Hey Gödöllő, hey Medgyaszay!
Most people have heard of the ethnomusicologists Bartók and Kodály. István Medgyaszay, however, is less well known, despite having sketched peasants’ cottages in Transylvania, to the benefit of Hungarian architecture, with just as much zeal as the two great composers poured into their folk-song collecting; although this is only appreciated within the profession.
And if you need proof, just wander around a few villages. You’ll see the same thing from Tiszafüred to Csurgó: run-of-the-mill, mass produced, ten-by-ten houses. It was the Romanian philosopher, Mircea Eliade, who loudly proclaimed in the 1940s that “the Hungarians generally don’t have any idea of just what a great culture they have”.
Did he say this enviously? No. He said it with contempt, and rightly so. But who knows what tone he would have used if he had heard, for example, that an angry mob of peasants wanted to demolish the beautiful mediaeval church of Velemér. The carved stones would have been used to build stables. The aroma of incense replaced by the stink of manure...
And there was no better fate in store for Grassalkovich’s baroque palace in Gödöllő, although it was once the residence of our king and his consort. This fact certainly did not discourage the pickaxe-wielding sons of our nation.
Elsewhere, the homes of the nobility were not smashed up in panting vengeance. Not a teacup went missing from the Hluboka mansion in South Czechoslovakia during the Second World War. And there is another, bigger example. In 1917 Lenin posted guards outside the valuable mansions of the Russian aristocracy, so the red soldiers would not even entertain the thought of looting.
It is another matter altogether that the curse of the dispossessed usually ensures that the perpetrators of such acts get their just desserts in the end, as was the case in Gödöllő. It is certainly tempting to gloat a little over this, although I could perhaps rephrase that by saying that it would be a crime to interrupt the narrative flow of history.
So let us go back in time.
It is the autumn of 1918, the Italian front has collapsed and the soldiers have returned home; the asters are starting to bloom. The revolutionaries, demanding a republic, first tear them from their stems, then pin them in their buttonholes. This will be their symbol – the common denominator.
Everyone is heading in the same direction: towards the royal palace. One of them bellows out: “take back all that the lords have snatched”. Another waves a pickaxe, tries to climb up and, in the absence of the emperor himself, who has sneaked away, at least smash his coat of arms off the baroque facade.
With a little help, his efforts are successful. The two-headed eagle plummets earthwards, but – oh lord of mercy, forsake me not! – someone is standing underneath it. A moment ago he had every reason to think that he was making history, but no. History’s arguments carry more weight, and the stone eagle smashes his head to a pulp.
Unworthy people, unworthy events. So let us turn our attention to the worthy instead. I cannot help but notice that I have to keep leafing further back in the calendar to find suitable examples. Now we turn to 1902, when Dezső Malonyay embarked on his great mission, proclaiming that everything saveable must be saved. It was this idea that led to the Art of the Hungarian People series, which puts one in mind of Noah returning to fill his ark with the kinds of treasures that Eliade was talking about. The result is five marvellous volumes, which anyone would be happy to see lined up on their shelves, knowing what a treasure they possessed.
What made it so special was the collecting work of painters, graphic artists and architects. István Medgyaszay was one of them. He was twenty-three years old when he dreamed up the Hungarian Pantheon at the top of Gellért Hill. When he showed the design to the Viennese father of Art Nouveau, Otto Wagner, the master was stunned.
But just as there is a time and place for zeal, there is also one for collecting folk designs in Transylvania, and it was enough for Medgyaszay to learn that Malonyay and his associates were already there. He packed his bags and went after them, eager to see Kalotaszeg (today: Țara Călatei, Romania). This was the place of his epiphany, a place where “folk art and the life around him were one and the same”. The young architect joined the team, and started drawing the local peasant cottages with aplomb. Did he know that what he saw, and committed to paper, might be just as important a foundation for Hungarian architecture as the collections of Bartók and others were – at almost exactly the same time – for music?
