György Szegő


The National Salons of the last four years, themed on architecture, fine arts, photography and applied arts, followed the well-trodden path of Műcsarnok’s exhibitions. They attracted prominent attention from the profession, so much so that the architectural Salon was even visited by senior members of the UIA (International Union of Architects). The general public had shown increasing interest from one year to the next, and the 2017 Salon drew in some 25,000 visitors. The theme of this year’s Salon is living folk art: a branch of contemporary visual arts that is somewhat side-lined in the official institutions of art despite its continuous interaction with the fine arts. Living folk art is integrally linked to the social sciences; for an extended period in the 20th century it was even associated with the prevailing ideologies, thus representing a kind of danger zone of the arts, if you like, but one of its trends – which was actually opposed to the official ideology of the time – provided the opportunity to break out of the limiting confines. This is best exemplified by the dance house and folk applied arts movements as well as by the schools of organic architecture that acted against the ideology of socialism and scored a striking success, serving as models even today.

The Műcsarnok, a venue for exhibiting the visual arts, ventured into a brand new realm by inviting living folk art within its walls; for this reason, the curator was selected through a restricted call for tenders. When these lines are being written, the winner, Katalin Beszprémy, and her colleagues have been doing the preparatory work for the exhibition for six months. Having re-read the submitted tender projects, having reconsidered the mutually beneficial exchanges of ideas with the members of the jury1 and thinking back to my own personal experiences, I feel I must list some of the processes that have led up to the Salon of 2018.

The first one concerns the present: in the catalogue of last year’s Salon I called attention to the increasing role of AI-driven robotics posing a growing threat to what can be regarded as one of the foundations of our civilisation: the handicraft tradition. The works of applied arts and design exhibited at the 2017 Salon raised issues that were also at the focus of the conference (organised by the Research Institute of Art Theory and Methodology of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences) that supplemented the show in the Műcsarnok. Several presenters spoke about the preservation of the handicraft tradition as an epochal task. One of them, art historian András Szilágyi B., said the following: “At the dawn (or already height) of the post-industrial age, we witness a return to the most fundamental, virtually ontological questions. What is art? What is a product? What is joy? What is happiness? In what areas and through what activity do people find fulfilment? What is lasting and what is temporary? What is content, what is form, and how are the two related? What is the true essence of man and machine? Can machines per chance store content created by people »more efficiently« and by so doing extract this content and deal a fatal blow to the wholeness of our Humanity? Can we talk about knowledge available to all, »open source« knowledge if you like, and do people’s filtering role, talent, »God-given« abilities, personal relationships and environment matter? Where are the boundaries of a community? Where are the boundaries of genres? Can we assign value to mistakes and imperfections? Where do we draw the line between imperfect or »home-made« and

professional or, what is more, »perfect« works? When discussing these issues, we are not merely trying to establish the limits of design and applied arts but we are raising the cardinal questions of our own human existence if you will.” 2 This aspect of our creativity forms the backbone of the folk art Salon of 2018 and is highlighted by its title (KÉZ-MŰ-REMEK); indeed, its theme explores the above questions in the dimension of communal living, placing community at its core. The 2018 exhibition also emphasises that creativity develops personality and helps us to experience the fullness of ourselves, which is also at the heart of Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s flow theory. Csíkszentmihályi believes that “...flow inspires creativity and outstanding performance. Underlying the cultural evolution is an urge for ever more complex abilities to be developed and the level of joy to be maintained. This is what inspires individuals and cultures to develop into increasingly complex entities. The successful arrangement of different experiences is rewarded with the energy that keeps evolution in motion and it paves the way for our offspring, who we can imagine only vaguely from where we stand, but who will be wiser and more complex than we are, and who will certainly take our place one day.” 3

