Letter from Budapest

In 1913, Baron Ferenc Hatvany, the Hungarian Jewish artist-collector, bought Courbet’s The Origin of the World at the Bernheim-Jeune gallery in Paris. The painting hung in Hatvany’s Buda villa in a private viewing room for the next three decades, until the devastating fate of European Jewry caught up with him. It eventually ended up in the Musée d’Orsay, where it has resided since 1995. I saw it recently and it was electrifying. The explicit detail, the unflinching realism, the regal, indisputable title, the profound recognition of my own intimate body, at once known and hidden, there for all to see.  

Like most things Hungarian the connection seems obscure out in the wider world, the fate of all small European nations, particularly those east of Austria. Hatvany’s story is told to me by a pair of sanguine art historians. We’re standing in the storage room of the Kiscell Museum and I’m holding a small nude with a pair of pristine cotton gloves. In Hungary, when you work at a museum you’re not just there to look after the collections for the benefit of the people, you are there to protect the national patrimony from poachers, the kind that hold ministerial positions in the ruling kleptocracy. After I leave they’ll take the gloves home and wash them themselves, otherwise there won’t be any  gloves in the museum. But all the goodwill in the world cannot prevent those politicians from striding into the museum storage rooms and plucking paintings from the national collections for their own private use. Maybe it would be better if those sanguine art historians were armed with something other than degrees and decency. 

Courbet’s stupendous pudendum reminds me of another painting that hangs way south of Paris in my mother’s beach house outside of Sydney. Like Hatvany, who became a refugee in Paris in 1947, my mother was also a refugee from Hungary. Like the Courbet, it’s a front and centre candid pussy painting, but it’s not tucked away in a private viewing room. It hangs in pride of place in the entrance hall of the house, which we’ve dubbed the punszi hall, punszi being our childhood name for pussy, a Hungarian word that my parents brought over, among thousands of others, from their land of origin. Being Holocaust survivors, it was a place which they would sooner have forgotten ever existed. Splayed thighs, untidy stocking halfway down her shapely legs. On the right side of the canvas is the distinctly awed painter, peering out from behind his easel as he tries to capture her vaginal likeness in paint. But she is no onanistic headless nude, she’s not only very visible, she is also very visibly bored, fed up with this guy’s fawning adoration. She doesn’t need it, she already knows her pussy is the origin of everything. 

When we were kids, my mother would wear these very sheer knee-length nighties around the house without any knickers on. She’d wear them when we had friends over, when she drove us to school, and even when there were tradies in the house. Occasionally, in a show of modesty, she’d throw on a little white broderie anglaise housecoat that ended just at the summit of her bush. Mortifying stuff. I know I must have asked her about those nighties, and I’m sure she slapped back my question with a quip along the lines of, “If you don’t like it, don’t look at it.” Of course, it was impossible not to, and surely this was the inscrutable point. 

My mother was a huge Francophile, and if she’d had her way she would have been Parisian, the perfect revenge for her scrappy, traumatic childhood in Stalinist Hungary. She arrived to Australia with a cardboard suitcase, and within a year she’d married my father, within another five she’d given birth to four children. But what she wanted above all was to transform herself, to erase the hard scrabble misery of her childhood. So she taught herself about art, became a connoisseur, a collector of many things: paintings, rugs, silver, porcelain. 

Curiosity about my mother galvanised me as a writer and led me to ask her many questions about her childhood. In interviews lovingly stored away in cassette boxes she is both forthcoming and evasive, a two-step dance she kept up her entire life, never quite certain about boundaries and proprieties, before finally deciding she didn’t give a damn about either.  

With my ancestry you could really only hate the old country. It made sense to hate it, it was more logical than finding reasons to like it. But I didn’t just like Budapest, I fell in love with it, and with him too, my forever husband-boyfriend-lover. It was kismet, beshert and tikkun olam, a backflip in time and space, the essential portal to annul my transgenerational trauma. But none of it would have been possible without speaking Hungarian. In essence, Hungarian isn’t a language you actually speak, you inhabit it, it’s geography, it’s the babel within wherever you are. According to Arthur Koestler, this linguistic isolation makes the Magyars “the loneliest on this continent.” Speaking Hungarian is the calling card that flattens all those degrees of separation, in ways that only kinship can. 

Having survived the Holocaust in hiding, Ferenc Hatvany finally escaped Hungary in 1947, just as the country was on the brink of a hostile takeover by the Communists. He was allowed to take just one painting from his collection with him, a painting that was officially deemed to be worthless. It was The Origin of the World. Of the 700 pieces that made up Hatvany’s art collection, only ten ended up in his hands. As Irina Antonova the former director of the Pushkin Museum put it, restitution “will never take place.” The flight from Hungary continues apace today. It is the largest exodus since the failed anti-Soviet uprising of 1956, but the Orbán regime has buried that number, along with Hatvany’s collection.  

My mother never seemed to have the same curiosity about my life as I had for hers, but if she’d asked me why the hell Budapest, what’s the goddam interest, this is what I would have said. In Budapest, it’s not about what you have, it’s about what you know. I like poetry and ideas, they’re portable, like violins and diamonds. They’re good for the soul on an ordinary day, and essential to existence when life feels like cut glass in your feet.  

Nicole Waldner