Category Archives: Museums

Budapest Miscellania

Well, Christmas Is Icumen In, and I’m rapidly using up what’s left of 2017. Considering what a terrible year it’s been—even worse than 2016, which I wouldn’t have believed possible when I was drinking my traditional New Year’s Eve Kir Royale last December—this is probably a good thing.

So here’s a condensed and somewhat random round-up of a few of the interesting things I explored in Budapest. I’m working on three final posts about my Hungarian adventure, which I hope to publish over the weekend, and then I’ll be ready to coast into 2018.

Over the River

The Fővám tér subway and tram station in Budapest’s excellent* metro system was a block from my hotel, so I used it almost daily. As I entered the station, I always looked across the Danube and saw this sight, which looks straight out of a fairy tale.

Buda Castle

During Hungary’s long and bloody history, Buda Castle has been destroyed four times, most recently by the Red Army in 1945, and rebuilt three. It’s now part of the Budapest World Heritage Site.

The Hungarian National Gallery

The Budapest History Museum, the National Széchényi Library,  and the Hungarian National Gallery are part of Buda Castle. I spent most of my time in the Gallery.*

The collection of Late Gothic winged altarpieces was overwhelming.

And in the 19th Century Art galleries, I was repeatedly drawn back to Pál Szinyei Merse’s portrait of a “Lady in Violet”.

The Best Way to Travel

Join me for a ride on the Castle Hill Funicular from the Palace to the banks of the Danube. I don’t know why, but I just love these things! Maybe it’s because they’re sort of like roller coasters, but without the screams and the sudden plunges.

For most realistic results, watch it on full screen.

House of Terror Museum

This grey building, on Budapest’s fashionable Andrássy Avenue, was used successively by fascist and communist secret police to interrogate, torture, and kill “enemies of the state”.

It’s now the House of Terror Museum, and visiting it is a grim and chilling experience. The museum makes full use of multimedia to show how authoritarian governments can take control of a nation, and the terrible results that follow.

In the basement, you can enter the (reconstructed) cells that once held political prisoners.

Strolling Váci Utca

My hotel was at one end of Váci Utca, the famous pedestrian walkway lined with upscale stores, restaurants, and tourists traps. Vörösmarty Square, site of the Budapest Christmas Fair and Winter Festival, was at the other end, a pleasant and colourful 15-minute walk.

Many of the shops along the way were decorated for the season.

Winter Is Coming

Despite appearances, these equestrian statues have nothing to do with Game of Thrones.

They represent the seven Magyar chieftains whose tribes settled in the area in 896 AD, and founded what would become Budapest. Their monument is in the city’s Heroes’ Square.

The Best View Biggest Disappointment in Budapest

On one of my first days in Budapest, I went to the Citadella, which sits atop Gellért Hill, and is famous for having the best view of the city, as you can clearly see from this picture I took.

If you look closely, you might be able to make out the Golden Gate Bridge and the Transamerica Pyramid.

Here’s a picture I took from the grounds of Buda Castle on a less-San Francisco-like day:

*In many ways, it’s much better than Washington’s unreliable Metro. Trains arrive every three and a half minutes, the stations are bright, airy, and well marked, and the escalators are fast. It’s one of the most user-friendly mass transit systems I’ve used.

**Since it is a gallery dedicated to Hungarian art, I knew I’d be spared any possible exposure to the vile and treacly works of that talentless French hack, Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Avoiding Renoir has become my main criterion for deciding which museums to visit, and which to avoid. See, most recently, Renoir Sucks at Painting 2, Renoir 0 for details.


“Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting” at the NGA

Meanwhile, back in Washington, I finally made it the National Gallery of Art for the brilliant “Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting” exhibit.

The show included almost 70 works by Vermeer and his fellow painters of the Dutch Golden Age. Some, like Jan Steen, were familiar names, but many were new to me. I was unaware of Gabriël Metsu, for instance, who created the sublime “Man Writing a Letter” painting at the top of this item.

The exhibition runs through 16 January 2018. All images came from the NGA.

“Downton Abbey: The Touring Exhibition” — Coming Soon to a Stately Home Near You

I’m as much of an Anglophile as Her Majesty herself, and considerably more so than that Greek bloke she married. (You want proof? I used the word “bloke” in the last sentence, and who but a true son of Albion would do a thing like that?)

My Anglophilia is the reason I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with Downton Abbey.

Yes, the plots were absurd, the characterizations were paper-thin, and the anachronisms were beyond counting. But…it was British! And not just British, but Stately Home British, which is the best kind of British to be.

I never missed an episode.

