Two of Leonardo da Vinci's greatest drawings -- studies for his lost fresco of the "Battle of Anghiari" -- are now on view at the National Gallery of Art. Alone, they would be worth standing in line to see.
They are but two of the 100 splendid drawings by Raphael, Du rer, Rembrandt, Watteau, Delacroix and 80 other masters represented in "Leonardo to van Gogh: Master Drawings From Budapest."
The first exhibition from the Budapest Museum of Fine Arts to come to America, it is the latest in the glittering parade of memorable exhibitions designed to showcase the world's greatest drawings collections in Washington -- most recently and spectacularly the treasures from Vienna's Albertina. These drawings from Budapest bring to light the lesser-known but equally extraordinary holdings and high taste of fellow collectors in the other part of what was once the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Bernard Berenson used to say that some pictures "speak with a still, small voice," and that is especially true of the drawings here. A match for the Albertina's collection in both quality and span -- though not numbers -- these drawings are in some ways more approachable, partly because most have not been seen or reproduced, and partly because an especially warm, intimate strain seems to pervade the collection.
Rembrandt's "Woman with Crying Child and Dog" is no famous icon, but who could fail to respond instinctively to this tender image of a child frightened by a skinny dog who just wants to be his friend? Or to Delacroix's stormy image of a rearing horse frightened by lightning? Or to van Gogh's bleak and tormented "Winter Garden in Nuenen?
The collection is especially rich in 16th- to 19th-century works from Italy, Germany, the Netherlands and France, and the installation reflects these strengths, with a room devoted to each. Great and famous names abound.
There are also spellbinding early Italian and German drawings by artists either anonymous or unfamiliar. They are among the highlights of the show. A magical 15th-century "Scene from a Knightly Tale" by a Bolognese master is perhaps the earliest of them. On dark green paper heightened with white, it is an almost surreal account of a nighttime encounter between five figures and an angry dog. It is rare and wonderful.
Equally winning is the early 15th-century German drawing of St. Margaret standing in full contraposto upon her symbol, a dragon. The dragon regards her with awe -- as do we, contemplating her nervously elegant Gothic cloak. This German gallery also contains a Cranach and three fine Du rers, but unknown artists like Du rer's student, Hans Springinklee, also bring us masterpieces. In Springinklee's case, it is a battle scene depicting the Old Testament story of Judith and Holofernes. It is only 11-by-16 inches, but it has all the grandeur of a fresco.
Augustin Hirschvogel, in the finest examples of his work that exist, proves himself to be far more than a decorator of glass in his "Squirrel Hunt With Crossbows" and "Fishing Party," in which men and women in voluminous 16th-century clothing wade up to their knees to net fish.
Unlike most European collections, this one was assembled not from the leavings of deposed royals, but through the efforts of princely collectors, notably Miklos Esterhazy (1753-1833), whose 3,353 drawings, 51,301 prints and 637 paintings (including several by Raphael, Tintoretto, Tiepolo and Goya) constitute the core of the museum's collection. They were purchased by the Hungarian government in 1870, and the museum opened in its present building in 1906, a celebration of Hungary's millennium.
Other collectors, notably Paul Majovszky (1875-1935), have since added to the museum's holdings, though Hitler nearly destroyed the lot. In 1944, the entire contents of the museum were carelessly crated by the Nazis and shipped to Germany by train as loot. The collection was returned intact to Budapest in 1946 with the help of the American authorities, and apart from the celebrated theft of five major paintings in 1984 (they were found two months later in a Greek cloister garden) the museum has been chiefly preoccupied with the pursuit of scholarship ever since. It is currently undergoing major restoration, as is a good deal else in Hungary -- including relations with America.
Art exhibitions can sometimes speak volumes where diplomacy is mute, and this show is a powerful case in point. There are, to be sure, priceless drawings on view. But the show also says something important about Hungary in general, and Budapest in particular: though sometimes lumped with the entire Communist Eastern Bloc by Americans, Budapest is a European city, rooted in Western European culture -- a fact made clear by the collecting goals and scholarly affiliations of this museum.
Hungary was sufficiently eager to make this point that it sent its greatest graphic treasures.
"They held nothing back," says National Gallery Prints and Drawings curator Andrew Robison, who helped make the selection, which he called "an embarrassment of choice."
The masterpieces -- and the message -- will go to the Art Institute of Chicago and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art after the show closes at the National Gallery West Building on July 14. It is accompanied by an excellent catalogue prepared by Budapest curators Terez Gerszi and Andrea Czere.