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Saturday Volcano Art: Tivadar Kosztka Csontváry, ‘Ruins of the Greek Theatre at Taormina’ (1904-5) 24 October 2009

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Tivadar Kosztka Csontvary, 'Ruins of the Greek Theatre at Taormina' (1904-5)

The view of Mount Etna from the Greek Theatre at Taormina is one which has featured in Saturday Volcano Art before: back in March I wrote about ‘Mount Etna from Taormina, Sicily’, painted by the American artist Thomas Cole in 1843. The painting above was completed some sixty years later by a very different artist, and conveys a very different mood.

‘Ruins of the Greek Theatre at Taormina’ was painted by the Hungarian artist Tivadar Kosztka Csontváry (1853-1919). Csontváry was a painter of visionary, mystical temperament who claimed that his vocation as an artist was revealed to him by God. Before this he had worked as a pharmacist. The revelation of his artistic destiny came to him in 1880; he spent the next fourteen years preparing himself by travelling, visiting artists and galleries, and earning enough money to pay for formal training in painting, which he began in 1894. He studied with artists in Germany and in Paris, and began producing his own paintings from 1895.

Csontváry painted intensely visionary religious scenes, mystically-charged landscapes both urban and rural, and some remarkable pictures based on his Italian travels, including views of Pompeii and the Bay of Naples. ‘Ruins of the Greek Theatre at Taormina’, which he painted in 1904-5, combines themes that recur repeatedly in his work: the way the past haunts the landscapes of the present, the tension between transience and timelessness, the scale and grandeur of nature. Csontváry’s highly developed theory of colour can be seen in the carefully balanced relationships between blue and yellow in the sea and the lower sky, and the dark reds and greens of the ruins and the landscape. The gradations of colour in the bay beneath the volcano and the bold diagonal of the cloud that reaches out from its slopes give the picture a quality of restlessness, while the snow-capped summit of Etna, white and ethereal, seems to possess an almost spiritual intensity. Yet there is an air of inhuman desolation about Csontváry’s vision that contrasts with Thomas Cole’s lush and harmonious classicism. For Csontváry the volcano is the presiding spirit of a beautiful landscape, but a spirit that remains bleak, remote, and indifferent.

[My attention was drawn to Csontváry's work by some comments left by Hungarian readers of this blog. My thanks to them for providing the topic for this week's Saturday Volcano Art, and for making me aware of the work of this remarkable and extraordinary Hungarian painter.]

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