So I’ll almost certainly make my way to Downton Abbey: The Exhibition, which opens in New York next week. It looks like standard admission for adults is $30, and a typical visit lasts about an hour. Tickets are on sale for dates through January, at which point the New York show will either be extended or travel to another as yet unannounced location.

I’ll elaborate on some of my issues with Downton in my next posting. I tend to get a bit too snarky when I talk about it, and this tour announcement isn’t the place for snark.

“Murder Is Her Hobby” — Deadly Dioramas at the Renwick Gallery

It was a beautiful day in Washington, so I took a leisurely 20-minute walk to the Renwick Gallery, which houses the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s collection of contemporary craft and decorative art.

An exhibition of the works of Frances Glessner Lee opened at the Renwick over the weekend. You’ve probably never heard of her; I certainly hadn’t.

Lee was the first female police captain in the U.S. She’s known, by people who know that sort of thing, as “mother of forensic science,” for helping to found the Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard. And beginning in the 1940s, she created the “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death”.

The Nutshell Studies are intricately-detailed miniature dioramas of crime scenes, used to train police how to find and evaluate evidence, and to determine what took place at the scene of the crime. The 19 surviving dioramas, of the original 20, are still in use at the Maryland Medical Examiner’s Office in Baltimore. They’ll be on display at the Renwick through 28 January 2018, and they’re quite wonderful.

Next to each miniature model is a summary of the basic facts of the case: Who found the body, the known history of the victim, etc. The viewer is invited to examine the diorama and attempt to determine what happened. Murder, suicide, or accident?

So whodunit? The Renwick provides no solutions to the cases, since Lee’s models are still used to test trainees. Except for this exhibition, in fact, the dioramas are not available for public viewing.

Frances Glessner Lee died in 1962, but her influence lives on. During her lifetime, Erle Stanley Gardner, the author of the Perry Mason novels, dedicated several of the books to Lee. Much more recently, the television series CSI and The Father Brown Mysteries have featured episodes that involved Lee-inspired crime dioramas.

It was a pleasant if ever-so-slightly morbid way to spend an afternoon.

Here’s the Renwick’s exhibition video:

All images came from the Renwick.

Renoir Sucks at Painting 2, Renoir 0

As both all of my longtime readers know, I’ve been a passionate supporter of the #RenoirSucksAtPainting movement since its earliest days. I’ve posted items about the grassroots crusade to have the treacly, insipid works of the “painter” Pierre-Auguste Renoir removed from the world’s galleries and museums here and here.

And here. And here, too.

Massive #RenoirSucksAtPainting Rally, Demanding the Removal of Treacle from American Museums

Misguided Counter Protester

As you can tell from the number of postings, I care deeply about art, which is more than can be said about a certain dead French hack. That’s why I got such malevolent joy out of two news items in the past few weeks.

Art World Owes a Debt to Heroic Thief 

According to Agence France-Presse, “A small painting by French impressionist Auguste Renoir was stolen from an auctioneer in a Paris suburb on Saturday, the day before it was due to be sold, police said. ”

The article describes the theft as “brazen,” but art lovers everywhere hailed it as valiant.

BTW, The Onion, America’s most trusted source for news, anticipated the theft. Here’s what they wrote seven years ago:

Scamming the Scammer

A few years ago, a writer for Vanity Fair was given the unenviable job of shadowing a certain short-fingered vulgarian. Here’s part of his report:

And then this happened.

Ah, the Schadenfreude! It is so sweet!

“David Bowie is” Coming to the US!

This makes me very, very happy.

“David Bowie is”, an exhibition that originated at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum in 2013, will be installed at the Brooklyn Museum next year. It will be the last stop on a long journey.

After the original blockbuster show at the V&A, “David Bowie is” went on tour, visiting 10 cities on five continents. Along the way, it became the most popular exhibition in the museum’s 165-year history, attracting 1.8 million attendees so far.

I saw it in Toronto, at the Art Gallery of Ontario, on the first stop of the tour. You can read my rapturous reaction here, along with a description of some of the items on display. A quick summary: It was one of the most brilliantly staged and mounted museum exhibitions I’ve ever seen.

Here’s perhaps the highest compliment I can give to “David Bowie is”: It’s worthy of Bowie himself.

“David Bowie is” will be on display at the Brooklyn Museum from 2 March 2018 through 15 July 2018.

Museum Day Live! Is This Saturday

It’s that time of the year again.

“Museum Day Live!”, Smithsonian magazine’s annual celebration of American museums, takes place across the USA this Saturday, 23 September 2017. You can get free admission tickets for any of the 1,000+ participating museums, galleries, and cultural institutions at the magazine’s Museum Day Live! website.

The website makes it easy to find the participating museums in your area.