Issue Number: 108
Prepare to be dazzled by rare Leonardo drawings, Spanish old masters and 20th-century greats such as Egon Schiele, as the Royal Academy displays ‘Treasures from Budapest’. Exhibition curator David Ekserdjian takes us on a tour.
Museums and galleries share a special kind of kinship – they are bound together across the world through artists and art, connected by exhibitions, images and ideas. The current exhibition from the Budapest museums is a symbol of the generosity of spirit that ties many museums together: ‘When a long-planned exhibition of works from the Liechtenstein collection fell through at the eleventh hour, these museums were there to support us,’ says Kathleen Soriano, Director of Exhibitions at the RA. ‘We were already working together on several other projects – including a show on Hungarian Photography for 2011. With this new situation, they immediately offered us carte blanche to select an exhibition from their collections. It’s the beginning of an interesting partnership.’
The need to work rapidly on this exhibition proved something of an inspiration. Within the space of three months the RA and the museums worked together to identify 200-odd treasures from the Budapest Museum of Fine Arts, supported by important works loaned from the Hungarian National Gallery, that could be shown in this unique exhibition. It was very much a collaborative enterprise, with their respective directors playing key roles in the selection process. From their perspective, this exhibition enables them to show their ravishing collections to a wider audience, continuing their post-1989 policy of turning away from the Eastern bloc towards western Europe and the broader international art community.
They invited the RA to borrow the best art that was fit to travel. Some works are sadly too fragile (the overwhelming Sebastiano del Piombo Christ Carrying the Cross of c.1540, painted on slate, is a prime example) and will necessitate a trip to Budapest. Nonetheless this exhibition still surpasses an everyday visit to the Budapest Museum of Fine Arts. In addition to presenting great paintings by the likes of Raphael, Poussin and Goya – most of which have not been seen in this country – it displays nearly 100 of the collection’s finest drawings, which usually slumber in their solander boxes because too much light would damage them.
Today the two museums sit on opposite sides of the city, with the Hungarian National Gallery perched on a hill in Buda, while the turn-of-the-century Museum of Fine Arts building presides over the historic Heroes’ Square across the Danube in Pest. The Hungarian National Gallery emerged from the Museum of Fine Arts in 1957 as a museum to house the national collection of Hungarian art in somewhat the same way as the Tate Gallery emerged from the National Gallery, simultaneously freeing up space in its former home.
Among its greatest strengths are the remarkable holdings of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century altarpieces, which combine carved and polychromed wooden statues with painted side panels. The museum also has a fine collection of late nineteenth- and 20th-century Hungarian paintings. Artists such as Károly Ferenczy and József Rippl-Rónai may not be household names over here, but they and their contemporaries offer fascinating discoveries for RA visitors, since they were working at the same time and in a similar vein as major European masters. Like Hammershøi, whose work was recently shown at the RA, these artists have remained outside the mainstream of European art and this exhibition enables us to assess their work and perhaps broaden the canon.
Giovanni Antonio Canal, called Canaletto. 'The Lock at Dolo', c. 1756. Oil on canvas. 30.5 x 44.5 cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest
This show also provides an opportunity to present masterpieces from both collections in a new way, whether through novel juxtapositions within the show or through unprecedented proximity to related works in British collections. Canaletto’s Lock at Dolo (c.1756, above) from Budapest appears to be the pendant of his Tower at Marghera (c.1756) which will be in the National Gallery’s ‘Venice: Canaletto and His Rivals’ show this autumn. And a watercolour by Richard Parkes Bonington from Budapest is related to an oil in the Wallace Collection. Even our Hungarian colleagues will have the pleasure of seeing old friends in a new light, not least because within the broadly chronological hang some rooms are devoted to particular themes, either by medium (drawings) or subject matter (landscapes).
