Walking out of a ruin pub in Hungary somewhere approaching midnight is not particularly noteworthy. But walking out of a ruin pub and across the road and into a secondhand bookshop, finding an original version of Frank O’Connor’s Day Dreams, and buying a painting is.
It was July. It was Pécs. We’d come from Csinos Presszó and spotted some people drinking wine outside Kiméra Antikvárium across the road. The lights were on inside. I thought: No way. Not at this hour. But the owners were happy to let me browse while himself and the lovely CJ chatted and sampled wine outside. A great fan of O’Connor’s work (his First Confession is one of my all-time favourite short stories), I was delighted with my find. But I was more intrigued by one of two paintings hanging on the wall.
I’ve said repeatedly that I know little about art – I only know what I like. Paintings either speak to me or they don’t. My village walls testify to the fact that I don’t favour a particular style or artist – I simply like what I like. Rarely are my purchases met with rave reviews but that doesn’t bother me much, either. A painting of dogs by train tracks by Scottish artist Jim Urquhart has probably received the most likes right up there with a digital painting from Michael Pettet’s Chernobyl series. One that has rarely, if ever been commented on is a favourite of mine – a monotype by Costa Rican artist Lorena Villalobos. But I buy for me – not for anyone else. I buy because at some level they speak to something deep inside me that matters at that particular time. In a way, they’re milestones, marking where I was in my life when I bought them – not just physically, but emotionally, too. Others see them as prints and paintings on a wall – I see them as my diary.
I figured this particular painting – an original she did in 2005 titled Variation on 8 – might be out of my price bracket but was assured that, although they, the store owners, didn’t know how much it was, the artist, whose gallery was next door, was big on making art affordable. The gallery would be open in the morning, but the bookshop would be closed. Seeing how interested I was – I went back to it three or four times – he said he’d make a phone call and arrange for it to be in the gallery the next day. He gave me the artist’s card, I emailed her and arranged to drop by. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect but meeting Eva Gladys Thommen made my day.
Born in Hungary in 1949, Eva’s parents fled to Switzerland in 1956. They were of the many hundreds of thousands of Hungarians who went in search of a better world after the failed 1956 revolution. [James Michener’s The Bridge at Andau is a remarkable read on this time.] Eva came relatively late to art, not starting her studies until 1988 at the art school in Zurich. She’d spent several years abroad, living in Barcelona, Spain and Copenhagen, Denmark. Quite the linguist (she speaks 6 languages), her main job, apart from being a wife and mother to two children, she taught languages for more than 20 years.
Sometime later Eva enrolled in a summer academy at the European Academy of Fine Arts in Trier, Germany with Joe Allan and Ruth Clemens. In the aftermath of her divorce in 2003, Eva’s engagement with her art became more intensive. She was at the same stage in her life than that I am in mine now. In 2005, she spent five weeks in New York learning how to make prints at the Manhattan Graphic Center. Enamoured with the process, she invested in a large printing press and set herself up in a studio where she gave workshops and courses in graphics and painting. A regular exhibitor in Switzerland, I was quite taken by one she had in 2009 entitled Clothes and People in which she explores the role our clothes play in how others see us. Are our wardrobe choices governed by what society expects us to wear, by how our parents dressed us, by what our gender dictates?
Fifty-five years after leaving her native Hungary, Eva returned in 2011 searching for her roots. She gave up the printing and started to take photos instead while keeping her hand in with drawing and painting. Inspired by the deep colours of Pécs and its surrounds, her latest works are mainly in oils. Her last exhibition in Switzerland was in 2015. Her chosen topic was Hungary. The photo exhibition was augmented by a lecture and insights into her birthland where she shared her experiences, feelings, surprise, and disappointment about the country’s politics, culture, people, and language.
Two years later, she had her first exhibition in Hungary in Pecsvarad near Pécs. She now has a small gallery in Pécs, next door to the Kiméra Antikvárium. She recently completed a piece reacting to COVID-19 with Sabine Amstad who wrote an accompanying haiku. This will be sold in an auction in Switzerland 19 September 2020 to help artists who have fallen through the cracks of government assistance during the pandemic.
The day we met, Eva was busy painting some chairs for the bookshop; I’d coveted them before the paint ever dried. She talked a mile a minute about her work, her life, her family, her experiences. The lasting impression she left with me was that of a woman who takes no prisoners. She lives life to the full.
I’ve been on the path of the artist since 1988. The longer I am on it, the more I realize that Joseph Beuys was right. Each of us is an artist … life in and of itself is an art!
And yes, I bought. Or rather himself bought it for me – an anniversary gift. And I love it. It wasn’t the 8s that attracted me though – it took me a while to see them. I was looking at a reedbed by the Kis-Balaton full of navy-blue poppies 🙂 In numerology, my life path number is 9, the house number is 3, so 8 wouldn’t have figured. That said, in the Bible, the number 8 is considered a sign of new beginnings… and that’s fitting. And the Chinese consider it a sign of prosperity – here’s hoping.
If you’re in Pécs, drop in a say hello. Váradi Antal utca 3. You’ll be glad you did.