The Visual and the National: the Making of the Transylvanian Ethnographic Museum (1902)
Szabó Levente
 

It is not far from this vision Etelka Gyarmathy speaking about the latest huge Western European and especially Parisian success of the Transylvanian handicrafts as the mark of how Transylvania had lately become a compass of the latest Western fashion: "Bánffy-Hunyad, this small town of Kalotaszeg sets the standards of the latest fashion for Paris in matters of this handicraft. It is this small town that establishes what is on vogie regarding kerchiefs, hats, varrottas, all kind of embroideries for underwear?.  This is in complete agreement (at least on a conceptual level) with the representation a periodical of the time gave of the same phenomenon: the varrottas--she wrote also in 1887--"has lately been on vogue in the international centre of the fashion. The Parisian commercial house selling these Transylvanian goods has recently ordered thirty varrottasfrom Bánffy-Hunyad. [For example,] the small varrottaskerchief is widely used by the Parisian ladies on the occasion of going out to the theatre and since it is new and enthralling, many are already fond of it.? The very idea of the "primitive" ethnographic commodity being in vogue or setting the trends in latest fashion assigns the alleged primitiveness a central role in trends of modernity. Nay, in this case, the ardent supporters and Hungarian-Transylvanian commentators of this new trend in fashion add a slight evaluative and hierarchic element into the comparison of their own community with the Western European ones: compared to them and through their folk, they seem to have an alleged priority regarding the latest trends of modernity. Thus paradoxically, the emphasis laid on the Western European reception and economic successes of the Kalotaszeg workshops made some commentators portray the "primitiveness" of the Transylvanian ethnographic objects as the first successful attemptsfor the Transylvanians to be even more modernthan the Western Europeans. This new image of modernity based on and intimately interwoven with (and not opposed to) the primitiveness of the folk is radically different from the former narrative that appeared in ethnographic texts and objects--the repository for the ancient values not destroyed by modernity.

This new narrative is surely safeguarded not only by the representations I have already alluded to, but also by the position and attitude of the emperor and king and most members of his family, especially Prince Joseph towards the whole arts and crafts movement of Kalotaszeg and their legitimizing force (that, among others, materialized in their often buying and wearing / using the products of the locals). Primitiveness and also ethnography (as the disciplines accurately and professionally represent it) seen as the driving force behind the modernity of the nation, and thus not standing against, but in completion / continuation of civilization are such narratives that reposition also the notion of the nation established on rather different attitudes towards modernity in both the preparadigmatic phases of ethnography and also in some discourses at the turn of the century. This new attitude towards industry, industrialization, economic growth, economic market actually harmonizes the national narrative with economic development and at the same time places the national antiquity ("primitiveness") to be found at the folk at the very heart of nation-building. In fact, this new and interesting version of nation-building offered by tourism and ethnography (of course, placing themselves at the heart of these processes) is a part of a series of complex attempts to answer the struggling fin-de-sicle Hungarian and Transylvanian questions of whether economic progress and the nation can be harmonized, but they also brought forth the novel answer that Transylvanian Hungarian elite is trying to give regarding its own roles in Hungary and the empire. Of course, these latter answers are not purely narratives of wounded pride, but very complex frameworks springing--among others--from the struggle over the resources, be it financial or intellectual.

The double usage of primitiveness ("our primitiveness? vs. "their primitiveness?), respectively the emphasis on "our primitiveness? as being at (or deriving from) the heart of economic modernity was written also into the poetics of the Cluj Museum, in the sequence of the objects included into and excluded from the museum. First and foremost, the museum is based mostly on those objects which had (or were seen as having) a huge economic success at the different national and international exhibitions ("our primitiveness that stands behind national modernization"). In the public appeal that preceded the foundation of the museum, the Transylvanian Carpathian Association, a major Hungarian tourist association of the time, defined the role of the future institution as having specifically regional aims:

"Let us gather the creations of the phantasy of the folk, the works of the Transylvanian folk art and folk industries, so as they could become a realistic basis for getting to know the Transylvanian soul, to establish an organic direction and productive motifs in national culture, to prepare the national style and to be able to consciously govern folk industry, preserving its original character that has given its economic strength and success."

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