The other antecedent I must mention here is the long, comprehensive process of folk culture research. It is almost history by now but I trust that it is an unfinished, continuous past. At this point, let us take a brief look at some defining figures and landmarks. Chrono-logically the first such milestone was the five-volume work The Art of the Hungarian Nation (1907-1922), p ublished b y a rt h istorian D ezső Malonyai b ased o n t he materials he collected with his students, artists and teachers about rural construction methods, houses, interiors, ornamental art and folk costumes; this rich thesaurus serves as a valuable source even for today’s researchers. Almost at the same time, in 1906, Zoltán Ko-dály and Béla Bartók’s first folk music publication Hungarian Folk Songs saw the light of day. Bartók turned to folk music in 1905 and started using the elements of folk music in his folklore imaginaire compositions from the 1910s. His writings about Hungarian folk music, its influence and new Hungarian music were published from the 1920s and 1930s simultaneously with his musical pieces in which he combined classical and folk music traditions. His idea of drawing ‘only from a pure source’ has extensively infused not only Hungarian but also Hungarian art theory ever since. Zoltán Kodály presented his Plan of the New Universal Collection of Folksongs to the Kisfaludy Society in 1913. In the 1920s and 1930s, his Psalmus Hungaricus, János Háry, Dances of Galánta, The Spinning Room and The Peacock earned him recognition both in Hungary and abroad, thus popularising Hungarian folk music worldwide. Kodály opened a new era in Hungarian choir culture too: today the Kodály method is nothing short of a global brand.

While collecting and scientific research were carried out by prominent scholars, their students also set off on the path of combining folk music and modernity. A group of students at the Technical University, “Fiatalok [Youth]”, – who also participated in Malo-nyai’s collecting work – formed a new school on the foundations of Hungarian folk art, which rose to prominence in an international comparison too. The greatest efforts aimed at salvaging the fading folk traditions by using them in the architecture of the new century were made by Károly Kós, Béla Lajta, István Medgyaszay and Ede Toroczkai Wigand. Folk music was systematically recorded in the Pátria series, launched in the interwar period with the participation of folk music researcher László Lajtha. Lajtha’s activitiess in the area of folk music science also extended to folk musical instruments and folk dance research; he was even one of the co-founders of the International Folk Music Council in 1947. Another initiative which was similar in nature but eventually grew into a wider, real folk movement was called ‘Gyöngyösbokréta’, organised by Béla Paulini between 1931 and 1944 with the aim of familiarising the public with the festive aspects of peasant culture. The various ensembles of the Bokréta (Posy) Association (established in 1935) would hold a week of performances during the Saint Stephen’s Day festivities of 20th August in Budapest’s Municipal Theatre (today Erkel Theatre). The movement was disbanded in 1948 and from the 1950s onwards the activities of folk ensembles aimed at preserving rural traditions were an attempt to fill the gap, although they no longer had direct ties with life in the villages.

In the 1950s and 1960s, two researchers of the Museum of Ethnography, Edit Fél and Tamás Hofer, documented the peasant traditions of Átány, a village in Heves County, earmarked for destruction. They presented three thousand objects and eight thousand photographs to the museum. However, the thousands of pages of research material was shelfed and was only available in German and English publications for decades, as it presented a viable and coherent model that would have served as an alternative to the collectivisation enforced on the rural population at the time. Hence, Átány became one of the most fully documented villages in the world in modern history. In the end, the material was published in three volumes in Hungarian after the change in the political system in Hungary: in 1997, 2011 and 2016,4 and the summary of the fifty-year history of the research was presented to the public at an excellent exhibition at the Museum of Ethnography in 2009.5 The Átány project shows a close-knit community whose everyday life and performance were steeped in local values. Back then, local tradition and customs held generations together and helped their cultural self-preservation. Witnessing the troubles of our contemporary world, the need for a local approach – combining global thinking with the preservation and revival of local traditions – arises more and more frequently, suggesting that the self-sustaining model is far from being unviable; in fact, it might be the key to a successful future. The greatest benefit of the Átány research besides the comprehensive documentation it delivers is that it explored the connections between the symbols and object usage in the relatively closed, coherent culture of the village.

While traditional village culture was driven into the background in the 1960s and 1970s, these decades saw the birth of workshops teaching folk handicraft techniques; rural communities were sought out by researchers as well as by radio and television editors who featured them in popular series. It was apparent already at the conception of the process that there was something pointing beyond a scientific interest: ethnographers often did not only observe the objects from a scholarly and artistic point of view but crossed over into the present with the intent of finding ways to preserve and foster living folk art. This obviously necessitated great sensitivity and a timely approach. The issue of maintaining a scientific distance while at the same time ‘living inside the tradition’ was repeatedly addressed in the above-mentioned ethnographic research projects, and nowadays it is a fundamental question; hence the special relevance of this year’s Folk Art Salon. The comprehensive exhibition of living folk art and the professional discourse built around it provides the opportunity to clarify overlapping, at times vaguely defined concepts.

