It is two decades since the Velvet Revolution, but central Europe’s leading museums remain the Sleeping Beauties of western art – repositories of masterpieces largely unseen beyond the former Iron Curtain countries since 1939. In an art world dominated by global travel and the blinding familiarity of over-reproduced images, these collections offer a uniquely fresh and thrilling perspective. The Museum of Fine Arts in the Hungarian capital is the greatest of them, and the visit to the Royal Academy of Treasures from Budapest is to be welcomed as a feast of surprise and delight.

There are portraits of unknown young men by Frans Hals and Veronese who stand before us as physically alive, penetrating and tremulous with thought as any creations by these artists. Spectacular gallery pieces such as Jan Brueghel the Elder’s virtuoso observation of nature and animal life, “Entry of the Animals into the Ark”, and Andries Benedetti’s monumental, sexy “Still Life with Fruit, Oysters and Lobsters” alternate with intimate, immediate drawings: Rembrandt’s pen-and-chalk sketch of his wife Saskia at a window, Rubens’ depiction of his baby son.

The entwined figures in Van Dyck’s “Married Couple” is as warm and poignant a portrait of the emotional and physical bonds of an ageing husband and wife as was ever caught on canvas, while Jan van der Heyden’s “Corner of a Room”, with tilting perspectives, a painting within a painting, and depictions of a Japanese sword, Chinese silks and a spiky hanging armadillo, is among the most eccentric still lifes in history, anticipating surrealist dislocations by 300 years.

Like any good national collection, Budapest’s recounts 500 years of evolving tradition, enlivened by quirks of local flavour, the personal taste of leading collectors, and international-Hungarian cross currents that illuminate the unity of European culture before 1939. Hungarian Jakob Bogdány, whose speciality was exotic birds and who ended up living in London in the 1700s, looks like a Dutch genre painter in “Still Life with Fruit, Parrots and White Cockatoo”. In “Landscape with a Vintage Scene near Tivoli” in 1846 Károly Markó painted high-glow versions of Claude’s Roman scenes, two centuries out of date, to build up a faux-Hungarian artistic heritage. Sándor Ziffer’s shrill contrasts between cold blue contours and burning reds in “Landscape with Fence” (1910) shows how effectively fauvism spread in half a decade from Collioure in the south of France to an artist’s colony in Nagybánya (today’s Romania).

Yet this exhibition also reflects that Hungary, fought over between the Ottoman and Habsburg empires and late to embrace Christianity – St Stephen accepted a crown from Rome in 1001 – has a history unlike that of any other European nation. Opening the show, the Gothic pieces by anonymous Hungarian masters have the intensity, weirdness and sense of wonder of an era when Christianity was relatively new: the outstanding, ornately carved and gilded “St Andrew Altarpiece”, featuring the statue of the saint against gold brocade, surrounded by paintings of his crucifixion; the vivid, three-dimensional figures, painfully absorbed in thought, in the Master of Okolicsnó’s “Lamentation”; the animated, vibrant-coloured, many-headed beast and angels in the fanciful “Woman of the Apocalypse Clothed with the Sun and the Dragon”, from Transylvania.

Juxtaposed with classical, formal Italian works from the same period – Liberale da Verona’s serene, exquisitely balanced “Virgin and Child with an Angel”, Raphael’s tender, innocent “Esterházy Madonna”, with its Leonardo-like pyramidal composition of Virgin, Christ Child and John the Baptist – these set up initial dramatic contrasts in an exhibition whose particular charm is its mix of the strange and the understandable.

There are plenty of esoteric leanings and provenances here – Tintoretto’s arcane “Hercules expelling Faunus from Omphale’s Bed”, commissioned by Emperor Rudolf II; Maso di Bano’s tempera on panel “Coronation of the Virgin”, a gift from Harold Harmsworth, 1st Viscount Rothermere, a hopeful candidate for Hungary’s vacant throne in 1940.

But always pulling the collection back to the top-flight European mainstream are the extensive Esterházy holdings, built up by generations of princes – the family were patrons of Haydn and Beethoven – who acquired exceptional works on their Grand Tours. They favoured the Italians, though not exclusively, and classy connections: Fra Bartolommeo’s “Dominican Friars” from Vasari’s collection, Claude’s “Villa in the Roman Campagna”, a stately landscape warmed by late afternoon sun, luminous through a blue-and-gold sky, from the Pamphilj family. The most beautiful drawings here – including Leonardo’s expressive studies of soldiers for “The Battle of Anghiari” – come from the Esterházys, along with about a third of the paintings, all sold to the state on generous terms when Nikolaus Esterházy III found himself in financial trouble in 1870.

Particular to the Esterházys was an interest in the Spanish school when it was largely ignored: Jusepe de Ribera’s two-metre, tenebrous “Martyrdom of St Andrew”, which blends the stark Iberian realism of a shrivelled body, imploring eyes, tightly bound feet, with Caraveggesque influences in the dark menacing figures enclosing the illuminated saint, typifies their taste.

Budapest’s Spanish holdings – notably Goya’s sustaining figures “Water-Carrier” and “Knife Grinder”, emblems of everyday Spanish heroism painted during the Napoleonic wars – were enhanced in the early 20th century by pioneering Hungarian collector Marcell Nemes, who owned five Goyas and ten El Grecos. Of these latter, the superb half-naked “St Mary Magdalene” (1580), portrayed against a rocky background in a wilderness, with hair grown long and abandoned, is among those works by major artists here which I never even knew existed; it compares intriguingly with a harder, less sensual version of the subject of the same date in Massachusetts.

Every visitor will be arrested like this by a handful of canvases, for among 200 pictures not one is dull and many deepen our understanding of favourite artists or acclaimed names.

A final section focuses on the opening of the Budapest museum in 1906 and the city before the first world war, when it boasted the first underground railway in continental Europe and multiple artistic strands echoing those of Paris. Sándor Bortnyik’s cubist “Composition with Six Figures”; Tivador Csontváry Kosztka’s symbolist “Pilgrimage to the Cedars of Lebanon”, the ancient trees a metaphor for Hungarian stoicism; society portraitist Philip de László’s soft-focus “Pope Leo XIII”; the flattened picture planes and bold contours of József Rippl-Rónai’s post-impressionist depiction of first museum director and art critic “Elek Petrovics and Simon Meller”: all create a sense of the historical moment when this terrific collection crystallised, and conversations between old and modern inspired a new generation of artists.

In this piquant, pertinent show, those dialogues continue.

‘Treasures from Budapest: European Masterpieces from Leonardo to Schiele’, Royal Academy of Arts, London, to December 12.

Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Comments have not been enabled for this article.

Follow the topics in this article