Treasures via Budapest

Treasures from Budapest. The very title of the Royal Academy’s grand exhibition carries with it dreams of magical art, fresh from the vaults of Hungary’s forgotten history. One thinks immediately of powerful paintings depicting the rigorous realities of Budapest, a city born from a civilisation’s political and religious disarray. Wandering through the exhibition, one expects to witness great historical scenes: Hungary as a divided nation, conquered by two empires (the Ottoman, and the Habsburg Empires); its failed War of Independence of 1848-49; and the eventual emergence of a vibrant city. And so, I prepared to step inside a spectacular Hungarian treasure-trove, whose contents the Royal Academy had conveniently curated before me…

But, I was disheartened to discover, these are not all treasures. And they are not all from Budapest. Rather, the majority are European works, housed in two of Budapest’s leading museums: the Museum of Fine Arts and the Hungarian National Gallery. In a tribute to these establishments, the Royal Academy pays homage to collector-culture, prioritising stuffy commissioned works and their stuffy commissioned owners over art for art’s sake. The Esterházys are the Academy’s favourite Hungarian aristocrats, whose generous collections formed the bulk of those at the Museum of Fine Arts, established in 1906. In their disclaimer of an exhibition brochure, the Royal Academy outlines their aim of ‘bring[ing] together works from both institutions and present[ing] them as they were originally intended’. Indeed, here is a re-hashing of history in this impeccably dressed (and impeccably boring) exhibition, where just a fraction of Hungary’s remarkable art is nipped and tucked in amongst European heavyweights such as El Greco, Goya, Schiele and Gauguin.

The exhibition, sprawling across twelve rooms, methodically trudges along art history’s timeline. Spanning sanctimonious 15th and 16th Century commissions (where one wonders if artists were not charging per angel) through to more current collecting trends of modern art, the exhibition is totally unbalanced. Earlier sacred art is painstakingly exhaustive as each dull room is filled with paintings, all versions of one another. There are no compelling relationships between paintings in their unoriginal grouping, just commonplace correlations that forge beautiful artworks into history’s safe sequence. As the cracks that show themselves like wrinkles on the oldest paintings displayed, the gaps of the exhibition also widen as it drags on. But, like a song that’s too long, it picks up towards the end. For here, in the final rooms, can at last be found some glimmers of that bright city, Budapest. Hungarian art really emerges here from the rubble of what came before. Though Ziffer, Rippl-Rónai and Merse’s works are the brightest-shining Hungarian treasures, one is left wondering – arrested by their beauty – where the rest of the country’s art went.

In this narrow-minded exhibition, Hungary is travelled through en route to wider Europe. Though, I should have liked to have paused there – to have seen more of Hungary’s own art throughout, not just in those bustling modern rooms hastily tacked on at the end. Hungarian art is unequivocally exploited here by the Royal Academy who, in their European treasure hunt, treat Budapest as a mere pit-stop. Ultimately, unadventurous modes of display let down both these few Hungarian gems – slotted in where possible to fill in the gaps of Europe’s ageing art history – and the viewer, able only to travel past Budapest, and never quite arrive there.

The above review of the “Treasures from Budapest” exhibition at the Royal Academy, 25 September – 12 December 2010, was published in Cub magazine, December 2010.

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