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The Museum of Fine Arts: rejuvenation and modernisation

Located in part of the Hungarian capital’s UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the gems of the area surrounding Heroes’ Square, the Museum of Fine Arts opened in 1906. The Millennium Monument in the square’s centre marks the end of Andrássy Avenue, as the square has the Műcsarnok Hall of Art on one side, and the Museum of Fine Arts on the other, all of which stand as monuments to the magnificence of the architect Albert Schickedanz. Behind and surrounding them is the City Park that awaits tourists and visitors, who will need to be mindful of the various ongoing construction works. The park is being steadily renovated with new playgrounds and a dog park. By 2021 several new museums will also open within the framework of the Liget Budapest Project.

Back into an international context: Raphael, El Greco and the old Hungarian grand masters

Text: Gyula Balogh 

The Museum of Fine Arts will await guests from the end of October with a renovated building and a newly organised permanent exhibition, a Leonardo da Vinci cabinet exhibition, as well as the world’s largest LED wall in a museum. The museum’s director László Baán discussed preparation works and future surprises with Budapest’s Finest.

-What kind of novelties await tourists who visit the renovated Museum of Fine Arts?

– The Museum of Fine Arts is the most significant institution with a permanent collection in the region, more specifically, the region falling between Vienna and St. Petersburg. It has a diverse collection, containing Egyptian, antique and old master works. The museum opened as the first Hungarian permanent fine arts museum in 1906 and was based on the Esterházy family’s famous private collection, which the Hungarian state purchased in 1870. This was later complemented by aristocratic and citizen donations, as well as through state acquisitions. Now, according to the original layout, following a half century of forced absence, the museum will once again exhibit the works of old Hungarian masters, which in 1975 were transferred to the National Gallery.

– Following the reconstruction, will the museum also expand with new spaces for visitors?

– It will, including some areas that were closed off to the public for seventy years. The structure and decoration of the museum evokes significant eras from art history, such as Romanesque, Gothic, renaissance and baroque. The absolutely stately Romanesque Hall, for example, has been closed to the public since the end of World War II.

– Why is the opening of this space so significant? 

– The Romanesque Hall was not repaired following the war, but was instead used for storage, with its condition constantly eroding. Now, the frescos that cover 2,500 square metres have been restored to their original beauty. We also built an enormous art storage facility beneath the hall, as well as added air conditioning and floor heating. But it’s not only the Romanesque Hall that will once again greet visitors when the museum reopens, for so will the Michelangelo Hall, which in earlier years was also an exhibition hall, but for the previous decades was used for administrative purposes. We renovated and will reopen many exhibition halls, which over the previous years were used for storage. Consequently, visitors will now have an additional 2,000 square meters of exhibition space to enjoy.

– Meanwhile, the permanent exhibitions will now be presented in a new layout.

– That’s correct. As I mentioned, the old masters’ works will return from the National Gallery to the Museum of Fine Arts. The museum’s exhibition structure will fundamentally change, or rather as is the case in other significant European museums and returning to the museum’s original practice, the Museum of Fine Arts will now present the national and international schools together, or rather the works of European and old Hungarian masters alongside each other. But, since the exhibition space did not increase by that much, we could not include everything from antiquity to the present, therefore international works from the 19th and 20th centuries will be temporarily exhibited in Buda Castle at the National Gallery, and after that in the New National Gallery scheduled for completion in the City Park in 2021. In short Hungarian art will once again be placed into an international context within the permanent exhibition, just as was customary in the institution’s first 50 years.

– Can we expect occasional surprises? 

– A truly exciting cabinet exhibition will coincide with the reopening of the museum. Our collection contains the only small bronze equestrian statue that can be connected to Leonard da Vinci. Alongside this we will display nearly a dozen Leonardo illustrations, which introduce the concept behind the master’s equestrian statue. We will also have paintings from the Royal Collection at Windsor and also from the Louvre. Leonardo was quite fascinated with how to solve the problem of sculpting an equestrian statue that would only stand on two legs. The 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s death will be 2019, therefore our exhibition will be one among the many connected to that anniversary.

– What principles and concept went into the building’s reconstruction?

– Our main aim was that the spaces mentioned earlier, that were closed to the public for decades, could be reopened to visitors. Modernisation was also a goal in addition to the high-quality renovation works necessary for a listed building: the exhibition halls were air conditioned, we renovated the public spaces, and a new contemporary restaurant was also built. We also created new opportunities for museum pedagogical activities.  It is also worth mentioning that the entire building is now accessible to those with physical disabilities.

– What is something that you would gear towards international tourists?

– The most important thing is that they can see one of the largest and most significant Central European art collections, which to this day remains a hidden treasure, since the Museum of Fine Arts receives less attention than other museums do. Following the exhibition of part of our collection in 2010 at the Royal Academy in London, one of the critics aptly wrote that they felt like a person discovering previously unreleased works from their favourite composer. Guests will already know many of the artists, but the experience is nonetheless brand new. The museum’s permanent exhibition offers this same experience to visitors, since we possess works from the grand masters such as Raphael, Titian, Veronese, Tintoretto, Velázquez, Murillo and Goya. We have a significant Spanish collection, including five works by El Greco. In other words, we have countless works from the grand masters of art history that are internationally less known. At the same time, an exciting novelty will await visitors: the world’s largest LED wall in a museum, which will bring the hundreds of objects in the permanent collection closer to visitors.

– How can Hungarian artists attract the attention of international visitors?

– Among the old Hungarian masters, there are two careers that are also considerable by European standards: Jakob Bogdani (Jakab Bogdány) and Ádám Mányoki, who in the late 17th and early 18th centuries worked in the courts of various European rulers. All of those interested in Hungarian painting can receive a comprehensive overview from the Middle Ages to the end of the 1700s.

– The renovation of the Museum of Fine Arts is part of the Liget Project. How did development of the museum’s surroundings proceed?

– The renovation of the Museum of Fine Arts was a grand-scale plan, part of the Liget Budapest Project, which today is the largest cultural city development project in Europe. Within this framework, in addition to the Museum of Fine Arts’ renovation, the project will also see the construction of the New National Gallery, the new Museum of Ethnography, and the creation of the House of Hungarian Music. The zoo will also expand with Europe’s largest biodome. This world-class tourism and family centre that will be created in Budapest’s oldest city park will be rooted in history. In addition to the numerous cultural institutions, one of Europe’s largest bathing complexes has operated here for over a hundred years, as has an ice rink and one of the continent’s oldest zoos. In addition to respecting tradition, we will also keep an eye on upholding a high standard of quality, since the designer of the New National Gallery is the Pritzker Prize-winning SANAA architectural office, while the House of Hungarian Music will be designed by the world-famous architect Sou Fujimoto.

– How are the developments going and when will they be completed?

– The renovated Museum of Fine Arts will open at the end of October. Construction of the Museum of Ethnography has begun, and the entire Liget Budapest Project will be completed in 2021. In the upcoming years new museum buildings will be erected and the entire park will be renewed. The first stage of this world-class idea of significance to Europe is the completion of reconstruction works on the Museum of Fine Arts.

Photo: Pixabay

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