Glorious! Sublime! How to start? International Gothic Style! OK, it’s not my favourite, I like the styles immediately preceding and after, though I’m a sucker for the S-curves. Some with surprisingly well-preserved polychrome like the sculptor from Fabriano’s Virgin and Child, some, like the Workshop of Jakob Warschauer’s Bust of Female Saint so beautiful and changing from every angle.
The sculptor from Allgäu’s The Death of the Virgin is one of several smaller ones with amazing movement, life, and depth, along with the trio of pieces from Antwerp and the workshop of Robert Moreau. Near that is a larger work by Jacopo Sansovino (Jacopo Tatti), Virgin and Child of gilded wax and canvas is an example of the diversity of the collection. Other pieces are of clay, ceramic, stone, bronze. Victor Kayser’s Passover Feast is notable for being both stone relief and rarely depicted Old Testament story in Christian art, taking place the evening before Exodus.
Finally, probably modelled on a marble relief of Lorenzo Ghiberti, Virgin and Child, the painted and gilded stucco bust where the baby Jesus catches my eye with a most un-infant-like focus and consciousness.
Another three hours of museum wandering done. I don’t think I’d have made it through if the other half of the first floor had been open, or would have been kicked out.
After I’d caught my breath and cooled down from Michele di Ridolfo’s Pietà, I discovered I was in the 19th Century Art collection, and had somehow missed a couple of rooms of the mediæval stuff. Not to worry, I just go round in circles till I’m done. eeeh… I don’t actually know which collection some of these belong in. There’s basically a diffuse crossover between Italian Painting 1250-1800 and the 19th Century stuff.
The first one that tripped my attention I had moved elsewhere was Jean-Baptiste Oudry’s Boar Hunt. Though it’s not 19th century, it’s also not religious art, though the Italian collection isn’t all religious, and it was painted in Venice. By a French person. Aaanyway, it’s quite graphic and full of tense, straining violence.
Antonio de Bellis’ Moses Striking Water from the Rock has not much to do with Moses at all. I’m not even sure which one he is. Probably the guy in lilac all pious at the back looking up with a twig in his hand. It’s the woman in the foreground who is in the light and looking directly at me, pulling a naked child to her. Her caught gaze is like a resentful subject of street photography. Her expression is neutral but her eyes, her body … she is the only one paying attention to her surroundings, except for another man above her and in the background, also with that blank look of hostility at the my invasion of their privacy.
Then it all turns famous names. Cézanne, Gauguin, Monet, Manet. Works I’ve seen over and over, but to see The Buffet, or Lady with a Fan (Jeanne Duval) in front of me, not in a book, the brushwork and colour, is glorious. Particularly the detail which anticipates abstract impressionism, and for me has that endless depth and repetition of detail I like when I’m photographing landscape, inexact, the subject is not reducible to a recognisable form, it becomes ungraspable, blurred.
There was a small collection of ‘Europeans in Arabia’ exotic landscapes with camels and people in robes and turbans, others of Roma and Sinti, dancing, gambling, fortune-telling. Even the earlier Italian works like Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s Saint James the Great Conquering the Moors and Sebastiano Ricci’s Bathsheba at the Bath (both in Szépművészeti Múzeum — 1: Italian Painting 1250-1800) play heavily with orientalism in a way earlier works do not.
In Krakow, but still catching up on Budapest Museums. Szépművészeti Múzeum. I went there for the mediæval stuff, but discovered half first floor was closed for renovations. Out goes Spanish, Flemish, Netherlands, German, and Austrian stuff I wanted to see. Lucky I wasn’t here in February or ’til 2017, because it’ll be entirely closed. And hopefully that’s a good thing. The European sculpture collection was well put together in the standard format of good, lengthy captions, proper lighting—the basics of what you’d expect when you see museums—but the other collections suffered from some of the worst lighting and mounting I’ve seen outside of the Gemäldegalerie’s lower floor. Why people think it’s sensible to blast directed light with no colour balancing at shiny paintings so it reflects in the viewer’s eye is beyond me, unless the intention is to hate the viewer.
