Thursday 28 October 2010

Change, decay, rebirth

Treasures from Budapest: European Masters from Leonardo to Schiele, Royal Academy, London

Most art exhibitions have a particular theme, such as an anniversary, which may provide the critic with a useful lead-in to help evaluate the work on show. But no such aid is available here. There is simply the art itself, to be taken on its own terms, and all the critic can do is select what he or she feels to be noteworthy.

But first, a few words about the origins of what is on display here are in order, before getting down to the work of evaluating the material itself. Opened in 1906, the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest started life as a conglomeration of private collections that had been given to or acquired by the Hungarian state. The main collection was that of the Esterhazys (leading members of the Hungarian aristocracy), and had been built-up from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries. By the mid-twentieth century, the museum’s collection had grown so large that Hungarian works of art were transferred to the newly established Hungarian National Gallery. This exhibition, bringing together works from both institutions, presents them as they were originally intended whilst placing Hungarian art within a broader European context. So what we have here is art collected in Hungary, not a collection of solely Hungarian art. And the artists featured here include leading figures from Raphael and Rembrandt to Picasso and Chagall.There’s something for everyone.Choosing what is especially eye-catching is not easy - but it can be attempted.

As soon as we enter the exhibition we’re greeted with the ‘St. Andrew Altarpiece’ (1512) by the Hungarian Master, with our attention grabbed by the face of Christ crowned with thorns. The theme is continued with the ‘Lamentation’ (c.1510) by the Master of Okolicsnó showing the quiet, almost restrained grief of the mourners as they see the blood-spattered body of Christ. Devotional restraint is also maintained in the ‘Coronation of the Virgin’ by Maso di Banco (doc.1335 -135"0), with the Virgin the object of calm admiration by the on-looking saints. But the ‘Pieta’ (c. 1480) by Jacopo Parisati da Montagna shows a bereft-looking Virgin whilst the dead Christ’s face is a combination of endured agony and relief at the consummation of suffering. With the statue of ‘St. Sebastian’ (1757) by Philipp Jakob Straub, the martyr’s body almost leaps with the impact of the arrows as they find their target.

But, with the coming of the Renaissance, secular and classical topics begin to feature as subject-matter too. ‘Portrait of a Man’ (c.1555) by Paolo Veronese shows a fur-collared young man with a defiant look starting to emerge across his bearded face, perhaps expecting a challenge about what may be newly-acquired mercantile wealth. The painting of the ‘Children of the Elector Palatine Frederick V King of Bohemia’ (1628) by Conelisvan Poelenburgh shows them enjoying themselves in a pastoral setting, with only a nearby mound of the bodies of hunted deer giving a clue to their royal status. Mythology gets a look-in, too, with ‘Venus Lamenting the Death of Adonis’ (1626-30) by Francesco Furini. Here, the goddess is shown stomping about in an agony of shrieking grief. War - a perennial feature of any era - is represented by Leonardo da Vinci’s soft black chalk or charcoal ‘Studies for the Heads of Two Soldiers in the Battle of Anghiari’ (c.1504-05). One face is openmouthed - with grief,or the struggle of combat? - whilst its brow is furrowed with concentration. The face of the other, smaller head seems suffused with an almost wry smile, perhaps a manifestation of the dark humour needed to survive the horrors of the

If the coming of the secular marks the middle phase of the exhibition, pictures exemplifying the role of women take-over its final section. The ‘Portrait of the Empress Maria Luisa’ by Friedrich Heinrich Fuger (c.1790) shows her standing, composed, yet radiating a quiet firmness (is she preparing herself to withstand any collateral damage from the recently erupted French Revolution?). Goya’s ‘Water-carrier’ (c.1808-12) shows a hardworking woman (there is a tear in her skirt) exuding a sense of dignity as she almost thrusts a water pitcher towards us. Jumping ahead several decades, Gustave Dore’s ‘Young Woman with a White Scarf’ (c. 1870) shows her holding a folded fan, and with a questioning, almost defiant look. The late nineteenth-century’s much talked-of - and feared – New Woman is emerging here. Sexual openness is too, a result of the growth of psychology and sexology as academic and medical disciplines with much of their work originating in Germany and Austria. We see ‘Two Women Embracing’ (1915) by EgonSchiele showing two semi-clad women discovered embracing without the slightest embarrassment: one regards the act as perfectly ordinary, whilst the other directs a ‘so what?’ expression towards the onlooker.

The exhibition is worth a visit, not only because of what it gives, but also for what it omits. Firstly, this celebration of a long-standing Hungarian hunger for art is not simply a straightforward demonstration of artists’ skills, refreshing though that is: it is an artistic running commentary, as it were, on the intellectual and political ferment that Europe underwent from the Renaissance to the nineteenth century. Secondly, it features nothing from the post Second World War era. This omission is significant: is it because Hungarians want to forget a painful half-century of their history, or might art from that period remind some people today of a time when they embraced the Soviet system, including its bloody repression of the 1956 Hungarian Uprising? Change, decay, rebirth - this exhibition has them framed.

Till 12 December 2010

Enjoyed this article? Share it with others.


London and online galleries

National Gallery
Royal Academy of Arts
Serpentine Gallery
V&A Museum
Saatchi Gallery
The world’s interactive art gallery
The leading online retailer of limited edition contemporary art
Ascot Studios Art Gallery
One of the leading independent art galleries in the UK

Other resources

critical network
Forthcoming Events and Exhibitions
A Live Art UK initiative

Art Monthly, taking art apart since 1976

pioneering a new way of collaborating with artists and engaging audiences

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.