The above brief outline of the historical antecedents has taken us to personally experienced folk art. In the 1960s and 1970s, many people turned to folk art as a revolt against the ideological pressure imposed on them, as a gesture embracing their own culture as opposed to the ‘proletarian Internationale’. Remaining under the control of the political power and enjoying its support, the bourgeoning interest in folk art lost its political overtones and evolved into a genuine movement aimed at preserving value. Peter Korniss’s pioneering photographic series of Transylvania documented the dignity of a thus far unknown/silenced culture with dramatic power. During their travels in Transylvania, Ferenc Sebő and his friends discovered a living musical treasure rich in archaic motifs. The story of the nomadic generation, a movement building a bridge into the present, is recorded in József Zelnik’s volume.6 Due to the closeness/distance represented by these forty years, I believe the following sentence rings truer than a lexical summary would: the nomadic generation was about the rediscovery of folk art, its festivals, dances, folk music, handicraft workshops and so-called building camps. During the 1970s, young people came into physical closeness with the untainted music of Transylvanian villages and formed personal relationships reaching across the politically imposed borders. “These young people were led to the authentic rustic music guided by the finest scholars: Zoltán Kallós, Pál Péter Domokos, Erzsébet Török, György Martin, Imre Olsvay (...) And when Gyuri (György) Ilka from Szék played at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in the 1970s, his music was recorded on tape; what a different milieu that was (…) compared with the one in the 1940s! … The music of the Hungarian peasants, their dance music could be heard once again, taking its place among rock and roll and the other dance music genres.” 7 And there are many more – now diseased – Transylvanian musicians in the photos, who handed down the village traditions to the ‘nomadic generation’. One of the most influential masters of the ‘nomads’, Zoltán Kallós, has sadly passed away, at the age of 92, at the time these lines were being written.

So who belonged to the nomadic generation? Turning the pages of Zelnik’s book and recalling my own memories, I will attempt to list the leading figures of the movement: Sándor Csoóri, Béla Halmos, Ferenc Sebő, Ilona Budai and the Vízöntő band. Laura Faragó, Éva Ferencz, Sándor Tímár, Gergely Koltai, Gábor Czakó, Emil Gaul, Péter Éri, Mihály Sipos, Zoltán Farkas, Zoltán Zsuráfszky. The Boróka band, the Muzsikás band, the Bihar Dance Ensemble, the Téka band, Márta Sebestyén, the Mákvirág band, the Jánosi band, and the Fanyűvő band. And let me share a quote by Zelnik again: “…The real spiritual leader of the dance-house movement was Sándor Csoóri. He was a kind of wizard on the Hungarian cultural scene of the seventies, balancing between opportunities and impossibilities with an exquisite skill (…) accompanied by his essayistic thinking and linguistic sophistication. All of this inspired by such greats as László Németh and Attila József and »corrupted« by the surrealists.8 In his recollections, he quoted a statement once made by Csoóri: “Culture – whether folk of high culture – has the power to build communities at all times. Wherever it manifests itself, it reveals the true nature of progress, which is not linear advancement but fulfilment in every direction. It is, therefore, our duty to live at the centre of time, at the centre of a nation’s spirit…” 9

