Never start with Picasso

An article reviewing the Picasso and Modigliani exhibitions in the Hungarian National Gallery.

My best friend’s birthday is in mid-July, and although finding a suitable birthday programme may sound easy in the middle of summer, it is actually an annually burden on us. Fortunately this year the Castle District saved us from the frantic indecision on what to do and offered the perfect solution: the Hungarian National Gallery exhibited Pablo Picasso and Amedeo Modigliani’s works at the same time. As we both love cultural programmes – and who could resist a casual stroll in the Castle? – this seemed an obvious choice for us.picasso3

It does not happen very often that Hungarian art-lovers have the chance to visit the (quasi) life-work of two of the leading European modernist painters simultaneously, and this was properly reflected by the sheer quantity of visitors interested in these displays. We decided to go on a Tuesday (not that we could have decided otherwise since her birthday fell on Tuesday), yet despite its being a weekday, the two exhibitions, especially the Picasso one, had a population of about 3 people per square metre.

That Picasso would be the more attractive option was a relatively safe bet and the preparation of the Gallery implicitly acknowledged this fact. Palpably more effort was put into that exhibition than the Modigliani, but this may be excused. About 100 paintings,
drawings and sculptures by the Spanish artist were displayed, all arranged in a chronological order and embracing nearly seven decades – the official title of the exhibition („Alakváltozások, 1895–1972”) duly reflected the organisational principle of the event. The main focus was on how Picasso shaped his human figures throughout his art, but taking a quick overview of the paintings was enough to recognise the double function of the title: as well as showcasing the changes that the artist’s atttitude towards the human body and its nature underwent, the character of Picasso himself could be seen developing in his pictures; not surprisingly, both processes moved towards a more and more deconstructed view.

picasso2A hundred paintings are enough to demonstrate profound ideological changes, but even the most avid Picasso fan might need help given the large amount of works on display. The organisers devoted much time to provide their visitors with necessary and sufficient information via different methods: on the wall of each room a general overview was given of the particular era of Picasso’s art that the room was concerned with, and this was supplemented by informative inscriptions placed next to the major paintings – both were available in Hungarian and in English as well. The inscriptions and captions, furthermore, directed the visitor’s attention to the overarching motifs present in Picasso’s works, thus enhancing the feeling that in spite of the numerous separated rooms, this is indeed one coherent exhibition.

Those who awaited Les Demoiselles d’Avignon or Guernica were, however, disappointed in their anticipation. Although a handful of rather famous works were exhibited, the really famous ones could – for obvious reasons – not be obtained; nor were there much reference to Picasso’s characteristic pink and blue periods. Maybe there could have been at least superficial references on these paintings, but otherwise the exhibition as such was very well-organised and the audience could really get the feeling of Picasso and his works.

The emotional force behind the Picasso exhibition is certainly quite far from being a flaw, but in one respect it was a mistake: it had such an appeal that those who committed the error of starting with this one (including us) could not really appreciate the subsequent Modigliani exhibition. I am not alluding to the Gallery not putting such a great effort into establishing the Italian artist’s exhibition but it somehow lacked that vital energy so overtly present in the Picasso rooms. In Picasso’s case, the visitors were not left on their own for one second: the rooms were painted a darkish grey and this coupled with the sole route available gave the sense of a carefully constructed labyrinth where even if you had wanted to, you could not leave out anything. In contrast, the Modigliani rooms had a mod1lighter brownish colour (theoretically enabling you to feel more freedom), but no direct road was provided as to in what order to view the works. This in itself is not a problem but after the other exhibition this sudden freedom of electing to inspect what you wanted and ignoring what you did not may have made the visitor feel slightly helpless and searching for guidelines.

Skipping one or two works did not prove to be a disaster, either. Modigliani is famous for his acts, but of them there were only five – although it is worth noting that five rather good ones. The rest of the 80 items were sculptures and portraits of people, all more or less sharing a homogenous style and not displaying such radical aesthetic changes as Picasso’s; thus I would not condemn anyone for feeling a bit bored by the end of their tour.

mod2On the whole our museum-visiting thirst was sufficiently satisfied; the Gallery mastered the organisation of the two exhibitions (echoed by the ongoing demand of the audience that prompted the Gallery to postpone the original closing date of the Picasso by two months), so much so that I contemplated giving it another go – but this time starting with Modigliani. Although it did not materialise, I have no regret for opting to visit both events since a long time could elapse until we get another chance of seeing two renown painters under the same roof.

Pablo Picasso’s exhibition: from April 22 to August 28
Amedeo Modigliani’s exhibition: from June 29 to October 2
Price for a combined ticket for students: 2100 HUF

Pictures courtesy of the Hungarian National Gallery

Gyimesi Brigitta

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