I turned left, because there was no right, and saw the Italian mediæval collection, which blended in one room into the 19th century collection, so a couple of the images here more properly belong in that post. Speaking of which:
A substantial number of exceptional works, and a few famous ones as well. Most of the latter aren’t here as I was drawn to their neighbours. The first room alone was bloggable in its entirety. I am particularly enjoying multicoloured angel wings lately, especially when the artist went mad with lapis lazuli and they rainbow from blue to red, yellow, back to blue.
There were quite a few odd pieces, often fragments of altarpieces or other works that would have been surrounded by standard iconographies. Alone they become almost contemporary, like Sassetta’s Saint Thomas Aquina in Prayer. Others are simply unique—or probably just rare and this collection does a good job of showcasing less usual works and subjects: Fra Angelico’s Scenes from the Lives of the Early Hermits is full of hilarious, mundane detail, and is worth attention. Matteo di Giovanni’s The Apostle Bartholomew, is another. What looks like a man with skin painted red, holding a long knife with a cloak over one shoulder is the martyred apostle flayed alive. You can see his foot and toes in the cloak of his skin.
Some of the later works, like Sebastiano Ricci’s The Assumption of the Virgin, I like just for the brushwork, which anticipates impressionism 200 years later. Bono da Ferrara’s Madonna and Child was the one near Raphael’s famous Esterhazy Madonna. I find da Ferrara’s far more sympathetic and believable. Nearby also, Giobanni Martino Spanzotti’s Pietá, glorious with shards of light beaming from Jesus’ bloody wounds, and Mary’s look of a mother’s anguish is entirely believable. And Carlo Crivelli’s Madonna with Child Enthroned, which has a priceless baby Jesus, tongue half-out, eyes half-closed drooling for the peach. And Mary has this look of half-smug, half “Don’t you even start” at the viewer.
The another Pietá, this one by Michele di Ridolfo (Michele Tosini). It’s kinda shocking, surrounded by such chaste work. Mary is … well, she has a strap diagonally across her chest, which separates and pushes up one breast. Her cerise blouse alternately clings, bunches, drapes, her nipples hard. Her mouth is slightly parted, as though breathing slightly heavily, and her gaze is one of almost approval at Jesus’ shroud-wrapped groin. Jesus lies there less dead-looking than sated, one arm caught between his body and hers, the other hanging loose, the nail hole just a light fleck, as is the spear wound, more like a deep scratch. His weight sits heavily on her seated, spread legs, she’s leaning back slightly to counterbalance, and though if you look at Mary’s forehead, she has the wrinkles of a much older woman, everything else about her puts her no older than her son. The entire composition causes my eye to circulate between her downcast eyes to his naked, muscular torso, face, groin, up to Mary’s breasts and nipples, that diagonal brown strap, to their hands, circle around the dark border of cloak and shroud, and back for more.
Holiday deviation. Instead of Zagreb, Krakow. With an ‘´’ above the ‘o’ and pronounced Crackuff, ah I feel so ignorant. So, deviated to the bus station because all trains were overnight and the primary reason why I like slow ground travel is to look at things; looking at night not included. Bus then. A little narrow in the knee space, but no one next to me. And getting ahead of myself here: getting up at 0445 and using the sublime Budapest public transport at 0530 to get arse on seat and into gear an hour later.
So, Poland? Not Zagreb? Well, I’ve lived in Berlin a while, and Poland’s only 100km eastwards and the busses/trains are cheaper than a meal (seriously, bus from Budapest to Kraków was under 19€, for about 400km). But even before I decided to go north-ish instead of south-west-ish I’d been looking at maps and excuses not to go south, as much as I want to see the ocean and south. Krakow was the closest city I’d never been to that I also thought might be interesting. I also seem to be in high museum mode (as recent blog posts show), and Krakow has mediæval coming out all over the place. Monstrous black wooden mediæval churches in the countryside, frocked up nuns and monks strolling the pavement, frothy explosions of churchy spires.
