Sunday 29 April 2012

More Than One Bargains For

Each of the twenty-three districts of Budapest has its own special character. To sum up the eighth district, Józsefváros, in a word would be to describe it as 'edgy'. It is home to the Uránia National Film Theatre, the Academy of Drama and Film, the Natural History Museum, the red light district, Erkel Theatre, Semmelweis Medical University, and a large population of Roma and Chinese residents.

interior of 'antique' shop on Pál utca in Budapest's District VIII in the area of Józsefváros

This all makes for a heady, cosmopolitan and social mix where 'ladies of the night', plying their trade, rub shoulders with students in search of inexpensive accommodation, and aesthetes seek cultural enlightenment.

And so it was, with a spirit of adventure, and together with our American friends, Linda and Barbara, we took a tram ride from our comfortably familiar sixth district, Terézváros, into the back streets of Józsefváros where our Aladdin's Cave of a shop is to be found.

interior view of the Pál utca shop showing a part of the exceedingly eclectic and varied stock

Tamás and his daughter, Melinda [their surname escapes us], are the proprietors of a gloriously eclectic használtcikk, second hand, store in Pál utca. Here, china leopards  sit alongside social realist bronzes, ancient Leica cameras peer out from glass cases, portraits, landscapes,  oils, watercolours, woodcuts, prints and photographs cover the walls and rosary beads hang temptingly with strings of freshwater pearls.

a china leopard snarls his way through a collection of porcelain, glass, silver plate and plastic

Even when adjusted to the dim and somewhat religious light of the shop's interior, the eye struggles to focus on the treasures to be found within. Layer upon layer of the ornamental, the useful, the decorative, the practical, the exotic and the commonplace vie for attention, each item redolent with memories and wearing the patina of age. And not a little dirt!

both the staircase and the staircase wall carry a further selection of the shop's ephemera

Our choices made, Melinda cheerfully announces that "today's prices are 20% less than marked". And, as a result, our bargain purchases become an absolute steal. Unceremoniously, our pictures are shrouded in black bin liners for the journey home and cash - no plastic here - is exchanged with smiles all round.

Melinda, at the receipt of custom, attends to the accounts , surrounded by yet more stock 

And in these final moments of the transaction, we strike up a conversation with a young man buying a cigarette lighter. He assures us, in perfect English, that he does not smoke. He explains that he is a Business student, that his father is a dentist, that the family house is in the countryside some 40km from Budapest, that his brother is training to be a doctor, that he lives in the eighth district but that, sadly, he does not play the piano.

to the right of the picture, Maté selects a vintage cigarette lighter to add to his collection

His name is Maté. We issue an invitation to luncheon!

Sunday 22 April 2012

A Very Private View

Some time, in or around 1900, after his release from prison, Oscar Wilde travelled to Taormina in Sicily. What drew him there was not so much the 'paradise on earth' of the place itself, but rather the homoerotic photographs of the German Wilhelm von Gloedon [1856 - 1931] who, in residence on the island, had established a reputation for transforming pictures of working-class Sicilian boys into beautifully composed images of antique legend.

Wilhelm von Gloedon, two young men, Taormina, Sicily

Wilhelm von Gloedon: 'Three Graces' 1890 Taormina, Sicily

What drew us to the Szépmúveszeti Múzeum so very recently was an invitation to a personal, private tour to be given by our friend, and museum guide, Angéla Kiss, of the current exhibition 'The Birth of Art Photography - From Pictoralism to Modern Photography 1889 - 1929'. Which did, as might be expected, feature the work of Wilhelm von Gloedon.

approach to the exhibition with poster 'Composition' 1925 by Rudolf Koppitz

entrance of the museum with poster 'Gloria Swanson' 1924 by Edward Steichen 

'Portal to Szépmúveszeti Múzeum' 2012 by Jane R. Hattatt

But so much more besides. From early pastoral scenes, with figures carefully arranged almost in replication of a Victorian water colour, to the comparative modernism of photographers whose later work bears all the hallmarks of the Cubist painters, some images are forever iconic. Not least among these is 'Steerage' by Alfred Steiglitz, dating from 1907.

the iconic photograph 'Steerage' 1907 by Alfred Steiglitz

Here the photographer captures a single moment on a trans-Atlantic liner. The image,  as if constructed in the way of a series of triangles and geometric shapes, conspires to elevate the poor and the dispossessed into something which transcends the everyday. Light shines on the boater of the onlooker, is reflected on the central gangplank, is caught on the crossed braces of the figure below deck and, yet again, is to be found illuminating the washing hung out to dry. This surely is art!

