Ruin Bars and Communist Statues in Budapest

Szempla in daytime

I’m not normally a bar-goer, but while in Budapest I heard about a particular kind of place called a “ruin bar” or “ruin pub.” A ruin bar is a quirky kind of bar set up in an abandoned or ruined building.  In Budapest, many wrecked buildings have been turned into ruin bars.

Szempla ruin bar
The Szempla Kert ruin bar in Budapest.

The first and most famous of Budapest’s ruin bars is Szimpla Kert. The owners of Szimpla converted an old factory in the historic Jewish neighborhood into the hippest new nightspot in Budapest in 2002. Instead of fixing up the place, they decided to install all kinds of strange objects into the space. They allowed customers to write graffiti all over the walls. They set up several different kinds of bars in various places within the building.  Each bar serves a kind of drink, such as beer, wine, cocktails, shots, and so on. They also created a space for live music and an open-air cinema.

Szempla in daytime
The Szempla Kert ruin bar in daytime; no partygoers hanging out the windows…

The response was overwhelming. Soon tourists were coming from all over the world to drink and party in the Szimpla ruin bar. Many languages can be heard as young people (and a few old timers) mingle, drink, and listen to music.

On the night I was there, the place was packed, mostly with young Brits. I sampled a few of the drinks and listened to the band for the night, an indie world music ensemble.  The lively vibe of the place was electric, but also a little touristy. Perhaps the original local hipsters have moved on to newer, trendier spots.

Trabant in Szempla ruin bar
Drinking in an old Trabant… (an East German crappy car produced in the worker’s paradise)
Lenin statue
All follow Dear Supreme Leader Lenin!

During the Communist era, the authorities in Budapest erected statues to the heroes of Socialism. This art, called Socialist realism, is a style of realistic art that was developed in the Soviet Union and became a dominant style in various other socialist countries. Socialist realism is characterized by the glorified depiction of Communist values, such as the emancipation of the proletariat, in a realistic manner. The statues typically depicted the leaders such as Lenin, Stalin and the Hungarian dictator Kadar, factory workers, and farmers.

communist statue
Workers of the world unite!

After the Hungarian Revolution in 1989, the new government got rid of almost all of the statues.  Nobody wanted to see Lenin or Stalin watching over them anymore. Many statues were destroyed, but a few were saved in a place now called Memento Park. I don’t think the purpose of the place is to glorify this artwork with a nostalgia for the past, but to be a historical reminder of the tyranny that existed in Hungary from 1945-1989.

another Lenin statue
They couldn’t get enough of that Lenin guy. Vlad for everybody!

It was kind of bizarre to walk around this park today. I think the statues are symbols of the overbearing propaganda spewed at the people of Hungary (and the other Communist countries) for decades. I’m glad to see them gone from the center city, but they make for an interesting short detour on the way out of town.

Flag and man statue
These statues have to be big too, like the size of the Communist propaganda.

Hanging with Monet in Paris and Giverny

Monet's pond.

After my enlightening trip to the Pompidou Center to see modern art (as documented here), the next day I went to enlarge my knowledge of impressionism at the Musée de l’Orangerie.  The main exhibit at this Paris museum is a series of very large paintings by the master of French Impressionism, Claude Monet, called “Water Lilies” (Les Nymphiás).

water lilies
Part of one of the panels of the Water Lilies.

“Both monumental and intimate, Water Lilies are the ultimate expression of Claude Monet’s artistic ideas, an incredible project by a painter who wanted to explore all the variations of light in his garden at Giverny.  The paintings are housed in two elliptical rooms, and encourage the visitor to gaze in endless contemplation. After the horror of the First World War, Monet wanted his work to take on this aesthetic and poetic dimension, and provide a haven for peaceful meditation.”

The curved walls of the exhibition hall at L'Orangerie.
The curved walls of the exhibition hall at L’Orangerie.

Well put, by some pompous art scholar.  Each of the two large elliptical rooms show four massive and colorful paintings of Monet’s pond.  When I was there it was uncrowded.  I almost had the rooms to myself.  This was surprising considering I was in the most touristy city on earth. The paintings demand your attention and reflection.  I was able to sit on a comfortable bench and I actually did gaze in meditative contemplation at the paintings.  It was peaceful but not quite endless, because after a while I had to go to the bathroom.

