Category Archives: art
Three years ago, Jesse and I got married. We wanted to go to Europe on our honeymoon, to a romantic destination that was less expensive and less cliché than Paris. We decided on Budapest . . .
. . . but we never bought plane tickets. We thought of a million practical reasons why we shouldn’t go to Europe that summer, and we were filled with quite a bit of anxiety about moving to Michigan, Jesse starting grad school, and me finding a job.
In the end, our honeymoon was a spur-of-the-moment camping trip on the beach in the state of Delaware. We had a great time. I will always remember watching dolphins leaping in the waves while the sun rose over the Atlantic ocean.
Yet I did have a lesson to learn about not waiting to do things that I am really passionate about. There will never be enough money or enough time. There will always be a really good reason to not take a risk. Sometimes you should do things anyways. (You wouldn’t think I have a problem with being overly cautious, given that Jesse and I got engaged after dating for only three months and married three months after that.)
But this year we spent our anniversary in Budapest. The same excuse of not having enough money would have applied–but I want to get the most out of Europe before I go home, even if this means we are reduced to eating raman noodles when we move to back to the States.
So, we took the train to the capital on Saturday morning. We went to the Museum of Applied Arts and got in for free with our teacher cards. The special exhibit was on Hungarian Art Deco, which seems as unique as Czech Cubism. I love how Hungarian Deco was inspired by traditional folk designs.
The building that houses the museum is as amazing as any of the furniture it contains.
That evening, we took a cruise on the Danube. Unfortunately, the sun sets so late now that we didn’t really get to see the city lit up at night. But in the last five minutes of the cruise, the Chain Bridge was illuminated.
On Sunday, we went to the Hungarian National Museum. Once again we got free admission with our teacher cards! Jesse and I were in history geek heaven looking at medieval tomb stones and paleolithic artifacts. Too soon we had to catch the train back to Debrecen.
I guess we were right to choose Budapest as our honeymoon destination. It is a city we could visit over and over again.
As my dedicated readers know, I am a museum addict.
One of the museums that I knew I wanted to visit in Prague was the Museum of Czech Cubism, which is located in the House of the Black Madonna. I must say, I was hoping for something a little more exotic than this building:
The cubist architecture in Prague is unique. Before WWI, nationalist Czech artists wanted to create pieces that were distinctly Czech. So it has an interesting historical legacy. However, applying the cubist style to a building is challenging. I thought some of the geometric shapes were interesting, but overall I wasn’t impressed. I much prefer the art deco style that came after WWI.
The building that I really fell in love with is Frank Gehry and Vlado Milunić’s Dancing House. Adding modern architecture to any European city is always controversial, but I think the Dancing House compliments its surroundings.
It was built on an empty lot that had been bombed in WWII (like I said, only about two bombs landed on Prague). The lot was also next door to President Václav Havel’s house. He was both a poet and a politician, and he supported the project, which was inspired by the dancing duo Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
Gehry is most famous for his Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain, which I haven’t visited, but I’ve seen his building on the Case Western campus in Cleveland and his pavilion at Millennium Park in Chicago. His style is very distinct, and is always interesting to look at–if you’re not blinded by the sun reflecting off his shiny metal surfaces.
I am never content with just one museum, so we also went to the Alfons Mucha museum. Mucha’s poster for Sarah Bernhardt’s “Gismonda” launched both his career and the Art Nouveau movement. I love the way curves, plants, and flowers are incorporated into his motifs. Art Nouveau was less about painting and more about applied arts: posters, textiles, buildings, and even mass-produced products.
Like the cubists, Mucha was a Czech nationalist. In the 1930s, he ran afoul of the Nazis and contracted pneumonia while being held for interrogation by the Gestapo. He died in 1939.
After seeing cubist paintings and Mucha’s posters, we couldn’t resist a little more art. The Municipal House had an exhibit called Tauromaquia, which included bullfighting paintings and sketches by Picasso, Dalí, and Goya. Although I am opposed to bullfighting, I really enjoyed seeing the same theme depicted by radically different artists. They also had a full-size cartoon sketch for Picasso’s Guernica.
With just a few brushstrokes, Picasso captured the violent energy of bullfighting:
Ironically, after seeing the Fred and Ginger building, my feet were too tired to walk, let alone dance. We took the tram back to our hotel, heads spinning with all the beautiful sites we’d seen.
Since the fall of Communism, Prague has regained the sophistication and the splendor of its glory days. Unfortunately, this also means that it is now swarming with tourists. Perhaps because it was a holiday weekend, there were so many tourists that at times I felt like I was at Disney World. I guess I’ve been fortunate that my experiences in Europe so far have mostly been during the off-season or at slightly off-the-beaten-path locations. Witnessing the tourist mania in Prague has prepared me for true insanity in Paris and Rome in the coming weeks.
That said, Prague is amazing.
It escaped from WWII virtually unscathed. Two bombs were accidentally dropped on the city, and the locals were actually glad to be rid of one of the buildings that was destroyed. So, whereas Budapest’s crumbling Art Nouveau buildings stand next to communist era construction, there are almost no signs of communism in the streets of Prague. Both cities are captivating in their own way.
