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REVIEW: BUDAPEST MASTERPIECES

 

By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 11 MAY 2016 — True to the title, the Luxembourg Museum in Paris is currently hosting a bewildering number of fabulous paintings from the famous Szepmuveszeti (the Budapest Fine Arts Museum), and from the Hungarian National Gallery. During renovation of the former, works which have never or rarely been seen in France are now on show until 10 July, and what a feast for the public! Not only are there masterpieces from Goya, El Greco, Veronese, Tiepolo, Durer, Rubens, Schiele and Pieter de Hooch  as well as the French school led by  Monet, Manet, Cezanne and Gauguin,  but there is also a wealth of Hungarian art including paintings by Rippl-Ronai and Pal Szinyei Merse, artists hitherto unfamiliar to many visitors.

Some 85 paintings, drawings and sculptures have been arranged in chronological order and the visitor  begins immersed in works dating back to the 14th century with an exquisite small statue, Vierge à l’Enfant presumably by Andrea Pisano, a sculptor strongly influenced by Giotto, the brain behind the Cathedral of Florence. Prominence, however, has also been given to Hungarian art recalling milestones in its history, particularly during the reign of Matthias Corvin when Budapest became the intellectual and artistic centre of Central Europe. Whichever way one looks, there are beautiful works of dove-like Madonnas; even the face of Salomé holding the head of John the Baptiste, in Salomé avec la tête de saint Jean-Baptiste by Lucas Cranach the elder, is serene rather than triumphant.


Lucas Cranach the Elder: Salomé with head of Saint Jean the Baptiste
between 1526 and 1530
Oil on wood, 88,4 x 58,3 cm
Budapest, Museum of Fine Arts
© Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest 2016

In a second room, one is drawn to Albrecht Durer’s remarkable Portrait of a Young Man, probably his brother, which, with its enigmatic, asymmetrical smile and gaze into the distance recalls works of Leonardo da Vinci, the Florentine genius, who died in 1519, 7 years before  Durer became the court painter of the Hapsburg Emperor, Maximilien 1st . He paved the way for Cranach and Altdorfer, artists who gave the same precision and meticulous care to both portraits and landscapes.

But way and beyond all the historical background, one is enthralled by the presence of so many masterpieces, as the exhibition also includes works by Veronese, Tintoretto and El Greco, master of the Spanish Renaissance and one of the greatest painters of all time. His Marie-Madeleine pénitente, and his lyrical L’Annonciation are a joy to see. The Annonciation, the visit of the angel Gabriel announcing the conception of Jesus, has always been one of the favourite themes of Christian art which Doménikos Theotokopoulos, better known as El Greco, frequently illustrated in large scale works for churches as well as paintings on a smaller scale for private ownership. His portrayal of tortured, twisting, elongated figures and use of flickering light give his works a dramatic intensity making them instantly recognizable. The brilliance of the colours, vibrant and almost unreal, and supernatural atmosphere convey not only a religious fervor but are also extremely modern, justifying his reputation as the precursor of both Expressionism and Cubism. His works are timeless.


Doménikos Theotokópoulos, dit Greco: The Annunciation
circa 1600
Oil on canvas, 91 x 66,5 cm
Budapest, Museum of Fine Arts
© Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest 2016

Another section focusses on the Dutch Golden age, a period beloved by Nicolas II Esterhazy, the prince who contributed some 600 masterpieces from his private collection to found the fine arts museum in 1871. In the 17th century, religious art in the Netherlands lost the position it had once occupied in the churches and so, no longer relying on commissions for pious images, painters became the uncontested masters of scenes of everyday life and landscapes. Works by Rembrant, Frans Hal and Pieter de Hooch deal with still lives and with intimate, prosaic scenes such as Femme lisant une letter à sa fenetre, an outstanding canvas by de Hooch. A woman is peacefully reading a letter by her window and there is both the play of light from outside and the perspective of the roof of the church in the distance which attract one’s attention. One could contemplate it for hours.

