Today his name is largely unknown outside of Hungary, but Tivadar Csontváry Kosztka was actually rather good at promoting himself. In fact, if he were still alive today, he’d probably write a self-help book based on his life: “How to be an Artist – the Long and Winding Road”. Here’s the blueprint:
~ Have your god tell you that you’ll be a painter greater than Raphael ~
~ Visit museums and check out your competition ~
~ Save money for fourteen years before having a go at art ~
~ Take art classes until you’re reasonably good ~
~ Travel the world extensively ~
~ Paint, paint, paint ~
~ Follow the Sun Path ~
Jokes aside, Csontváry has one of the most moving life stories I’ve ever come across, proof that artistry has as much to do with faith as it does with skill: faith in one’s self, in one’s vision, faith in the beauty and harmony of the world.
It all started on October 13, 1880, on a warm and sunny afternoon, when sitting outside his pharmacy in Gács, in present-day Slovakia, 27-year-old Csontváry heard a heavenly voice telling him: “You will be the greatest painter in the world, greater than Raphael”. A year later he went to check out the competition for himself by visiting the Vatican galleries in Rome. Seeing the Renaissance works of the Italian masters in person left him impressed, but not discouraged, noting how Raphael’s art lacked the presence of the divine. He would fix all that! Thus he returned to Hungary and for the next fourteen years put all his heart and soul into his pharmacy, saving money and preparing for his life’s mission.
At 41 he was finally ready, setting off to Munich to take art classes. Other European cities followed, including a brief stay in Paris. Within a year, Csontváry was done with his academic training, traveling extensively throughout Italy and painting outdoors. He was obsessed with following the Sun Path (napút), which for him meant painting along with the sun, en plein air.
No wonder that Csontváry returned time and time again to Italy, with its sun drenched islands and vibrant Mediterranean blues, where nature and architecture fuse so effortlessly. All the light was there – how could Raphael have missed it?
It’s in Italy where he painted Castellammare di Stabia, a landscape reminiscent of Henri Rousseau’s naïve style. Set at the foot of Mount Vesuvius, Castellammare di Stabia is an enchanting small town in the Bay of Naples. We can easily spot its defining elements in Csontváry’s landscape – the fuming Mount Vesuvius in the background, the azure of the Bay of Naples, with its gusty breeze, slanting sailboats and stylized waves, embraced by a curved shoreline decked with tall, pastel houses.
There is a sense of harmony – often present in Csontváry’s works – shaped by the primeval elements that were so important to the Hungarian artist: earth, fire, water and air. The smoke, as a proxy for fire, can also be seen from the factories in the far distance. But how small and insignificant the factories appear compared to the mighty Vesuvius looming ominously on the horizon. The same can be said about the few people going about their day on the narrow street to the right – in contrast with the nature and architecture around them they look like miniature toy figures willed by the whims of a child. Add to that the warped perspective in use, and the scene we’re admiring might as well be contained inside a crystal ball. Seen through Csontváry’s eyes, everything seems magical.
Castellammare di Stabia wasn’t one of the artist’s most famous or best works – it was merely a stepping stone, a candid shot of his time spent in Italy before he went on to other lands in search of his Great Motif, the divine energy that he thought Raphael was lacking. He finally found it in Lebanon and shortly thereafter stopped painting altogether. Perhaps Csontváry imagined that as soon as he achieved greatness, the whole world would take notice and bow in deference to him. But he was ignored and ridiculed, especially in Hungary, for his “extreme” views: embracing veganism, pacifism and shunning alcohol and smoking. Declaring himself a genius didn’t help his case either. If it wasn’t for the writings he left behind, we wouldn’t know anything about him. He died alone, poor and in obscurity, with some people posthumously claiming that he had suffered from schizophrenia. It took decades before his works were finally appreciated in Hungary, but to this day he still remains largely unknown outside of his homeland.