Monet's pond.
Monet’s pond near Giverny.

Monet lived for much of his life in the Norman countryside near a town called Giverny, about an hour’s drive outside of Paris. For the start of my road trip around France I decided to go see Monet’s pond and find out why he painted it so many times over the last twenty years of his life. Since it was late springtime the flowers were all in bloom when I got to Monet’s gardens. As I walked along the paths I couldn’t help but marvel at the beauty of this place and how my late mother would have enjoyed it. I could see why Monet liked it here.

flowers in Monet's garden
A sample from Monet’s garden.

I wandered up and down the paths dodging the hundreds of grade school children who threatened to knock me down and trample me like a multitude of ants.  Each child had a paper and a pencil.  They were on some sort of class field trip/treasure hunt. I crossed a road at the far edge of the garden by using a tunnel and came out onto a path in a bamboo forest.  The path led around Monet’s pond.  Yes, the pond was still full of water lilies.

Monet's pond and water lilies
Another view of Monet’s pond.

By this time the sky had clouded over and it started to rain. As I walked around the pond the rain turned into a downpour. I bolted back into the tunnel to wait out the storm. When it started to let up I made a beeline for Monet’s house to dry out.

Monet's house
Hello? Is anyone home in Monet’s house?

The house has been restored to how it was in Monet’s time there (from 1883 until his death in 1926). Monet was friends with many of the leading painters of the day, and he hung paintings by Renoir and other famous artists on his bedroom walls. I also noticed a Renoir in the hallway outside his room.

Monet's study
The walls of Monet’s study are filled with his work.

Could that be an original?

(for more good Monet stuff, check Artsy’s Claude Monet

Giving Modern Art Another Try At the Pompidou Center In Paris

MacDonald-Wright art

Since Paris is one of the best cities in the world to see art, I thought it might raise my artistic and cultural awareness level to visit a museum. Of course, Paris is known for the Louvre, which some say is the best art museum in the world. I went there once before and got lost for hours in the Egyptian section in the basement. When I finally found my way out, I only had enough energy to see the Mona Lisa before my legs gave out.

The Louvre contains paintings created before 1848.  For the newer stuff, I would have to go somewhere else. I hadn’t understood the modern art I’d seen last year in Munich.  So I was determined to give it another try.

Pompidou Center
Le Centre Pompidou in Paris

I walked on a rainy day through Le Marais to the Centre Pompidou, which houses the Musée National d’Art Moderne, the largest collection of modern art in Europe. The Pompidou is a very strange looking building, built in the style called “Post-Modern/High-Tech,” whatever that is.  It looks like the builders went on strike in typical French fashion and walked off the job before completing it.  The building has ugly pipes on the exterior and metal frames that look like scaffolding.  When it opened, Le Figaro (a Paris newspaper), exclaimed “Paris has its own monster, just like the one in Loch Ness.”

After riding many escalators that appeared to be glued to the outside of the building, I arrived on the fifth floor to re-start my modern art education.

modern art
Workers of the world, unite!

This piece reminds me of some 1930s Soviet propaganda extolling the virtues of universal socialism. The colors are too dull and all I can think of is that I don’t want to work there. I would probably hit my thumb with the hammer.

I like the bright colors in these two works.  They would be pleasant to hang on the wall of my office.

Delaunay art
Windows by Robert Delaunay, 1912.
S. Delaunay art
Rythme by Sonia Delaunay, 1938.

It’s interesting that these were done independently, and many years apart, by a married couple.  I can imagine how they might have met in a Parisian cafe….

Robert: “Hey baby, I am an artiste.  Want to see my art? I use lots of bright colors and I like triangles!”

Sonia: “Trés magnifique! I am also an artiste! I use lots of bright colors too, but I prefer circles.”

Robert: “We have a lot in common. Let’s drink some coffee and chain-smoke Gitanes until that little Spanish guy shows up.”

Here’s another piece with lots of bright colors. It puts me in a good mood just to look at this one. Since it is modern art, I have no idea what it is supposed to be.  But the artist called it “The Prophet.”

