We invited folk craftsmen for the first time to a national presentation at the Folk Art Salon organized in Műcsarnok.
This representative exhibition showcases selected works produced over recent years by some of the most prominent masters, together with the direct antecedents of the compositions; starting with the nomadic generation, the outset of the popular folk dance movement (the great folk art discovery of the seventies), exploring the influence of folk art on our material and intellectual environment. The selection is out to highlight the ways in which tradition, which we regard as our musical, dancing and material mother tongue, can be present in the life of people in the 21st century. The nomadic, folk-dance loving generation of the seventies gave rise to a fresh, new perspective in the perception of folk art. Folk dance was no longer performed only on stage, and craft items came to life by being used and manufactured again. As a result, folk culture became a part of everyday life. It lives on in various forms of communities, not necessarily in the traditional sense, as the culture of smaller regions or settlements, but in communities where this culture is an enlivening source of inspiration. Ferenc Sebő’s renowned words reflect on this: “Tradition is not a prisoner to be kept behind bars, it is not a patient to be nursed. Tradition has to be lived.”
The spiritually inspirational seventies brought together music, dance, crafts, architecture and the related arts, as well as environmental consciousness that started to unfold at the time. The fifty years that have elapsed since have proven that this movement was much more than an ephemeral fashion or the subculture of a rebellious, young generation. This model of preserving tradition has become a part of intellectual world heritage, and its radiating, sweeping influence that forged communities together triggered popular folk dance movements similar to the Hungarian example, in a number of countries. In Norway, a folk art university was founded based on the Hungarian model. Significant craftsmanship, otherwise destined to perish, has been preserved by the handiwork of today’s artisan masters. Our artists preserve this heritage in the form of usable, lovable objects and present them to the visitors of the exhibition.
Consequently, the exhibition sets off with the early beginnings, by presenting the memories and chronology of the popular folk dance and artisan movements, which took root at the same time. Through archive pictures and films, it offers a – distinctive if not complete – display of the objects of the nomadic generation. However, not wishing to get stuck with memories of the past, we also take a look at the survival of the popular folk dance movement in our days.
Moving along the axis of the exhibition rooms, we display the living culture of the great historical regions, primarily the work of local artists. The two highlighted regions are Mezőkövesd and Kalotaszeg, which have been in the focus of general consciousness and attention since the rediscovery of folk art the turn of the 19th century. This controversy-laden period discovered and consequently saved the folk ornamental art of several important regions (Mezőkövesd, Sárköz, Kalocsa, Buzsák, Kalotaszeg) while it also assumed a role in the rapid disintegration of traditional culture and the transformation of traditional values, primarily through works of art commissioned by the urban middle class. The trend continued during the co-operative movement of the 1950s. The activities of handicraft co-operatives were similarly two-faced. On the one hand, they saved vocational knowhow and ensured the employment of numerous local masters and people living in rural areas; countless valuable and outstanding works of art were created in the spirit of contemporary use, accompanied by serious work o n t he p art of e thnographers, c ollectors a nd a rt c ritics. O n t he other h and, however, customers came across a folk art degraded to mass production in shops and in the streets, with the exception of a few prominent and representative venues. As a consequence, a fake and superficial picture emerged in the public mind of the folk art characteristic of these large regions, and we would like to dispel this image through the works exhibited in this room. In addition to the two large highlighted region, we exhibit folk artwork from Sic, Rimetea and Székelyland (formerly Szék, Torockó, Székelyföld) – which lie outside the borders of Hungary-, as well as Kalocsa, Sárköz and the Palóc region in Hungary. The objects displayed on the central display of the room are representative of the most important pottery centres in the Carpathian Basin. Further on, the exhibition provides an overview of the role some objects can occupy in 21st-century homes; even though they were made with traditional craftsman techniques and the artists turned to folk art for inspiration regarding forms and decorations, still these objects turn today’s living space unique and “indigenous” through an altered, contemporary functionality. This room exemplifies that tradition is in no contradiction with the spirit or the needs of our age. We present the culture of objects related to the living room, the bedroom, the children’s room, to the activities of baking, cooking, storage, serving and product processing through unique pieces, which – in addition to functionality – are representative of a distinctive regional culture.
