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June 2022

Vol. 164 / No. 1431

The plaster cast collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest

Reviewed by Eckart Marchard

After seventy years in storage, a major European collection of plaster casts has been researched, resurrected and conserved, and is now impressively displayed in an equally excitingly refurbished site with a problematic history. Deriving in part from earlier collections, the casts were assembled in the Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest, between 1904 and 1913. Together with a collection of paintings they were to form a universal museum, telling the history of art through canonical works of all periods, from Antiquity to the present.

 

Designed by the architects Fülöp Herzog and Albert Schickedanz, the museum’s impressive Neo-classical building was opened in 1906 on the recently created Heroes’ Square, part of a monumental project to celebrate the thousandth anniversary in 1896 of the Magyar settlement in the Carpathian Basin. The collection of plaster casts, consisting of about one thousand pieces with some notable highlights, was displayed across the entire ground floor in galleries dedicated to different periods, including Doric, Renaissance and Baroque Halls. The museum was damaged in the Second World War and eventually most of the casts were disassembled and stored in the Romanesque Hall, where they remained until they could be moved to the National Museum Conservation and Storage Centre (NMCSC), which opened in 2019 nearby, on a site in Szabolcs Street previously occupied by the Jewish Hospital, and to the refurbished Star Fortress (Csillagerőd) in Komárom, sixty miles north-west of Budapest on the Slovakian border. This enabled the restoration and reopening of the Romanesque Hall, which was completed by 2018 (Fig.13). Decorated with murals by eminent local painters, this impressive gallery was conceived in nationalist terms, referencing many of the country’s male leaders and heros. The recovery of this major example of Hungarian turn-of-the-century historicism has been marked by a beautifully illustrated publication.[1]

 

Four years later, the casts have also been restored and are now on permanent display in their new venue in Komárom, with a smaller but significant part currently on show in the NMCSC. At the latter, researchers and guided visitors can see casts of important medieval and Renaissance works, including the thirteenthcentury figures of Ecclesia and Synagoga from Strasbourg Cathedral, and such impressive ensembles as the sculptures from the west tympana of the Parthenon, Athens, and the Temple of Zeus, Olympia.

 

The Star Fortress at Komárom (Fig.15), where the larger part of the collection is now on permanent display, is a nineteenth-century ustro-Hungarian building that forms part of an extensive set of fortifications in and around Komárom. Named after its plan, the fortress has a complex history, including a horrific chapter in the last years of the Second World War, when it served as a collection point for Jews, Roma and rebels, a role that is mentioned in passing in the display and more substantially in commemorative plaques on the outside of the building.[2]

 

The site has been restored and transformed to a high standard and at vast expense, with the striking additions of a central entrance, café, education and administration areas, and, further inside, a large hall that extends upwards through three floors from the basement. This space accommodates the largest pieces of the collection, including what may be the only cast of Verrocchio’s equestrian monument to Bartolomeo Colleoni to include the original pedestal (Fig.14). At ground-floor level the hall opens up towards the entrance and café area, offering visitors enticing views, not only of the rear of the Colleoni monument, but also of Donatello’s Gattamelata on a lower-than-life nineteenth-century plaster plinth, Ghiberti’s second set of Florence Baptistery Doors and, fixed to the wall at a suitable height, the Bamberg rider, to mention only a few highlights. This display exploits in an exciting manner the breathtaking visual qualities of the casts and the fact that copies can be arranged and juxtaposed, often close to one another, in a way that would be impossible with the originals.

 

The majority of the smaller casts, roughly half after the Antique, half after medieval and Renaissance sculptures, are displayed in the original part of the fortress, in vaulted rooms that project inwards from an outer corridor that follows the octagonal outline of the site’s inner buildings. The display of the casts of ancient sculpture impresses with its tight sequence of canonical highlights, from the Mycenaean Lion Gate and Greek Archaic and Classical sculpture to Hellenistic works (Fig.16) and Roman portrait sculpture, including the Augustus of Prima Porta, the first-century monumental statue of the emperor, now in the Vatican Museums, Rome. The display contains juxtapositions that invite close comparisons as well as copies of historical ensembles, notably the Roman marble Niobid group from the Galerie degli Uffizi, Florence. Such a seemingly complete display cannot be achieved for European medieval and Renaissance sculpture, nor would the collection have allowed it. The curators have taken advantage of this by creating a fragmentary chronological as the bronze Romanesque Bernward Column in Hildesheim, Peter Vischer the Elder’s Tomb of St Sebald, Nuremberg, and clusters of works by Donatello (including the Cavalcanti Annunciation in S. Croce, Florence) and the Della Robbia workshop (including a rare cast after the life-size Visitation in Pistoia), into which they have integrated items from different periods. For example, Brunelleschi’s Sacrifice of Isaac relief from the Bargello, Florence, is juxtaposed with the Spinario, and sculptures by Michelangelo are shown with Classical works that he studied, such as the Belvedere Torso and Laocoön. Casts of the Italian Renaissance marble reliefs of Matthias Corvinus and Beatrice of Aragon, national treasures of Hungary on show at the Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest, are displayed in their artistic context in Room XV, dedicated to ‘Humanism and the Florentine Sculpture’. The carefully cleaned, staged and lit casts offer visitors intimate encounters and some unexpected and excitingly unfamiliar perspectives, as for example when the view from one room to another reveals the Laocoön in profile.

