Friday, January 13, 2012

Before the Judge

A Roma, or traveler, makes a complaint to a local magistrate because a wealthy young man has broken his violin. 

(Click to enlarge image) The violin is his only way of making a living. Other members of his orchestra stand to testify for him. One of them has a bandage on his head. Has a punch been thrown? The accused stands nearby with his face smugly composed, his hands clasped, and his jacket casually tossed on his shoulder. Apparently he is the son of a wealthy landowner. 

The judge sits sidewise on his chair, giving a hearing but not his full sympathy. "Everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty," he probably says. One of the women turns in disgust at what she's heard. Already one of the ragged company has become frustrated enough to throw down his hat. Will justice be done?

This is the riddle posed by Hungarian painter Sándor Bihari (1855-1966  --1906) Bihari trained in Vienna and then lived for a time in Paris, where he studied with Jean Paul Laurens and absorbed many of the ideas of Impressionism without losing his firm grasp on accurate drawing, characterization and storytelling.

There's no doubt about who is the protagonist in the scene, for the pleading man is a dark spot in the center of the composition with the background gradating up behind him. He's leaning forward, which catches our attention. Bihari skillfully downplays areas of the picture that a camera would render with unnecessary contrasting details, such as the map behind the judge's head and the rafters above. 

Storytelling is one of the greatest aims in painting. But it is not like the kind of storytelling in movies or novels or comics. Painting is not a narrative form; one does not relate a series of events. A painting is a single moment, perfectly chosen and balanced, with a series of clues left for the viewer to untangle.
The painting, called "Biró elött," dates from 1886. It's in the Hungarian National Gallery.
Brief bio on Bihari in English
Wikipedia page on Bihari 


Ernest Friedman-Hill said...

I think I see four different "arrows" directing our attention to the Gypsy's head: from the judges head, along several other heads; along the heads of the figures to our right; from the hat on the floor, though his own dark coat; and finally, from the lantern on the upper left. This all has to have been planned.

अर्जुन said...

"ideas of Impressionism" …???

James Gurney said...

अर्जुन, You know, painting direct from nature outdoors, broken color, etc. The ideas were in the air in Vienna and Paris. They were very much a part of academic practice before the Impressionists latched onto them. Bihari, from what I've read of him, was as much coming the Munich school of thinking as anything else, and I'm trying to learn more about how that thinking was different from Parisian academic training.

Unknown said...

Beautiful image! However I really wanted to comment more on the Spectrum Live! Convention that I just noticed on your sidebar and was investigating... I have never exhibited at a convention before and it terrifies me to even entertain the thought of putting my humble pieces next to you, or Brom, Donato Giancola, Dan Dos Santos, Jon Foster... any of you... But I know I SHOULD do it, because it could help me get work in the future, so I am going to do it. I admit freely that I'm young, and as such my work is still young, and I know how much I still have to learn. Do you have some advice on what I should be prepared for at the convention? How should I engage other artists? How does one approach a seasoned artist and politely ask to get to know each other as business contacts or friends without sounding incredibly obnoxious? How do I do that and make you WANT to get to know ME, since EVERYONE else is wanting the same thing?

The whole idea makes me feel like David taking on Goliath without the support of God.

James Gurney said...

Hi, Maria, I'm sure others will comment, but I can assure you that this will be a totally informal and welcoming environment. I first showed my paintings at a science fiction convention, right next to my heroes, and then I found out they were all really approachable and down to earth. Spectrum Live is dedicated just to imaginative art, so you'll get a lot out of it.

Anonymous said...

Painting is not a narrative form; one does not relate a series of events.

If you insist upon a sequential component in a definition of narrative in regard to painting, then clearly it does not apply to most paintings. The thing is, there is a well established art methodological precedent for not insisting upon it.

The painting is successful as a piece of storytelling and is well executed. I think it's a fairly bland composition, however.

James Gurney said...

Etc. Of course some paintings tell stories and some don't. But I think "narrative" is a term we should do without in talking about paintings, for two reasons: it's often used to disparage storytelling art, and it suggests the presentation of a story by means of a sequence of events. A single painting suggests a story in a very different way, by selecting a single moment in time. Understanding that difference really helps me think more clearly about making a picture tell a story.