The next section offers a glimpse into our personal world, the sphere of clothing.
The general public is only familiar with the braided ceremonial attires traditionally worn by Hungarian noblemen (such as the “Bocskai”) and their various adaptations, “traditional Hungarian” wear that emerged at the dawn of the 20th century, even though there are countless other exciting and interesting trends in existence today. Travelling anywhere around Europe, one cannot help but notice that the Dutch, the Norwegians, the Finns, the Austrians, Baltic and many other nations wear their national costumes with pride and pay particular attention to showing their national identity through their clothing. It is natural for them to don not just their old costumes but old-fashioned attires made anew, using more modern materials and with a more comfortable cut. We Hungarians, who have richer traditions of dress than many other European nations, are often averse to donning our traditional costumes, since our particular historical-social past led to prejudices regarding their wear. In this room, we want to show how, starting from the reconstruction of clothes we can adjust our wardrobe using traditional techniques, shapes and decorations to our personality, age, or particular occasion, not only in terms of articles of clothing but also through the countless variation of accessories, such as jewellery, handbags, or shoes.
On the two sides of the nave, we exhibit emblematic groups of objects that shape the image of our sacred spaces, of our culture of objects related to eminent occasions, and our settlements. Sacred spaces represent one of the characteristic, distinctive places that ensure the survival of traditional culture. Our churches are not only the guardians of architectural monuments and styles, but their interior furnishings, painted ceilings, benches, pulpits, galleries, altars, and the Lord’s table carry the symbols of innumerable local cultures, and vice versa: the influence of church decorations often appeared in the elements of peasant home culture. Just consider painted furniture, embroideries, and woven fabric. Most of the upper-class, ecclesiastical embroideries discovered in the past few decades are the guarded treasures of ecclesiastical collections and secluded parishes.
Even today, our churches are decked with gifts from the faithful, as in the old days. In this exhibition space, visitors will see reconstructions of embroideries dating back centuries, as well as embroideries and clerical attires redesigned after traditional models and adjusted to the present-day, altered use of space.
Modern ceiling panels inspired by the typical, painted panels of Presbyterian churches, church interiors and finely-wrought objects used during ceremonies are also displayed in this space.
We present the numerous technical and regional variations of painted Easter eggs as part of the Easter celebration theme, as well as a few beautiful examples of Nativity plays, a newly revived tradition of Christmas celebration, and various styles of Nativity scenes. The different types of gingerbread are closely linked to parish feasts, pilgrimages, the celebration of memorial days, and family gatherings. A huge variety of gingerbread, characteristic of our traditions, is also displayed in this section.
In the other wing of the transept, visitors will see photographic documentation of structures that have significantly shaped the image of particular settlements, regions over the past decades. Kisgyőr is a prominent example, where the image of the entire settlement underwent a uniform transformation thanks to the summer carving camps organised there. We also present examples of how the carving movement of the seventies specialised in playground construction lives on in our days, as well as filmed evidence of attempts during the eighties to change the image of settlements, or the reconstruction of grave monuments that the wood carvers of Gébárt worked on at professional camps through the years after purposefully collecting and re-carving monuments from all over the country. Entrance gates were a distinctive feature of settlements in the old times and we also exhibit a few characteristic types of such gates.
The theme of the next room opening from here is closely related to this room. Land-scape architecture, ecological thinking is also conceptually linked to this period and its sphere of ideas. In this room we present the art of furnace construction and various types of traditional masonry, alongside the screening of movies about experiments and camps that served to teach and revitalize traditional architectural technologies and ideas that fit into the landscape.
The room situated at the end of the left-side aisle, features creative endeavours related to sacred spaces, which set out from historical reconstruction. Visitors will find here works of art created through various archaeological reconstructions, embroideries and laces reminiscent of nobility and the era of the Renaissance, vivid depictions of panel painting, the reconstruction process of painted furniture, Haban ceramics, vessels dating back to the Turkish occupation of Hungary or inspired by the Renaissance era, as well as historically and regionally representative examples of stove building.