The RA exhibition also benefits from the striking quality and range of the Museum of Fine Arts’ collections, above all its paintings and drawings. All the European schools are represented, but the Italian Renaissance paintings are perhaps the supreme joy. There are also drawings by Leonardo, Rembrandt and Dürer – and many other wonderful works on paper. So how did these extraordinary collections come into being? The Museum of Fine Arts is a child of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and to an extent, of nineteenth-century nationalism. But its treasures do not derive – as is the case with almost all similar European museums – from royal collections. Instead, its founders were the Esterházy family, who were extremely wealthy aristocrats but were neither royal nor imperial. The drawings stamped with the initials ‘NE’ belonged to Nikolaus II Esterházy (1765-1833) who assembled a distinguished group of paintings and was the major collector of the family, which at an earlier date had also patronised the composer Joseph Haydn.
The Museum of Fine Arts was founded in 1896, the year of the celebrations of the Millennium of Hungarian statehood. A decade later, the Emperor Franz Josef inaugurated the grand building which remains its home to this day. During the course of the 20th century, the collections and the building have both survived the tumult of two world wars and Communist rule remarkably well. In retrospect, the decision to transport the works of art to Germany and store them there during the Second World War looks ill-advised, to say the least, but in the event almost everything was returned by the US Army in 1946 and 1947.
Communism inevitably limited foreign travel and created a degree of isolation, yet Hungary was satirically referred to as ‘the happiest bunker in the Communist lager’ and the museums – and high culture generally – were nurtured by the regime. The scholarship of the museum’s curators and its journal remained remarkably fine and the collections continued to be augmented. Since 2003 an ambitious international exhibition programme has brought impressive visitor numbers (765,000 in 2007). Indeed, the dark days of the Warsaw Pact have been left far behind, with the result that visitors to Budapest and its museums cannot fail to be struck by the current spirit of openness and optimism. There are even plans for a major underground extension beneath Heroes’ Square. No longer sleeping beauties, the Hungarian Museums are poised to play an important role on the international art stage.
Leonardo da Vinci, 'Studies for the Heads of Two Soldiers in the Battle of Anghiari', c.1504-05. Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest LEONARDO DRAWINGS
The Budapest Museum of Fine Arts has one of the most spectacular collections of old master drawings in the world, including two of Leonardo’s finest drawings, which are studies for the heads of soldiers in the Battle of Anghiari, c.1504-05 (right). They were made for the mural of the Battle of Anghiari, which he had planned for the great chamber of the Palazzo della Signoria (now Palazzo Vecchio) in Florence. However, he never completed the commission, which pitted him against Michelangelo – no friend of his – whose Battle of Cascina remained equally unfinished. The Leonardo sheets came from the Esterházy Collection, and are uniquely detailed and highly finished studies of the heads of warriors caught in combat – one in black chalk, depicting two heads, the other, showing a warrior in profile in red chalk. They are spectacular testimony to Leonardo’s extraordinary technical bravura, to his psychological insight, and to his pessimism about the essential bestiality of human nature.
Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes (Goya), 'Water-carrier', c.1808-12 . Oil on canvas. 68 x 50.5 cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest GOYA
Goya is represented by three canvases in the exhibition. The Water-carrier (right) which is paired with a male Knife-grinder also c.1808-12, is remarkable for the passion with which the character of its female subject is captured. She stands four square, cradling her water pot almost like a weapon, and Goya has used a low viewpoint so that she looms tall against the horizon.
The painting is remarkable too for the subtlety of its palette, which sets the sweep of intense yellow of her sash and the vivid terracotta of the pot against cooler and darker tones. It serves as an eloquent reminder that Goya may have begun his career in the polite world of the late eighteenth-century ancien régime, but that later he witnessed the violent birth of the modern age. Indeed, some commentators have seen a political dimension in this work, with its heroine expressing a fearless defiance against the occupying forces of Napoleon.