Anyway, 630am on a bus. I just stuck the camera at the slightly dirty, slightly reflective window and went click click click. Mist, fog, haze, low cloud, greyness, everything leeched of colour and out of focus, eventually, once we got into the Carpathians (the best name for a mountain range ever) some snow (but honestly this winter’s been a wash out for the white stuff), below zero and the liquid, dry, glarey light that brings. I liked the effect of all these layers of reflection, light bouncing around, diffuse brightness, somehow managed to capture a bit of it in between over-excitement at the glorious beauty of the journey. I was so thrilled I only nodded off for about half an hour in Poland, that after less than four hours sleep last night.
Oh, and the piglets. Skoda. White. Ahead of the bus. Driver and co-driver laughing and talking animatedly with couple in the front seats about it. Bus tries to pass for a long while, so sitting on the Skoda’s bumper. Little pink pig ears and head pops up over the back seat. As we overtake, we see the entire rear is packed with piglets.
Downstairs to the small collection of tombstones in the Medieval and Early Modern Lapidary. Some beautiful stone carving, and for me my favourite was the life-size knight in armour, who (maybe I’m just seeing this everywhere now) looked distinctly African. Downstairs further into the basement, and the Roman Lapidary. More tombstones from the Carpathian Basin region. At first I was surprised to see (though as usual I was looking for) a woman’s tombstone, of equal size and artistry as the men’s. Then another, then more. About a third of all the tombstones at the end were for women, and there were many also of families. Yesterday I was reading a research article, Preliminary Results From WIGI, The Wikipedia Gender Inequality Index—which I am not drawing conclusions from, merely pointing out a correlation with something I’ve noticed, that female (and non-white) recognition drops off significantly in art through the Age of Enlightenment, and by the late 1700s it’s a fest of old, rich, white men. My feeling is this relatively recent trough is something we are still recovering from, and the strident denial of women’s, non-white european’s and non-european’s place and representation in history and culture is evidence of this.
There was also a sculpture from a sarcophagus of Leda and the Swan, which made me immediately think of Orphan Black.
Upstairs and upstairs, to the first floor (also the entrance floor), and right into old stuff: On the East-West frontier: History of the people of the Hungarian lands from 400.000 BC to 804 AD. My mind is still preoccupied with the mediæval, and in searching out the hundreds of years between the start of that and around 600CE, so I was mostly perfunctory until I saw the glowing orange and red beads strung for a wrist, and thought immediately of Hild. Yes, around 600 but before rather than after, so out by 1200 years or so. Still, carnelian, so they are what Hild wore, and I started paying more attention.
Shortly after, the alien head, a head I associate with the North-West Coast of America, the Americas in general, but did not expect to see in an archaeology of Hungary. But no, the Huns who arrived around 340CE brought with them artificially elongated and sloping heads, shaped from when a child.
Moving towards Hild’s time proper, I saw shoulder brooches and pins for cloaks and other garments, rings for fingers and arms, earrings, pectoral crosses, spindle whorls, awls, and pins of stone, metal, and bone, knives for cooking, eating, killing, decoration, seax in copper-tipped sheaths, bone and antler strap-ends and belt-ends, pottery and ceramics of all kinds, weapons and armour from wood to chain and metal, things of gold and silver, bronze and iron, woven and beaten, coarse and hard for battle, delicate and detailed for status.
Once I reached the Avar period, 567/8-804, I had arrived, yet it jumped—while telling us this is one of the key eras in Hungarian history—in barely a breath from the end of the 6th to the early 8th centuries. Christianity and conversion arrives proper, Hungary ascends. In the early 10th century there is a set of jewellery and ornaments worn by a woman of higher standing. The hair braid ornaments with their mounted straps looked like something Korra or the Water Tribe would wear.
Up more stairs. The History of Hungary from the foundation of the state to Middle Ages. One of the first items, the “Monomachos crown” from around 1042-1050 is also one of the most beautiful in all the rooms. There are many other object, large and small, I would have liked to have photographed, but a combination of poorly coloured, dim lighting, and dirty reflective glass left me frustrated. I swear, the person who invents non-reflective glass without losing transparency … well, it has been invented, just probably low on underfunded museums’ lists.
