Companions, companionship and a community of likeminded people are fundamental to the human condition. We have an unquenchable longing for personal ties. New-born babies have an instinctive need to have close physical contact and interaction with their mothers and they might suffer lifelong consequences if deprived of these. Relationships are built on one another: the ties between mother and child, peers of around the same age, older children, young boys and girls, young men and women choosing their partners, married couples, family relations, neighbourly relations, the relationship between those meeting through work, between those belonging to the same ethnic group, the same culture, the connection between people sharing the same language or dialect, communities belonging to the same nation, as well as the integration, cohesion and sharing of interests and values define the happiness, success or failure, enrichment or dwindling away of communities and the individuals who build them; in other words, their entire quality of life. If any of these relationships is damaged, or deficient, and this can be seen, a desire arises to consolidate and form relationships, primarily in the most cultured and healthiest members of a community.
This same desire conceived the exhibition Hand/Craft/Art and the events accompanying it, since many of us believe that our existence as a nation, our survival and individual happiness is at stake. István Nemeskürti said at the turn of the millennium: “In my opinion, due to historical reasons the population of this country is no longer a nation, even though they speak more or less the same language, albeit more and more poorly, but merely a cohabitation of individuals looking after their own lives. There is no consensus in our society in important matters (…) and we are even decreasing in number, especially those of us who cherish the idea of one nation, so we are no longer able to make decisions in our own, significant affairs. As families have disintegrated, so are communities also disintegrating.” Indeed, every second marriage ends in divorce, the number of births falls far behind the number of deaths, and a large part of the young population are planning to look for employment abroad for better salaries. “There is not a single person nowadays who would not smile when we say we would expect them to feel responsible for their country, or at least for a fellow member of society. It is probably the same all over the world but that brings no consolation.” This tragic division of our nation is not new, since it was a leitmotif throughout our history and was deeply inherent in tragedies like the lost battles of Muhi and Mohács, the defeat in the Rákóczi War of Independence and the surrender at Világos, and the Treaty of Trianon. This sad fact was not only seen and written about by the best of our nation but it was also apparent to foreigners barely familiar with our history. For example, Bavarian economist Heinrich Ditz described our country in his volume published in 1867 in Leipzig thus: “Hungary is a country of extremes without transitions. The country of fiefs or duchies. The middle-sized lands are barely present or non-existent… This makes the alignment of interests extremely difficult. The golden middle is absent. The capacity and hard work of the lower social classes are not exploited. The assets of erudition and talent cannot overcome this divide. Each individual is left alone to their own resources. Mutual support is missing.” It is not my intention to review all of our history from this perspective and list those facts that are omitted from the history curricula and course books. Let me only say that in his highly esteemed Tripartitum Werbőczy ’disowned’ the serfs, who constituted more than three quarters of the country’s population, from the Hungarian nation, since he only regarded the nobles as the descendants of the Hungarian conquerors. At the same time, if only half of the peasants who were executed along with György Dózsa, the leader of a peasant revolt, had fought at Mohács, we would have overpowered Suleiman’s army with ease. Just like in 1456 at Nándorfehérvár, where John Hunyadi and his peasants vanquished the largest army of the world at the time which was even supported by the most modern German and French mercenary artillerymen (i.e. they supported the Turks, not the Hungarians!). The tragic division of the Hungarian nation was recognised by the greatest intellectual leaders of the Reform Era, as well as by famous poets like János Arany and Sándor Petőfi, when they enthusiastically joined the efforts of collecting the poetry of the Hungarian peasantry. As they expounded it several times: if the Hungarian intelligentsia, noblemen and bourgeoisie that had been mainly educated through the mediation of the German school system, would recognise and embrace the wonderful artistic legacy of the Hungarian peasantry, they will sooner or later start to respect the majority of the Hungarian folk in their society, which will put paid to centuries of their condemnation.
