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Waves of Art Nouveau

World Art Nouveau Day this year is celebrated on 10th June. In part to mark the occasion but also to honour the centenary of the death of Otto Wagner and the 150th anniversary of the birth of Marcell Komor, FUGA: Budapest Center of Architecture, in conjunction with the Hungarian Museum of Applied Arts and its partners, has mounted a small exhibition entitled Waves of Art Nouveau, dedicated to this ever-popular style of architecture in cities of the Danube region from Vienna to Constanţa. The material consists of a series of wall panels grouped thematically, with information and illustrations chosen by the participating cities (twelve of them in total).

Plastic scale model of Ödön Lechner's Hungarian Museum of Applied Arts

The show begins with Otto Wagner and his pupils and followers (notably Max Fabiani). After that comes the great Hungarian Secessionist architect Ödön Lechner. Lechner’s style is entirely unlike Wagner’s. Wagner was preoccupied with modernity and the question of how to refashion the architecture and urban planning of an imperial capital in a way that would reflect profound shifts in society. Lechner, on the other hand, was preoccupied with the distant past—even the subliminal—plumbing the depths of the Hungarian folk subconscious to create an entirely original and quintessentially Magyar idiom, part-European and part-Oriental. Lechner and his followers, particularly Marcell Komor and Dezső Jakab, are well represented in this exhibition, with buildings in Budapest; Oradea and Târgu Mureș (Romania); and Subotica (Serbia), where the synagogue is very Lechneresque in feel, with a green-and-yellow-tiled lampshade dome and a façade articulated with symmetrical detailing in exposed brickwork.

The buildings featured in this exhibition illustrate the different ways in which architects of this period explored the relationship between structure and decoration. Sometimes the decorative elements entirely follow the physical lineaments of the building, picking out and enhancing cornices, bays and apertures. This is well seen in the work of the Serbian architect Branko Tanazević, who creates a sort of Art Nouveau version of the Renaissance in his former Telephone Exchange building in Belgrade. At other times the decoration masks the structure, obscuring it and playing hide and seek with it, as in Ivan Vurnik’s extraordinary, almost trompe l’oeilCooperative Bank building in Ljubljana (1923) or Vladimir Baranyai’s Bauda House in Zagreb (1905), where the balcony consoles are disguised as balls of laurel leaves. Occasionally the decoration is entirely gratuitous, most famously perhaps on Otto Wagner’s celebrated Majolica House in Vienna (1898–9), where the pattern on the ceramic cladding mocks a gigantic rambling rose. In some buildings, the decoration almost becomes the structure, as for example Daniel Renard’s memorable Casino in Constanţa (1910), whose huge windows are fashioned like displayed peacock’s tails. Renard studied in Paris, and though his work is filed in the same architectural compartment as that of Lechner or Komor, his aesthetic could not be more different.

It is always a pleasure to discover something new. For visitors familiar with French, Belgian and Austrian Art Nouveau the sheer delight here will be the number of exuberant, eye-catching and daringly original buildings in cities all across Central and Eastern Europe by architects whose names are entirely—and surely unjustly—unfamiliar.

Before you leave, spare a few moments to look at the FUGA building itself. It is a work of 1905 by the architectural partnership of Gyula Ullmann and Géza Kármán, architects who were also exponents of Art Nouveau but in a manner more closely allied to that of the Vienna Secession. Prime examples of their work can also be seen in Budapest’s Szabadság tér (three adjoining buildings now occupied by the US Embassy). The FUGA building preserves an imposing façade emblazoned with its original name, Hermes Udvar (Hermes Court). It was built for a firm specialising in safe deposits, a fact still advertised above the front door.

Waves of Art Nouveau. On show until June 18th at FUGA: Budapest Center of Architecture, at Petőfi Sándor u. 5. Open daily except Tues from 1pm. Free entry. There is a small café and an excellent bookshop.

Raphael in Bergamo

Raphael's 'St Sebastian'

There are two exhibitions in the two neighbouring Lombard towns of Bergamo and Brescia in northern Italy which are drawing crowds of visitors, especially from Italy itself. Bergamo has chosen Raphael since the town’s art gallery, the Accademia Carrara, owns one of his early masterpieces (St Sebastian), just restored. Brescia has chosen Titian in order to celebrate his beautiful polyptych of the Resurrection painted for the high altar of a church in the town and the exhibition illustrates the work of an important group of contemporary local painters (including Moretto, Savoldo and Romanino) whose production is seen in the context of the Venetian school. Brescia’s Pinacoteca Tosio Martinengo reopened this year (on 17th March), after eleven years of closure.

Since the towns are so close together, both have advertised each other’s exhibitions and visitors to both are given a reduced-price ticket.