The left side of the room in the main nave presents the cultures of larger regions, feat-ures a display of crafts, domestic and family workshops, for the continuance and renewal of which the folk art movement secured the professional background and defined the possibilities and directions of survival. Visitor are introduced to pottery, blue-dye creations and gingerbread-making, and ways to preserve and renew the crafts of wickerwork and chest-making. The section evoking our eastern traditions and the culture of objects related to pastoral life can also be found in this room.
The craft of felting had been committed to oblivion with the abandonment of the nomadic lifestyle. The technique only survived thanks to hat-makers and, in particular, master Mihalkó from Balmazújváros, who passed away recently. István Vidák’s and Mari Nagy’s collecting tours in Asia during the eighties and their courses, publications aimed at teaching and promoting the craft of felting started a very important and popular movement. Felting has become a craft taught in the form of vocational training. The manifold, innovative trends of this work can be seen in the room. Pastoral art, the objects, the world and culture of articles of use and attires related to the animal-breeding lifestyle, as well as traditional fishing equipment are closely interlinked with this theme; they are not merely paraphernalia serving a romantic evocation of the past but objects that are in use even today.
As to the last two rooms, the one on the left dedicated to music, offering a glimpse into the colourful world of folk music instruments manufactured today, with local ties and through the recordings of prominent publishers. An instrument manufacturing workshop is displayed here, which is also an interactive space: visitors can try their hands at playing the zither, the cimbalom, and the bagpipe. The finest of the handicraft schools are introduced in the right rear room. We believe it is important to show how skills can be learnt today, at a time when this craft is very rarely passed on in the traditional way from father to son or from mother to daughter. This is also an interactive space, a venue for craft workshops organised during the opening hours of the exhibition and which offers continuous playing opportunities for children.
The rich offerings of the exhibition also highlight the expansiveness of the folk handi-craft movement, its ability to involve a large number of talented people and authors. Though folk art has been buried and mourned many times and in many places, we continue to come across works of art that are more beautiful than ever. Despite the fact that an outstandingly high number of folk work manufacturers live and work in our country compared to other European nations, and several such craftsmanship skills survive that have already been forgotten in other countries or are being resurrected with enormous effort (Norway), many professionals still often pose the question: is folk art truly alive? Can we still talk about folk art in the 21st century when the traditional peasant culture has disintegrated, a significant proportion of our craftsmen inherit their knowledge in untraditional ways, learning them at school or trainings, and folk and peasant culture lives on in cities rather than in villages?
Yet this is folk art, folk applied arts. The difference between the two lies in the extent and divergence of today’s application of the source of inspiration, its contemporary rendering.
Tradition is not set in stone. It is not destined to be immutable and constant. We still create everyday traditions in the 21st century and tradition nurtures us. We embrace or reject it. Although we live in a global, or often virtual world, yet – or indeed precisely because of this – folk art exhibitions and events are a magnet for visitors and all folk art events are guaranteed to be a hit with the public. Do we carry our traditions in our genes and are these primal forces living in us strong enough to cope with the challenges of the present?
Can we content ourselves with this? What is our duty today, in this highly controversial age? Why is folk culture and the related lifestyle and philosophy important to us?
Tradition may perhaps best be compared to a tree, its roots. In the words of the writer Gyula Illyés, “the tree tackles the challenge of the wind with its roots”. Today we need the security offered by our roots as much as ever in the course of history. Our roots not only serve to keep us in place and lend us endurance, they also help, nourish and empower us. This power, this strong link to a place most beautifully manifests itself when we get acquainted with the traditions, history, culture of our family, settlement, our immediate and larger environment, we feel proud of them and we live in harmony with our traditions.
Bonding is one of the most basic human needs. A society incapable of bonding is bound to fall ill. Bonding, however, does cannot be taken for granted, and each generation must acquire and learn traditions from those who guard them. Most importantly: this must happen in a way that does not turn the process into an anachronism in today’s world, children and young people can relate to tradition the same way as the older generation.
