Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Hungarian National Gallery in Crisis

Throne room in the former royal palace
- now the home of winged altarpieces in the National Gallery 
Hungary (and its capital, Budapest) has a rich and multi-layered art museum system, the result of almost two centuries of organic development (I wrote about these museums in a previous post). One of the largest such institutions in Budapest is the Hungarian National Gallery, officialy created as a separate museum in 1957, and presently housed inside the former royal palace on top of Buda castle hill. The museums is home to art from all over the territory of historic Hungary, ranging in chronology from the 11th century to the present day. The museum is the largest repository of Hungarian medieval art, holding stone carvings, sculptures, painting and complete altarpieces. You can browse highlights of the collection starting from this page. It is also a very important research center of Hungarian art history - during the last few decades, most new knowledge about Hungarian art was published in the catalogues and journals of the National Gallery, many of which can be studied online in the database of Hungarian museum publications (go down to "Magyar Nemzeti Galéria").

Hans Siebenbürger: St. Eligius before King Clotaire
One of the more recent acquisitions of the Gallery 
Several years ago, the director of the Museum of Fine Arts, László Baán raised the possibility of once again uniting the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts and the Hungarian National Museum, into one mega-museum (The Art Newspaper 177, 2007). The idea then was met with skepticism and rejection - but was already put partly in practice in the 2010 exhibition at the Royal Academy in London titled Treasures from Budapest (to mixed reviews, as the detailed overview of Gábor Endrődi at the 1100sor.hu blog proved - in Hungarian, but with links to English-language reviews). Things, however, sped up this year, after a major EU-funded expansion plan of the Museum of Fine Arts was scrapped (On this, see the brief report of The Art Newspaper, as well as the letter to the editor of TAN at the bottom of this page.) Baán then went ahead to realize his plan of merging the two museums under his leadership, and received government support for it. What was only a plan this summer (see once again The Art Newspaper's report) quickly became a reality when the backing of this plan was announced in a government decree, and Baán was appointed as state commissary to lead the project. There was talk of negotiations, examinations and planning - but less the nthree weeks later, another decree was published, announcing that the two museums will have to be officially merged by February 29, 2012.

In the following I will cite the official standpoint of the Hungarian section of AICA (Association Internationale des Critiques d'Art), who were the first to react:

"This means that on the basis of a government decision, in a little more than four months one of our most important public collection institutions will cease to exist, and at the same time the greatest museum investment of the last one hundred years will begin. These are decisions of enormous significance, in connection with which hardly any further information has been released and no impact studies or professional background studies have been made available whatsoever, neither for the professionals nor for the wider public. The 'preliminary guidelines' set in the statements made by government commissioner Baán László, appointed on 29 September, are neither based on consensus nor even on a single professional opinion. The government has provided neither a concept in support of this decision of great concern nor any reasoning for it."  (read the full statement here)

Couldn't agree more. This is where the situation stands this week. Art historians are still just trying to grasp what had happened - more vehement criticism is sure to come in the next few days.

There are two updates to this blog post - both news arrived as I was writing the post. 

Update1: The director of the National Gallery, Ferenc Csák announced his resignation yesterday. His opinion, already voiced last week, is the following: "the merger is hasty, professionally ill-considered and harmful for both institutions," - and he clearly does not want to assist to this process.

Update2: What the Hungarian government thinks of the Hungarian National Gallery, was indicated by more news yesterday. A government-appointed commissioner, Imre Kerényi, presented a series of paintings commissioned and paid for by the government, with the intention of "illustrating special editions of the Hungary's new constitution". The paintings were to illustrate   specific moments of 20th-21st century Hungarian history, culminating in the act of accepting the new constitution. Kerényi announced that the paintings will be first put on public display early next year in the Hungarian National Gallery. You can browse the gallery of the first 14 paintings in this gallery. Some knowledge of Hungarian is required for the outrage pouring from all corners of the press (see here, here, less critical here, and see in English, too.) Because of the clear medieval (Byzantine) references, I just had to illustrate one of the paintings here, depicting the crushing of the 2006 riots (by János Korényi - interview with him here). Comments are welcome!