The seven hour train ride between the two European capitals sped by. We
were tricked into buying accidentally-on-purpose bought first class tickets, so we had the six-seat compartment all to ourselves.
The countryside outside our window was glorious.
Friday night, we headed to a nearby restaurant for dinner. Unfortunately, they weren’t serving food after 10:00 PM, so we had to get our calories from delicious Czech beer. On Saturday morning, we gorged ourselves on the bountiful free breakfast then hopped on the tram to the city center.
Then we wandered.
I knew some buildings/sites that I wanted to see, but we veered down side streets whenever we spotted something interesting. We spent little time in the popular Old Town Square. Although it was beautiful, the tourists made me feel claustrophobic. What I most enjoyed about Prague was gazing at all the details on the buildings. I could have walked and stared for many more days.
At the end of the day, my feet were sore, but my soul was content. Losing myself in a new city is actually a way to learn more about myself. As a traveler, I am curious about every aspect of the place that I visit. When I open my mind to new experiences, I gain new insights about who I am and how I fit into the world. I keep hoping that one of these days all of these experiences will connect to form a coherent picture.
Next post: An art tangent about Czech cubism, Alfons Mucha, a dancing house, and the beauty of bull fighting.
On March 31st, Jesse and I bade farewell to Debrecen . . .
. . . and headed to Budapest for the afternoon.
Our first mission was, of course, to find food. We tried out The Hummus Bar, a popular restaurant that currently has four locations in Budapest. It was vegetarian heaven, but the experience was a little hard on my ears. The diners were over 50% international, and most of them seemed to be American, particularly undergraduate-aged women. I’m not used to hearing so many American accents, and I had a hard time tuning out their conversations.
After stuffing ourselves, we paused to take some pictures of St. Stephen’s Basilica. It is a truly massive church.
From there, we hopped on the metro to head to Hero’s Square. Jesse and I were chatting away when someone called our names. We turned around to see our friends Bobby and Kellie–along with their jet-lagged family–in the same car as us! It was a funny coincidence.
We emerged from the metro to find ourselves in a crowd of several thousand people. This seems to happen a lot in Budapest. There was some sort of religious procession ending at Heroes Square.
Because I can’t go to Budapest without seeing a museum, Jesse and I headed over to the Museum of Fine Arts. The last entry was technically 4:30 PM, but we snuck into line at about 4:38 PM. The ticket lady was kind and let us in anyways.
When I handed my ticket to the guard, I said “jó napot kivánok,” which made him chuckle. He seemed pleased that I knew this standard Hungarian greeting.
Everyone we encountered that day (in fact, for the entire week) was friendly and helpful, which makes traveling so much more enjoyable.
*WARNING: ART TANGENT*
With less than an hour before closing, we had to be strategic about what to look at. The museum has a good collection of pieces by El Greco and Goya, so I sought these out.
It’s hard to believe that El Greco was a Spanish Renaissance painter from the late 16th/early 17th centuries. His style is very expressionist. Many of his pieces seem like they could have been painted centuries later.
Goya was an artist for the Spanish Court in the late 1700s/early 1800s. He witnessed the cruelty of the Inquisition and the invasion of Spain by Napoleon’s troops, but he chose to remain neutral in the political drama that surrounded him. His subject matter is diverse, ranging from royalty to peasants to depictions of war.
After learning so much about the Renaissance while in Florence, I spent a lot of time looking at the Italian pieces. There were no paintings by my new favorite, Lippi, but there was one by his son and one by his assistant.
I couldn’t find an image of the painting by Fra Diamante, but to me his Madonna looked like Lucrezia, Lippi’s model and lover (she was also a nun). I am so captivated by her beauty and by her story.
*END ART TANGENT*
After soaking up as much art as we could in under an hour, we emerged into a beautiful–if windy–spring afternoon. We strolled down Andrássy út, a very grand boulevard. Some of the neo-Renaissance buildings have been preserved and restored while others are crumbling, but the architecture is beautiful regardless.
When gray rain clouds began to cover the sky, we stopped for some cake at a cafe. Then we went back to our hotel to try to get some sleep before our 6:00 AM flight to Sicily.
Getting to experience Budapest on multiple occasions and in different seasons is one of the special aspects of living and teaching in Europe. I feel very lucky, and I hope to explore this fascinating city some more before we head home in June.
On our last day in Florence, I was determined to see one more museum and one more church.
First, we went to the Bargello, a former prison. It was a bit eerie to gaze at sculptures and paintings knowing that hundreds of years ago people were imprisoned and tortured within those stone walls.
The museum had a fascinating collection of small pieces: jewelry, ivories, coins. There were also some artifacts from Norman Sicily, which is Jesse’s area of expertise.
The blockbuster pieces, however, were by Donatello. There was a room full of his work.
I watched a vigilant security guard chastise one man who was sneaking photographs, calling from across the room, “Ah, ah, ah! No pictures, sir!” He even shook his finger, as if the man were a naughty primary school student. So, my images are borrowed from Wikipedia.
There were two Davids by Donatello, and the differences between the two are striking.