The exhibition in Bergamo, Raffaello e l’eco del mito (scheduled to close on 6th May but hopefully may be kept open for longer) is in the newly restored rooms on three floors of a former convent directly opposite the Accademia Carrara, which makes this an opportunity to visit the town’s picture gallery too, which was excellently rehung a few years ago.

The exhibition is particularly interesting in the sections which illustrate works by painters which Raphael must have seen as a young man. These include two panels by his cultivated father Giovanni Santi, loaned by the Galleria Corsini in Florence. Santi died when Raphael was only 11 years old but scholars agree that he must have started Raphael out on his career. Perugino, a decisive figure in the young Raphael’s development as a painter (although Raphael is not actually documented in his bottega) is represented with three masterpieces: his own St Sebastian (signed on the arrow!) from the Hermitage, his Mary Magdalene from the Uffizi (the pose very similar to Raphael’s St Sebastian, and also just restored) and his Madonna and Saints from a church in nearby Cremona. The first and last are works little-known to the general public and so this provides an opportunity to see them. The two painters from Umbria, Pinturicchio (whom Raphael knew in both Siena and Perugia) and Luca Signorelli (whose wonderful Crucifixion has been lent by the Galleria Nazionale in Urbino) are present to underline Raphael’s pride in his Umbrian origins (he signed his paintings “Raphael Urbinas”).

The comparison of Raphael’s St Sebastian with two works of the same subject by Leonardesque painters from Milan, Boltraffio and De Predis, is particularly interesting as they both portray the young saint with long golden curls, but holding an arrow as identification (instead of the more usual iconography of the nude figure of the saint at his martyrdom, pierced with arrows): they are thought to predate Raphael’s work of the same subject by a few years. They come all the way from the Pushkin Museum in Moscow and the Cleveland Museum of Art.

The autograph works by Raphael on exhibition, all of them chosen to illustrate his production between 1500 and 1505, include his famous portrait of Elisabetta Gonzaga from the Uffizi. The sitter, with her heavy eyelids, is not flattered by the artist, but the brown and gold tones of her dress and jewels provide a magnificent contrast to the countryside in the background, lit up by the sunset.

His exquisite tiny St Michael Archangel from the Louvre has extraordinary monstrous creatures accompanying the dragon. The scene, with a building in flames in the background, is derived from the Apocalypse. But the light, graceful figure of St Michael, who has just landed, seems unaware of any hindrances to his plan to banish the Devil. Still in what looks like its original frame, this is surely one of Raphael’s highest achievements in a painting of this size (31 x 27 cm). The small Prayer in the Garden from the Metropolitan in New York, is one of the most memorable of his works on show, since Raphael demonstrates how he can take a familiar subject and raise its significance to a level perhaps never reached by another artist.

But his very beautiful St Sebastian is certainly the most important work in the show and it has been specially restored at the Brera for the exhibition, with later accretions of yellow varnish now removed.

The exhibition is accompanied by an excellent catalogue, as well as a smaller version for just a few euro. For the Titian exhibition in Brescia, see here.

Reviewed by Alta Macadam. Alta is currently at work on a new volume, Blue Guide Lombardy, Milan and the Italian Lakes, to be published later this year.

Titian in Brescia

Titian's portrait of the doctor
Gian Giacomo Bartolotti

Tiziano e la pittura del cinquecento tra Venezia e Brescia is an exhibition curently running (until 1 July) in the Museo di Santa Giulia in the Lombard town of Brescia. The centrepiece is Titian’s Averoldi polyptych—although it is in fact only present in a dramatic video show as the curators wisely decided to leave it in situ the church of Santi Nazaro e Celso, for which it was painted and where it has been ever since the great artist delivered it there in 1522 (it is not far away from the exhibition venue). It is a magnificent work, unusual in the fact that it is divided into the form of a polyptych with smaller scenes around the central Resurrection which include a particularly beautiful Annunciation (the Angel and the Madonna in two separate panels), as well as a St Sebastian, which is a remarkable study of human anatomy: it has been recognised that the intrinsic drama of the nude figure shows the influence of Michelangelo’s Slaves as well as the Hellenistic statue of the Laocoön, which was discovered in Rome at just about this time.

Titian is again documented in Brescia as an old man in his 80s, when he accepted a commission to paint three large canvases for the upper floor of the famous building known as the Loggia. The subject of the central panel was the Apotheosis of Brescia, represented by a matronly lady magnificently dressed, and the other panels personified the age-old activity of the production of arms in the town with Vulcan in his forge, as well as the agricultural activity in the countryside around Brescia, symbolised by the goddess Ceres. Palladio, when on a visit to the town to advise on the architecture of the Loggia,recorded his admiration for these works, which were unfortunately lost in a fire which devastated the building only six years after they had been installed. For the exhibition they have been reconstructed as far as possible in a video, based on an engraving made in the 18th century.