Medgyaszay’s travels in Transylvania had another important consequence. He got to know a Aladár Kriesch, a painter pure of heart, whose eyes burned with a fiery light as he spoke of how he had succeeded in establishing an art colony near Budapest with his friend Sándor Nagy. They had no money, and asked the ministry for aid: “Our aim is to stem the torrent of generic fine and applied art from abroad.” They signed it, sent it, and lo and behold, they received two thousand crowns in aid form the art patron Elek Koronghy-Lippich. This allowed them to get started.
Kriesch talked ten to the dozen: first they taught peasant girls to weave, and to ensure that it wasn’t only their hands that were moved by beauty, the artists invited musicians to perform every Sunday, or at other times held recitals of works by Maeterlinck or Gorky. They believed that a person can only elevated if his or her soul is also moved. And this cannot be done with materialistic methods.
“Will you come and visit us?” Kriesch asked the architect who, sensing a kindred spirit in the other, promised he would go to Gödöllő. But it was not only the painter’s stories that attracted him.
Things – just like the arts – are linked by their resonating importance; although it is true that, as they pass, it releases them again.
Medgyaszay knew that other colonies like the one in Gödöllő had already been established as ‘retreats’ in Europe. Their inhabitants were repulsed by the world around them. The essence of this was summed up by a Hungarian painter, Tivadar Csontváry Kosztka, who also enumerated the causes of the problems:
“You were not satisfied with the healthy clean air, so you corrupted it with smoke and stink, you were not satisfied with the best spring water, so you filled yourself up with various liquors; the sun shone upon you in vain – you did not notice it, the streams babble, and rivers rush before you in vain; you were not the ones to make them fertile.”
You could write this on a sign, in big letters for all to see – even today – why so many colonies formed in the early 20th century, with the longing for a new, purer life in their hearts. For those in Gödöllő, there was also faith. Kriesch and Sándor Nagy nurtured a close relationship with the Nazarene painter Ferenc Szoldatits, who lived in Rome; and perhaps it was this acquaintance that prompted Kriesch to write in his diary: “art is sacred...”
And that was not all. The art colony had an ‘in-house’ philosopher, the gnostic Jenő Henrik Schmitt, who corresponded with their mythical ideal, Tolstoy. The attraction may have been mutual, as the great Russian sent one of his daughters to Budapest, reportedly to Schmitt himself.
Sándor Nagy was the most ardent fan of Tolstoy. In 1902, he and his wife bought tickets and travelled to Yasnaya Polyana to meet the writer, but they arrived without an appointment and Tolstoy declined to see them.
The great journey ended in bitter disappointment.
The sober Medgyaszay did not book tickets for such a long journey, although he certainly had cause for rejoicing. Kriesch had sent a message to the effect that he could come and start designing the studio buildings.
There could be no sweeter music than this to the architect’s ears, and when the train pulled away from Budapest, Medgyaszay was filled with the happy knowledge that, in Gödöllő, he would be able to build the first house of his own design. And not just one. Two straight away: one for Sándor Nagy, and one for the family of Leo Belmonte.
Was it this opportunity that prompted him to express his ars poetica at that time, or did he commit it to paper in retrospect? “In the global struggle of the nations, we can only keep ourselves on the surface with a strong and living culture. This is where the national goal meets the higher, eternal human goal”, he wrote.
There is no point in trying to guess. István Medgyaszay knew what hand fate had dealt for him, and he also knew that he would rise to the challenge. He would start there, in Gödöllő, where the sight of the location was enough to set his pencils and rulers in motion.
He was about to build hitherto unseen pieces of Hungarian architecture, but his head was certainly not in the clouds. His concentrated his heart and soul on the task in hand. And we know that if a person has energy and faith, both of these will be radiated back onto us through his work. Medgyaszay was such a creator.
Despite the close proximity of the royal castle, it was the studio houses that would draw leading intellectuals and artists to that location for many years to come. Gallen-Kallela, painter of the Kalevala; his compatriot the brilliant architect Saarinen; the dancer Isadora Duncan; the Swedish-French tapestry artist Leo Belmonte; Géza Maróti, who taught Károly Kós to draw; and another Finn, the sculptor Yvjö Liipola – for them, the familial relationship with us was no cause for embarrassment.