His marble David from the 1410s was one of his first major commissions. Some elements of the sculpture hint at his great skill and vision, but David is staring blankly off into space. Overall, David seems lifeless and medieval.
About three decades later, Donatello did a second David, this one in bronze. This jaunty prepubescent David seems alive. He is naked except for the hat on his head. The effect is unsettling, but the attitude is clear. This is a Renaissance sculpture.
These two sculptures helped me appreciate how one artist can change his approach to art over the course of his lifetime. I am still trying to shake the impression I got in middle school social studies that one day the Middle Ages ended and everyone woke up and decided it was the Renaissance instead.
Last, we went to Santa Croce. This church has the tombs of Michelangelo and Galileo.
Tragically, the church and its treasures were severely damaged in a flood in 1966. Restoration work continues to this day.
One painting that was fully restored was “Christ Descending into Purgatory” by Bronzino. The colors were luminous. Each figure had a unique reaction to the appearance of Christ. It was a huge piece and it took several minutes to fully absorb the story. For some reason, pictures were permitted, so Jesse took these:
As amazing as the trip was, Jesse and I were exhausted and ready to go home. I had saturated myself with art, architecture, and the beauty of Tuscany.
I am still in disbelief that over the course of the trip I saw Michelangelo, Raphael, Leonardo, and Donatello. These names have been imprinted on my memory since my days of watching Ninja Turtles. As a kid, I thought it was a great joke that these cartoon characters were named after Renaissance artists. Now I have seen great pieces by each of these artists, and I wonder how they would feel to know they’ve been immortalized as turtles!
I left Italy filled with creative energy. I am currently determined to write a young adult book.
Jesse and I both want to return to Italy as soon as possible, and we booked our tickets almost as soon as we got back to Debrecen–were are going to Sicily the week before Easter. If I stick with my book idea, I would like to go to Tuscany again in June before we return to the U.S. We might be broke by the time we make it back to the States, but we will be rich with memories and experiences.
Officially opened to the public in 1765, the Uffizi Gallery was one of the first museums in the modern sense of the word. It is also notorious for having long lines. Although the Florence Card allowed us to bypass some of the lines, after we passed through security, we had about fifteen minutes of frustration in which we were just standing in a mass of people. Any semblance of a line had disappeared. We Americans were about to have a meltdown, but we made it through.
The museum is huge, but it was still crowded. Not so crowded that I couldn’t move around comfortably or get close to a painting, but crowded enough that I got separated from Jesse and our friends. I spent over an hour wandering around the first corridor by myself. At first I was worried whether I would ever be able to find my husband again. Soon, though, I was absorbed in the Renaissance masterpieces and stopped worrying.
For me, the diptych of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino by Piero Della Francesca epitomizes the Renaissance elite who were the patrons of artists. The duchess looks haughty, and the duke has a “don’t mess with me” look in his eyes. They were so confident in their power and wealth that they didn’t have to appear more beautiful in their portraits than they were in real life. Although the duke is facing to the left to disguise his missing right eye, the artist didn’t do anything to disguise his hideous nose!
They were so confident in their power and wealth that they didn’t have to appear more beautiful in their portraits than they were in real life. Although the duke is facing to the left to disguise his missing right eye, the artist didn’t do anything to disguise his hideous nose!
The Botticelli room was my favorite. I couldn’t believe that the paintings I’d seen so often in textbooks were hanging in front of me. I don’t have the vocabulary to properly describe them.
According to my Uffizi guidebook, this painting is actually not depicting the birth of Venus, but rather the arrival of Venus at an island. She is blown along by Zephryus and Aura and is being welcomed with a flowered cloak. The colors are soft. Venus is posing chastely on her shell. She seems modest but also unaware of her beauty. The figures are so graceful.
There was quite a crowd around Primavera (Spring). I eavesdropped on a tour being given in English. This painting is also full of figures from mythology and can be interpreted in many different ways. I love the translucent material of the dresses, as well as the beautiful expressions on the Three Graces’ faces.
The Annunciation was a popular subject in Renaissance art. I like Botticelli’s the best. Gabriel clearly has an important message to deliver, and Mary is almost shrinking away from him, shocked by the appearance of the angel and uncertain about the role for which God has selected her.
The painting that captivated me the most is one by Botticelli’s master, Fra’ Filippo Lippi. I was not familiar with this artist before going to Florence, but he is one of the greats.
This Madonna’s profile stuck in my mind. She has such a gentle face and sad eyes. Lippi’s skill is evident in the Madonna’s hair, which is piled on her head, decorated with pearls, and covered with a sheer veil.
How did Lippi paint such magnificent beauty? I purchased a book about the Uffizi on my way out of the museum and turned to this painting right away. Lippi was in love with the model, who was both a nun and the mother of his son.
In the end, I was reunited with my group. Jesse and I both had our cellphones with us, so I couldn’t have lost him forever, but when I emerged from the First Corridor I did panic a bit as I surveyed the mass of people and no redhead was in sight. Turns out my group had gone through two corridors in the time that I did one.
I don’t know as much about the Renaissance or art history as I would like to, but I left the Uffizi eager to learn more.