'Fork' 1928 by André Kertész [chosen with PGdeB and GC in mind]

Similarly, Hungarian born André Kertész, explores the area of Still Life with his 'Fork' of 1928. A simple household object becomes the focus of a picture where light and shadow interact in a way that the entire composition moves the observer from the now to the surreal. Or, as has been described, to a moment of 'formal poetry'.

portrait of Greta Garbo 1928 by Edward Steichen

Elsewhere the most striking portrait of Greta Garbo by Edward Steichen imposes all the presence of that formidable figure. By contrast, the experiment with movement by Jacques-Henri Lartique sees figures hastening through the Bois de Boulogne and speeding racing cars competing in some long forgotten Grand Prix.

Angéla Kiss, friend and guide, seen in the museum entrance

And how salutary all of this is. We look at our own photographs. We look again. Do we see a fusion of Kertész and Koppitz, of Steichen and Stieglitz? Is there a look of Lartique, a glimpse of Gloedon? Alas no. Most definitely not!

Sunday 15 April 2012

Entente Cordiale

We numbered nine. And together we represented five different nations - Germany, Holland,  Hungary, the United States of America, the United Kingdom - each with its own character, culture and individuality.

the vineyard where we gathered for a picnic on the slopes above Lake Balaton
It had been Horst's idea. But then it was his vineyard. How splendid it would be that we should all, on Easter Monday, repair to the vine-clad slopes over and above the Lake Balaton to enjoy an 'alfresco' luncheon 'en plein-air' [if we may be permitted to borrow from other absent languages]. So it was that we assembled, in something of an easterly breeze, so to speak, outside of his wonderfully romantic boros-pince, wine cellar, amongst the blossom of the wild cherries and where, basking on sun-warmed stones, lizards slept the afternoon away.

the exterior of the boros-pince which is built, at the rear, into the hillside

a contented lizard dreams away the April afternoon

Was there ever such a picnic? Dutch and Hungarian cheeses, the blackest of olives, patés, kolbász, salads, delicious tasting breads, all of which were accompanied with Horst's own 2010 Olaszrizling and then, treat of treats, perfection indeed, an icy clear, pale pink Rosé. And such laughter, merriment and joy, with stories and tales in abundance, as the April sun slowly sank over the distant waters of the lake and a far away clock chimed the passing of the hours.

inside the cellar, Horst draws off more wine from the barrel

Such small wine cellars are not uncommon in Hungary. Built into the hillside they provide a store for the wine and a simple kitchen where, by tradition, food may be prepared for those who work the land. Horst's is no exception but, adding to the simple charm, he has chosen to decorate the walls with a collection of rustic plates gathered from his travels in neighbouring countries.

just some of the many plates which decorate the walls

However, dusk settles quickly at this time of year and all too soon the company divided, each to go his/her separate way. For us, though, the day was not yet done for the evening promised time with more friends, artist, musician and scholar, Jan, and his delightful Hungarian wife, Judit, just returned home to their village house from an Easter retreat.

late afternoon showing posts in place to support the vines

But that is another story!

Wednesday 11 April 2012

......And All That Jazz

Grant Boyd-Gibbins is by nature an entrepreneur. At first converting redundant Budapest factories to sleek contemporary offices, he has now turned his hand to developing an entire Croatian village into a health resort. With a little help from his friends, who happen to own an hotel chain, and the European Union Development Fund, we have no doubt that his latest speculation will become a successful reality one day.