When I was in Essen at IMPACT14, there was much talk about “new museums” and while the emphasis was on museums of contemporary art, there wasn’t a distinction made around the word ‘museum’. As with the Hungary National Gallery, the difference between the two exhibitions—the former relatively newly updated; the latter looking like it came from the ’70s—was substantial, yet also minimal. Simply changing the lighting to a properly colour-calibrated, diffuse source, and adding a non-reflective coating to the glass would make a massive difference, even if the captions and all the rest remained untouched.
There was a bronze mirror from China in the grave of a Cuman woman buried in around 1200. Also a beautiful enamelled double reliquary cross on a fine tower of a base that was lost in reflective glare. The last thing I took care to photograph was a Chasuble with St Elisabeth and St Marguerite. Fine weaving and embroidery in blues and silvers, reds and golds.
From there, the museum plunged into the Renaissance, and towards all the 19th and 20th century nationalism I gain no pleasure from looking at. A little too much downplaying of a country’s own history of colonialism, xenophobia, anti-semitism—which they would have gotten away with if it weren’t for Germany and the European desire for Empire—seems to be a theme in museums I’ve seen outside of Berlin. Paradoxically in Berlin museums there is almost a collective, therapeutic joy in admitting everything, in taking full responsibility. It’s this latter aspect that unfortunately allows other European countries to continue the deception that they were simply, unfortunately occupied, made poor choices because of world events of the ’20s and ’30s, weren’t really like that. Which isn’t saying I don’t have an interest in learning about this period in the countries I visit, just that museums serve a particular ideological purpose, whether it’s acknowledged or not.
Back in the lithic ages, I noticed another ideology, one representing the men hunting or at the forge and women in the kitchen. There seemed also in the presentation a hierarchy of value, the former above the latter. I wondered if this were true. Modern pre-industrial, agrarian cultures might have this distinction of roles, but that certainly does not mean they held for tens of thousands of years. And even if women were cooking, isn’t it more likely they first experimented with kilns and smelting, by virtue of working daily with fire? Hunting also is seldom that of mega-fauna, more often of snares and traps, small animals, requiring skill and quietness, not brute strength and violence. I’m saying all this in the context of an audience in a public museum, thinking about what I see and what I’m told is history in the context of what I know, and asking questions about what I’m being told. What does this mean, and for who, if this is true, and what does it look like if I imagine it in other ways?
Part 4 of my wandering through Budapest’s Hungarian National Gallery, and something of an addendum. Not so long ago I was completely down with Renaissance and Baroque art. Mediæval art has spoiled me. It had been three hours by the time I got to this collection, and having been this route before in several other museums, I found I didn’t have the patience for how white the art gets. Not merely an absence of North and Sub-Saharan Africa, of Semitic, Near East, Muslim and all the peoples who have been in Europe for as long as there’s been people in Europe, but simultaneously a whitening of the skin of the subjects. As the representation moved away from the stylism of the middle ages towards naturalism, simultaneously it became concerned with an artificial whiteness. Luckily it wasn’t all that.
The Portrait of Zsuzsanna Römer particularly for the formalism of the fabric which repeats in differently in her dress, fan, the vase of flowers, her ruff, and the strange edging on the fabric of her sleeves, almost like fire. The Catafalque Painting of Mátyás Tarnóczy also similar (and this was an almost life-size portrait), and I especially liked it for the tattoos on his hands (ok probably not tattoos on a 17th century Bishop). And in The Foundation of Carthago for the blue of his robes.
More than three hours later I’m being kicked out. They’re following me, locking doors in my presence and generally acting like it’s sod off to the pub time, making a bit more noise to encourage my exit-ways progression. I need a drink also. It’s dark outside and the city is lit up.
