A New Home for Hungary's Masterpieces

Nestled in the ancient cradle of Europe's Carpathian Basin, Hungary is a land of fertile plains, vineyards, paprika, and castles. It is also the homeland of stunning masterpiece paintings whose beauty rivals even the greatest European opuses of Monet and Cézanne, such as works by Tivadar Csontváry Kosztka, “Pilgrimage to the Cedars in Lebanon” (1907), and Pál Szinyei Merse “The Lark” (1882).


These great paintings are currently housed in the Hungarian National Gallery perched above the Danube River in Budapest’s picturesque Buda Castle. But the reign of Hungarian masterpieces in the Buda castle will soon come to an end.

The Hungarian National Gallery at Buda Castle

The Hungarian National Gallery at Buda Castle - Source: FlickR Creative Commons, User: ecv5, “Buda Castle,” around 2008 – Link: https://flic.kr/p/6ZWcpY

Under a plan backed by Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán, the Hungarian National Gallery—as it is now—will be dissolved, moved to a future planned museum complex in the 250-acre City Park (“Városliget”), and split between the Museum of Fine Art and a future National Gallery. Over 100,000 works in the collection will be moved.

Orbán plans to restore the castle, make it available for state functions, and move government offices to the castle complex as well.

Down in the city park, the $740 million, so-called Liget Budapest project—which is scheduled to be largely completed around 2018—boasts some big names in international architecture and even bigger ambitions. The plan is to transform the quiet, tree-lined park into a world-famous, bustling tourist epicenter for music, art, and structured recreation. Construction on the complex began this year, and it is scheduled to open in 2019.

The future Hungarian National Gallery

The future Hungarian National Gallery, designed by the Japanese architectural firm SANAA, will be located in Budapest’s City Park and is scheduled for completion in 2019. The building is planned as part of the Liget Budapest project. Image courtesy: Liget Budapest. Source: http://www.ligetbudapest.org/index.php?page=nec&id=77&necid=113

Not everyone is happy with this plan. In early July, police arrested protesters who were demonstrating in the park against the clearing of 600 trees to make way for the project. Museum complex supporters argue that the trees to be cut down are only a small percentage of the 6,000 trees in the Városliget.

Murmurs of discontent have echoed in the art world since the project was proposed in 2011. The Director of the Hungarian National Gallery resigned in protest over the plan to dissolve the Hungarian art-dedicated museum.

Writing in The Art Tribune, Ilona Sármány-Parsons lamented the dissolution of what she called “the lieu de mémoire [place of memory] of Hungarian visual culture through the ages.” “In any case the government decision has abolished the Hungarian National Gallery as an independent state museum, and thereby removed from its dedicated professional staff the responsibility for representing the collection in the international art world and especially in the museum landscape of Europe,” Sármány-Parsons wrote.

In 2011, referring to the potential consequences of dissolving the museum, the Hungarian Section of the International Association of Art Critics (AICA) asked the government to consult the world of museum professionals, pointing out that “no impact studies or professional background studies” had been made available.

So what does this all mean for the art?

“From a conservation viewpoint, a new building could be much better if it provides more possibilities for environmental control,” said Ignacio Adriasola, Assistant Professor in the Department of Art History Visual Art and Theory, University of British Columbia. “But then again, there might be merits to maintaining a collection in a historically significant building, especially if there were a commitment to bringing facilities up to date.”

It all comes down to the institutional mandate of the entity hosting the collection, Adriasola said. Mandates capture the particular spirit and intention of the parties entrusting the collection to the institution.

“Ultimately the question of mandate is important, because when you are "merging", "consolidating" or "discontinuing" these sites it becomes a question of rescinding a particular mandate in favor of a new one,” Adriasola said.

The details of the Hungarian National Gallery’s original mandate aren’t so clear: they’re likely buried in primary source documents. And they’re also in Hungarian, making them inaccessible to most art professionals.

A move could be good for the art. Or not. Regardless, Dr. Adriasola said he was concerned by the seeming lack of a concerted effort to solicit the input of Hungary’s art cognoscenti. "Beyond the merits of the decision in this particular case, it is troubling to hear that the decision to "merge" galleries was taken without consulting stakeholders (i.e., parties co-involved in a particular mandate), and without specialist ("scientific") input."

One thing is certain: If the mandate is to showcase Hungary’s finest art in a single collection at an emblematic Hungarian historic site where the country’s greatest works can be experienced alongside breathtaking views of Budapest at the top of Hungary’s ancestral empire … well, this could mark the end of Hungary’s national art-castle fairy tale.

On the other hand, if the mandate of the Hungarian National Gallery is to take huge risks to put Hungarian art in front of new audiences with the chance of launching the country’s greatest works further into posterity, even if it means splitting up the collection or changing the host site, Hungary could be on the right track.

It’s too early to tell. But visit the Hungarian National Gallery at the Buda Castle while you still can. Also be sure to schedule a trip to visit the new galleries in Liget Budapest when they open. Hungary’s masterpieces are always worth a visit—no matter where they end up.

Pal Szinyei Merse "The Lark"

Pál Szinyei Merse, “The Lark”. Source: FlickR Creative Commons. User: damian entwistle, “buda castle national gallery SZINYEI MERSE skylark.” March 17, 2011. Link: https://flic.kr/p/9sTAAx

Tivadar Csontváry Kosztka, “Pilgrimage to the Cedars in Lebanon” (1907)

Tivadar Csontváry Kosztka, “Pilgrimage to the Cedars in Lebanon” (1907). Source: https://flic.kr/p/z44aPK

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