Getting an education

We’re half-way through January and my resolve to do more than simply work, eat, and sleep, is holding. I’m saying yes to things I would usually say no to and am working on saying no to things I usually say yes to. And it is work. Especially the latter.

I know very little, if anything, about art,  other than what I like and what I don’t like. I’ve never taken the time to learn. Visiting art galleries is something I might do if in a strange city and it’s lashing rain. It’s not that I don’t have an appreciation; more that it simply never crosses my mind. What I needed (although I didn’t know it) was a foundation. I needed to learn the basics and from there I could navigate the artistic waters on my own as and when the humour struck me.

The lovely GK was doing her last trainee docent tour at the Museum of Fine Arts (Szépmûvészeti Múzeum) (it closes its doors in February as part of a three-year regeneration project in Hősök tere), and she invited me to tag along. Her animated presentation made my education all the more pleasant. And her notable lack of pretentiousness (an unlikeable trait that, for whatever reason, I mentally associate with art aficionados) was just what I needed.

The Museum of Fine Arts was commissioned in the late 1896, when the M2 metro line was laid under Andrássy út (the first metro line on continental Europe). It was a time when the city boasted over 600 cafés, meeting places for people to chat about art and politics and whatever else took their fancy. It houses a collection of work by international artists, including 400+ sculptures, among which is a cast of an old favourite of mine – Auguste Rodin’s The Kiss.

But there is so much to learn. While I was familiar with the concept of periods in art (Renaissance, Renaissance to Neoclassicism, Romanticism, Romanticism to Modern Art, Modern Art, Contemporary Art) – even if I couldn’t have named them all in order, I hadn’t realised that the Baroque period fell under Renaissance to Neoclassicism, and impressionism under Modern Art. And I didn’t know that you can identify the Baroque style by the characters that appear to be jumping out of the painting, as they capture the exact moment when something happens.

I’d never heard of the hierarchy of the genres (a list of which paintings are more ‘important’ than others). History tops the list – large paintings with multiple characters in the act of doing something – a prelude to the freeze-frame. This is followed by Portraiture – a painting of someone who is recognisable. There’s one painting in the Museum by an unknown artist – that of the Sleeping Girl. I’d have put money on it that it was a portrait but because no one knows who she was, it’s classified as a genre painting, the next step on the hierarchy – that of paintings of everyday life. These are followed in quick succession by landscapes, painting of animals, and still life.

Apparently these are ranked from top to bottom in order of their artistic merit – the level of skill noted by the Academy as needed to produce any or all of. They also correspond in size, with history paintings including those massive biblical scenes hung in churches around the world, down to the typically much small still lifes.


Of course, if you know the backstory to a painting, it enriches it even more. Ghezzi’s Pygmalion tells of the artist’s distaste for women and his subsequent falling in love with this statue he was sculpting. He asked the gods to send him a woman just like her and they brought the statue to life (a process that can be seen if you look closely at the picture – amazing). This is what makes art interesting.


And, of course, the lives of the artists add a certain flavour to their work as well. Paul Gauguin, a stockbroker-turned artist, left his wife and five kids because they were limiting his artistic ability (ahem) and eventually died destitute only becoming famous after his death. Karma? Perhaps. And I can’t say that I particularly cared for his Black Pigs, even before I could spot the mix of impressionism and solid colours.

And lest you think that photoshopping is a new concept, Tiziano was at it back in the sixteenth century when he painted a portrait of Marcantonio Trevisani.  After he painted the facial features, he covered it with a wash of sorts to give it a softer, younger look. You’d never think the Venetian was in his seventies.

But of everything I learned, what fascinated me the most was the move from egg tempera to oils and the level of detail the new medium allowed. Bellini’s portrait of Catarina Cornaro has some exquisite examples. It gave me reason to stop and look rather than walk by and glance. And it explains why people can spend hours in galleries and not tire of seeing. Unlike me, they know what to look for.

But now, with a little basic education, I might venture forth on my own and see what I can discover. GK – ta much.



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