Treasures from the eastern bloc

    Budapest's priceless artworks are the subject of the Royal Academy's blockbuster autumn show. Our critic headed there to get the back story

    When you see a poster for the superior collection of art treasures that is winging its way to the Royal Academy in London, you may feel the need to read it twice. Because these particular art treasures are arriving from Budapest. And not only may you be a tad uncertain about the exact location of Budapest – north, south, east or west of Vienna? Answer at the bottom of this article – but the chances of you knowing that the capital of Hungary is busy with art treasures are also slim. The harsh truth of it is that almost all modern Britons who visit Budapest go there on a stag weekend. They remember the beer. They remember the strip clubs. They don’t remember Raphael’s Esterhazy Madonna or the Water Carrier by Goya.

    This sad little fact can, however, be viewed from a better angle. If most of the Brits who go to Budapest go there to get gaga, then they, too, have a fine surprise ahead of them. Standing before the Leonardo or the Rembrandt, the El Grecos and the Tintorettos, the Constables and the Gauguins, even the Great British beer slob can throb with the thrill of cultural discovery. Gorgeous things are heading our way. The fact that they are so unfamiliar and come from somewhere as stubbornly foreign as Hungary is an exciting plus.

    How did the museums of Budapest come to be filled with all these little-known masterpieces of art? As this newspaper’s loudest central European, I was fully expected to know. But I didn’t. Naturally, my suspicion was that it must be history’s fault, because in central Europe everything is history’s fault: just as kittens play with balls of wool, so history plays with central Europe. But in this instance the perpetual warfare that is the fate of all human groupings in central Europe seemed not to answer everything. In fact, it made some issues fuzzier. As everyone in central Europe had spent their entire history fighting each other, how did the damned Hungarians find the time to collect Monet and Gauguin? More importantly, how did they manage to hang onto them?

    It was a perplexed and intense Waldemar Januszczak who boarded the EasyJet stag special from Gatwick to Budapest questing for answers. A plane-load of highly sociable lads from Manchester piled on as well, heading into central Europe to celebrate the mystic union of Roddy from Cheadle Hulme to Rachel from Withington, and as the sacramental beer began to flow, so the dynamics of Hungarian art collecting began to appear even cloudier. This mission kept getting trickier.

    The problem is that Hungary’s story and ours have never overlapped. With the Louvre, say, we know all about its glories because many of them used to be our glories. The fact that some of the best things in the Louvre belonged to Charles I before Cromwell sold them to our dear neighbours from across the channel makes them particularly happy. It’s the same with the Prado. The Spaniards may have lost their armada, but they gained our Titians. Hungary, however, has never sought to invade us or we them. Once, in 1953, their football team beat the English football team 6-3 and thereby became the first team from outside the British Isles to win in England: the Mighty Magyars they were nicknamed, and to this day on Radio 5 Live you can hear ancient footballers dribbling on about how good Ferenc Puskas was. But that’s it. Beginning and end of contact. Or so I believed until Axel Vecsey, curator of art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest, began showing 
    me the pictures heading for London.

    How Vecsey’s museum came to possess one of the loveliest of all Raphaels or Leonardo’s great drawings for the Battle of Anghiari or large handfuls of El Greco is an Irving Stone saga waiting to be written. The Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest is a becolumned slab of portentous neo-Greek power architecture that opened in 1906 and occupies one full side of the perfectly named Heroes’ Square. You want heroes? Go to Heroes’ Square. Which consists of little else. In Heroes’ Square you can be looked down on by some of the largest, sternest, most heroic heroes ever to clamber onto a pedestal and symbolise their nation’s spirit. At their head rides Arpad, the leader of the Magyars, a moustachioed barbarian behemoth who is these days thought of as the father of Hungary. Arpad’s Magyars kicked out the Bulgars, who had beaten the Avars, who slayed the Goths, who succeeded Attila the Hun. When Arpad the Magyar mounted his horse, the other barbarians trotted in the opposite direction.

    It was actually Attila’s brother, Buda, who gave his name to the settlement by a river to which we Brits now journey for our stag nights. Interestingly, there were originally two settlements, one on either side of the Danube, Buda and Pest, and when they were finally combined into a single capital in the 19th century it was initially called Pestbuda. Which I think you need to be Magyar to find easier to say.

    Heroes’ Square was created at the end of the 19th century to celebrate the millennium of the Magyar conquest of Hungary. Its architectural duty is to embody the national spirit and frighten the life out of would-be invaders, a task it achieves with true aplomb. There are champion pike in British waters shorter than each great wing of Arpad’s moustache. The placing of an art gallery along the square’s edge tells you much about the role of art in Hungarian thinking. But that was then, in preparation for the 20th century, and not today, when the Hungarian economy is catastrophically in debt to the IMF and the strain of keeping up with the euro has thrust Arpadian banking in the same general direction as the architecture in Heroes’ Square: towards the Greeks.

