Vibrant, bohemian and eclectic, Budapest is a city of art. Home to world-class museums, colourful street art and independent galleries, it’s hard to visit the Hungarian capital without experiencing its lively arts scene – even if it’s only accidentally, by stumbling across the eye-catching murals of the Jewish Quarter.
Larger institutions such as the Hungarian National Gallery, the Museum of Fine Arts, the Kunsthalle and the Museum of Applied Arts take visitors on a journey through the history of Hungarian art, showcasing pieces by renowned artists such as Mihály Munkácsy and Károly Markó. But explore a little further and you’ll find independent galleries, non-profit arts festivals and contemporary studio spaces ensuring Budapest’s art scene remains right on the cutting edge.
Márta Kucsora is an artist and co-founder of Budapest Art Factory, an independent art studio in the city’s 13th district. Born in 1979 in the Hungarian city of Szeged, Kucsora became interested in art at a young age. A year at Montclair State University in the USA followed her studies at the University of Fine Arts in Budapest, before she returned home to Hungary to set up Budapest Art Factory (BAF) with fellow artists Dóra Juhász and Sándor Szász. Located in a former industrial building, BAF is a contemporary visual-arts centre that hosts a year-round programme of exhibitions, panel discussions and studio visits. The aim is to provide a link between Hungarian and international arts professionals and, as well as showcasing local talent, there’s also an international guest artist programme. “We invite both emerging and established artists for a one- to two-month residency, culminating in a one-man show,” explains Kucsora.
This focus on contemporary art fits perfectly into Budapest’s lively arts scene, which Kucsora describes as “quite colourful, and very progressive”, adding that “it always reflects on current worldwide movements”. She lists fellow University of Fine Arts graduate Erik Mátrai as her favourite contemporary artist: “I find his installations not only visually stimulating, but very thoughtful and mind-opening.”
Budapest Art Factory is one of a host of contemporary art spaces in the city. Away from the mainstream, such as the Kunsthalle museum located on Heroes’ Square, Art Quarter Budapest and Trafo House feature highly on Kucsora’s list of recommendations. Both these spaces showcase contemporary art by Hungarian and international artists.
She also sees the current arts scene as very gallery-oriented, with artists outside this sphere struggling to gain visibility, but adds, “There are some great non-profit initiatives, such as the OFF-Biennale, organised by independent young curator Hajnalka Somogyi – the next one is happening in the spring of 2020.”
A grassroots initiative, OFF-Biennale is an international contemporary arts event that takes place in (sometimes unexpected) locations across Budapest, such as private apartments, industrial spaces and empty shops. The event separates itself completely from the state (no state funding is sought and the locations are completely independent), instead choosing to focus on the link between art, social change and democracy. Visitors to Budapest during the OFF-Biennale are encouraged to head off on an artistic adventure across the city, discovering works by local and international artists along the way.
When asked what makes Hungarian art so uniquely Hungarian, Kucsora responds that the country’s location has certainly had an impact. “Because of the very central European location, we always had a difficult political situation, we are on the border of East and West, the margin of different cultures and religions… These factors definitely have a significant impact on contemporary art.”
One only has to take a look back at the last century in Hungary’s turbulent political history to see that while creativity and a love for art have always been present in the city, the ability to practise them freely has not. “The [Communist] era enforced Socialist Realism in the visual arts,” explains Kucsora. “Anything else had to happen underground.” She references the Iparterv movement, an early manifestation of the Neo-Avant-Garde in Hungary that culminated in two exhibitions, Iparterv I in 1968 and Iparterv II in 1969. Both went against the artistic status quo enforced by the Communist regime of the time, and were on show for just a few days as a result.
Among the most notable Hungarian artists, Kucsora lists modern abstract artists Simon Hantaï and Judit Reigl, both of whom were practising art during the Cold War in France, away from the shadow of the Iron Curtain. Then there’s László Moholy-Nagy (1895–1946), whom Kucsora sees as “the most influential Hungarian artist of his time; he was indeed a multimedia artist and had a strong experimental intention in many of his works, including films”. Their work appears in museums and galleries both internationally and within Budapest, and it’s always worth keeping an eye out for exhibitions featuring their art.
Beyond museums and galleries, there is also an abundance of street art to enjoy, much of which can be found in the bohemian Jewish Quarter. This previously run-down district with a harrowing past has been brought back to life in recent years, and today is home to much of the city’s vibrant nightlife – including its quirky and eclectic ruin bars, almost works of art in themselves. Throughout the area, previously blank, grey walls are now adorned with colourful murals, many created by the Neopaint Works group or as part of Színes Város, a street-art festival held annually between 2014 and 2017.
Indeed, often all it takes is a quick look up to see that in Budapest, art really is all around. This is a city of architectural wonders and, more specifically, a living gallery of the Hungarian Art Nouveau of the early 1900s. Architect Ödön Lechner was a key figure of this movement; also known as the Hungarian Gaudí, which should give some indication as to his legacy, Lechner was the man behind buildings such as the Museum of Applied Arts and the Postal Savings Bank, both of which are decorated with Hungarian-produced Zsolnay terracotta tiles, and can be admired from street level.