Indeed, art creates a bond between people, it energises it and acts as its vehicle of expression. A mother’s love will not reach the child’s mind and soul if she does not rock him, play with him, engage with him tenderly humming him lullabies. Little children become one through singing, dancing and role-playing together, while young people also profess their love with gifts they make – shawls, hand-painted eggs, carved mangle boards – and dance “to be seen”. Art is our most important sustenance and just like we cannot inherit culture, we cannot inherit art: each one of us has to learn it. And we must do so from a tender age through constant play. Little girls of 4-5-6 learn from the older ones how to nurse a baby when they once become young mothers. Roundels, dancing together, singing and folk games have no rivalry, hierarchy, winners and losers: there is only togetherness and the joy of being together, dancing and creating something together, when giving and receiving are equally the source of happiness and delight. The growing prominence of folk art in the Reform Era sprang from people’s desire to relearn and experience human ties and community, and this trend has continued, albeit not too spectacularly, for more than two centuries. In traditional peasant culture there was time, an occasion, a festival and a folk custom for every facet of life. For the last few decades this has barely been done, it has been forgotten, it no longer is.
The exhibition Hand/Craft/Art and the accompanying events provide a general overview of the successful attempts at reviving folk art, showing how a considerable part of Hungarian society wished to continue what had been started in the Reform Era: to turn to our wonderful folk art and folk poetry heritage to reunite a nation torn by weakened solidarity and loosened ties. I must stress that the overview is general, far from showing the full picture, since these efforts, which could be called a movement, have other elements and aspects that have not yet been thoroughly researched or are altogether unknown; a more detailed analysis would be certainly useful for the future. One of the undoubtedly most important facilities in the nineteenth-century movement was the Ethnographic Village, opened as part of the 1896 Millennium Celebrations in Budapest’s City Park, where each country presented a house and its furnishings typical of one of its ethnic groups. This open-air museum was regrettably demolished after the Millennium Celebrations and some of the exhibited objects entered the collection of the Museum of Ethnography. The collection of ethnographic objects and data preserved by the county museums established in the late-nineteenth and early years of the twentieth century played a crucial part in the folk art research that later commenced. At the beginning of the twentieth century the Hungarian folk art motifs were part of the curriculum in many vocational schools of applied art, including the goldsmith’s school in Budapest. These motifs were collected in Dezső Malonyai’s work of five volumes, The Art of the Hungarian People, published at the time, with its drawings and the photographs having been collected by Malonyai and his team helped by rural teachers and craftsmen. The architectural style known as Art Nouveau (szecesszió in Hungarian), incorporating the decorative motifs of folk art, emerged at the turn of the century, with Ödön Lechner being one of its central figures; it was also at this time that the artists’ colony formed in Gödöllő and was joined by numerous architects from Budapest and the countryside, an example of the latter being József Gere from Révfülöp by Lake Balaton, whose works can still be seen on the north shore of the lake. During this same period, the members of the Zsolnay family in Pécs, who founded the renowned Zsolnay Manufactory established an extensive folk art collection together with their colleagues, primarily focusing on the heritage of folk pottery but also including a variety of traditional embroidered and woven textiles, garments and other artefacts discovered in Hungarian, Croatian, Serbian and German villages. The decorative motifs of these object were then adopted in the products of the now world famous Zsolnay. (The collection is preserved by the Department of Ethnography in the Janus Pannonius Museum of Pécs.) An integral part of the movement was also formed by the folk music collecting activity of Zoltán Kodály, Béla Bartók and others, as well as the choir canon and singing Youth events built on its results. Simultaneously, a need arose among the urban intellectuals and working classes of Hungary and the rest of Europe to have their own folk costumes. Such folk costumes appeared in the years after World War I in Norway, Finland, Ireland and Bavaria, and not only became popular across these countries at the time but have remained a living tradition ever since. This striving did not really take off in Hungary, however, despite the clothes made by some famous Hungarian fashion designers, for example Klára Tüdős, being held in high esteem abroad too. The National Association of Hungarian Women also patronised this movement: they made and gave commissions for Hungarian ornate folk attire which included items like loose-fitting skirts and bodices for women and laced and trimmed folk mantles for men; a Hungarian folk costume was designed even for children. There was also a movement that took its name from an art song that went like this: “Mother, my dear mother, all I ask of you is to fit me with a Hungarian costume. A Hungarian costume.” They were also public assemblies with a procession of children dressed in Hungarian folk clothes. I myself took part in one of these, in 1938, if I remember well, when I was seven; I was wearing white linen shorts and a jacket adorned with dark blue trimmed buttoning. It was in these years that some secondary schools designed their uniforms. I remember the girl’s uniform of the State School for Girls in Sopron, for example: a light blue cotton dress with white embroidery. The students of the Ilona Zrínyi Boarding School for Girls had a different uniform but it also had a folky design. The only mandatory items for those attending the Benedictine Secondary School was a dark blue ‘Bocskai hat’ but the string-decorated Bocskai suit was mandatory in many other schools.