Indeed, Gallen-Kallela secured a three-year scholarship from the Hungarian minister for the young Jenő Remsey, who later became the last resident of the Gödöllő art colony at the age of 94.
But let’s see how Aladár Körösfői-Kriesch greeted Medgyaszay in Gödöllő. It was spectacular, the Kriesch children, four little people raised as free spirits, made sure of that.
The first time they saw him, they agreed that that they would call the architect ‘Brush’. And because in summer they slept in the open – in a sort of “half-shelter”, a partly covered, partly open place – one of them asked Medgyaszay to build a lightning conductor for their sleeping quarters, because they were afraid of being struck by a thunderbolt during the night.
They thought their father’s friend would forget his promise.
But he did not. The next time the architect took the train to Gödöllő, he brought the necessary parts in his bag and, to the little tykes’ great awe, he installed the lightning conductor. How could they not love Medgyaszay after that?
Gallen-Kallela admonished them for taking refuge in the warm room in winter, and to curtail this he sent skis to Gödöllő, in the hope that the colony’s members would take up the sport. And ski they did. When they happened to meet on the hills of the surrounding area, they always greeted each other thus: “Suomi!” – and that, by God, is beautiful...
Through activities such as this they brightened their days, which of course kept on passing, until one day the two houses were ready. The style was English, the know-how Hungarian, and, had it occurred to anyone in the baroque royal palace to send musicians to the art colony’s housewarming, the tune that springs to mind is Handel’s Messiah: Hallelujah! The members of the colony really felt that they had something to celebrate: there were the two houses, which were their own from that day on. That was the high point.
But then came the downward slope. The Great War, artists lost in battle. In 1920 Aladár Körösfői-Kriesch died of lung disease and the colony was left without a leader. And nor was fate any kinder to them later on.
In ‘44, Medgyaszay’s notes from India disappeared. The manuscript of István Zichy’s work on old Hungarian dress could not be found. Ede Toroczkai Wigand’s flat was hit by a shell, and he perished along with a vast collection of folk art.
The Orientalist Ferenc Zajti deserves a chapter all to himself. He curated the Eastern Collection of the Metropolitan Library, and was a member of the international group of scholars who invited Kemal Ataturk to compile a ten-volume Turan encyclopaedia. The first volume was reportedly completed, but nothing more is known about it. It was also Zajti who organised Medgyaszay’s Indian expedition; but in 1948 he was retired, and from then on he could barely afford to eat. In 1961, half an hour after his death, strangers arrived and loaded his paintings and manuscripts onto a truck. The priceless collection was pulped.
And that is not all.
In the 1960s, under the pretext of renovation, the Hun-Magyar sgraffito pictures were smashed off the facade of the Baár-Madas school for girls. In Veszprém, on the same grounds, they also ruined one of the miracles of modern Hungarian architecture, a theatre filigreed from reinforced concrete. Both of these buildings were masterpieces by Medgyaszay, who fell into the clutches of the personnel departments of the post-1945 regime. They did not go easy on him.
“Although he was not a member of any right-wing parties in the past, he moved in right-wing circles. He fully served the Horthy regime, and was a devoted follower of it”, reads one of the reports. But what else could he have expected, when his colleague, Máté Major, began one of his studies thus: “Our teacher Comrade Stalin has described the essence of socialism’s works of art most wisely...”?
Recently, company have nested in one of Medgyaszay’s studio houses. The other, Sándor Nagy’s house – caught in the crossfire of endless disputes between the heirs – stands empty. It has neither running water nor electricity. It was once rented out to artists, and many saw it as free pickings. Someone took this, someone else took that. As for its future, all we know is that in spring it will be used as the venue for an exhibition by the local painter Vera Balla.
The rest is in the hands of the Lord Almighty.
Sándor Végh Alpár