In one of the recent videos I watched about art, I came across a very interesting painting that maybe I’ve seen before, but clearly hadn’t paid nearly enough attention to it. And I really should have, because it captures a lot of the beauty, complexity and ingenuity of art that I keep ranting about.
The picture in question is The Old Fisherman (1902) by the Hungarian artist Tivadar Csontváry Kosztka. Let’s dive in!
If you got an association to Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea … well, good, because we indeed see an old man at the sea, but that’s not really the point. What is the point is that the picture is not really what it seems, or to be honest, it’s much more than it seems. At first glance, the man is leaning on a cane presumably on a boat, on a cliff or some dwelling near the seashore. Interestingly, he seems to lean backwards or is hunched over, perhaps because of a laboring hard life at sea. Also, if we look closer to his face, his eyes seem a bit distorted or he’s squinting … or there’s something else at play that makes his look seem a bit tired, suspicious or at least uneasy.
Now, the reason for this is something that most of us would be hard-pressed to see, namely, the vertical asymmetry, bipolarity, dualism, division within the picture itself. This in fact gives us two wholly different depictions within this on picture. A picture within a picture? Inception? Well, more like inception before it was cool. What I mean is that if we mirror respective left and right sides of the above picture, we essentially get two new figures.
The left-mirrored side thus portrays a man praying. We can call it the pious side of the above old fisherman. Given the shape around him, we can assume he’s in the boat at sea, which is itself relatively calm. The man’s expression is saddened, if not troubled.
The right-mirrored side, however, is where things get even more interesting (and the reason, why the original picture seemed a bit uneasy). This is the darker, sinister, devilish side of the old man. Or we can perhaps call it the Devil itself.
The figure here is now much darker, his shoulders aren’t slouched (anymore), he seems visually more imposing (through the darker tones and straighter lines) and his gaze is fixed directly on us. Even his hair and hat are more upright, perhaps symbolizing the devilish horns. The sea behind him now looks stormy and the scenery seems more menacing. Allegedly, he is supposed to be in a coffin, but I don’t really see it. What I do see is that his garment now seems more regal than in the left-mirrored picture, where the old man is wearing plain clothes.
Overall, this is a fantastic depiction that shines the light on the majesty of great art … you can even call it visual storytelling, because you essentially get a triptych of a sort that shows the polar opposites within a larger frame, the good and the bad, the yang-yin of the overall reality, etc. Kosztka’s genius lays in the fact that he created three pictures in one, despite the fact that the “original” picture seems powerful and ominous even without realizing the gems it hides under its bipolar loins. A picture is worth a thousand words is the apropos saying here.
The reason why we don’t or rather can’t really see this dualism is because first of all we don’t expect it (since we are vertically symmetrical by nature), second of all our brain tries to find meaning within a given context and connect the dots as much as it can, and third we are “fooled” just enough by the author’s mastery and ability of fluently connecting the two sides that we would never think of it. Things like perspective, visual metaphors and allusions come to mind way before you would think of vertically-opposing separations within a single picture. And (again) the real magic here is that this picture at close inspection has all of it!
Overall, Kosztka’s The Old Fisherman is a prime example of art’s complexity, insight and hard work that goes into creating a multilayered visual spectacle. Seemingly simple, yet profoundly intricate. This is a great lesson of how fickle our vision can be and how prone we are to visual illusions and skimming through the complex visual reality. I know this picture is not an illusion per se, as much us our inability to distinguish the hidden gems in question (that weren’t really meant to be seen at first glance) is not at fault here.
But you gotta love art, that’s for sure!
For reasons of extreme prejudice, the author of this blog wishes to remain anonymous …