Whilst googling, flipping through various guidebooks, websites and tourist information portals ahead of my festive trip to Budapest, the Museum of Applied Arts (and more specifically its stunning glass-roofed main hall) constantly stood out. Constructed in the 1890’s as a masterpiece of Hungarian art nouveau the building was purpose built to display and promote the country’s crafts and skills in an optimum setting; mixing eastern oriental influences with western vernacular architecture, alongside traditional Hungarian green and yellow ornamental tiling, and a huge exterior dome. Having walked along the river Danube, I approached the museum from the rear and was initially fearful that all my preparatory reading had been in vain and it had closed down! From the exterior the museum looked forlorn and almost derelict, and although its’ appearance improved a little at the main entrance it was far from the show-piece I was expecting. Once inside, the double-floor oriental arcade and glass-roofed hall charm, and the permanent collection of gold and silverware, aristocratic clothing, costume jewellery, furniture, ceramics, artworks and weapons are pleasant but not especially memorable. The two temporary exhibitions ‘Breuer – at Home Again’ and ‘In the Mood for Colours’ feel very modern, fresh and almost out of place in an otherwise tired and dated museum. The Breuer comprising strong examples of the Hungarian architect and furniture designers’ creations, and the Colour exhibition cleverly playing with perception by arranging the collection by dominant colour rather than historic period or style. The show is also accompanied by the ColourMirror project, an interactive installation which digitally reflects visitors’ clothes matching them to an object within the museum collection – which certainly engaged me on a search to find my ‘match’ within the collection! Despite a saddening lack of investment, it was heartening to see plans for refurbishment and redevelopment and I hope it is reformed into the grand building it once was.
Leopold Museum is in Vienna’s Museum Quartier and showcases one of the world’s largest collections of Austrian modern art across seven floors. I started on the top floor which exhibits ‘Vienna 1900’ focussing on the city’s art nouveau movement including works by Gustav Klimt, Koloman Moser and Josef Hoffmann as well as examples of Wiener Werkstätte design from furniture, to silver, glass and jewellery. Klimpt and Matsch’s three allegorical commissions for the Great Hall of Vienna University caught my eye as progressive artworks, and interestingly sparked public furore at the time leading to Klimpt withdrawing his contract, returning his fee and repossessing the paintings! The next floor down displays ‘Self Abandonment and Self Assertion’ comprising over 40 paintings and 190 works on paper by Egon Schiele (making it the largest collection in the world). Schiele created portraits, nudes and cityscapes in a highly original and at times quite haunting style, I was also struck by the sheer volume of works completed considering he died aged just 28 of Spanish flu. The museum also contained ‘A Rush of Colour: Masterpieces of German Expressionism’ and whilst I failed to appreciate many of the paintings due to their stylistically distorted shapes, over-emphasised contours and reductionism which leaves only essential features of an image, I did however enjoy many of the woodcuts and lithographs by Enrich Heckel, Karl Schmidt, Christian Rohlfs, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Max Beckmann. Having already seen three large exhibitions I was tempted to skip the Peter Sengl retrospective, but am so pleased to have persevered as it was arguably my favourite. The exhibition opens with a room full of paraphrased masterpieces from The Leopold with Sengl inserted into artworks recently viewed on adjacent floors. The entire show is full of colour and energy, synonymous with the Austrian artists’ idiosyncratic and provocative creations.
As a huge fan of the Tudor-style Regents Street store, its prints, textiles, clothes and collaborations, it would have been difficult for me not to enjoy an exhibition celebrating 140 years of Liberty! Opening with an orientation room presenting a timeline from 1875 when Arthur Lasenby Liberty founded his Oriental Bazar selling imported goods through to the present day, the exhibition immediately puts in context what you are about to see. Beginning with this relationship with the East; ten mannequins dressed in opulent kimonos created from silk, velvet and crepe de chine are set against a backdrop of Jaipur wallpaper by Zoffany. This smoothly rolls into the next gallery focussing on the ‘Arts and Crafts’ and ‘Aesthetic’ movements at the turn of the century which acted against the structured corsets and upholstery of late 1800’s women’s clothing and celebrated a more natural shape and handcrafted embroidery. From the close of the First World War onwards the delicate prints, small-scale densely patterned textiles, and peacock feather decorations that are now ubiquitous with Liberty began to emerge into the mainstream, and by the 1950’s the brand realised they had their own original William Poole archive of ‘Art Nouveau’ designs to draw from. These were revitalised in vivid pinks, blues, purples and greens in the ‘Lotus Collection’, popular across London, Paris, Rome and New York. Similarly the 1960’s saw influential designers and boutique owners such as Mary Quant using Liberty prints in trend setting collections – a theme which has continued into the present day in collaborations with Vivienne Westwood, Kenzo, Barbour and Nike to name a few. Complete garments, lengths of various prints, original packaging and boxes, working sketches and even a gallery devoted their children’s clothing and smocks make this a comprehensive and enjoyable experience – and an avid reminder of how Liberty’s “unique blend of tradition and innovation” continues to be so popular today.