The Art of Tivadar Csontváry Kosztka

Tivadar Csontváry Kosztka (1853 – 1919) was a Hungarian painter working in the expressionist style and being part of the twentieth century’s avant-garde movement. A pharmacist by profession, he had a vision that he would become a renowned painter when he was already close to thirty and after that vowed to stop at nothing “to fulfil his destiny”. However, Kosztka was not popular with his contemporaries and achieved most of his recognition only after his death, with his paintings now forming part of Hungary’s national treasure. Below are three of his distinctive paintings, with each having at least one curious aspect.

I. Old Fisherman [1902]

This seemingly straightforward at first glance painting shows an old fisherman with a cane with a coastline in the background. To the left of the man, one can see the serene sea and what looks like the signs of a village, while to the right, the sea is more volatile and a number of factories are seen, emitting pollution in the air. However, this is a painting with “a twist”. Art critics were quickly to spot that if you take a mirror and place it on the left-hand side of the painting (mirroring the fisherman’s face), it will show the benevolent man in a prayer, standing for goodness (God), but if you take a mirror and place it on the right-hand side (mirroring the fisherman’s face), it will show Devil himself (as the illustrations below demonstrate). Csontvary Kosztka seems to have wanted to underline the humanity’s dual nature – it harbours the seeds of both good and evil.

II. Pilgrimage to the Cedars of Lebanon [1907]

Kosztka was a prolific traveller and Lebanon’s cedar trees undoubtedly left a deep impression on him. These evergreen trees have a deep religious and cultural significance in the Middle East, and appeared in a number of myths – see, for example, The Epic of Gilgamesh. In this powerful painting, the artist presented a number of cedars growing harmoniously alongside each other, amidst the pilgrimage festivities. The contrasting use of colour and the trees’ prominence emphasise the need for their reverence. Some believe that Kosztka linked himself to cedar trees in a number of his works, and, thus, the trees in this painting may even signify his symbolic self-portrait. Relying on this assertion, the painting may even represent the artist’s desire to see the true recognition of his work, and hints on either his character’s or his career’s conflicting/fluctuating nature/path since one of the tree branches in the painting seems to be broken, while on the opposite side of the tree (again asymmetry, as in the painting above) a perched bird is seen. Cedar trees are also important in Hungarian mythology, standing for fertility.

III. The Lonely Cedar [1907]

This is another painting by Csontváry Kosztka that demonstrates that the artist defied categorisations and placed his art above ordinariness in the realm of some mystical symbolism. The Lonely Cedar shows a tree (a “lonely cedar”) overlooking a bay area and exhibiting some elements of a bird – its base appears to have feet, and its trunk has a bird clinging to it or, perhaps, morphing with/to it? The palette is beautiful and dreamy, and the overall impression is that of surprise mixed with wonder, but not without some discomfort.

5 thoughts on “The Art of Tivadar Csontváry Kosztka

  1. The Old Fisherman is indeed remarkable for the reasons you give, and I also wonder about the scale-like skin of his brow, which spread down the ‘God’ side of the face. Also the dancing angels in the second painting reminds me so strongly of the dancing angels of Botticelli’s ‘Mystical Nativity’ painting – perhaps it was meant to? Anyway, thanks for the introduction to Kosztka’s style!

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    1. The fisherman’s skin is striking, isn’t it? It may be the artist’s slightly exaggerated portrayal of sun damage over a very long period of time, premature aging. That’s interesting that you see parallels with Botticelli’s work. I now know Kosztka travelled a lot and studied all the great masters and styles, so I’m sure he had many inspirations.

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