Another connection the great artist has with Brescia is the Triumph of Christ woodcut owned by the Musei Civici. This is one of five versions, produced in five blocks, of a drawing by the artist based on the theme of a Classical ‘Triumph’. Rather bizarrely it shows Christ seated on a chariot pulled by the four symbols of the Evangelists and accompanied by the four Doctors of the Church (resembling the bodyguards who run beside the Pope’s car today). The procession which precedes and follows the chariot is made up of crowds of figures from the Old and New Testaments. The version preserved in Brescia has been recognised as a first edition (and dated 1517).

However the exhibition is perhaps especially interesting for its study of the three principal artists born in Brescia who were contemporaries of Titian: Moretto, Giovan Girolamo Savoldo and Girolamo Romanino. Their works demonstrate not only how closely they must have looked at Titian’s work, as well as that of Lorenzo Lotto (the Venetian artist who was least influenced by Titian), but who at the same time clearly managed to create a school of their own. We are shown a wide range of their production, which underlines their ability to produce paintings of religious subjects which often concentrate on naturalistic details, and intimate, almost cosy, settings, and even include night scenes, as well as portraits of great ingenuity. The curators have suggested that there is little doubt that the young Michelangelo Merisi, thought to have been born at Caravaggio in the Bergamasco in 1571, must have studied their work before leaving for Rome, where he was to became Italy’s most famous painter of the 17th century.

This exhibition is in many ways a revelation of the skill of the local painters but also an opportunity to admire great works by Titian, and in particular two of his male portraits (c. 1515–20): the famous Mosti Portrait (from the Pitti) and the much less well-known portrait of a man identified as the painter’s doctor Gian Giacomo Bartolotti da Parma, today preserved in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. It is the most memorable work in the show.

Reviewed by Alta Macadam. Alta has recently spent two weeks in and around Brescia preparing text for the forthcoming Blue Guide Lombardy, Milan and the Italian Lakes.

Dürer in Milan

Dürer's first known painting (1490),
a portrait of his father.

A major exhibition is in progress (until 24 June) in the Palazzo Reale in Milan: Dürer and the Renaissance (between Germany and Italy). One wonders if the title was chosen rather to entice visitors than to explain the true content of the show: ‘Dürer’ without ‘the Renaissance’ may have been a good deal less of a draw. But in fact the works on show display above all the extraordinary artistic powers of Dürer, not only as an engraver and woodcutter but also as a draughtsman and painter in oil and watercolour. The works by his contemporaries, displayed alongside, are often put into the shade by the great German’s skills. The choice of these works is not always particularly logical. But (again, perhaps to be sure to draw the crowds?) the visitor is given a very special opportunity to see Leonardo da Vinci’s unforgettable St Jerome, lent by the Vatican Pinacoteca, as well as two of his drawings from Windsor.

The first two paintings on show are both by Dürer and both from the Uffizi: the Adoration of the Magi and a portrait of his father, his first known painting. In the same room is a drawing of a Battle of Marine Gods, divided into two parts since Dürer added a scene to an earlier representation of the same subject by Mantegna, a clear indication of the close relationship between these two artists and a demonstration of how Dürer studied the technique of the most skilled Italian engraver at work in his lifetime. These two sheets are here brought together, the first from the Albertina in Vienna and the latter from the Rijksprentenkabinet in Amsterdam.

One wall of this first room has a series of studies of horses, showing some of the very earliest known drawings by Dürer as well as his celebrated engraving of The Knight, Death, and the Devil, dated 1513 (this, like most of Dürer’s most beautiful engravings in the exhibition, comes from the Schȁfer Collection in Schweinfurt).

The exhibition also documents Dürer as a theorist, with his treatises on proportion and measurement and his clear fascination with Leonardo’s studies. A drawing in red chalk by Leonardo (one of the two on loan from Windsor) is a reminder of the famous artist’s sojourn in Milan: it is a view of the Alps as seen from the city (today, on a clear day from the roof of the Duomo, the mountains are still just as visible).

One of the most intriguing protagonists of the exhibition is Jacopo de’ Barbari, whose bird’s eye view of Venice in the year 1500, printed by the German Anton Kolb at his shop on the Rialto from six wood blocks, has been lent by the Correr Museum (it is a pity they didn’t also send the six original blocks carved by De’ Barbari which, incredibly enough, have survived). It is interesting to note that this woodcut was, in the past, attributed to Dürer himself, since little was known about De’ Barbari, and his dates are still uncertain. He almost certainly met Dürer in Venice and he is also recorded as having visited Nuremberg, Dürer’s native city. One of the few other works known by him is also on display: a very fine engraving of Pegasus (on loan from Amsterdam). Both De’ Barbari and Dürer are recorded as having worked for Maximilian I. Indeed, the Habsburg emperor was Dürer’s most important patron and the huge triumphal arch he designed for him (in a series of no less than 192 woodcuts), with allegorical and historical scenes, is also on display (recomposed from the 36 surviving original blocks and supplemented with photographic reproductions of the missing ones). Maximilian died in 1519, so that another commission to produce a triumphal procession to celebrate the ruler, some 50m long (made up of 192 blocks, eight of which are on display) was interrupted: this was perhaps a blessing for posterity since it meant that Dürer could turn to other works and other media. On the wall close by, an exquisite small drawing of a procession (from Berlin) demonstrates how he could also work on a much smaller scale: ‘As I grew older, I realised that it was much better to insist on the genuine forms of nature, for simplicity is the greatest adornment of art.’

