In Bánffyhunyad (now Huedin) Zsigmond Gyarmathy, director of the Bánffyhunyad Savings Bank, and his wife Etelka spread the fame of Kalotaszeg folk art in Hungary and abroad, and organized exhibitions to present the Kalotaszeg region, among others at the 1885 National Exhibition and Fair and the 1896 Millenary Exhibition. As a well known writer of the day, Etelka Gyarmathy also popularized Kalotaszeg. She hosted Habsburg archduchesses, renowned Hungarian and foreign artists – including the Englishman Walter Crane and the Finn Akseli Gallen-Kallela – as well as ethnographers Antal Herrmann, János Jankó, Ottó Herman and Béla Vikár.

The Hungarian Ethnographical Society was formed in 1889 and the Society’s journal, Ethnographia, was launched in 1890. In the following years Antal Herrmann, one of the leading organizers of the Society, leased the Jegenye Spa in Kalotaszeg and tried to make it a summer resort of intellectuals and artists, and even to develop it into an “ethnographers’ colony”. On his return from an Oriental study tour, János Jankó (later director of the Museum of Ethnography, planner and organizer of the Ethnographic Village at the Millenary Exhibition) also went to Jegenye Spa to rest but was so inspired by the attractive and varied vicinity that he immediately began to work on an ethnographic monograph of Kalotaszeg. This was to be the first district monograph in Hungarian ethnographic literature.

In the early years of the century, Kalotaszeg was the region represented by the largest number of articles in both the Museum of Ethnography in Budapest and in the ethnographic museum in Kolozsvár (now Cluj) of the Carpathian Society of Transylvania. Both Béla Vikár and Béla Bartók collected folk music in Kalotaszeg. Dezs? Malonyay drew on these precedents when he edited “Kalotaszeg” (1908), the first volume in the series entitled “Art of the Hungarian People”, an undertaking which stressed the importance of artistic appreciation rather than ethnographic and scholarly considerations. This highly influential book introduced the concept of “folk art” into Hungarian public awareness.

  Kalotaszeg is a region in Transylvania comprising around 40 villages with Hungarian and Hungarian-Romanian mixed population, located among the mountains that separate the Transylvanian Basin from the Hungarian Great Plain. 

In the second half of the 19th century it was perhaps in the villages of Kalotaszeg that folk art flourished in the richest and most varied forms: costume, painted furniture, woodcarving, embroidery, weaving and a great many genres producing minor objects, vocal and instrumental music, dance, and festive customs all existed side by side and intertwined. 

This exhibition wishes to present three intertwined “narratives”. 

The first concerns the nature of Kalotaszeg folk art and how it developed. How the costumes and ornamentations changed – from the 18th century painted church ceilings to the simplified, vigorous motifs of the later painted furniture, from the earlier restrained costumes to the later richly decorated variants. Painters and poets – including Endre Ady – who visited Kalotaszeg in the early 20th century were greatly impressed by the artistic refinement of everyday life and festive occasions in Kalotaszeg. 

The exhibition also aims to give an idea of how Hungarian society of the time “discovered” the folk art of Kalotaszeg. In the 1870s, 80s and 90s throughout Europe attention turned to village buildings, costumes, objects and folk art. In each country a few chosen regions became the representatives of “folk tradition”. French artists moved to Bretagne for village motifs, the Finns were enthusiastic about Karelia and the Swedes about Dalarna. In a similar way, in Hungarian public opinion Kalotaszeg became the embodiment of folk art. The second narrative of the exhibition is about how artists, writers and scholars discovered Kalotaszeg, and how the beginnings of ethnography in Hungary were also linked to Kalotaszeg, how Kalotaszeg and folk art became part of the Hungarian national culture.

Despite the flourishing folk art, the people of Kalotaszeg and especially those in the villages high up in the mountains, were afflicted with poverty. Men and women alike were forced to seek a living elsewhere, as seasonal harvest workers on the Great Plain. This explains how it was in Kalotaszeg that embroidery and carving done for sale first became a way of earning a livelihood. The first attempts to organize the folk art cottage industry began in Kalotaszeg. The itinerant trade taking folk art to distant regions arose here. This is the third narrative that the exhibition attempts to present. This process too can be seen as an example, of how a new type of village entrepreneurs arise, how business interests cause a deterioration in the quality of the products, and also how spontaneous attempts arise to preserve and pass on the local values.