The two volumes of Zelnik’s Generation of Nomads focused on the activity of the workshops of the Young Folk Artists’ Studio and the workshops of the Makovecz school of young architects in Tokaj and Visegrád, where old-new values were created. Some examples of these camps reviving the tradition of folk crafts should be mentioned here: Fadd-Dombori, Csillebérc and Balatonszepezd or Velem, where István Vidák and Mari (Mária) Nagy, Katalin Landgráf, Győző Szatyor, Piroska Székely, Erzsébet Rácz, Antal Rácz and others built yurts, kilns, log houses and wicker-abodes. And let us not forget about György Csete and the Pécs Group, where Ildikó Csete, Gyöngyvér Blazsek and other artists directly supplanted the use of materials and techniques from folk art into contemporary textile and furniture design. Master architects Csete and Makovecz created a school, on the foundations of which new life was breathed into the organic architectural tradition in the decades to come. It was not only the construction technology that was revived since Makovecz expected his village houses to be built by the members of the community he designed them for and even coordinated these projects. Thus, the communities organised around Imre Makovecz’s village houses did not only construct their houses in summer camps but in situ, in their own villages. The shared moments – some festive, some mundane – are testament that village communities believed to have sunk into oblivion can be reborn in modern times. The students of Makovecz and Csete scattered around the country: those who were members of the Wanderers’ School of the Károly Kós Association did so out of their own choice, while the forcefully disbanded Pécs Group had no say in the matter. But they have all sown the seeds.

Born out of the mutual inspiration of folk handicrafts – left forgotten so many times in the past –, the institutions of a reviving folk culture, and science, the Salon of 2018 seeks to find the way to continue a tradition that started at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries and was carried on by the movements of the 1960s and 1970s, and to identify points of connection between the present time and living folk art. To conclude, let me cite the motto of the Átány volume, published in Hungarian in 2017:

“When country folk talk about their native land, they will sooner or later end up talking about their place of birth, their »immediate home-land«: a village, a yard, a kitchen and then a room with two windows where they once learned their mother tongue. In other words, they instinctively relive the history of a word in reverse, savouring the ancient moment when home and home-land meant one and the same thing.” (Gyula Illyés)10


1 Those invited to participate in the tender: Katalin Beszprémy, Anikó Fehér, Zoltán G. Szabó, Csaba Jakab, Péter Lágler, Mrs Miklós Pál, Miklós Sulyok, Béla Szerényi, István Vidák – Mari Nagy. President of the jury: Ferenc Sebő; members of the jury: István Csupor, György Fekete, Katalin Keserü, György Szegő.
2 András Szilágyi B.: Design – A fogalom evolúciója a posztin­dusztriális korban [Design – the Evolution of the Concept in the Post-industrial Age]. Speech at the conference Fogalmak és összefüggések az iparművészetben és tervezőművészet­ben [Concepts and Connections in Applied Arts and Design] held in the Műcsarnok on 4 May 2017.
3 Mihály Csíkszentmihályi: Flow – Az áramlat. A tökéletes él­mény pszichológiája [Flow – The Psychology of the Perfect Experience]. Akadémiai Kiadó, 1997.
4 Edit Fél – Tamás Hofer: Arányok és mértékek a paraszti gazdál­kodásban (I., Balassi Kiadó, 1997) „Mi korrekt parasztok…” Ha­gyományos élet Átányon (II., Korall Kiadó, 2011) A parasztember szerszámai – Átány község néprajzi monográfiájának I. kötete (III., Nemzetstratégiai Kutatóintézet, 2016) [Scales and Measu­res in Peasant Farming (I) “Proper Peasants…” Traditional Life in Átány (II) A Peasant’s Tools – Volume I of the Ethnograohic Monography of the Village of Átány (III).
5 Egy falu az országban: Átány [A Village in the Country: Átány]. Néprajzi Múzeum [Museum of Ethnography], 18 November 2009 – 13 June 2010. Directed by: György Balázs, Péter Gra­nasztói, György Máté.
6 József Zelnik: Negyven év után [Forty Years Later], MMA [Hun­garian Academy of Arts], 2012. Reprint of Nomád Nemzedék [Nomadic Generation] reprint in the supplement (published in 1981with the support of the Institute of Ethnography, the County Cultural Centre of Kecskemét, the József Katona Museum of Kecskemét and the Studio of the Folk Art Studio of the Studio of Young Ceramic Artists in Kecskemét, ed. Ferenc Bodor).
7 Ferenc Bodor: Parasztzenészekről [Peasant Musicians] in: Nomád nemzedék [Nomadic Generation], ibid.
8 József Zelnik, op. cit.
9 Sándor Csoóri: Élni az idő közepén [Living at the Centre of Time] (1971) in: József Zelnik, op. cit.
10 Edit Fél – Tamás Hofer, op. cit.