The same could be said of Goya’s La Porteuse d’Eau, where the quiet charm of the woman with her letter in her comfortable Delft interior has been replaced by a courageous young girl carrying water to the Spanish resistants in the Napoleonic war. At first glance Francisco de Goya y Lucientes’ Water Carrier passes for a country girl carrying a pitcher of water, but put into the context of the times, Spain in 1808, the work takes on a political significance. When Napoleon invaded Spain, men took up arms, hence the painting next to the girl, Le Rémouleur shows a man sharpening his knife. Men fought; women brought them food.


Francisco de Goya y Lucientes: La Aguadora
between 1808 and 1812
Oil on canvas, 68 x 50,5 cm
Budapest, Museum of Fine Arts
© Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest 2016

But besides all political significance, the girl, straight-backed, with her defiant posture and feet planted firmly on the ground commands the attention of the visitor and as with de Hooch’s woman, completed over a hundred year earlier, one moves on reluctantly. The inherent strength of the work makes Edouard Manet’s La maitresse de Baudelaire, which hangs next to it, pale in comparison.

Manet’s famous portrait of Madame Duval, Baudelaire’s mistress, is depicted when she has long passed her youthful beauty. Her hand is twice the size of her little ravaged face while her once luxurious dark hair, the inspiration for many of Baudelaire’s poems, hangs down limp and bedraggled. It is her imposing crinoline which dominates the painting.

An exquisite section has been devoted to the important figures of the French impressionist movement. Works by Gauguin and Renoir are shown alongside  Monet’s Estacade à Trouville where the well-known French artist has suggested a calm day under the cloudy skies of Normandy which is far from being the case with his Trois bateaux de peche, set upon stormy seas. Cézanne’s Le Buffet, gifted to the museum in 1917, reassures with fruit nestling in a crumpled tea towel, biscuits waiting to be dipped into the wine and with the cups piled haphazardly up on a shelf, all evidence of everyday life.  He accomplished his ambition which was to "astonish Paris with an apple".

And, not really fitting into any ‘category’, but instantly recognizable, there is a single, 1911 work by Egon Schiele, Femme assise. His style, as illustrated in this rapidly completed work, is the precise, angular outline with the water-colours applied with large uneven brushstrokes. His tormented personality and provocative output marked the beginning of expressionism in Austria.

But it is perhaps the end of the exhibition which generates the most interest with the discovery of paintings by artists such as Mihaly Munkacsy, Karoly Ferenczy, Géza Mészoly and by Pal Szinyei Merse, whose "L’Alouette caused a considerable buzz. A naked girl is seen from the back lying down in a field of flowers, her auburn head resting on her hand as she gazes upwards watching the flight of a lark. Surprisingly, the sky with its fluffy white clouds takes up over three-quarters of the picture. The canvas itself, large, measures 163 by 128 centimeters.


József Rippl-Rónai: Femme à la cage, 1892
Oil on canvas, 185,5 x 130 cm
Budapest, Hungarian National Gallery
© Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest 2016

Crowds were also gathered in front of the masterpiece by Jozsef Rippl-Ronai, Femme à la cage.  Rippl-Ronai, who lived in Paris for over a decade worked with other artists to find new ways of expression, and his work, highly decorative, is limited to few colours. Thus his Woman with a Birdcage, is in the style of Art Nouveau and portrays the silhouette of a woman dressed in black against a dark but vibrant blue and ultramarine background. With her closed eyes, the woman appears to be emerging from a dream with an almost mystical light illuminating her pale, impassive face and hands.
 
One can be grateful for the renovation of the museum of Fine arts currently underway in Budapest, giving the occasion to present this superb exhibition in Paris.

Budapest Masterpieces
Dürer, Greco, Tiepolo, Manet, Rippl-Rónai...
Through 10 July 2016
Musée du Luxembourg
19, rue de Vaugirard
75006 Paris
Tel: (33) 1 45 44 12 90

Based in Paris, Patricia Boccadoro is a culture critic and senior editor at Culturekiosque.



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