The frames are not empty anymore

VanGogh

Immersive Van Gogh


I went to see this “immersive experiment” as they call it – Beyond Van Gogh… (notice his name should be pronounced vAn HOH, A as in father, and those H sounds, the same at the beginning and the end, closer to the German “ch” in ich… definitely not G or K). Anyway, as we entered, there were these huge panels, having coloured background based on details of his paintings and all kinds of information printed on them, a useful guide and documentation for those encountering the artist the first time. And quotes from his letters to his brother, Theo. In some places in the dark, I saw big empty frames hanging…

Those empty frames recalled some memories from the past, a very distant past, from my university student years. I was very involved at that time with theatre: not only was I a budding theatre critic but also an amateur (student) actor and director and founder of an avant-garde group with a few close friends and schoolmates. This was in the first half of the seventies. A local writer – and just for the record: when I talk about those times it is always, without exception, always about the Hungarians in Transylvania – so this writer, István Kocsis (1940), about ten years older than my generation was, published a play (1973) about Van Gogh and Gauguin.

Kocsis István

Kocsis István, playwright
foto: Thaler Tamas

When they were together in the house from Arles… A strange episode in their life when respect and attraction of the like-minded artists alternate with jealousy and envy, anger and love – and here comes my eternal complaint about the lexical poverty of English, as without additional adjectives it cannot differentiate between the various ways of love, in this case, the ‘brotherly love’. The title of the play (and I am afraid it is available only in my native Hungarian) is Tárlat az utcán or Exhibition in the street.

Nowadays and around here where I live (almost) everybody knows about Van Gogh and few ever heard of Gauguin. Thinking back I was perhaps first attracted toward the works of the latter, maybe because already in high school we all read Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence, a new edition of its translation being published in those late sixties, and we knew, we learned that the main character was based on Gauguin, plus I liked, actually, I adored those voluptuous Pacific Islander women bodies with all my teenager fervour, as we long watched them in the albums we could find in libraries. By the university years, Van Gogh was also “in the picture” and being subscribed to the monthly magazine of my hometown, one day we had him in that new play of this Kocsis guy.

In the meantime, Van Gogh became more important as I advanced in understanding the arts. And the struggles an artist must endure because of his own choices. As a permanent twist of our worldview, as a small nation always felt being under threats and, even more, the fragments of that nation surviving in a minority status, there was a – perhaps, still is – a dilemma (which seems non-existent for seafaring and big nations) simplified in the duality of leaving or remaining. Each thinking person needs to answer for himself or herself whether to stay in the birthplace and sacrifice themselves in the mythical “service” of the community, of the nation, or bravely embrace the call of faraway places and find a personal fulfillment somewhere around the globe.

Kocsis, our playwright, was also playing on those ideas: to stay as Vincent with his people or to leave everything behind and jump into the adventures as Paul. I knew Kocsis, we knew him, I even played in one of his single-act pieces. We played it one evening together with a similar single-act by William Saroyan… and once the technical director looked out at the spectators, he came backstage and asked jokingly: Kocsis is already here, should we wait for Saroyan?

I liked his new play with the two painters, and I started to fantasize about putting it on stage – as a director. But not with students, but with real actors in a real theatre. I thought about all the possible actors that could fit in those roles and one evening I went and sit at their table. It was in the then famous (infamous, maybe) place called COLA that was created as a club (C) for the people (O) dealing with letters (L) and arts (A), by the local authorities to offer a venting joint for the many artists that found a refuge in alcohol.  As the good old joke went: intellectuals had two choices – one is alcoholism and the other is unattainable…

Mihály Pál, actor
(1937–2017)

Péterffy Gyula

Péterffy Gyula, actor
(1935–1980)

There were these two actors, both gone by now, sitting there in that fancy pub, and I started to tell them about what I envisaged. Of course, I knew them both, my work as a theatre critic, and regular in the theatre and backstage made me “prematurely” known in those circles, not to mention the evenings spent in that COLA place, where the colourful waiter/bartender, Pista, generously offered credit even to students. Actually, he deserves a whole story about him but now we should go back to my actors. They listened to me, ordered another round, and promised to read it by the next time we meet. They did and they liked it, too. I can’t remember whether it was one of them, or a good friend, a photo reporter, Ferenc Csomafáy (1936—2021), who suggested asking a well-known artist: sculptor and painter to be the designer of the show: Vid (Ari) Tirnovan (1933).

We had many meetings and fantastic discussions. I mean those three, all older than I was, already noted artists in their career, talked enthusiastically about the possibilities and what they saw in the play, while I was absorbing all that like a sponge. One day, I mentioned to Ari that we shouldn’t put on the scene “the room from Arles” so obvious from Van Gogh’s painting but to have an empty space, maybe hanging frames, I added. – Why? What’s the point, he said. An empty frame is just that: empty. Framing the nothing, you see? He said that those hanging “things” should be mono-colour panels, all in the colours of Van Gogh. Live colours…

Tîrnovan Vid (Ari)

Tîrnovan Vid (Ari)

That phrase stayed with me for many decades. Till today. Ah, I thought, the organizers didn’t meet Ari. But this was a different show in a different world. Fascinating digital technology but no drinks with the friends.

Unfortunately, we never succeeded to put together that theatre play on stage. One of the actors became very busy and died too early, at the age of forty-four: Gyula Péterffy (1935—1980). The other,  Pál Mihály (1937—2017), left Transylvania in 1977 and lived in Budapest. Kocsis and Tirnovan both live now in Hungary. I am being nostalgic here in Southern Ontario, Canada. As a hobby, I buy old picture frames and use them for our ever-growing collection of artworks by known and lesser-known painters, artists. Each piece has its own story. One day I may tell them. I am good at two things: making fantastic plans and telling stories…