 

Acquired in the first place to represent absent originals, plaster casts are now recognised as objects in their own right. In the Colleoni Hall a handsome and well-judged display introduces the materials and tools of castmaking, which includes piece moulds and a film about casting with flexible moulds. In the galleries more could have been done to draw out the visual evidence itself – for example, by pointing out the seams or steps in a cast’s surface that result from the piece-mould technique or by highlighting differences in patina and the contrast between the crispness of a direct cast and the washed-out features of a secondary one. However, at least in the post-Antique sections the labels systematically provide information about both the casts and the originals.

 

A handsome book has been published to mark the opening of the collection.[3] This makes a substantial contribution to the scholarship on casts, cast collections and their restoration, particularly through the provision of an English edition that provides a wider international readership with access to a topic that so far has been mainly discussed in Hungarian. The book opens with a collection of sixty-nine excellent photographs of the collection, including close-up details as well as views of individual casts and the larger displays. The photographs exploit and advertise the visual potential of recently cleaned, well-lit and staged plaster casts, the legibility of which can dramatically exceed that of an in situ bronze, marble or stone original. The book concludes with a selective catalogue compiled by Eszter Süvegh, Márton Tóth and Adél Domány. This is divided into thematic subsections that focus on the dating and functions of the originals as well as on issues pertaining to the casts, such as acquisition strategies and casting campaigns and the use of casts for scholarly experimentation, as in the case of the Laocoön, of which the museum owned two casts, one reflecting the first restoration, in which Laocoön’s right arm was shown raised, the other, cast in 1907 with the arm bent back, reflecting the discovery of the original arm, which was not integrated into the Roman marble itself until 1957. Framed between these two object-based sections are three essays by the curators, Géza Andó, Andrea Rózsavölgyi and Miriam Szőcs, which describe the collection’s history, drawing on the research that informed the conservation and refurbishment campaign and placing the collection in its broader contexts. A fourth essay, by the conservators Hunor Egri and Richárd Káldi, describes the collection’s restoration and installation. Here, the Colleoni Monument provides an exciting case study, demonstrating the complexity and multi-media character of this towering cast.

 

As discussed in the catalogue, the original function of these casts, to represent a universal history of art as part of an imposing national gallery, was clearly laid out by Ferenc Pulszky (1814–97), director of the Hungarian National Museum since 1869, long before the realisation of the Museum of Fine Arts. Today it is unthinkable that a major national museum could fill its entire ground floor with casts. Repurposing a derelict site of architectural significance for the display of such a spectacular and educationally valuable collection of comparatively little material value in a rural area may therefore be regarded as a bold stroke of genius. However, it is worth asking what function this newly installed collection serves in Komárom, a small border town with fewer than 20,000 inhabitants. The refurbishment of the Star Fortress – together with the refurbishment of the Fine Arts Museum, the construction of the NMCSC and several other museum buildings – forms part of the Liget Budapest Project. Close to the heart of the country’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, this is currently the largest cultural project in Europe. Orbán himself compared it recently to the 1896 millenium project that included the erection of Heroes’ Square and the Fine Arts Museum.[4]

 

A temporary exhibition in the basement of the Star Fortress brings the site and the collection together in a display about the fortress’s predecessor, the Roman legionary complex Brigetio, which includes casts of ancient Roman portraits. A different point about the historical importance of Komárom was made on 6th October 2021 by the then President of Hungary, János Áder. On a day dedicated to the memory of the execution in 1848 of thirteen Hungarian generals who had led a revolt against the Austrian empire, Áder gave a speech in the recently opened Star Fortress reminding his audience that three battles during that period had taken place nearby.[5] Until 1919, when Hungary’s borders were redrawn, the city of Komárom straddled the river Danube, and was wholly within Hungarian territory. Now only the part south of the river is in Hungary since the historically more important northern part forms the Slovakian town of Komárno, which has a population of 33,000, including a large community of Hungarian descent. The two cities are connected by three bridges and there are no longer border controls between them as both countries are part of the Schengen Area. It is to be hoped that, rather than serving nationalist agendas or ideas of European cultural superiority,[6] this impressive, carefully conceived and intelligently displayed collection of a truly international character will attract visitors from both sides of the Danube as well as from further afar and in that way bolster regional and international understanding.

 

 

 

1 M. Szőcs, ed.: Újranyitás hetven év után: A Szépművészeti Múzeum román csarnokának története [Reopening after Seventy Years: The History of the Romanesque Hall of the Museum of Fine Arts], Budapest 2018.

2 On this aspect of the history of the fortress, see, for example, K. Katz: ‘Story, history and memory: a case study of the Roma at the Komarom Camp in Hungary’, in R. Stauber and R. Vago, eds: The Roma – A Minority in Europe: Historical, Political and Social Perspectives, Budapest 2007, pp.69–87.

3 M. Szőcs, ed.: Rebirth of a Collection: The Plaster Casts of the Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest in the Renewed Star Fortress in Komárom, Budapest 2021. For earlier research in English, French and German on the history of this collection, see the contributions in E. Marosi and G. Klaniczay, eds: The Nineteenth-Century Process of ‘Musealization’ in Hungary and Europe, Budapest 2006.

4 https://miniszterelnwok.hu/prime-ministerviktor-orbans-speech-at-the-opening-of-thehouse-of-hungarian-music/, accessed 9th May 2022. See also B. Gyorgyevics: ‘Frame for the picture: the Liget Budapest Project and the Star Fortress in Komárom’, in Szőcs, op. cit. (note 3), pp.313–19.

5 See https://dailynewshungary.com /this-is-how-beautifully-the-star-fortressin-komarom-was-renewed-photos/, accessed 9th May 2022.

6 For an example of such ideas, see the speech by Victor Orbán at the opening of the House of Hungarian Music, Budapest, on 22nd January 2022, op. cit. (note 4).