MacDonald-Wright art
The Prophet by Stanley MacDonald-Wright, 1955.

After looking at lots of paintings of incomprehensible colored shapes, I was yearning to see something I could recognize in the real world. I came across this one that I liked. It made me feel – je ne sais pas.  It is entitled “Young American Girl – the Dance.” However, I can’t pick out the girl and I can’t tell if she is dancing.

Picabia art
Young American Girl/The Dance by Francis Picabia, 1913.

Most famous painters of the early 20th century were men. Being men, if they were going to paint the human form, they would most likely paint a woman. Somewhere I saw a statistic that less than 3% of the artists whose work is displayed in modern art museums are women, but 83% of the nudes shown are female.  This led to the complaint that to get into a modern art museum, women need to get naked.

In this painting, I can finally recognize the girl. I like the color of her dress, and she looks like she might be, ahem, a little cold. Something about her fingers looks creepy though. She’s also way too serious. Since this woman has clothes on, I’m guessing it was painted by a woman.

Lempicka art
Jeune femme aux gants by Tamara de Lempicka, 1929.

Picasso painted lots of nudes. He used wives, mistresses, and lovers as models, but hopefully not ever in the same painting. That would take some world class explaining. I don’t think this woman is attractive, even though she’s naked. She has really big hands and feet, and I think she’s giving me the stink eye!

Picasso art
Femme nue au bonnet turc by Pablo Picasso, 1955.

The only thing I learned during my visit to the Pompidou Center was that the modern artwork that seems to get my attention includes bright colors of abstract shapes or a naked woman.  Or both of those in a single painting.

What bright colors!
What bright colors!


Understanding Modern Art in Munich

Blue Picasso
One twisted blue woman.

I had an art class at college. I was an engineering student but had to take at least one art class to be properly educated. I recall sleeping through most of the classes because they were so boring.

My wife studied art and graphic design. So I make an effort to take her to a museum once in a while. Having recently landed in Munich, we decided to go to the Pinakothek Der Moderne (the modern art museum). It only costs one euro on Sundays, which is a pretty good deal to enter an amazingly large, white, and mostly empty architectural gem.

Here’s a blue Picasso. I can sort of tell what this is, but I’m not really sure. I wonder what drugs old Pablo was on when he painted it.

I can recognize this as a painting that took skill to visualize what it should be and then to get the paint on the canvas in all of the right places. The following painting is different.

Nice colors!

Good colors…, sure, why not. It’s very large, so it fills up a grand space. But what is going on here? It’s just some basic colors. I wanted to say something about this painting, but I held my tongue.

In an adjoining room there was an extensive special exhibition of pencil art on buff-colored paper. Most of the pieces were scribbles – circles, squares, random doodles. I could contain myself no longer.

“Even I could do that!” I said. “It looks like a child’s doodles from kindergarten class!”

A nearby German art class looked at me in horror.  They must have understood me.  After passing through a room full of oblong boulders, each with a hole partially cut into them, we came upon this:

modern art
This is modern art…. I think.

I don’t know what the artist called this piece, but it looks like a pile of metal garbage from the auto wrecking yard. I could imagine the conversation the artist had with his or her parents.

Aspiring Artist: “Mom and Dad, I want to spend tens of thousands of dollars to go to art school at a private university to find my inner artistic being and create modern sculpture out of old car parts.”

Mom: “Whatever you would like, dear.”

Dad: “Garrumphh. %^$#%#$!” You better get a job after graduation…



I next found this piece:

broom art
Modern (broom) art.

I can see the utility for this item. It might be useful for sweeping up sawdust from the corner of a wood shop. I don’t, however, see the artistic merit.

It must just be me. I don’t get it. I am too analytical and practical to understand the artistic mind. For those of you out there who are artists, please explain the merits of the following piece. (I didn’t take a photo of it because, well, I just didn’t want to….)

The piece was a medium sized, colored chalk drawing of a man. The man had a t-shirt on, and no pants. A bunch of balloons were in place of his head. The balloons were tied to a string, which was tied on the other end to his penis. On his t-shirt was a picture of Jesus.

I was glad I got into the museum for only one euro. I got my money’s worth. I think.