Nicolas Poussin, 'Holy Family with the Infant Saint John The Baptist and Putti', c.1627. Oil on canvas, 54 x 74 cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest POUSSIN
This oval, Holy Family with the Infant St John the Baptist and Putti (right), is a splendid example of the warmth and romanticism of which the young Poussin was capable. It combines two stories told about the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt to escape King Herod’s massacre of male Jewish babies around Bethlehem. A group of putti receive the food miraculously provided for them on the journey, while the Christ child meets for the first time his infant cousin John the Baptist. Although French by birth, Poussin spent virtually his entire career in Rome, and works such as this show just how much he learnt from the example of one of the greatest Italian masters of the previous century, Titian. It is a sobering thought that, not all that long ago, both its radiant colours and its playful charm were not deemed conceivable for Poussin, and the canvas was excluded from his corpus. This was a consequence of a misguided tendency to impose his later austerity upon the productions of his youth, but recent archival research has revealed both the work’s authorship and the fact that it belonged to the dal Pozzo family, who were among the artist’s most important patrons.
Albrecht Dürer, 'Lancer on Horseback', 1502. Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest DÜRER
The northern Renaissance is well represented in Budapest, but even in such illustrious company this pen drawing by Albrecht Dürer (right) stands out. It bears both his distinctive ‘AD’ monogram and the date 1502, while between them is the stately figure of a lancer riding a noble charger. The reason why it was made is a mystery, but Dürer may well have looked back to – or at – this very sheet when planning his celebrated engraving The Knight, Death, and the Devil, which is dated 1513, for there are intriguing similarities between the two. The way the horseman’s eyes are concealed from view beneath his helmet is a virtual Dürer signature, given how often it features in his work. The animation of the horseman and the convincing depiction of the horse’s anatomy suggests that the artist may have used live models.
Raffaello Sanzio, called Raphael, 'Esterházy Madonna', c.1507-08. Tempera and oil on panel, 29 x 21.5 cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest RAPHAEL
Raphael's ‘Esterházy Madonna’ is a virtual miniature and (as can be seen from its bleached flesh-tones) was probably unfinished, perhaps because the artist had to abandon it when he moved from Florence to Rome in late 1508. Yet it remains a compelling work of art. The taut intricacy of its pyramidal composition and the understated psychological interplay between the Virgin Mary, Christ, and his cousin John the Baptist is beautifully managed.
The overall impression of tenderness and innocence is undercut by the gesture of Christ towards the scroll held by St John. It customarily refers to His future ministry and ultimate sacrifice. They are set against a wonderfully tranquil landscape backdrop which includes a number of identifiable Roman buildings both ancient and medieval.
Domenikos Theotokopoulos, called El Greco, 'Saint Mary Magdalene', c.1580. Oil on canvas, 156.5 x 121 cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest EL GRECO
Among the spectacular array of Spanish paintings on display are works by Ribera, Murillo and El Greco. Although born on Crete and active in both Venice and Rome as a young man, El Greco spent the lion’s share of his career in Spain. This St Mary Magdalene shows the former sinner in penitence in a wilderness landscape by the sea with a book and a skull.
Craftily – and far from unusually – he has the best of both worlds by representing her not as a dishevelled old crone, but in all her alluring youthful beauty. The visionary aspect of El Greco’s mature art is eloquently conveyed by the extreme stylisation not just of the figure, but even of the world she inhabits.
Saint Andrew Altarpiece, 1512. Painted and gilded limewood and pine, 420 x 270 cm. Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest THE ST ANDREW ALTARPIECE
This altarpiece, from the parish church of Liptó (Liptov) now in Slovakia, is inscribed with the date 1512 and is arguably the finest of a whole array of examples of this very particular moment in the history of Hungarian art. Such monumental altarpieces (this one is well over four metres high) in which a central carved, polychromed and gilded figure or group of figures is flanked by painted wings adorned by religious narratives, are closely related to similar works made in Germany and Austria by artists such as Tilman Riemenschneider. Yet this piece and its fellows are not simply pale imitations of their better-known German counterparts. On the contrary, the quality of the carving of the elegantly draped and nobly characterised human figure is extremely personal in character, while the spiralling superstructures add a wholly unexpected and extravagant dimension of fantasy.