Another famous Venetian, Giorgione, whose influence on Dürer has long been recognised, is represented with his remarkable Old Woman (from the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice). On Dürer’s two visits to Italy (in 1505–7; and earlier in 1494, though that visit is undocumented) he also came into contact with Giovanni Bellini and was particularly inspired by his portraits. In Dürer’s letters he writes of the great Venetian painter, now in old age, whom he felt was the only Italian who seemed to appreciate his artistic skills. He also boasts that when his Madonna del Rosario was completed for the church of San Bartolomeo at the Rialto, which served the German community in the city, both the Doge and the Patriarch came to see it. (When the church was renovated in 1610, the altarpiece was sold and is now in the National Gallery of Prague: it is sadly only represented in this exhibition by a copy—albeit a good one—made around the time it left Italy.)

The work chosen to represent the exhibition (and used on the cover of the catalogue) is Dürer’s Portrait of a Young Venetian Woman, a small oil painting known to have been made during his stay in Venice in 1505 (lent by the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna). It is exhibited next to his beautiful large Portrait of a Peasant Woman (with a bashful smile), in charcoal and green wash, drawn in the same year (the notable creases may indicate that it was made on the artist’s way to Italy so that he had folded it up during the journey). Another portrait, of a young woman with a jewel hanging from her red beret, painted two years later, is just as beautiful, but it could be argued that these three works have little to do with Venetian portraiture except in their format. A small group of portraits painted against striking green backgrounds perhaps demonstrate a reciprocal influence (particularly the portrait of a young man in a black hat by the Bergamo painter Andrea Previtali and that of a similar subject by Dürer, both painted in Venice in 1506). The best work in this group, though, a portrait of a woman by Lorenzo Lotto, is far distant in atmosphere from Northern European portraiture.

Bizarre elements in Dürer’s oeuvre include engravings of a chained monkey depicted beside a Virgin and Child, and a faun in an idyllic setting with his (human) wife and child. His skill in watercolour is demonstrated by images of a huge crab and a duck (hanging by its beak).

The curators have been careful to keep strictly to the short period in which Dürer made his two presumed visits to Italy and this adds greatly to the interest of the exhibition. Much magnificent art was produced in these few years from 1490 to 1510, by Dürer and his contemporaries, and examples have been gathered together here from many different parts of Europe. It is doubtful that we will see again for many years so many outstanding examples of Dürer’s work in one place. An occasion not to be missed, especially as a visit provides the added advantage of its venue: Palazzo Reale in Piazza Duomo in Milan.

By Alta Macadam. Alta has just returned from a research trip to Milan for the forthcoming Blue Guide Lombardy, Milan and the Italian Lakes. She found the city vibrant and a wonderful place to visit, with much in progress on the contemporary front, new urban areas with innovative architecture, many museums opened in the last few years, and the historic ones (notably the Brera) keeping up with fresh ideas on display to increase the enjoyment of a visit. The new Blue Guide is due out at the end of 2018.

Charles I: King and Collector

This magnificent display of Old Master paintings from the royal collection amassed by King Charles I, many of them reunited for the first time since the mid-17th century at the Royal Academy in London (running until mid-April) has been met with frenzied enthusiasm. And rightly so. There are some stunning works on show here, by Titian, Veronese, Mantegna, Correggio, Holbein, Rubens, Van Dyck and others. Many of them are from the Royal Collection. Others are from the National Gallery, London. Still others have been borrowed from international collections, to which they made their way following the Commonwealth Sale after the beheading of Charles I, when his collection was dispersed (from 1649).

 

Charles I, as is well known, was frail and diminutive of stature but magnificent in his own conception of what kingship meant. His ideas about the Divine Right of kings were to be his undoing: he met his death by beheading in January 1649. While alive, Charles made full use of his own image to create an iconic status for himself as God’s appointee. In Britain he was the first monarch to do this. With the aid of his court painter, Anthony Van Dyck, who was appointed to the position in 1632, he drew on Classical models, derived from the painting and sculpture of Renaissance Italy, to create an awe-inspiring image of a ruler somehow superhuman. Superhuman but not remote. Just as Roman imperial statuary was impressive in its ability to portray a natural likeness, so the portraits of the king and his family by Van Dyck show a real man, inhabiting and dominating the picture space in regal fashion, but a flesh and blood mortal nonetheless.