Beata1977 said...

Hello Mr. Gurney. I'm Hungarian, and I've read your book (Dinotropia, journey to Chanadra) today, in a Hungarian library in Budapest, in Hungarian language (being translated from English to Hungarian before 2010).
It was exciting and I liked very much the paintings too!! I felt as if I had been in a movie!!!
I make research in modern time-concepts, maybe I'll use your book as a source, an illustrious example in my essay.:)
I'm right if I say that your book not only exhibits a gorgeous and fabulous far-off world, but also criticize (maybe unconsciously?) our modern world, notions and our way of life?!
I would be very glad for your answer.
Greetings, Beata

Beata1977 said...

Nice painting indeed!
I plan a viewing, since the National Gallery is near by the library I often visit!

youngstudios said...

that is an awesome chuchwarden pipe on the left, i know it wasn't supposed to but it hung my attention up on it :)

Beata1977 said...

Sorry, I made a mistake in my comment...
Istead of "Dinotropia, journey to Chanadra"... "Dinotopia. Journey to Chandara", of course...

Anonymous said...

FYI, The Wikapedia article doesn't translate completely and the bio doesn't mention it, but the Hungarian says that he worked first as a House Painter next to his father.

I found that interesting.

Beata1977 said...


I've translated some sentences from the letters of Bihari (1886) - from Hungarian to English.
Sorry for my English is far from the best...

"My collegue Roskovics visited me yesterday. I was immensely happy when he told, that my picture represents considerable progress. I think he is a frank man and he didn't wanted to adulate." (23 June 1886)
(In 1906 Roskovics Ignác wrote in a newspaper that when he visited him, Bihari showed his picture (Biro elott) reluctantly, and said that "Earlier was better, but I ruined it")
"I was compelled to change particularly the coloration of Gypsies, because were missing the powerful, strong, specific colours which mark them. I painted the judge even greater and I carried out those little changes we discussed at your last visit.” (letter to Tauszig, 9 April 1886.)

"Revesz argues that I will surely win the Munkacsy prize with my big picture (Biro elott), just compete for it. I'm very curious what will bring to me this autumnal exhibition. I wonder whether my pictures will have success or not... The first person who saw my picture about this gypsies was a young peasant girl who apprehended it and its topic as I envisaged/wanted it earlier! Her naive judgment about the message of my picture is of the highest value." (17 July 1886)

(source: Szelesi Zoltán: Válogatás Bihari Sándor levelezéséből. Published: Szeged, 1956, 109-111. p.)

Beata1977 said...

In 2 books we can find that:

Finally, he didn't win the Munkacsy prize with this picture, but the picture was bought by the king...

Anna Oelmacher writes in her book about Bihari that he picked up on Gypsy faces that time when he didn't have money to pay Hungarian models. The gypsies posed for lesser money and howsoever they had interesting appearance.

अर्जुन said...

"painting direct from nature outdoors, broken color, etc." ~ the veneer upon different aims. Studies done as reference for studio paintings, by nature many are broadly handled, and occasionally with subtle colour changes, but all those done by pre-Impressionist academics are of the brown school …even the great Corot. Lord Leighton's are fantastic …brown school.

Now I'm not an advocate or devotee of Impressionism …but it does have a clearly defined doctrine~

Impressionism is the truthful depiction of the effect of light on form. Truthful colour. Truthful value. Each in proper relationship to the forms position in space and relative to the flow of the light. It is not decorative colour. It is not values altered for the sake of narrative/illustrative/pictorial considerations. If the light obscures the clear delineation of form, or if contrast exist away from the 'center of interest', then so be it. Once such a change is made, it ceases to be Impressionism, and instead becomes lies ~ academic/brown school/old master/traditional/illustrative (or: Truths of another aim).

for a succinct historical introduction/appreciation of Impressionism~
recommended reading;

1- VELASQUEZ (in particular chapters 'X. His Influence Upon Recent Art' and 'XI. The Lesson of Impressionism') by R.A.M. Stevenson (author was a student of Carolus-Duran, friend of J. S. Sargent, and cousin of Robert L. Stevenson)

