Are you sure?

Boscolo Budapest, the Hungarian National Gallery and a chance encounter

Once a year, on the anniversary of their first date, David Holzer and his partner stay at the Boscolo Budapest, a historic building that is a hodgepodge of styles, slightly over the top, and perfect for romance.

New York Café, Boscolo Budapest.

It’s fair to say that the Boscolo is somewhat over the top when it comes to décor. The website describes the building as “eclectic…. where historical Greek, Latin, Renaissance and baroque styles are blended in a typically Art Nouveau creative structure”. The result is an architectural melange of dizzying richness. Perfect for romance.
The building first opened in 1894 as the local head office of the New York Life Insurance Company. Known as the New York Palace then, it belongs to a time when insurance companies sought to inspire trust in their customers by appearing to be ultra-grand.
I’m not sure how much confidence the interior of the New York Life Insurance company inspired, assuming that it had the same off-kilter Palace of Versailles vibe that it does today.
The building was restored by the Boscolo Group between 2001 and 2006 in collaboration with the Hungarian National Center for the Restoration and Reconstruction of Monuments.
We love pretty much everything about the Boscolo, but breakfast in the New York Café, opened in 1894 by Hungarian coffee industrialist Sandor Steueur, is probably the best part. The grandiosity of the breakfast perfectly complements the frescoes of Gustav Mannheimer and Ferenc Eisenhut (not that I know who they are) and the “soft light that reflects off the gold-plated stuccoes of the tortile columns, creating a myriad of colors”.
There’s even a pianist. I hoped he wasn’t the same guy who tinkled away in the cocktail bar the night before. The cocktail bar isn’t yet old enough to have acquired a patina of loucheness, but it’s getting there.

Wait in Line

If you’ve ever been to the New York Café for afternoon coffee and cake, you’ll know that there’s usually a queue to get in. Tables are mostly occupied by selfie-obsessed tourists. While I don’t especially mind this mania for photographing oneself and one’s cake, rather than actually committing an experience to memory, I do wish that the Boscolo would issue guests with period costume.
The New York Café was the gathering place of the city’s elite, including the writers and artists of the day. It’s part of the history of Hungarian literary life and the building was once the offices of Nyugat magazine. I, for one, would be happy to exchange my hoodie, baseball cap and running shoes for an elegant three-piece suit, florid bowtie and pince-nez glasses. And perhaps a cape.

Within Frames

Whoever chose the image to promote the terrific “Within Frames” at the Hungarian National Gallery, an exhibition of mainly Hungarian art made between 1956 and ‘68 must have had a tough job.
“Street in Budapest 1951” by Macsai Istvan is just one of hundreds of artworks from the gallery’s vaults being shown for the first time. But it’s not particularly representative of what’s on display. Its naturalistic drabness made the thought of visiting the exhibition feel like much more of a cultural chore than it was. Alongside it are a works in a dazzling aray of styles.
My favourite was “St. Tropez 1968”, a “supernaturalistic” painting by Tiber Csernus which pulses with movement and is light years away from some of the heavier, more obviously Hungarian pieces.
The exhibition also includes a small selection of furniture, fabric designs, graphic art and covers for jazz albums by János Gonda’s Qualiton Jazz Ensemble.
Any form of government censorship of art is obviously a bad thing but my overwhelming impression is that there was an enormous amount going on within the frames imposed by socialism.

Chance Encounter

After “Within Frames”, we wandered through “Continuing Memories”, the exhibition of work by the great Romanian-born photographer Péter Korniss. This was an absolute revelation to me. Once again, the image chosen to promote the exhibition really didn’t tell the whole story. This time, that was no bad thing.
After we had toured the Korniss exhibition from end to end, we took the weight off our aching feet in the gallery café. As we were finishing, my partner noticed an elderly gentleman explaining to a waitress that his table had been commandeered by a pair of tourists. The waitress was getting flustered and the gentleman was looking for somewhere else to sit in the crowded café.
My partner invited him to sit at our table. When he did so, we realized he was none other than Péter Korniss himself. The artist, whose English was impeccable, turned out to be absolutely charming. He was delighted when I told him that, not knowing who he was, I’d assumed he was a much younger photographer because the image chosen to promote the exhibition felt so contemporary. Korniss is 81.
But, like so many artists, Korniss still feels he has something to prove. He told us that when the exhibition opened in October it was practically empty for the first week and he was convinced it was going to be a failure. According to the gallery, the exhibition has so far attracted 35,000 visitors. Pretty impressive.
In one of the films being shown as part of the exhibition, Korniss mentioned that his father was a manager at the New York Hotel. “Oh,” I said, “we stayed at the Boscolo. That was the old name for it, right?”
“No,” Peter said, “that was the New York hotel in….” He went on to name a city in Hungary or Transylvania. “But,” and he smiled, “I did work for one of the magazines published by Nyugat and I got my start using their darkroom.”

Find out more about Boscolo Budapest at “Within Frames” runs until February 18. “Continuing Memory” closes on February 11.