Renovation of Hall of Art to begin as Government confirm priority status

Hungarian version of the article: Ez az épület is a millenniumra készült – Kiemelt jelentőségű lett a Műcsarnok rekonstrukciója, kezdődhet a felújítás

Written by: Dominik Filepkó

July 15, 2020 at 10:00 AM

The Government has declared the renovation of the Hall of Arts to be a project of national economic importance and investment of high public interest. The building was originally constructed in 1896 as part of the events to commemorate the millennium of Hungarians living in the Carpathian Basin. However, when work will begin on the building, designed by Albert Schickedanz and inaugurated by Franz Joseph, is currently unknown.

Attempts were made to present and teach Hungarian art within higher education as early as in the 18th century. However, each of these failed due to the lack of financial support and the countries reliance on the royal court in Vienna (following in the footsteps of the Louvre in Paris and the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg, Vienna still houses the largest collection of fine arts).

With growing embourgeoisement and the spread of the national idea, the demand for an institution of Hungarian continued to grow. The breakthrough came in 1861 when the National Hungarian Fine Arts Society was founded.

The first art gallery in the capital was located on Sugárút (present-day Andrássy Avenue), photographed by Károly Dávid around 1883 (Photo: FSZEK Budapest Collection)

The Society was first tasked with setting up an art school, for which a special committee was created. Gusztáv Kelety, a member of the committee, was sent on a tour of Europe by Minister of Religion and Education, József Eötvös, to study how art schools and galleries worked around the continent. He published his experiences in a book entitled Education of the fine arts in Hungary and abroad.

Kelety realised that the conditions of the age made it impossible to set up a complete academic system of art training. He proposed the creation of fundamental training, including teacher training. Avoiding the term academy, he recommended that a model drawing school be set up. In 1871 a Ministerial decree ordered the foundation of the Hungarian Royal Model Drawing and Art Teacher Training School, the legal predecessor of the present-day Hungarian University of Fine Arts.

Corridor in the building of the Hungarian Royal Drawing and Art Teacher Training School on Sugárút (present-day Andrássy Avenue) in 1883 (Photo: FSZEK Budapest Collection)

However, the school operated under adverse conditions. Flats were rented as studios and were often dark or damp. Heavier sculptures were difficult to move, and exhibitions could not be held due to a lack of space. The only solution was to move the school to a new building that took into account the specific needs of the institution. The National Hungarian Fine Arts Society thus turned to the Pest City Council and requested that they be given priority to purchase a plot of land along Sugárút (present-day Andrássy Avenue). The Society planned to cover the costs through public donations.

In 1872 Pest Council accepted the Society's request and, after lengthy negotiations, sold a plot of land between Oktogon and Kodály Circus. An international design tender was announced for the building, which was won by Adolf Láng. Construction of the building – reminiscent of Italian Renaissance palaces – begun on 12 April 1875 and lasted just over a year. The building was decorated with painted glass windows donated by Zsigmond Róth (Miska Róth's father). However, the institution quickly outgrew its new home.

The Art Gallery erected in City Park for the 1885 National Fair was only a temporary solution to the lack of space, despite the Zsolnay decorations of the building designed by Ferenc Pfaff being immensely popular. The new and final building was designed by Albert Schickedanz.

The Art Gallery designed by Ferenc Pfaff after 1885. The building long-sought its purpose. It served as the museum of Budapest and a home for artists. It was recently renovated as part of the Liget Budapest Project and has been renamed house of the Millennium (Photo: FSZEK Budapest Collection)

Albert Schickedanz was born in Silesia in 1846, but his family was living in Késmárk by 1848. Despite being of Saxon (Hungarian German) descent, his father fought in the War of Independence and was later sentenced to prison time. Albert began his studies in 1865 but worked continuously due to his family's limited financial situation. he moved to Pest in 18668 and began working in Miklós Ybl's office as an editor-designer and drew several blueprints.

Simultaneously he studied painting from Bertalan Székely and Károly Lotz. As a result, he also painted a number of paintings and also designed several pieces of furniture in the eclectic style of the period. A cabinet designed for Mór Jókai is one proof of his talent.

His breakthrough as an architect came slowly. Schickedanz was still working in Ybl's office when he won the right to build the Batthyany Mausoleum. However, several difficulties arose during construction, forcing him to change the original plans. However, this did not discourage him. 

Potrait of Albert Schickedanz in the 27 May 1888 issue of Vasárnapi Újság

Fame and recognition finally came in 1884, when the National Fine Art Society asked him to prepare the plans for the new Heroes' Square and Art gallery to be constructed alongside. An open design tender was later announced, which was one by Albert Schickedanz and Fülöp Herzog. He also entered the design tender for the Parliament, where his design reached the top four, and also participated in the competition to design the historical monument in City Park (Vajdahunyad Castle).

Construction of the hall of Arts began in October 1894, and a press conference was held on 13 February 1896, although journalists were not allowed inside the building. The completed 2300 square metre building was opened on 4 May 1896 in the presence of King Franz Joseph.

The new Hall of Arts in 1896 photographed by György Klösz. At the time, Heroes' Square was still a green park. (Source: Fortepan/Budapest City Archives. Archive reference: HU.BFL.XV.19.D.1.08.080)

Present-day interior of the Hall of Arts (Photo: Balázs Both/

Details on the façade (Photo balázs Both/

Interior decorations (Photo Balázs Both/

Schickedanz designed the hall of Art to be a temple of Hungarian fine art. Thus, the most striking element of the building is the portico facing Heroes' Square. The six columns are of the Corinthian order, the most ornate of three orders.

The gate decorated with copper cassettes made by Pál Sátor is also part of the colonnade or portico. The frescos on the back wall of the portico are also of note. The paintings by Lajos Deák Ébner depict "the birth of sculptures" with the figures of Vulcan and Athena, the spring of the arts with Apollo and the muses, and the roots of painting according to the legend of antiquity, with the figure of the shepherd in love" – according to the website of the Hall of Arts.

The tympanum on top of the portico remained empty until 1938. On the 900th anniversary of the death of Hungary's founding king, St Stephen, Jenő Haraghy completed the mosaic that can still be seen, entitled "St. Stephen patron of the arts."

St. Stephen, patron of the arts (Photo Balázs Both/

However, a unique element of the building is the use of pyrogranite on the façade. Schickedanz chose the middle path here, as there were two schools of thought in connection with the Hall of Arts. One party would have preferred to see a structure of glass and steel, similar to London's Crystal Palace or the Palais de L'Industrie in Paris. While others hoped that the gallery would follow a more historical style, serving almost as a memorial. Schickedanz fundamentally chose a more historical path, but by incorporating the material, which was a cutting edge result of applied arts at the time, he elevated contemporary art into the structure.

The side façade of the building seen for Dózsa György Road (Photo: Balázs Both/

Pyrogranite ornaments decorate the facade  (Photo: Balázs Both/

The hall of Arts on Heroes' Square (Photo Balázs Both/

The other side of the building overlooks city Park (Photo Balázs Both/

The library of the Hall of Arts was founded in the 1950s and houses an impressive collection even by international standards (Photo Balázs Both/

The hall of Arts was damaged in the siege of Budapest during World War II. the damage was repaired in the post-war years, but complete renovation only happened in 1994. Almost thirty years have passed since then, and further works are required on the building. To accelerate the process, the government has declared the renovation of the Hall of Arts to be a project of national economic importance and investment of high public interest. Hopefully, work will begin soon to preserve the building.

Cover photo: The hall of Arts in 2020 (Photo Balázs Both/

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