2- TWO WAYS OF PAINTING (short essay) by Kenyon Cox

3- Oil Painting Techniques and Materials (Chapter VII - COLOUR) by Harold Speed

4- The Boston painters, 1900-1930 by R H Ives Gammell
from which I quote (pgs70-71) Tarbell ~ He happened to be in the studio of a comrade one afternoon when Monsieur Lefebvre dropped in to criticize a canvas the young man was working on from a posing nude model. Picking up the palette and mixing a tone, the master quickly brushed in a hue which, to Tarbell's amazement, unerringly matched the color of the posing girl's flesh. "Now will you tell me," Tarbell concluded with a rhetorical question, "Will you tell me why in the world the man who could do that went to work and painted the chalky nude holding up a hand mirror in the Luxembourg?" He was referring to the then celebrated picture entitled "la Vérité." I held my peace, but my own long preoccupation with symbolism as well as with mural painting had taught me that, had he painted "la Vérité" impressionistically, to use a word he would not have understood in our sense of it, Lefebvre would have ended up with a picture of an unclad woman, which was not his purpose at all. His aim in this instance was to depict the female figure in a manner susceptible of suggesting the remoteness and dignity of a symbol. This withdrawal from everyday reality necessitates adopting a calculated color scale for the fleshtones and generalizing the structural forms of the body, esthetic devices which Lefebvre utilized extremely knowledgeably, although perhaps not triumphantly in this instance. Now, these objectives are alien to the impressionist endeavor which, as we have noted previously, aims to report the immediate impact of something seen and observed by the painter in its envelopment of light and atmosphere. Both ideals have suscitated great works of art, but each should be judged by its own criteria with the painter's specific intent in mind.

James Gurney said...

Beata, thank you so much for giving us those further insights into Bihari. That's something we English speakers would never have known.

Susan, yes, that's an interesting detail. Also, he came from a Jewish background, which I forgot to mention.

Young, Bihari's other pictures have a lot of guys with super-long pipes. I guess that's what they did in those days.

अर्जुन : Thanks for taking the time to write all that down. "Impressionism" is a large and complex topic that could fill several books, and I'll bet that we'd agree that most of the available books don't cover the topic adequately, especially in relation to academic practices. But please keep in mind that I'm writing a brief post about one Hungarian painter, so I hope you'll forgive me for a bit of shorthand.

Ernest, I'd love to see his sketch stages to see how he arrived at that composition.

Beata1977 said...

I found something very interesting!

The pictures of Bihari inspired Aurél Göndör, a Hungarian actor and cabaret-composer (1869-1917), to write and compose a play (Czigány a bíró előtt = A gipsy before the judge) which contains only two scenes. The first scene follows the picture intituled Az ő nótája (His song), the second one the picture mentioned above: Bíró előtt (Before the judge). Göndör united this two pictures and their topics in one story. In the first scene (Az ő nótája) the Gypsy musician tunes up and plays the favourite songs of that well-heeled farmer who sings. Finally they have a quarrel and that confident, sass farmer destroy the violine. In the second scene the gipsy remonstrate against this act at the judge... The first scene is based on music, the second one is a verse, the monolog of that Gypsy before the judge, appearing on the picture too. I could seize only the record of the first scene, I miss the second one... You can find here, at the foot of the page, at the record named „Az ő nótája”, taking 3,21 minutes.
This play was recorded and diffused on phonograph disks (the picture of the disk is also on the page). Some people suppose that Bihari and Göndör were friends.

Beata1977 said...

James Gurney said...

Beata, it's so exciting to listen to those recordings, with the voice reciting and the horn player. It really brings the paintings to life. Thanks for sharing that with all of us.

Anonymous said...