 

The paintings here, though ‘reunited’ in a sense (King Charles exhibited them throughout his palaces and the two great equestrian portraits of the king in armour would never have hung side by side in his lifetime as they do now in the Royal Academy Central Hall), cannot, in the exhibition space offered by the RA, replicate the effect they would have produced when seen at the end of carefully contrived vistas at Whitehall, for example. What they do show is the way Van Dyck, inspired by Rubens, reached constantly back into the world of the north Italian Renaissance (and through that, back into antiquity) for iconographical models to convey divinity and power. These models were made available to the artist by his royal patron, who bought wisely and well, with the express aim of setting up a collection to rival those of the great courts of Europe. His desire to do so appears to have been kindled during a visit to Spain in 1623, in an attempt to secure the hand of the Infanta Maria Anna. The marriage negotiations failed but the young prince had seen the magnificent portable trappings of the Spanish Habsburg court and his baggage train on his journey home to London creaked and groaned with masterpieces by Titian and Velázquez. After 1627, when the House of Gonzaga, rulers of Mantua, became extinct in the male line, Charles purchased the bulk of the family’s stupendous collection, which included masterpieces by Mantegna (the Triumph of Caesar cycle) and Correggio (The School of Love, which fetched a particularly good price in the Commonwealth Sale. Young men loved Correggio’s semi-suppressed salaciousness).

 

Rubens, who first visited London in 1629 on a peace-keeping mission from Spain, was to dub King Charles ‘the greatest amateur of paintings among the princes of the world’.There are many highlights in this show. To choose just two, it would be Titian’s Supper at Emmaus (c. 1534; sold for £600 in 1651, now in the Louvre), a magnificent scene with calm mountain peaks of the Veneto dolomites in the background and a cat and dog duelling under the table; and the deliciously self-satisfied self-portrait by Van Dyck, in which he looks complacently out at the viewer, holding up the gold chain that he received upon his knighthood in 1632, and pointing with his other hand at an outsize sunflower, surely a symbol of gilded royal patronage.

 

This is a triumph of a show, not least for the extraordinary borrowing power it demonstrates. Many of the works on display here are not readily lent. It also reminds us how intrinsically interlinked are all the strands of human endeavour and human progress. There has always been a great symbiosis between artists, of course. Antonello da Messina was influenced by Netherlandish painters. Dürer was influenced by Bellini. Without the great allegorical celing paintings of Venice, by Veronese and Tintoretto, or of Rome and Florence by Pietro da Cortona, or of Parma by Correggio, could we ever have had the Banqueting House in London by Rubens? Not likley. And the art of Rubens was brought to foggy Albion by Charles I. The canvases he painted for the ceiling of the Banqueting House at Whitehall Palace, between 1629 and 1630, celebrating the power and wisdom of Charles’ father and predecessor James I and culminating in the apotheosis of the monarch, had brought allegory, monumentalism, grandeur and godliness to the art of Britain. It came to a squalid end. It was through a window of that very Banqueting House that Charles I climbed onto the scaffold. His cosmography, his taste, his spirit and his vision were extinguished at an axe-stroke.

 

Reviewed by Annabel Barber

A full official exhibition catalogue is available on Amazon, check the links below.

Anna: Female destinies in Transylvania

“Anna: Fictitious Female Fates” (Anna: Változatok székely asszonysorsra) is the title of a disarmingly thought-provoking exhibition at the Hungarian National Museum, on tour from the Rezső Haáz Museum in Székelyudvarhely (Odorheiu Secuiesc, Romania). It follows the fortunes of the imaginary Anna, a Hungarian-speaking Székely, born in east Transylvania in 1920, the year that Transylvania was awarded to Romania in the dismemberment of Austria-Hungary.

 

To participate in the exhibition (you can’t just view it; it is fully audio-visual), you need to download the sound files via an app. The show is divided into numbered viewing/listening stations, each with its own little set, each representing a stage in Anna’s life. You follow her around, listening as she tells her story.

 

Her childhood is much like that of any other rural Székely girl. Tough but not deprived. She gets a few years of schooling before putting her shoulder to the family wheel, tending crops and looking after the animals. In due course, the expectation is that she will marry.

 

And so she no doubt would have done, had it not been for the handsome boy at the village barn dance…

 

So far, it’s a Victorian novel. But Romania in 1920 was a long way from that world. These were years of turmoil and dislocation—and yet despite the disruption (or because of it), Anna arguably ended up with more opportunities than she would have done had her world not fallen apart. It’s difficult to review the show without including an enormous spoiler. Suffice to say that the boy at the dance is (of course) a rotter. Anna finds herself pregnant, ostracised and potentially ruined.

