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The museum of Lajos Ernst

With a history of more than a hundred years, the Ernst Museum had enjoyed a rather active life as an institution and a cultural public space in the last century. In December 2013, the Robert Capa Contemporary Photography Center opened in the building that had always focused on putting the diversity of various media in the forefront.

Going back in time through past events, the following milestones mark the exhibition practice and the cultural integration of the Ernst Museum:

2012 to 2007: as a subsidiary of Műcsarnok Nonprofit Co. Ltd., the museum houses a series of smaller contemporary Hungarian and international exhibitions; it is mainly a place to introduce the Hungarian middle generation. Its solo and conceptual exhibitions are significant events of Budapest’s art scene.

Ernst Lajos domborműves emléktáblája – Czinder Antal szobrászművész alkotása – a Capa Központ aulájában. (Fotó: Németh Dániel)
Lajos Ernst relief plaque, which was carved by sculptor Antal Czinder, in the hall of the Capa Center. (Photograph by Dániel Németh)

2006 to 2000: art historical periods are showcased by featuring artists and subjects of the 19th and 20th centuries. Contextually the museum also opens towards architecture and design, thereby extending and the standing of the autonomous institute. In addition to its exhibitions, its literary and musical programs also organically contribute to the cultural buzz of the “Budapest Broadway”, as well as the broader neighbourhood (Opera House, Music Academy).

Going back from 1999, the museum has a relatively stable period from an institutional point of view as it is functioning within the framework of the Műcsarnok (Kunsthalle Budapest) from the 1950s. Exhibitions are organized on a regular basis, mainly showing the complete oeuvre or specific periods of Hungarian artists, providing reliable information about Hungarian artistic work. Before the end of communism, the exhibition program included the so-called “friendly socialist countries” on ideological grounds and later for other reasons, then mainly the works of Central European artists after 1989. Shows did not provoke any major scandal or surprise, except the radically opened and closed exhibition by the Studio of Young Artists’ Association in 1966–67.

In the life of the institution, changing times were reflected in the frequent name changes and by the content within: Art and Antique Trade Company (October 1945 to October 1948), Artistic and Commercial Institute (May to August 1945), Count Almásy-Teleki Éva’s Artistic Institute (1939–45). With the later versions of its name, the founder’s son, Endre was virtually sent to death by history. The institute – although less in wording than in its spirit and its exhibitions – diverged from its founder’s spirituality and gradually left behind his openness to modern trends. And so we have arrived to the years of the legendary beginnings, to Budapest’s bustling public life between the 1910s and the 1930s. The enthusiastic art collector and admirer of the fine arts Ernst Lajos, inspired by artists, such as Ödön Lechner and Pál Szinyei-Merse, at the Japán Café and having gained experience in the organization of the National Salon, started a risky intellectual and financial game: he planned and built a separate building for his passion for collecting, assuming the task of providing a relatively broad channel for the representatives of modern Hungarian fine art. Besides Pál Szinyei Merse, Károly Ferenczy, Béla Iványi Grünwald, the institute fulfilled a mission in Hungarian art history by presenting works by artist, such as Lajos Gulácsy, Tivadar Kosztka Csontváry and Gyula Derkovits, who took a different road. The venue had all the means to take such initiatives as it could function with great mobility and freedom as a private institute. With regards to its design, it was a splendid and freshly plastered building with a modern layout, designed by Gyula Fodor, and interiors shaped by Ödön Lechner, Elek Falus and József Rippl-Rónai as well. Lajos Ernst, however, did not only care about the aesthetic aspects of the building, but he also made an innovative business plan for the maintenance of his museum. The building housed a cinema on the ground-floor, a private collection which could be visited as a museum on the first floor, two more floors above with apartments to rent, and on the top (to this day) studios for artists, built in the heart of downtown, in the centre of Budapest’s social life. His excellent business plan, however, could not outweigh the overspending on his passion for collecting and, to exacerbate matters, he also could not cope with the Great Depression. Yet, the place he created has always remained Budapest’s prestigious cultural institute and the name of its builder, Lajos Ernst is preserved by a relief plaque and the mosaic above the entrance.