The First Golden Age – Painting in the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy and the Kunsthalle

The Kunsthalle in Budapest is marking the 120th anniversary of its opening with a special exhibition. It showcases the masterpieces of the period when the exhibition hall was inaugurated, the era of prosperity in the Dual Monarchy. A key concept in selecting the displayed works was that a significant number of their artists were in the past represented in the institute. The importance of the monarch is reflected in the material and structure. After all, the theme pinpoints “painting in the era of Franz Joseph” and this primarily involves the period from the time when he was crowned king to the end of his reign. The organising institution of artistic life at the time was the National Hungarian Fine Arts Society, established in 1861. The connoisseur and art collector Andrássy Gyula was its president until 1866. He was followed by Ferenc Pulszky, the director of the National Museum. The history of the Society and the Kunsthalle reflects an era’s art history, more precisely the presentation of one layer and interpretation of the arts in the era – the paintings, the exhibition texts as well as the studies in the catalogue represent this. Art sponsorship by cultural policy, which was manifested from the time of the  establishment of the National Hungarian Fine Arts Society, was based on the recognition attributed to József Eötvös, according to which art was a power for the state to utilise. Analysing Eötvös’s art policy, Béla Lázár recalled how, in 1914 when visiting the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, Eötvös realized that the arts had a feature “reinforcing the state”. This primarily meant that the state had to educate artists and the masses. The Kunsthalle, “the consecrated temple of the arts”, was built for the 1896 Millenary celebrations. A large exhibition encompassing the history of Hungarian painting opened presenting 1276 works by 267 Hungarian artists. Critics had their reservations. According to its curator, the exhibition was characterised by “high quality and a rich pluralism of styles”. Undoubtedly, visitors saw a varied compilation of artworks – and why could have anyone expected to see anything other than the selected works? What is the aim of this exhibition? To remember the history of an institution by presenting an era, celebrating an anniversary? “The era of Franz Joseph’s reign was a real golden age for the arts, including painting. Such works were created in the national schools of painting, which are outstanding in the era’s European art, even by international standards. The age was the star clock of Central European painting, which must be rediscovered from time to time,” writes the curator. Yes, the above characterised the era and its painting, as did many other things, too. For the Kunsthalle with its exhibition it was understandably to be presented. If an institution wants to pay respects to its own past, it cannot deny itself.