 

Then comes the bifurcation of the ways that makes this exhibition work. Anna, the undone village girl (and you, the visitor) are presented with two alternatives. Do you opt for (A): an abortion at the filthy hands of ‘Aunt Rebecca’, flight to the big city (Kolozsvár/Cluj) and a job as maid of all work in a wealthy Jewish household? Or do you take (B): the crippled, war-wounded older man your father finds for you, who needs a nurse and in return is prepared to adopt your child? (If I had to quarrel with any aspect of the exhibition, it would be this. Can we really believe in this middle-aged miracle of mercy, prepared to take soiled goods? It seems to be the one slightly false note.) In any case, you turn left into the "farmhouse living room" for option B and right to the "railway station" for option A—and in the end (don’t read this if you don’t want to know), it doesn’t matter which path you choose, because both will lead to the same urban tower block, where you will spend your declining years fed and warm but on your own and lonely, listening to the TV (when there’s electricity, this is ’80s Romania) to blot out the silence.

 

In the meantime you will have run the gauntlet of the Holocaust, Communism, collectivisation, industrialisation, defection to the West and the impending execution of Ceaușescu. And you will ask yourself: Do I have regrets? (Yes and no.) Would I start my life all over again if I could? (Absolutely. Hope always triumphs over experience.)

 

The whole exhibition is a subtly understated Gesamtkunstwerk. At first, you wonder if it’s going to be a bit amateurish. But you soon get sucked in and begin to notice that careful applied-arts and ethnographical research has gone into the choice of furnishings for each “set”. The items are not labelled; they speak for themselves. This is an exhibition which manages to impart its content without a single wall text. The historical events and background aren’t explained either. They are just the cards that Anna is dealt, the ingredients for the whole construct, and therefore you the listener are forced to try and make sense of them.

 

Appearing like a leitmotif at every stage of Anna’s passage is a bright white handkerchief embroidered with her name. She drops it at the foot of a haystack during the rough-and-tumble of that fateful barn-dance encounter. It’s a dainty thing, an item which, in the normal run of events, might have been expected to form part of her trousseau. One does have to wonder though, considering the political havoc that was to ensue, as Austria-Hungary was torn to shreds and stitched back together in a zany new patchwork, the social order turned completely on its head: would Anna’s life really have been better if she had held on to her maidenhead and married the boy next door? The answer isn’t obvious—which is what makes this show so successful. The cluster bomb which 20th-century history detonated upon society and its established institutions brought misery, it’s true. But opportunities as well.

 

Ultimately, “Anna” asks one of the most fundamental of all human questions. Can flouting the rules lead to greater happiness than obeying them? Our desire for self-determination, our rejection of socio-religious moral codes and our demand to inhabit a stable world and yet not to bow to all its laws, have led us to lonely isolation in urban tenements. But which is better? Loneliness on one’s own terms or the support mechanism of suffocating togetherness in a tiny village community, where if you overstep the mark, you’re out?

 

Thus doth the Great Foresightless mechanize

In blank entrancement now as evermore

Its ceaseless artistries in Circumstance

Of curious stuff and braid, as just forthshown.

Yet but one flimsy riband of Its web

Have we here watched in weaving…

 

 

The 'Spirit of the Years' speaks these lines at the conclusion of Thomas Hardy’s The Dynasts. Anna and her handkerchief might be a ‘flimsy riband’. But they are also part of the ceaseless artistry of circumstance.

 

Reviewed by Annabel Barber.

 

"Anna: Fictitious Female Fates" (Anna: Változatok székely asszonysorsra), runs until the end of April at the Hungarian National Museum in Budapest. For more on the Rezső Haáz Museum and the Székely area of Transylvania, see Blue Guide Transylvania: The Greater Târnava Valley.

What’s on in Florence

Goya: portrait of the Countess of Chinchón (c. 1801).
Gallerie degli Uffizi

Florence, in these weeks before the arrival of the Easter crowds, is cold but relatively empty and there are two exhibitions well worth seeing: 14th-century fabrics in the Galleria dell’Accademia, and 18th century paintings in Palazzo Pitti.

The first exhibition (Tessuto e ricchezza a Firenze nel trecento. Lana, seta, pittura; on until 15th April), devised and curated by the Galleria dell’Accademia director Cecilie Hollberg, is particularly enjoyable. You can book to see it, but at this time of year, particularly in the late afternoon, you can often just walk in and there will be no queue. The show links the fabric industry—which gave the medieval city its wealth—to the designs of the backcloths in gold-ground paintings, and later to the dresses worn by the figures depicted by some of the early masters of 14th-century Florentine painting.