1. First two rooms

These two rooms show how the unfolding of Hungarian ethnography was linked to Kalotaszeg, an ethnographic region in Transylvania, presenting documents to illustrate this connection. The first major expositions held in the 19th century (1873 Vienna, 1885 Budapest, 1896 Millenary Exhibition Budapest) helped the development of ethnography: the work done by the first outstanding scholars of the discipline, János Xantus, János Jankó, and Antal Herrmann, founder of the Ethnographical Society, was associated with Kalotaszeg. Items (documents of the woodcarving school, objects, embroideries) evoking the work of Zsigmond Gyarmathy and his wife can be seen. The Gyarmathys created the Kalotaszeg cottage industry, providing work for men and women in the villages. The folk art activity that emerged as a result of this cottage industry attracted many visitors, among them artists and scholars such as the English painter Walter Crane, whose sketches done in Kalotaszeg can be seen. The recreated interiors evoke the conception and exhibition style of the 1885 and 1896 expositions.


2. In the third room

the development of embroidery as a cottage industry can be followed. The embroidery techniques most readily saleable to middle class clients are shown. From this point on the local people made a distinction between the embroidery done for themselves and that produced for aristocrats, artists and townsfolk (e.g. the ball gown and man’s waistcoat to be worn with a dress-coat, the bedspreads and curtains). The “written” embroidery which later became fashionable was mainly done for their own use and it was really only after the First World War that it became commercially popular. The exhibition also recalls the folk singer Kata Tamás and an original recording of her singing (1910). Béla Vikár was the first to use the phonograph to collect folk music: it was Kata Tamás who sang for him in Bánffyhunyad in the Kalotaszeg region.


3. The fourth, large room 

presents the folk art genres as a whole in Kalotaszeg in the period from 1880 to 1910. The items of costume, the techniques and characteristic style of the ceramics and furniture, typical only of Kalotaszeg illustrate the outstanding achievements of the second richest period of folk art. 

The patterns on the aprons and bodices, the skirts, the shirts and leather waistcoats, the boots and head-dresses authentically show the early range of colours, style and variety of techniques that once attracted the attention of different strata of society, travellers, artists and poets. Through the impressions of Kalotaszeg folklore, the folk art of this region lived on in elite culture, in the music of Bartók, the work of architects and painters – in particular the artists of the Gödöll? circle, and the buildings of Károly Kós. 

The Kalotaszeg stove tiles preserve the memory of a distinctive local ceramic art. The decorative ware which was kept in the front room, reached the trousseaus of young girls in the Kalotaszeg region from 18th century Habaner workshops (Alvinc, Győr) and later, from other renowned workshops (Torda, Ziláh). 

A showcase is devoted to the work of Dezs? Malonyay, presenting the first volume on Kalotaszeg in his series on Hungarian folk art planned to run to five volumes, as well as the influence of his work and that of his team of assistants on decorative art and fine art. In the case of decorative art this took the form of the intention to create a “Hungarian-style” national language of form, while in the fine arts an attempt was made to create art in the frame of an entirely new lifestyle, following the example and programme of the English Pre-Raphaelites (Gödöll? School). 

The last section on the right side of this large room presents the folk art objects that found their way into the homes of the middle class, showing the influence of this turn-of-the-century movement on the life of the middle class and also in the subsequent existence of decorative, genuine peasant articles. The objects placed in the villas and mansions of the middle class, aristocrats and artists led to the Art Nouveau movement in the decorative and fine arts. 



4. In the fourth room 

the exhibition presents what is perhaps the most important branch of Kalotaszeg folk art: the art of the Calvinist churches, with details of the painted church interiors that came into fashion in the 17th–18th centuries, the panelled ceilings and the richly embroidered church textiles. 


The summer holidays spent in Kalotaszeg and the impressions gained had a decisive, lifelong influence on the art of Aladár Kőrősfői-Kriesch, the leading figure of the Gödöll? School; a carpet design, paintings and table show how Kalotaszeg was reflected in the work of this outstanding Hungarian Art Nouveau painter.