Part 3 of my wandering through Budapest’s Hungarian National Gallery, which took a short while to find, because it’s through one of the rooms of the Renaissance and Baroque collection. And then it’s all vast hall with 4 meters of gilded altarpiece and 6 metres of another, and 3 of a different one, vast, colossal, intricate, the photos might capture some of the detail, but not the size. I stood 10 or 12 metres away for one just to fit it in.
The most famous piece, pretty much the gallery’s bookmark (you can buy it as that) is the Master MS’ The Visitation. Maybe I’m watching too much bent TV lately but it’s very “Holiday in the Spirit World” (that’s a Legend of Korra reference). The Charity of St. Nicholas I liked for the strange representation of the three daughters, and the levitating gold coins. Followed by St. Mary Magdalen altarpiece, which has the most gory and hilarious crucifixion scene I’ve ever found, very heavy on the symbolism. On the other side, women being beheaded and stabbed in the neck with crossbow bolt. And “Mulier amicta solis” and the seven-headed dragon with one spewing black tar and all of the heads crowned on their horns.
The first collection was more recently presented, introductory sections on the walls, long and detailed captions. By comparison this collection feels like it hasn’t been updated in the last few decades, the captions alone are minimal (though there is audio guide possibilities) and the lighting was at times shameful. Many mediæval works suffer from yellowing at the best of times, and heavy shellacking, or gilding, or other glossy finishes, both of which suffer hugely when the light glares and the temperature is solidly in the unflattering yellow range. As well, some works just can’t be properly seen, stuck in corridors, or having one meter space when needing four.
Part 2 of my wandering through Budapest’s Hungarian National Gallery, and this is the meaty stuff, mediæval paintings, wooden sculptures, room after room of delights. Following the somewhat standard museum structure, each room focusses on a particular theme, or a single work, in chronologic and stylistic order. Most of the works are from 1300-1500, though a couple fall outside that. Equally, most of the works come from the Hungarian Kingdom.
There’s several fine International Gothic Style pieces, in all their slinky, S-curves and elongated lines. Compared to the more angular and blocky styles immediately before and after (or at least in Northern Central Europe) there’s a definite Italian and Greco-Buddhist influence. I could easily have blogged all 340 or so images, so these are something of an arbitrary and not necessarily representative selection. Another favourite is the sculpture of Saint Gregory, about 3/4 life-size. Along with all the female Saints, lately I’m looking at representations of people from Northern and Sub-Saharan Africa, and the Near East in European mediæval art, and I feel vaguely confident in saying I expect to see these people (and Semetic and Muslim) in works in every museum I go to, so frequently in Adoration of the Magi, that I’d think there’s something wrong with a museum if they were absent.
Also there was a nice caption of one work where (like most) the artist was unknown which said, “on the lower edge of the throne … the artist has placed his (her?) monogram,” I think the first time I’ve seen the possibility of female mediæval artists acknowledged.
Two hours later, I fall out of the rooms (back the way I came) and up the very International Modern (I think ’50s communist) circular marble stairwell (with leather-wrapped bannisters) and on to the next collection.
Yesterday, my first day in Budapest, sunny and warm, so a walk through the city, across the Danube, up the hill to the Buda Palace and into the Hungarian National Gallery. I came for the Mediæval art. There was a lot. I’ve split this up into four separate posts because 71 images in a single post is a little ridiculous. And after much pondering, I split them up along collection lines, which means a couple have not so many images and a couple quite a lot. Nonetheless, here they are:
So, old stone stuff. It started in the book store, which has that beautiful wooden ceiling. Then a corridor and a single room. A lot of the pieces are fragments, small, or large, and many of the damaged ones have the faces intentionally bashed off, and not just in a “Oops, sorry, chipped your nose, it was sticking out too far” way, but deliberate removal of face back to rear of neck.
Probably yes, I could have some more images here, but it got out of control in the next collection. Let’s just say this is a fair-ish though impoverished representation of what was there.
Wander wander, street, square, river, Danube!, bridge (ooh, that’s excessively over-engineered!), other side, funicular, up hill, steps, steps, turn, more steps, big eagle-ish bird, turn again, river down there, bridges, island up that way, ooh! big lump of vertical limestone. Museum? Yes!