But I think "narrative" is a term we should do without in talking about paintings

I see. I tend to ignore the modernist's pejorative spin that is placed on the word "narrative". It is a useful word for me in that I tend to think of a narrative-decorative polarity within traditional art. If you don't mind, I'll qoute a lengthy section from Heinrich Wolfflin's Classic Art, Chapter IV, Raphael, Section 3. The Camera della Segnatura:

It is difficult for the modern public to do justice to the artistic qualities of these frescoes. It looks for the merit of the works in the expression of heads, in the thoughtful relation of one figure to the other. The traveller wishes above all to learn what the figures mean, and is not satisfied until he knows their names. He therefore listens gratefully to the information given by the guide, who knows the name of each person, and is convinced that he understands the picture better after receiving this information. Many people are quite satisfied with this, while some conscientious visitors try to realise thoroughly the expression of the heads, and rivet their attention on the features. Few are able to grasp movement of the figures as a whole in addition to studying the faces, and to appreciate the beauty of motive in the various postures of the leaning, standing, or sitting figures. Still fewer have any suspicion that the real value of these works does not lie in the details but in the arrangement of the whole, in the harmonious animation of the space. They are decorative works of the grandest style, decorative, however, in a sense other than that in which the word is commonly used; I mean that they are paintings where the chief accent is laid not on the individual head, or the psychological connection, but on the arrangement of the figures upon a given surface, and in their relative positions in the space. Raphael had a stronger instinct for all that pleases the human eye than any painter before him.

Beata1977 said...

Your welcome James, I'm glad that I could exhibit something new!

The record with horn (intituled "A néma trombitás") is not exactly that one I wanted to show to u. The picture of Bihari appears in the record at the bottom of the page (named Az ő nótája, 3.21 minutes).
(As regard to the horn record which is situated on the top and in the middle of the page there is a dumb trumpeter, who is asked by a judge to try to answer the questions with music. The questions: Where did you born? How old are you? Where do you work? How many children do you have? Who is the man your wife had sexual intercourse with? What did you do when u discovered that betrayal? Do you love her who committed that cuckoldry? Etc. At the end turns out that this is a judicial process, and the judge want to decide upon this adultery case.)

James Gurney said...

Etc, thanks for sharing that quote, and I see where you're coming from. Those abstract or decorative qualities interest me very much in picturemaking, but to me they're not interesting merely in themselves, but rather in service to the expression of something else, such as story, mood, or characterization.

Unknown said...

I love the Gurney Journey. The more I know, the more I find out I don't know! Wow, there is so much fascinating stuff to learn from both James and the commenters.

Gregory Lee said...

"Sándor Bihari (1855-1966)" gives him a very long life. It should be "(1855-1906)". (See


James Gurney said...

Thanks, Greg. Fixed. Wish he did live so long.

Thanks Andy. I love your blog Panel Discussion, too!

Unknown said...

I was a little bothered by your comment about the details in photography. A straight film or digital snapshot is an unpredictable creature to be sure, and I'll grant that there are more unconscious compromises than you might make in a painting you spend 2-10 hours on, but I'd like to at least make the case that, properly done, photography is exactly as vivid or subdued as you need it to be (when I first read this entry back when you posted it, I couldn't think of any examples off hand, but I've bumped into a couple so here they are). The first example is this set of animal photographs by Simen Johan ( ), which might be in the realm of too-much-detail HDR that you aren't very fond of, but through the set you can see a really wide range of exposure, contrast, and detail, every bit as overworked or subdued as a painting can be. Timothy Archibald's work documenting his autistic son ( has a brilliant kind of nuance surrealism that I don't think could have been possible with painting. Each medium has its own strengths, but I think it's false to suggest that something so diverse as photography is incapable of being as soft and understated as painting. And just for good measure, let me toss this in: Photography can even support totally hack, overdone, kitschy work on the same level as Thomas Kinkade (sorry for hating on your old chum, but damn I don't like his work):

James Gurney said...

Jude, thanks for those links, and of course I agree with you that photography is capable of all sorts of aesthetic manipulation in the shot and afterward to achieve selectivity and subordination. But I mentioned "the camera" here as a shorthand for unselective perception. I find that snapshot images or typical photo reference provides way too much information. As you point out, rendering detail indiscriminately can happen with artists as well as cameras. And it's fair to say that sometimes a huge amount of indiscriminate detail may serve the artist's or the photographer's purpose.