    Budapest’s art treasures are coming to Britain because the Museum of Fine Arts needs the money they will earn on their travels. Most of its galleries could do with a lick of paint. The spiders’ webs need removing. The postcard racks could do with having some postcards in them. Originally, the museum was due to close this summer for an ambitious refurbishment that it obviously needs. But those plans had to be scrapped. MoFAB is no longer closing. Its best artworks are still, however, going on tour.

    The first picture Vecsey showed me is a tiny Coronation of the Virgin by Maso di Banco, painted in Florence in about 1340. It’s very gold and very lovely, and shows Jesus surrounded by a choir of angels placing a crown on his mother’s head. Vecsey, unexpectedly, guffawed at the sight of it. “Thank you, England,” he giggled. It turns out that the Budapest museum owes the presence of Maso’s Coronation in its collection to the Daily Mail. Back in the 1930s, the Mail was the mouthpiece of its unstable owner, Harold Harmsworth, 1st Viscount Rothermere, a political looney who championed the British Union of Fascists and famously wrote a Daily Mail editorial entitled “Hurrah for the Blackshirts”. Not only was Rothermere an enthusiastic supporter of Hitler who sent the Fuhrer a telegram to congratulate him on his incursion into the Sudetenland and to express the wish that “Adolf the Great” would become a more popular figure in Britain, he also wanted to become king of Hungary.

    Rothermere, it appears, had fallen under the spell of Princess Stephanie von Hohenlohe, close friend of Goering and part-time Hungarian, who was regarded as “London’s leading Nazi hostess”. She was actually an Austrian Jew who had married into the Hungarian aristocracy and taken up the cause of Hungary’s unfair treatment by the allies after the first world war.

    In 1927, Rothermere published an editorial in the Mail, “Hungary’s place in the sun”, in which he called for Transylvania and the other lost territories to be restored. This boldly pro-Hungarian stance was received ecstatically in Budapest, and the owner of the Daily Mail began to be spoken of as a suitable candidate for the Magyar throne.

    According to Vecsey, Rothermere liked the idea of becoming king of Hungary so much that, in 1940, he donated Maso di Banco’s Coronation of the Virgin to his prospective serfs. “It was a kind of royal gesture,” chuckled Vecsey, happily and knowingly. At that time the painting was thought to be by Giotto.

    As he talked me through all the pictures coming to London, I felt myself to be in the presence of a sharp, knowledgeable and cruel observer of human folly. Put Axel Vecsey in the ring with a typical British curator to discuss art or politics or economics and he would win 6-3, every day. Not that he looks anything like a typical Hungarian hero. If Vecsey resembles anyone in the pantheon of human greats, it is midperiod Francis Rossi from Status Quo. He’s compact to the point of smallness. Doesn’t have a moustache. And sports a ridiculous ponytail that has seen better days. But his fierce blue eyes have lightning in them. And I’ve never seen eyes like that on a British art lover.

    Another picture coming to London that has British connections is a group portrait of a gang of children in fancy dress standing on a hill, painted by Cornelis van Poelenburgh in 1628. Like the Titians in the Prado and the Caravaggios in the Louvre, the van Poelenburgh used to hang in London, where it belonged to Charles I. The costumed kids are the offspring of Frederick V, king of Bohemia, often called the Winter King, who had 13 children in all and whose descendants still rule Britain today. Vecsey knows far more about the pedigree of Britain’s current royals than I do and quickly proved it by tracing the royal line of descent from the kids on the hill to Elizabeth II faster that a thrust down the wing by Puskas.

    Not all the pictures heading for London are doing so because they have a British past, though. Most do not and are coming only because they are gorgeous artworks. Chief among these is the Esterhazy Madonna, by Raphael, widely acknowledged as the master of beauty’s most beautiful early work. I’m surprised to see how tiny she is. Not much bigger than an envelope. In 1983, on the night of November 5, the museum was broken into and the eminently portable Esterhazy Madonna was stolen, along with seven other pictures. “By the Italians, of course. All the artwork stealing across the world is done by the Italians.”

    The stolen pictures were quickly recovered. The Esterhazy Madonna was found in a nearby wood, broken in two. The other paintings, the Giorgione, the Tintoretto, turned up in Italy and Greece. All were in poor condition. As a result of the break-in, the museum embarked upon a stuttering rebuild that has been interrupted at regular intervals ever since. “During the Soviet era the story of the whole country was a lack of money. And that was the story of our museum as well”.

