten away by poisonous acids and meandering river beds, which have not see water for a long time. Even the colors have faded away: not just the bluish-green tones of the primordial beginning, but also the purples cultivated by later periods. Only the grays of the soil and the reds of decomposed meat, the dubious purples and the moss greens – purple is the color of ethereal sublimation, while green is the color of raw nature – remind us of the locations of earlier sanctity. Of the space where life had been consummated…
A monster is the embodiment of the principle of non-existence, just as Satan is the physical incarnation of negation. Nevertheless, one cannot say that this non-existence does not exist. Although it is merely a negation, being the negation of something it can become non-existent and, therefore, the shadow of its own reverse. Although it is non-existent, it will still haunt people in the land of dreams and the unbounded imagination. Just as creative fantasy cannot renounce it for good, because – as a negation – it symbolize powers stronger than man; and just as a powerless court jester was the symbol of sacred power as the king’s shadow...
In the early 1990s I once saw a movie about Lake Aral and its surroundings. Dust settled on the landscape, which formerly had been teeming with life. The film showed ruined villages, where people had once lived. We saw collapsed roofs and fences standing in the reflected light of the final judgment. There were broken tree trunks resembling human figures. At one time women had been singing here, and children were playing in the dirt. Now there are stones and deadly silence everywhere. Lifeless dust and salt blowing in the wind covers everything. And as a reminder of tyranny, Lenin’s slanted statue looks over the scenes of destruction, with a placard standing next to it, which displays heroic slogans. Although it took place not so long ago, this destruction is as old as the dolmens, the dilapidated oil wells and Shelley’s Ozymandias, of whom nothing is known: neither his identity, nor his native language nor the empire he ruled at the time, when the unknown stone carver completed his ugly equestrian statue. The gigantic head of the sculpture, having been separated from the monstrous body of stone, now lies in the dust of the desert. There are no documents to testify about his rule and his arrogant personality. The mouth, in which the stone teeth have turned black, is perpetually open, yet it has no words to utter.
Each piece in “Dictator”, the series that Géza Németh completed in the late 1980s, portrays an Ozymandias. Thinking that they have conquered eternity, these worldly potentates – puppet-like monsters and obtuse maniacs – stare off into empty space without having the slightest idea about the fact that modern man lives in linear space and linear time. They live in a broken space and time, the linearity of which lacks the hope and the dream of eternal return. It is a space and time that has lost all its dimensions; and that is now completely void of the miracle of celebrations. In sacred space and sacred time, every moment was a celebration and an occasion of hope, while in this space fossilized into stone, and in this time with no dimensions at all, everything stands still.
There is nothing flattering about Géza Németh’s paintings; they are not even appealing in the 19th-century meaning of the world. But to those viewers, who find themselves in its gravitational pull, and to those who pause to contemplate in its hypnotic field, they mean the same thing as János Pilinsz­ky’s poem: “Perhaps it is evening, perhaps it is dusk. / One thing is certain: it is late.”