“Our predecessors raised the bar high”

Ildikó Ember and Júlia Tátrai on the Rembrandt exhibition in Budapest

MúzeumCafé 45.

Prior to its renovation, the Museum of Fine Arts is bidding farewell for some time to the public with an exhibition recalling the history of the Dutch Golden Age, its customs and everyday life, and presenting masterpieces by Rembrandt, Vermeer and more than a hundred of their contemporaries. The major exhibition, which opened at the end of October last year, involves not only universally famous or lesser known excellent works from the world’s museums and private collectors, but also a valuable presentation of the magnificent Dutch collection of Budapest’s Museum of Fine Arts. Thanks for the exhibition are due to Ildikó Ember and Júlia Tátrai, who work in the Collection of Old Masters’ Paintings and have expert knowledge of both the collection and 17th-century Dutch painting. They spoke with MúzeumCafé about their personal attraction for Dutch painting, the behind-the-scenes preparations for a large-scale exhibition, the everyday beauty and difficulties of being a curator, as well as their previous, present and future tasks. In 2006 the Museum of Fine Arts launched a series of exhibitions which has attempted to comprehensively present the different eras of European painting. The exhibitions initiated by director László Baán have included El Greco, Velázquez, Goya in 2006, focussing on the Spanish Collection, followed by Botticelli to Titian in 2009 and Caravaggio to Canaletto, presenting the history of Italian Renaissance, Baroque and Rococo painting, their characteristic features and representatives. An important aim of these shows was to highlight the Fine Arts Museum’s own collection, since important and valuable works are often displayed at the permanent exhibitions in vain, given that Hungarian museum visitors, apart from a narrow and particularly interested group of people, are not familiar with them and thus do not fully appreciate the museum’s own collection. Hence the starting point was to present the important works of certain collections in the Gallery of Old Masters’ Paintings, putting them in a broader perspective. The museum’s own paintings account for nearly one quarter of the current temporary exhibition, which shows the strength of the Budapest collection. The organisation of an exhibition involving 120-150 or even more works of art requires at least 3-4 years. The exhibition displaying the Dutch Golden Age was included in the plans, but the fact that Dutch art followed the Italian had mainly practical reasons. The opportunity came when, in the autumn of 2010, it turned out that the National Museum in Stockholm was to be closed for several years due to renovation. It was then that director Baán began negotiations with the then director of the Swedish museum about possible cooperation, since the Dutch collection of the Stockholm museum is of a high quality similarly to the Budapest one. Thus the opportunity for working together presented itself. It was clear from the start that a major exhibition about the Dutch Golden Age could not be staged without the Rijksmuseum, which in the end loaned 19 important paintings. Furthermore, another eight Dutch museums supported the Budapest show by loaning a number of beautiful works. When preparing the exhibition the aim was to assemble varied and high-quality works reflecting the wealth and diversity of the era’s painting and to present them in the given spaces in a balanced and accessible form in line with a number of guiding principles. Staging a so-called blockbuster exhibition is an all-round task. Many factors and external circumstances affect the end result, in particular which works can be finally borrowed. Two important European museums, the National Gallery in London and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, were planning exhibitions of Rembrandt’s late works. This presented a problem in that many masterpieces had already been promised for those exhibitions. In addition, the possibilities of cooperation for the Rijksmuseum, which was still being renovated in 2011, were influenced by the professionally understandable principle that it would not loan works that were going to be included in its own permanent exhibition. The complexity of selecting and staging the works and the fact that characteristic furnishings as well as articles of personal use rendered in the paintings can be admired in their reality represent something unique in Hungary. For example, due to the lending generosity of the National Széchényi Library, a celestial sphere and a globe made in Amsterdam between 1640 and 1645 are on display near the two Vermeer masterpieces The Astronomer and The Geographer. Next to portraits which show home interiors, a Lotto rug, exquisite centrepieces, valuable cabinets painted or with ivory and tortoise shell inlay, which can often be seen in the paintings, are on loan from the Museum of Applied Arts. The exhibition showcases nearly 200 works of art contributed by Hungarian public and private collections, as well as foreign museums. In every case, obtaining them involved some specific and generally concerted teamwork. 17th-century Dutch paintings, considering their quality, diversity and number, constitute one of the outstanding collections of the Fine Arts Museum. Regarding the origin of the collection, it is also diverse: its principal schools and masters were held in the Esterházy Picture Gallery, from where they passed into state ownership. A large number of significant works were acquired by the collection due to the purchases of gallery director Gábor Térey, and his involvement resulted in wealthy art collectors donating works to the museum in the inter-war period. Augmenting this collection has continued with varying intensity ever since. Ildikó Ember has worked at the Museum of Fine Arts since 1967. 17th-century Dutch and Flemish painting has become her field of research, and she has published results at Hungarian and international professional forums since 1972. She was in charge of the Gallery of Old Masters’ Paintings for 20 years (1992-2012) and she staged many temporary exhibitions both in Hungary and abroad. She curated the permanent exhibition of Dutch painting, which opened in 2004. Her catalogue of the Dutch and Flemish still lifes in the collection was published in 2011. King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands awarded her a Knighthood of the Order of Orange-Nassau for her activity in connection with Dutch and Flemish art. Júlia Tátrai graduated from art history and Netherlandish art at Budapest’s ELTE University in 1997. She has been awarded research scholarships on several occasions and has participated in professional courses in both Holland and Belgium. She is writing her Ph.D. theses on the history of collecting 17th-century Dutch and Flemish painting in Hungary.