The floor in the first room reproduces the intricate mosaic pavement of the church of San Miniato al Monte (the most beautiful of all Florence’s medieval churches), a subtle reference to the importance of pattern to the craftsmen of the time. The beautiful statute-books of the two ‘Arti’ or guilds which represented the cloth-workers, those who dealt with wool and those who (later) dealt with silk, are exhibited here. There are interesting documents, including some letters from the archives of Datini (the famous ‘Merchant of Prato’) with samples of wool pinned to them. The first exhibit, set to astonish us, is a child’s wool dress, only preserved because it comes from icy climes, lent by the National Museum of Denmark. Another survival is a piece of a woollen hood, alleged to have been worn in the 13th century by the nun St Umiltà and conserved as a holy relic in the monastery of Vallombrosa in the hills above Florence.

The first painting we see is a touching panel Madonna and Child (who reaches up to hug his mother) from the church of San Remigio. It dates from c. 1290 (and here given a new attribution). A rare occasion to see this masterpiece well-lit and at close range. Almost all the other paintings—carefully chosen to show how the precision with which fabrics were reproduced in paint—are from the Accademia itself (including some brought out of storage). An exception is Giovanni Baronzio’s Baptism of Christ, on loan from the National Gallery of Art in Washington and chosen because of the beautifully patterned towel held up by angels (who are dressed in garments to match). Very few paintings are attributed to this artist from Rimini, and none are to be seen in Florence.

The pieces of fabric exhibited come from Lyon, Prague, Brussels and Berlin, as well as from Florence’s Bargello. The silks, in gorgeous colours, are very fine, many Islamic in origin. Since they are often fragmentary, the complete designs have been recreated on the wall behind them. It has been discovered that the large funeral shroud found in the tomb of Cangrande I, the most famous member of the Della Scala family, who died in Verona in 1329, was made in central Asia. A dalmatic from northern Germany is made up of five different fabrics, all from China. Two works of the 1370s by Jacopo di Cione are decorated with birds and tortoises with the Child dressed in gorgeous orange and gold swaddling clothes. An end room has a delightful video installation with ‘animated’ paintings: it takes as its subject the report of a magistrate who in the 14th century noted down the excesses he found in dress in order to damn the vice of ‘unseemly vanity’, vividly demonstrating how fabrics impinged also on the social life of the town. The ‘film’ is shown alternately in English and Italian (and the concise English labelling throughout the exhibition is excellent).

In the last room there is a very well-preserved silk jacket (made with the pourpoint technique), traditionally supposed to have been worn by Charles of Blois at his death in 1364: he was killed by his uncle (and rival for the Duchy of Brittany), John de Montfort, in the Hundred Years’ War. After the battle it was preserved as a relic of the saintly Charles until it was lost during the French Revolution. It only turned up again in 1924 when it was donated to the Musée des Tissus in Lyon who have lent it to the exhibition. The material comes from Iran or Iraq. This type of military jacket, with numerous buttons, had already become fashionable in Florence a few decades earlier and must have been particularly becoming when worn by a young knight.

One of the last exhibits is a bolt of vermillion-coloured velvet with a pattern of gold discs (lent by the Bargello), which seems to be the very same cloth as the one held up by the angels in the background of Starnina’s Coronation of the Virgin (1405–10), lent by the Galleria Nazionale di Parma. Seeing the two side by side clearly shows how skilfully Starnina painted the folds and rucks in the large piece of cloth: we are now at the beginning of the Renaissance.
(The large catalogue is extremely scholarly, if expensive).

On the other side of town, Eike Schmidt, director of the united Uffizi and Pitti galleries), has put together a tiny exhibition (The Eighteenth century: A selection; on until April) in one of the rooms of Palazzo Pitti. This is a period less known for its artistic output in Florence. Schmidt has made a selection of just 17 paintings (from the 500 or so in the Gallery’s collection) of non-religious subjects to illustrate the variety of works produced at that time. He has also taken it is an opportunity to begin to dismantle the ‘Blue Rooms’ in the Uffizi, which previously were dedicated to foreign schools. Schmidt’s aim is to integrate the collections to show the Medici grand-dukes collected both Italian and foreign works, notably by Dutch and Spanish painters. Indeed the most beautiful of the works in this exhibition is Goya’s full-length portrait of the Countess of Chinchón, painted around 1801. Displayed between the academic portraits of Vittorio Alfieri and his mistress, the Countess of Albany, by Fabre, which date from only a few years earlier, it demonstrates the direction painting was to take by the end of the century. Townscapes of Rome, Naples, Florence and Venice (including a stunning view of the Grand Canal by Canaletto) show the very special interest in travel in this century. Thomas Patch is also represented, with a view of Ponte Santa Trinita, looking downstream. The fashion for exotic scenes and dress can be seen in a portrait by Etienne Liotard and in small Turkish genre panels. Another (very rare) genre scene is the little painting in oil on copper by Giuseppe Maria Crespi, which shows the painter himself twice over: in a self-portrait in the background, and in the foreground pulling his children along in a wooden contraption as his wife looks on, laughing. From the middle of the century come a pair of portraits by Chardin of a girl with a shuttlecock and racquet and a boy at a card table. An exemplary show, to remind us of a period often overlooked in Florence.

