Byline: Brian Sewell
TREASURES FROM BUDAPEST Royal Academy, W1 ILAST wandered round the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest in March 1987, when the communists were still in power and even art historians spoke in whispers for fear that anything overheard might be misinterpreted.
The handsome late Neoclassical building, completed in 1906 and very old-fashioned for the time, was in a sorry state, its various roofs leaking and many of its masterpieces draped in sheets of polythene to protect them when rain fell. I knew the building had suffered a direct hit from a bomb in the last months of the Second World War (though not whether this had been dropped by Anglo-American forces or the Russians, who still dominated Hungarian politics in 1987), but a panjandrum of the museum, who seemed terrified of speaking to a visitor from the West, attributed its condition to interference with the foundations when the nearby cut-and-cover underground railway was dug, with settlement and subsidence the consequence. The government, he did risk saying, was interested in the preservation of neither the buildings nor the collections, and the museum had no funds with which to repair the one and conserve the other.
On my return to London, I suggested to Neil MacGregor that his National Gallery might help, at least with conservation, for through their grubby veils of polythene I had seen things that I thought might truly be by Velazquez, Rembrandt, Rubens, Durer, Brueghel and a host of other painters, languishing in conditions of cold humidity that cause disastrous damage to old paintings. I do not know if anything was done by the National Gallery -- as an outsider my ear is not close to such lofty ground -- but, so many years later, some of Budapest's paintings (and drawings and sculptures) are indeed now in London, though at the Royal Academy, the subject of an exhibition there and showing little evidence of their earlier wretchedness.
It is, inevitably I suppose, only a potpourri that enables the academy's publicists to list great names and whip the punters into forming queues -- the subtitle is Leonardo to Schiele (from the most enquiring of minds to the most wandering of hands), and between them lie Raphael, Tintoretto and Guercino, El Greco, Zurbaran, Murillo and Goya, Manet, Gauguin and Picasso. But why, when there are in Budapest so many intriguing paintings by unfamiliar artists, have they brought coals to Newcastle in the form of works by Reynolds, Kauffmann, Constable and that prize old bore Thomas Hudson; why bits and bobs by Monet and Chagall? In such exhibitions we are all surely gluttons for the strange and rare, not for the familiar and popular, and it thrills us not at all to see yet again works of a kind that can be seen in every country house in England.
As for works by Hungarian artists, of which a handful have been contributed to the exhibition by the Budapest equivalent of Tate Britain, I am inclined to argue that these should be the subject of another, for in them we see the unmatched exotic edge that central European painters lent to western art, to the tenebrism of the 17th century, the Mozartian emotion of the 18th, and to the Symbolism, Art Nouveau and realism of the 19th (to the 20th century I am uncertain that any contributed anything). On the other hand, sweet reason tells me that the British public is far too parochial to see virtue in Waldmuller's contented peasantry or the genre and landscape of the Marko family and Munkacsy -- paintings by whom (and other Hungarians) were always to be easily found in the London art market half a century ago. How much more we knew then than we do now.
Perhaps the most important painting in the exhibition -- at least in terms of comparable material in London -- is the Madonna and Child with the Young Baptist, by Raphael, known as the Esterhazy Madonna after the Austro-Hungarian princes (familiar as patrons of Haydn, Mozart and Schubert) to whom it once belonged and whose collection (bought by the state in 1870) formed the nucleus of the museum. …