The growing interest in folk poetry and folk art was not /exclusive to Hungary. In fact, it was not Hungary where it was initiated, but we were perhaps the ones that needed it the most. The collecting of folk poetry and folktales started on German soil: by the Grimm brothers and under Goethe’s influence. The teaching of folk decorative arts and handcrafts, called hemskjöld was introduced into schools in Sweden; crafts was a mandatory subject in every Swedish school then (it only became optional a few years ago). While the Hungarian youth periodical at the turn of the century called Our Flag published several reports on this and it presumably had Hungarian followers, as far as I know no written documents have survived to prove it. The Gyöngyösbokréta movement between the two world wars grew out of the dances of groups of peasants in folk attire taking part in the procession on Saint Stephen’s day celebrations. More is known about the Gyöngyösbokréta movement than about the similar activities pursued by the religious, denominational youth movements, e.g. KALOT (Hungarian Secretariat of Catholic Agrarian Young Men’s Associations, KIE (Christian Youth Association), Soli Deo Gloria, or the ‘regös’ (singer of winter-solstice wassailing songs) scouts. They all worked towards a unified national culture and solidarity built on Hungarian folk culture and combined this with the need for spiritual renewal. These organisations were banned after 1945 but their ambitions continued in other forms, adapted to the new political reality. A great impetus in this process was the World Youth Day in Bucharest and Budapest with the procession of great – both in number and impact – folk dance groups. In comparison, the folk dance groups at Hungarian universities were small and inconsequential; the fear of being accused of nationalism was probably still alive in many people. An important role in fostering the recognition of folk culture was played by the establishment of the Hungarian State Folk Ensemble and the Folk Art Institute. Working for the latter organisation, Elemér Muharay (later the head of the Department of Ethnography) sought to continue the tradition that had started in the Reform Era – i.e. t he c reation of a Hungarian n ation u nited o n t he f oundations of f olk t radition – adapting it to the newly emerged circumstances. He also organised the professional supervision of the nationwide cultural competitions, in which he involved young people who had grown up during the war and were committed to folk dancing, folk music and folk culture. Muharay sent us, university students, to culture competitions held in every county. We had to choose the best performers from among the village singers, ensembles, dance groups, musicians, story-tellers and other contestants, who then had the opportunity to show their talent at the regional and finally at the Budapest culture competition. We managed to film or record on tape the performances of some older dancers, singers and musicians, who had previously taken part in the Gyöngyösbokréta movement; these serve as valuable source material for folk dance research. Muharay wanted to revive Hungarian folk theatre, the way Bartók and Kodály breathed new life into Hungarian choir culture based on folk music. (He did not manage to accomplish his goal, partly because there was not a sufficient collection of folk dramas, only a few children’s stories he himself had written for the stage, such as The Truth-telling Shepherd, performed in Sárpilis.) He invited several staff members to join the folk Culture Institute. One of them was Béla Szokolay, who tried to revive Hungarian folk puppetry, and was not only the author of puppet plays but also made puppets and other requisites for folk puppet shows. (I myself treasure some hand puppets, such as King Kokonfity and other story characters, as well as their accessories.) The folk Culture Institute also launched folk decorative arts workshops, of which several dozen operated in the country’s small villages with retired old teachers and Gypsy women together to do embroidery, weaving, drawing and painting. Muharay even organised the county-level supervision of these workshops, in which he invited experts of museums with local folk art collections, who made drawings of the museums’ up-to-then ’hidden’ treasures and designs for their recreation with the participation of the workshops. This provided the framework for the nomad generation, the Lukafa ethno-graphy workshop in Baranya County, and numerous folk art summer camps at various locations in the country. Only two or three of these have survived until today. It was also thanks to these developments that primary and secondary schools, which included folk art, handicrafts and folk dance in their curriculum, were established ; for example in