It is important to be able to make objects that preserve our material mother tongue, the character of folk art and they are still modern, usable and lovable. The renewal of the jury system at the House of Traditions served this purpose with the introduction of the modern category. When we wondered whether to determine a proportion of the traditional and modern category applicable to the title of artist-craftsman, we came to the uniform conclusion that those who speak the traditional language are incapable of formulating new sentences and thoughts. At the same time, explaining to every folk artisan artist what modern means is an enormous challenge. We need new ideas, new formal-aesthetic solutions, and we, artisan artists often need help with this. We are experts in the trick of a particular trade but we need to organically embed our knowledge into design and the present-day culture of objects.
We need to think together.
Local culture, including local products, local traditions are becoming more and more appreciated today. Global trends and developments have an impact on us as well. The discovery of folk art at the turn of the 19th c entury, w hich i n H ungary l ed t o a rejuvenation of folk art, the assembling of great collections and the start of domestic industry movements, was a pan-European trend linked to the Art Nouveau. Had this trend not reached our country through world expositions, spiritual movements, we would not find even a fraction of our rich traditions.
Today we live in an age struggling with the same problems. In this globalised, single-use, standardised world, people have had enough of objects of mass production. We have grown weary of encountering the same flavours, products, trends no matter where we go in the world, be it Europe or any other country of the “educated world” where big international companies have set up shop. The protection of domestic knowledge and products was the underlying idea that triggered the Europe-wide “Think global, act local” movement, or in other words the “Small is Beautiful” movement, and many of its attractive examples are starting to gain force in Hungary.
In addition to clean food, we should devote the same amount of attention to local crafts, This would become apparent in the image of settlements, the design of buildings, fences, entrance gates, public structures with local characteristics, in the utilisation of possibilities offered by the landscape, in adapting to the landscape, in the form of taverns and costumes presenting local culture, and the manufacturing of small, imaginative souvenirs. The list of the countless ways in which local craftsmanship can manifest itself could go on and all these could help regional development.
This task is a challenge for us, since it has many aspects. While it requires the discovery, the definition and the re-interpretation of local traditions, this in itself will not suffice. Good marketing is a must, an attitude that should permeate our lives and our minds, just as we should be knowledgeable about local cuisine, good wines, and local architectural traditions. This can only be achieved organically, in cooperation with professionals from other fields, through common thinking and building networks.
This is no small task either. But the question arises: why do our artists and all of us touched by this movement insist so much on this? Why is it that craft, a spiritual commitment we can only begin but never give up – even though it is difficult or almost impossible to earn our bread and butter with it – exerts such an attraction, gives us such a vital source of energy? It was Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, American psychologist of Hungarian origin, who defined the flow experience. While studying the state of happiness, he also observed painters and found that the excitement of painting derives from the act of painting itself and not from p ainting a beautiful image. The activity itself is the source of joy. This fervour lasts for as long as the artist finishes the painting, and his/her attention already turns to the next white canvas and a new idea.
We, craftsmen, are the same way. When there is a great challenge, when we use our capabilities to the maximum, we experience this rare state of consciousness, the flow: the world around us ceases to exist, we lose our sense of time and space, and we only concentrate on the particular activity. It draws us in like a magnet, we immerse ourselves in it.
The proper application of abilities controls our actions, but since we are so busy that we forget about ourselves, a transcendent feeling takes over us. This state of consciousness is very close to what we call happiness. It gives us faith, creates order, give a purpose to our lives in the future. Is there anyone who does creative work and does not know this? I believe it is our greatest task to pass on this feeling, the ability to feel this way.
I would like to summarise the purpose of the exhibition with the thoughts of dr. Bertalan Andrásfalvy: “The Lord has created man in its own image, as a creator, a maker. This creative energy turns into destruction if man does not know, does not learn to use it positively, in creative action. Precisely because of this, one of our most important tasks is to pass on this creative knowledge that we possess to the both the visitors of this exhibition and to the next generations.”