Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXII, No. 5
Wednesday, January 30, 2008
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(Image from the Selgo Trust for Education)

THE STAR OF THE SHOW: Agost Canzi’s “Portrait of a Lady with a Parakeet” (1856) has to be seen in person to be appreciated, though you can at least see her in color at She will be on view at the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Museum in New Brunswick through March 16, along with more than 100 other works in “The Magyar Imagination,” an exhibit billed as “the largest and most important representation of Hungarian art of the 19th and 20th centuries outside of Central Europe.” Gallery hours: Tuesday-Friday 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Saturday-Sunday noon to 5 p.m. Admission: $3; free for museum members, Rutgers students, faculty and staff with ID, and under 18. Admission is free on the first Sunday of the month. For more information, visit

Hungarian Art in New Brunswick: An Embarrassment of Riches

Stuart Mitchner

According to Wikipedia, “embarrassment of riches” (“an over abundance of something, or too much of a good thing”) originated in 1738 in John Ozell’s translation of a French play from 1726, L’Embarras des richesses. Used here, it simply means that the riches at the Zimmerli challenge my ability to do justice to them in the space of a single column.

On view from now through March 16 in the Voorhees Special Exhibition Galleries, “The Magyar Imagination” is billed as “the largest and most important representation of Hungarian art of the 19th and 20th centuries outside of Central Europe” and the “first overview” that has ever been presented to the public. Drawn from the Salgo Trust Donation of Hungarian Art, the exhibit is made up of over 100 works instructively and imaginatively displayed. If you have the time and energy to take it in, you’ll learn something about the history of Hungary and the lot of the artist there, particularly during and after the First World War. You can also appreciate the collection in the context of its setting since New Brunswick boasts one of the largest and oldest Hungarian communities in the country. Driving to the museum, which is located at 71 Hamilton Street on the Rutgers campus, your route (Somerset Street is the best approach) takes you through the heart of the historic Hungarian neighborhood. New Brunswick is also the home of the American Hungarian Foundation, which includes an archive, a library, and its own collection of Hungarian-American art.

A Challenging Show

This complex and challenging superabundance of works, styles, and periods features artists whose names will be known only to serious students of Central European art. For me, one of the only exceptions and a highlight of the show was the photographer André Kertész and his cobblestone street townscapes of Esztergom.

Curator Oliver A.I. Botar’s essay in the exhibit brochure defines the Magyar imagination as “both closely related to, and distinct from the world view of other European nations.” After cautioning against oversimplification or caricature, Botar, who is an associate professor of art history at the University of Manitoba, refers to the Magyars’ “highly distinctive language” and “mode of thought” as “a conceptual view that can be placed between the tragic, and highly politicized vision of Russian culture, and the more aestheticized and pastoral vision of the French.” Both these visions are also represented among the museum’s permanent holdings and in current exhibits such as “Printmaking from Soviet Estonia Part II” (in the Lower Dodge Galleries through January 27) and “The Heritage of the Russian Avant-Garde” (in the DuBrow galleries through May 23).

Avant-garde Fun

Although the core of the Zimmerli’s holdings in Hungarian Early 20th-century avant-garde art is being exhibited now in Hungary (“Technical Detours: The Early Work of Moholy-Nagy Reconsidered,” reviewed here in the fall of 2006), one of the most interesting features of the current show is the small group gathered under “Avantgarde Fun,” which lives up to its title. You get the flavor of Budapest’s night life in Gyula Batthyány’s delirious, intricate, thickly textured, and richly animated oil from 1920, Ballroom Fantasy. A modernist variation on the same theme is Hugó Scheiber’s The Dance. The subversive dynamics of the Budapest art scene circa 1922 is on display in a manifesto that declares “Down with art, because it sold itself. Down with still-lifes. Down with the caterwauling of aesthetes.” The call is for putting new morals, new myths “onto the billboards” and new visions “onto the walls.” The avant-garde fun also includes a wall labeled “The Erotic Imaginary.” There’s a definite gritty, exciting residue of between-the-wars Budapest in this corner of the show.

Landscapes and Women

Needless to say, the make-up of the exhibit reflects the taste of the man who built the collection and founded the Salgo Trust, the late Ambassador Nicholas M. Salgo, a Hungarian-American financier and diplomat. As Botar’s essay points out, Salgo “was not particularly fond of either academic art or contemporary trends.” His fondness for landscape painting and portraits of women is very much in evidence, however. If you had to choose a word to describe the dominant mood or mind-set of the exhibition it would be the opposite of upbeat. If you share my impression of the works in the first room, you may feel that you’re walking through a gloomy landscape. Fortunately, the road leads to Budapest, women, and the abovementioned avant-garde scene.

Salgo’s fondness for portraits of women is apparent throughout, first in the section featuring women of the fin de siècle, a period during which, according to Botar’s essay, they were “alternately presented as being mysterious or sensuous, as idealized mothers and wives, even as demonic temptresses.” As it turned out, I preferred the domestic simplicity of Sandor Bortnyik’s gouache from 1936, Woman Pouring Tea. Another literal bright spot was the section of works by women from the period between the two wars when they themselves were painting instead of being painted. Be sure to see Noémi Ferenczy’s tempera on tissue paper, Woman With a Lamb.

Haunting Beauty

The range of “The Magyar Imagination” is illustrated by the two works hung side by side at the entrance: the playful contemporary, White Dog, by Dezsno Korniss and the oil on canvas painted more than a hundred years earlier, Agost Canzi’s Portrait of a Lady with a Parakeet, which glows with the influence of Canzi’s master, Ingres. Ever since I visited the Zimmerli, this beautiful nameless woman has been on my desk, staring at me from the front page of the brochure. Presumably the curators agree with me that she’s, in effect, the star of the show, having been featured in all the publicity. To appreciate this work, you have to see its colors, preferably in person, or at least by visiting The way the orange of the ribbons reflects the plumage of the parakeet is lovely, but what makes the portrait stunning are the flesh tones, eyes, and lips of the woman. She’s impressive enough in black and white; in color, she’s unforgettable. This is one of those portraits that transcends documentation, fame, nationality, and questions of artistic influence. What matters isn’t that Canzi studied with Ingres. What matters is that he found this woman and captured an expression so frank and so subtle, so intelligent, and so suggestive, that she evokes the prototype of all mysterious women, DaVinci’s Mona Lisa. The background and dusky trappings of DaVinci’s portrait create the aura of mystery that brings out the ambiguity in the expression. We also know that the woman who posed for DaVinci was probably Lisa del Giocondo. I’ve tried but have been unable to discover the identity of Canzi’s subject; she is truly an unknown quantity even though the context is clearly domestic; this is the sort of portrait you see on the walls of ancestral homes. The artist was 47 at the time he painted this woman, so perhaps she was a professional model who also could have been — judging from the hint of amused intimacy in that half-smile — his mistress. Walter Pater picked up on the murky mood of the landscape DaVinci painted behind Mona Lisa, fancying that she was “older than the rocks among which she sits” and that she “has been dead many times and learned the secrets of the grave.” With Canzi’s nameless beauty a frank here-and-now quality comes through, suggesting wit, force, even a hint of something sly and sensual. Look at her eyes; she could be a modern woman sizing us up, putting us in our place. Whoever she was, she’s the center of an extraordinary work of art that’s easily, all by itself, worth the drive to New Brunswick and the $3 admission.

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