Fót, Kecskemét, Aba, Győr, Tata and at least another six-to-eight places. An official textbook was also published to teach the treasury of folk art motifs: its author was a painter and teacher from Pécs, called György Platthy. The Platthy Foundation has been successful ever since teaching the traditional motifs of Hungarian folk art. The foundation has held numerous conferences giving an account of the results of their activities and how folk traditions improve the children’s initiative and creative skills. István Platthy, the son of György Platthy, is now the head of a home for children in state care, where he developed and introduced an art therapy to help damaged children through the use of Hungarian folk decorative motifs; his methodology has been acknowledged by the psychiatric profession and formed the subject of several conferences. In 1952 Zoltán Kodály submitted a request for measuring the impact of extra singing lessons on the efficiency of teaching general subjects and logical thinking. Unfortunately, one survey was conducted as a response to Kodály’s call, namely the one led by psychologists Ilona Barkóczi and Csaba Pléh, who supplied scientific proof in their book titled Study on the Psychological Impact of Zoltán Kodály’s Music Education Method (1969) confirming that music education has a very positive and significant effect on the development of logical thinking and problem-solving skills. This work is regrettably almost completely unknown in our schools, and it can only be hoped that one day the decision-makers of education will take it into their hands and realise that arts education contributed to the successful teaching of general subjects and the acquisition of the natural sciences curriculum.
I could also mention workshops, kindergartens, courses that teach and exploit the joy of art, creativity and the creation of beauty, exploiting it to heal the souls of orphaned children as well as to awaken in them a sense of national pride and solidarity along with the importance of creating or restoring the unity of a nation; it is time that we collected such ambitious and often barely supported initiatives.
Modern psychological research can prove with convincing scientific evidence that the weakness or lack of human ties and social capital not only endanger the development and growth of larger communities, a nation or a country, but even the health of the individuals that form it. Hungarian health statistics show that by a European comparison the loose or lacking social ties in our country have led to far more deaths caused by cardiovascular diseases, tumours and digestive ailments, while life expectancy is lower and the number of suicides higher, especially in the male population.
The exhibition material was selected from the best works and using the best methods but without the intention to generate any kind of competition and rivalry. As already mentioned earlier, folk games do not contain the elements of rivalry either and it should be avoided - especially in children’s games. It would be a mistake to teach our young ones to act as rivals. The same thing is true for sexuality: the little ones should not be told about it prematurely. The time comes for young people to find a partner; it is enough to educate them about such matters. In the same way, the time comes for rivalry: when the community they belong to has a strong sense of community and they have discovered the joy of creating something together. (Perhaps this comes at the end of youth or the beginning of adulthood, but not in everyone’s life – only for those who have such a need.)
The present exhibition also focuses attention on urgent tasks. For example, the schools in small towns and villages should be restored instead of district schools, even if this would require the reintroduction of heterogeneous classrooms. The necessity to travel long distances to district schools has an adverse effect on the quality of time children spent outside school, including their participation in artistic communities, choirs dance groups. Teaching art subjects and related skills is integral to the restoration of strong communities and ties. Therefore, more opportunities should be provided for young school children to learn about the folk customs, local history and ethnography of their native land, as well as about the less known regions of their country and the ethnic groups of their nation living outside the borders of their country. A longer-term objective could also be set: to teach our children about the folk customs of their neighbours living in the Carpathian Basin, since they might preserve valuable traditions we have already forgotten.
Hand/Craft/Art is a workshop providing instructive inspiration that will hopefully foster the survival of our nation. Its continuation and expansion are of the utmost necessity/