Egon Schiele, 'Two Women Embracing', 1915. Pencil, watercolour, gouache. 48.5 x 32.7 cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest. SCHIELE
Egon Schiele – whose brief and tempestuous career included a spell in prison on suspicion of kidnapping, rape and public immorality, before his early death – was a major 20th-century artist. This has nothing to do with what many of his contemporaries must have regarded as his shock tactics, and in truth the majority of his works no longer retain the capacity to offend a modern audience, although one or two still do. This image is decidedly not among their number. Instead it is remarkable for its lyrical intimacy and emotional tenderness. On occasion, the texture of Schiele’s oils seems almost overworked. By contrast, his drawings and watercolours, as can be seen here, exploit the luminous white of the paper to powerful effect as a kind of radiant backdrop to the intertwined nude figures which are so often his subject. Made in 1915, it entered the collection the same year when it was the sole acquisition from a group of a dozen drawings, including works by Klimt and Kokoschka, which were sent to Budapest by the Galerie Arnot in Vienna.
Rembrandt, 'Saskia van Uylenburgh Sitting by a Window', 1635–38. Pen and brown ink, brown wash and black chalk. 16.4 x 12.5 cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest REMBRANDT
More than any artist before him, Rembrandt seems to have felt the need to invite us to share in the realities of his life. Often we witness its highs and its lows, not least through his unflinching examination of his own features, but there are also everyday snapshots of his family and surroundings, such as the present informal study of his wife Saskia turning away from a weighty tome to look back at her scrutinising husband in an affectionately resigned fashion in Saskia van Uylenburgh Sitting by a Window. One of the greatest draughtsmen of all time, Rembrandt had an almost uncanny ability to bring a person or a scene to life with a few squiggles of his dark pen and the odd splash of paler wash.
Andrea Riccio, 'Rape of Europa', c.1505–10. Bronze, h: 18.2 cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest ANDREA RICCIO
Not all great works of Renaissance art are securely attributed. This bronze Rape of Europa is generally thought to be the work of Andrea Riccio, who was active around 1500 in Padua, but the name of one of his rivals, Bartolomeo Bellano, has also been proposed. The city had been a major centre of bronze- casting ever since the Florentine Donatello had moved there in 1443 and created both the monumental equestrian statue of Gattamelata and the high altarpiece of the basilica of the Santo.
What is not in doubt is its dramatic power of invention – above all the arching upward twist of the bull’s head and neck – but also the craftsmanship and detail of the casting and chasing of the bronze. In ancient myth, Europa was a princess whom Zeus saw on a beach and lusted after. To get close to her and to evade his wife, he disguised himself as a pure white bull and persuaded Europa to climb on his back, whereupon he swam swiftly out to sea and carried her off to Crete, where she subsequently bore him three sons. What is unusual and striking in this version of the story is that Europa is vigorously resisting, pulling back the bull’s head and pummelling him with her fist. Such small-scale statuettes were in effect a new art form at this date, and were intended to be held in the hand and turned around to reveal all their various aspects. In this instance, the work also served as an incense-burner, and the smoke emerging from the bull’s open mouth would only have added to its dramatic energy. There may never be absolute agreement over who was responsible for this bronze, but whoever he was was unquestionably supreme in his art.
Albrecht Altdorfer, 'The Crucifixion', c.1518. Oil on panel, 75 x 57.5 cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest ALTDORFER
Altdorfer was one of the golden generation of German artists around Dürer. He is best known for his magical and pioneering landscapes, but he was also a major narrative painter. Almost all of his few surviving works have remained in his native land, but it is the quality of this Crucifixion rather than merely its rarity that makes it so special. Most unusually for a work of this date, the scene is set against a gold backdrop, and contrasts the isolation of the pathetic and broken body of Christ with the energetic chaos and contrasting emotions of the deliberately confused crowd of humanity at his feet. In the left foreground the Virgin Mary swoons, while Mary Magdalene clutches the foot of the cross and the standing St John the Evangelist looks up at the crucified figure. In a macabre touch, a crack in the earth in the foreground reveals the skeleton of Adam. Every single head repays close attention, while the whole is artfully bonded together by the insistent repetition of a select few colours – and above all a radiant turquoise – across the panel’s surface.