Dorottya Udvar, a former textile factory, developed by Grant Boyd-Gibbins

And in the meantime Grant has another, more social venture, closer to home. As a founder member of the Jerry Lee Lewis inspired GGGBOFFC, Goodness Gracious, Great Balls of Fire Film Club, his idea is to provide on a monthly basis a social setting for English speakers who share a love of art cinema.

entrance hall to the Budapest Jazz Club, home also to GGGBOFFC each month

So, with the promise of a dinner, wine, lively conversation and a surprise film, we made our way, with our friends Paul and Gil, to the Budapest Jazz Club. Housed in the former Hasenfeld House of 1875, in the delightfully cobbled Múzeum utca, a stone's throw from the National Museum, the Budapest Jazz Club provides an exciting venue for all manner of cultural activities......and Jazz music!

staircase of Hasenfeld House, the Budapest Jazz Club, with bust of Kossuth

The walls of the Club are adorned with 'Jazz Greats', Louis Armstrong, Chet Baker, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, either as black and white photographs or full scale murals. A sweeping marble staircase carries visitors elegantly to the first floor, the nicotine of decades of smoking has tanned the walls of the bar, Thonet type bentwood furniture fills a downstairs room and plush sage velvet armchairs, somewhat sagging at the seams, create the perfect ambience for a private cinema in Room 9.

interior  showing murals in the Budapest Jazz Club

The seventy or so GGGBOFFC guests were as eclectic as they were engaging. A fast talking blonde Canadian, a zany Brazilian wearing an equally zany shirt, a cut glass accented George, a charming Dominic, the gregarious Grant and his delightful wife Eszter, lawyers, venture capitalists and green activists all made for sparkling conversation and not a little laughter.

a selection of stills taken from Sam Mendes 1999 film 'American Beauty'

The film, 'American Beauty', proved to be an excellent and entertaining choice. A debut film by Sam Mendes in 1999, we believe that it will stand the test of time, as indeed it has done to date, as an iconic example of the best in American cinema. And, some days later, we are still asking, "Is 'American Beauty', and all that it stands for,  like its namesake rose, prone to rotting away at the roots? Are all teenagers terrifying?  And who exactly did kill Lester Burnham?".

Monday 2 April 2012

Amore a Prima Vista

When the assistant in the piano shop, Hollósy Zongoraterem, had enquired which of us played, we had replied, truthfully, neither one of us.

the piano shop situated on one of Budapest's main shopping thoroughfares 

Asked then if we intended to take lessons, our response had been, equally truthfully, no, to which, for a brief instance, her previously composed features had faltered, perplexity had furrowed her face and, in the way of the Magyars, she had sighed sorrowfully.

residential accommodation seen above the piano shop

The arrival of the piano, a joint birthday gift, happily coincided with the visit of friends from Italy. Oh, giorni felici! Since this was the first occasion of our being together in Budapest, and our knowing them to be in possession of a very fine Bósendorfer [the only make of piano able to withstand the virtuosity of Liszt], we anticipated, rather in the way of a scene from a Henry James' novel, the strains of Bartók, Chopin or Kodály echoing around the Morning Room.

the piano newly installed in the Morning Room alongside the music cabinet

But time, alas, did not permit the hoped for recital. No matter. With Gil and Paul our interests, of architecture, art and antiques, of fine dining, of gardening, of parties, of reading, of travel, and other such goodly things, more than overlap. They are the most delightful and entertaining of house guests. And our sadness at their departure only yesterday morning, whisked from us by taxi to the appropriately renamed Liszt Ferenc airport, was, at least in part, compensated for by the joyous memories of the past few days living the everyday life to the full.

the 'Alexander' piano awaiting the arrival of a 'Mad Boy' to play for us

Meanwhile, for the present at least, the strings of 'Alexander' [we shall not countenance any abbreviation of the name] remain silent. However, it now becomes somewhat imperative that our 'Mad Boy', for whom the search continues, is no stranger to the pianoforte and will, we trust, take pleasure in sharing.

sheet music sits in readiness to be played on 'Alexander'

N.B. Potential candidates for the position of 'Mad Boy', should note that interviews and auditions will be held at the Wigmore Hall. An ability to play Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op.18 would be seen as a distinct advantage.