  5. In the sixth room, 

parallel with this, can be seen the peasant architecture which shows striking characteristics within the folk art of Kalotaszeg. Richly carved ornamentation came to play an increasing part on the facades and verandas, perhaps the indirect result of the woodcarving school already mentioned. We show the original buildings and their major types, as well as architectural designs and models of buildings in which elements of Kalotaszeg folk architecture were used, in particular the Gothic towers and turrets of its church architecture. In the early years of the 20th century Hungarian architects attempted to create a “national” architectural style from elements of folk architecture. After the first wave, which used the elements as decoration, the second generation of architects incorporated the characteristic features of peasant architecture in the structure and interior of their buildings. Károly Kós’s model of the buffalo house in the Budapest Zoo, destroyed during the Second World War, is the most striking example of the successful achievements of this school of architecture. 



6. In the seventh room

we trace Kalotaszeg folk art, its history and changes up to the 1930s and 1940s, and further, right up to the present.

The redrawing of the borders (1920) played a big role in the course of folk art and changes in its style. Kalotaszeg became part of Romania and had to retain its earlier markets and livelihood in a different commercial environment. We show objects made for sale in the interwar years, and show the changes that occurred with modernization in the homes of the main buyers, the middle class in Hungary (furnishings of an entrance hall and lounge), and in their own clothing.

From here, we trace the path of Kalotaszeg embroidery in women’s fashion design and its role in the teaching of drawing and embroidery in the schools.

In that period the local people still wore their semi-festive costumes in the festivities held to mark the end of haymaking; in the fields they wore the famous and beautiful hats decorated with ribbons (an example is shown on the dummy), and men, women and young girls alike still wore the full festive costume for church feasts.


7. The eighth room is devoted to customs.

The festive customs, especially the weddings, played a big part in the discovery of Kalotaszeg folk art. The most exciting experience for outsiders and travellers was a wedding or church feast where they were able to observe and even take part in the special occasions of these people, and witness the show-like appearance of their luxuriant art and folklore. This is why we have set aside a separate room for objects more decorative than usual and associated with festive customs. In cases these even played a central role, like the painted and carved yoke used when drawing the bride’s cart to give even greater pomp to the spectacular procession taking the bride’s trousseau to her new home and to demonstrate the prosperity and success of a family to both outsiders and the village.


The milestones of life, christening, confirmation, wedding and funeral, were special events for the whole community, regulated by strict rules and prescriptions, but their splendour remained in the participants’ memories for years. These events were especially rich in customs in which we often find mediaeval church rules, pre-Christian beliefs and rites, indicating how strongly they clung to customs as a way of reinforcing their identity. Their costumes still live as a symbol of “Calvinist Hungarians” and appear in national celebrations, commemorations and events, both in Hungary and among those living beyond the border. Distinctive decorative objects of outstanding folk art value were also associated with the cemetery and burial. They include the carved spades used to throw earth into the grave at burials; they had a symbolical meaning in the course of farewell to the dead. The carved grave-markers became a characteristic feature of the region and are now used symbolically throughout the country at historical commemorative sites as important vehicles of Hungarian national identity.

8. The ninth and final room shows the present. 

Kalotaszeg still tries to live from tourism; by preserving its identity it remains an outstanding ethnographic region of Transylvania. The commercial activity is in the process of change. It is no longer principally their own folk art that they offer for sale in shops and stalls set up along the streets, but groups of “folk” and “folk-type” objects generally better adapted to the demands of tourism. They make the richly embroidered items of folk art mainly for themselves, principally to wear at church feasts. These are now decorated with a highly labour-intensive, new style of beaded embroidery; the colours are also intensified and the size of the embroidered surfaces is also growing. In the same way, the “fancy room” (front room) shown to tourists to illustrate the local culture, people and their artistic creative activity, is also becoming more colourful. 

The region also has a rich store of music and dances which have been explored and collected from the early years of the 20th century, most notably by Béla Vikár, Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály. The dance houses offer living folklore occasions in Budapest, Cluj and Kalotaszeg for urban youth and university students.

In Méra, the village which has preserved the old costumes most fully, there are 40 variants of folk costume, depending on the occasion, season and age, and reflecting the wearers’ taste.

The CD players, slide projectors and video players in the exhibition show folk art objects, folk customs, as well as archive cinema films and documentary films on Kalotaszeg.

Co: Támas Hofer, Éva Szacsvay
Translation: E. Antalffy
Photo: Erzsébet Winter and László Roboz
Web: Réka Szekrényesy, Péter Höltzl
© 1998, Museum Of Ethnography, Budapest

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