Wednesday 3 November 2010

Treasures from Budapest: A Skippers' Guide

The Royal Academy's Treasures from Budapest exhibition is a bit of a slog - 12 large rooms, a fatiguing prospect (is anything more tiring than gallery-going?). It amounts to a potted history of art from the 15th to the 20th centuries, combined with a potted history of Hungary. The paintings are, for the most part, second-rank works by first-rank artists, and first-rank works by second-rank artists, and there are altogether too many of them. However, by skimming the fillers and homing in on the gems, there are many pleasures to be extracted from this exhibition. The Esterhazy Madonna is a sweet and beautiful early Raphael (still quite Peruginesque, but with Leonardo rising), none the worse for being unfinished. This Madonna is the poster girl for the exhibition, along with Egon Schiele's Two Women Embracing, which, I was astounded to learn, 'explores the theme of lesbian love'. Lovers of Venetian art (yes please!) are soon rewarded by a sumptuous Jacopo Bassano, The Way to Calvary, all writhing bodies and saturated colours, the paint positively glistening - and a glorious Tintoretto, The Supper at Emaus, which is worth long, detailed attention. Further on, there's another Tintoretto - a bizarre 'comic' painting of Hercules Expelling Faunus from Omphale's Bed - and, still further on, some fine Tiepolo drawings and a brilliant small painting, The Virgin Mary with Six Saints. Also worth noting, a small, busy Canaletto, in his darker register, The Lock at Dolo - and a splendid Bellotto, of the Arno in Florence.
Hung, oddly, among still lives and genre scenes, is a typically luminous Saenredam church interior. Among the portraits, there's a beauty by Hals - such dash! - a charming Half Length of a Girl (looking upwards) by Jan Lievens, and a quite magnificent painting of a Sleeping Girl, painted by artist unknown (but clearly very gifted) in Rome about 1610-20. An extraordinary El Greco, all blue and silver, of St Mary Magdalen, bathed in moonlight, the penitent teasingly exposing a nipple as usual, is complemented by a much more sobre head of St James the Less. Goya is represented by a glittering full-length portrait of a lady, and two fine genre paintings, of a knife-grinder and a water-carrier. Towards the end of the exhibition, look out for a superb Bonyngton watercolour View of the South Coast, and a lovely little Corot, Nest Robbers. There's a good Toulouse-Lautrec of Women in the Dining Room, and, at the end of the trail, the Schiele is flanked by an early Chagall gouache and a lovely, tender Picasso Mother and Child, in watercolour.
But what, Nige, I hear you ask, is The One You Would Have Stolen? It is the Rembrandt drawing illustrated, of Saskia sitting at a window. There are rather too many drawings in this exhibition - but this one is breathtaking. A few lines sketched in, a bit of wash, and there she is, as fresh and vividly real as if she were sitting there, in that cool Dutch light, today. That is drawing.


  1. Controversial, perhaps, but I'd choose to look at Rembrandt's drawings over his paintings every time.

  2. I do love Rembrandt's painting of the woman bathing. There's a similar fondness as for that Saskia lass.