Reviewed by Alta Macadam. For details of her Blue Guide Florence, see here.

Art Within Limits

Dezső Bóka: “The Szeged Tyre Factory” (1963)

“Within Frames” is the title of an exhibition running at the Hungarian National Gallery until February 18th. It looks at Hungarian art of the 1960s, a decade when state censorship controlled what people could publicly say or think. The English title, “Within Frames”, a literal translation of the Hungarian, does not really sum up what the show is about. “Within the Framework”, or even “Circumscribed” might be nearer the mark. How did artists cope with the restrictions imposed on them? Were they universally obeyed? And if not, how were they subtly subverted?

The exhibition examines a full decade, between 1958 and 1968. The dates are not accidentally chosen: 1958 was the year that saw the introduction of the system of control known as the Three Ts. In 1968, the year of the Prague Spring, art was freed from central control.

Visitors straightaway enter a stalwartly Communist world. The first room is dominated by a mock-up of a prefabricated housing block with its end wall entirely covered in a sgraffito mural: György Kádár’s Family (1958). Kádár was an artist who had received criticism from the authorities for showing symptoms of too much modernity. In this mural he perfectly hones his style, staying within the lines in a way that cannot be footfaulted. A sturdy mother is seen tossing her small son above her shoulders. In his hands he holds a kite with a beribboned tail. An older child, a daughter, rests on her spade next to her father: they have just planted a young sapling tree. The themes of peaceful coexistence, responsible community life, hard work and hope for the future are all expressed—partly literally—in spades.

The enormous power distance between the cult personalities of the Communist ruling apparatus and their smiling, happy people is wonderfully illustrated in Ernő Jeges’s May Day in Komló (1953). This early work shows the hardline world of early Communism. The scene is a May Day (Labour Day) celebration in the mining town of Komló. Officials are surrounded by children waving the Red Flag. Behind them rear the tall winding machines of the coal mine. In the distance stretches the town, newly built, spick and span, and toiling up the hill to salute the Party representatives winds a procession of local peasants, dressed in folk garb. The artist had been one of those who won a scholarship to Rome in the late 1920s and who was given ecclesiastical commissions as a result. Here he has reinvented himself as a propagandist par excellence of the Socialist Realist utopia.

Five years later, the situation was somewhat relaxed. Art was given more freedom to move but it still had to operate within the strictures of the Three Ts. The Ts are the initial letters of the Hungarian words for Subsidised, Tolerated and Banned, the three categories into which art was corralled. Anything that extolled Western consumerism, that reflected negatively on the Soviet crushing of the 1956 revolution, that criticised the Party, that mentioned the post-WWI Treaty of Trianon (which had given large swathes of Hungary’s former territory to her Comecon allies), was taboo. Banned art, according to a Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party decree of 1965, was art that showed “not the reality of society but which holds up a distorted mirror to reflect the artist’s own irresponsibility and pessimism.” Gyula Marosán, with works like The Secret Police is Checking the Border Again or The First Fallen Freedom Fighter (illustrated here) was clearly in the banned category.

Gyula Marosán: “The First Fallen Freedom Fighter” (1957)

With such strict rules to follow, one might expect most of the art in this show to be crude and provincial. It isn’t. Early on it becomes clear how much Hungarian left-wing artists had in common with their Western counterparts. Picasso’s Dove of Peace (examples on show) and Renato Guttuso’s Land-grab in Sicily clearly demonstrate that artists across the continent were concerned with the threat of nuclear war and with social questions. And an area where Hungary was not isolated at all was furniture design, as attested by many of the beautiful objects also included in this show. Particularly fine is a cane-seated chair by Zsuzsa Kovács, with delicately tapering legs. Kovács was a pioneer designer, a committed socialist, and an early advocate of the fitted kitchen. Her avowed aim was to help alleviate the domestic burden on the working woman.

Another thing emerges from this show. That operating within strictly defined boundaries does not necessarily place a stumbling block in the way of creativity. One only has to think of wordy poets confined to the fourteen lines of a sonnet and thereby producing some of their finest lyrics. Many artists in this decade, even those who were not necessarily fellow travellers, found a direction from which they never deviated, even after state control was relaxed. The Conservative Realist painters (acceptable theme: society as it is) or artists of the Great Plain School (acceptable theme: peasants and agriculture) are good examples.

For the honest portrait that it gives, this is a superb show. The artworks have extraordinary documentary value and interest. Often, when sifting through a lifetime of old photo albums, all the carefully contrived arty shots that seemed so marvellous at the time, seem completely pointless. Why on earth didn’t we take more everyday snaps of the family sitting around the kitchen table? It says much more about who we really are.

Reviewed by Annabel Barber. Blue Guide Budapest will be published in the spring.

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