    As we strode from picture to picture, I formed the impression that any masterpieces belonging to Hungarians have unusually stressful and busy histories. To earn its place at the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest, an artwork needs to be hardy as well as fine. The second world war was a particularly traumatic epoch for them. The entire collection was shipped off to Germany for “safe-keeping” by Rothermere’s friends, the Nazis, and only recovered later in dribs and drabs. There’s a small Vasari coming to London, The Marriage at Cana, that disappeared during the war and eventually turned up in Canada in 1963, at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. It took until 1999 for the court case to be won and the Vasari returned.

    Hungarian artworks need also to be whorishly adaptable: their lot is to pleasure many masters. In 1241, the Magyars were thrust aside by the Mongols. They were followed by the French, who had learnt that Europe’s richest gold mines had been discovered in Transylvania. Next came Sigismund of Luxembourg, prince of Bohemia, the man they called “the Czech swine”. The Bohemians were turfed out by the Turks, who installed a ruling pasha in Buda for a century and a half. To this day, visiting one of the baths left behind by the Turks and submerging yourself in its steaming waters remains one of Budapest’s finest daytime pleasures.

    All of which brings us, finally, to the dreaded Habsburgs: the most genetically deformed of all the European super-dynasties, who conquered the Turks in 1687 and installed themselves as the rulers of Hungary for the next 230 years. Most of Hungary’s modern history has been spent trying to crawl out from beneath the chronically inbred Habsburg heel and regain some independence. But for those local operators who played both sides — the Catholics supported the Habsburgs, the Protestants did not — these were prosperous times and the bulk of the collection formed by Hungary’s leading noble family, the Esterhazys, was acquired now.

    Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy bought not only Raphael’s great Madonna, but most of the best Italian pictures that are coming to London: the Tintoretto, the Bellotto. He also liked Bruegel, and Rubens and Goya, and when he snaffled the superb church interior by Saenredam that surprised me most here, he showed himself to be a Hungarian cad with impeccable taste. Esterhazy was also a collector of drawing, and he it was who acquired the gorgeous Leonardo heads from the Battle of Anghiari, the Rembrandts, the Dürers.

    After devoting the entire 19th century to the fight for independence, the Hungarians spent most of the 20th century paying for their uppitiness. First, two-thirds of the country, including their beloved Transylvania, was signed away by the Treaty of Trianon. Then the fascists took over. They were kicked out by the communists, who stayed and oppressed until 1989. By the time the second millennium dawned, Hungarian history had already taken more knocks than Joe Bugner in his first fight with Ali (I mention Bugner because he was probably Britain’s best-known emigré Hungarian).

    My point is that this isn’t really a country: it’s a state of mind. Every one of its boundaries is the result of pushing outwards until someone stops you. Add the fact that the Magyars are genetically dissimilar to anyone else in Europe and speak a language that no others understand, unless they are Mongolians, and you have a national brew so potent that is can make a man’s moustache grow to the size of elk antlers.

    Not all the pictures arriving in London are coming from the Museum of Fine Art. In 1957, a year after their heroic revolt against the Russians, the Hungarians decided they owned too much art to fit into one museum and divided the national collection in two. Half stayed in Vecsey’s museum. The other half, the native part, was transferred to a new institution, the Hungarian National Gallery, which is now sending over a clutch of artworks to help us visualise Hungary’s artistic identity.

    I was dreading going over there. My people, the Poles, are jingoistic enough when it comes to imagining a national look. The Hungarians are fiercer still. Outside the Hungarian National Gallery, an entire wall of the building is taken up by a humungous fountain featuring a bunch of heroes returning from the hunt. One of them is carrying home a felled stag — across his shoulders! These are heroes so heftily heroic, they make other nation’s heroes look like waiters on Old Compton Street.

    The museum inside turned out to be a gentle surprise, however. In particular, the medieval art that survived the Turkish invasion is impressive. I was shown a painting of The Visitation by an anonymous local painter known only as the Master MS. It is one of the loveliest gothic artworks I have ever seen. If it were in the Louvre, it might have duelled with the Mona Lisa for the title of the world’s most beautiful picture. Unfortunately, the Hungarians could not bear to part with it, so it is not travelling to London. You’ll just have to go Budapest to see it for yourselves.

    The Virgin at the Spinning Wheel is coming. We don’t know who painted her, either. She sits on a golden throne, spinning the thread for her own dress, accompanied by a warbling orchestra of angels. Unusually in representations of the Madonna, the swelling of her robes makes clear that she is pregnant. In art, the mother of Christ is almost never shown pregnant: the bio-religious contradictions of her virginity are too problematic. But in 1993, an x-ray taken of The Virgin at the Spinning Wheel revealed that concealed beneath the robes of her stomach lay a tiny secret image of the baby Jesus. So they now call her The Pregnant Virgin. Which is very Hungarian of them.