Erzsébet Katona Szabó Noémi, Ferenczy Award laureate textile artist was born in Kolozsvár (now Cluj, Romania) in 1952 to Erzsébet Bódis, a textile artist, and István Katona Szabó, a writer and editor. She became familiar with Hungarian folk traditions in Kalotaszeg, at her maternal grandparents’ house, where she fell under the spell of mainly women’s folk dress, ornamentation and decorative motifs.
She studied textile art at the Academy of Visual Arts Ioan Andreescu, where her master teacher was the painter József Bene (1903–1986). She graduated as a tapestry designer in 1975. From the mid-1970s she worked as a designer for the Leather and Gloves Factory in Marosvásárhely, and later she went on to work for the State Puppet Theatre, where she designed the puppets and the stage sets.
She moved to Hungary in 1983 and she has been active as a textile artist in Gödöllő since then. Modelled on the turn-of-the-century Gödöllő Artists’ Colony, she initiated the foundation of the Gödöllő Applied Arts Workshop in 1998. The creative studio and art garden operating there have served as a venue for numerous exhibitions, fashion shows and art workshops.
The branches of applied and fine arts are intertwined in the oeuvre of Erzsébet Katona Szabó: she feels at home in several areas, such as costume, tapestry and gobelin design as well as making leather collages and boxes. She has also tried her hand at literature: she has composed haikus and has made paper collages inspired by Shakespeare sonnets.
She has had numerous solo and group exhibitions in Hungary and abroad (Vienna, Paris, Milan, Cologne, Tokyo and New Delhi). Her works can be found in Hungarian and foreign public and private collections alike.
She has been a regular member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences since 2011. Her work has received various recognitions and awards.
The Nature of Leather in the Art of Erzsébet Katona Szabó
The Cult of Ancestors
Erzsébet Katona Szabó observes the tiny events and phenomena of nature, living by its rhythms and in harmonious unity with it. She knows the intangible, the laws of natural forces. She watches the light filtering through the foliage and perceives the changes of the flora. She knows the order of all gardens.
At times only whisperers can get close to the world of animals. Erzsébet Katona Szabó has been handpicked by nature, engaged in a dialogue with the environment around her. She traverses the woods and sometimes she stops at a soft and moth-clad rock in fascination. She feels the flora with her hands, studies the gnarled and veined trunks of trees. She explores the changes in the earth tones and yellowy shades of fallen leaves. Everything is the creation of Mother Earth. The artist believes that virtually all is moved by those deities – ancestral fathers and mothers – who coexist with nature. The discovery of this mystery pervades her daily life, providing inspiration for her art.
She nurtures special plants in her gardens: sweet figs, pomegranates, an ominous Judas tree, fragrant lavender, sage, wild forest flowers and shrubs originating from the Far East. All of this perhaps evokes in us the memory of the biblical landscape where the first ever human couple spent their carefree days.
The artist’s interest in Hungarian folk art can be traced back to her childhood. She was born in Transylvania and already at a tender age she became familiar with traditional motifs, which later defined her art: with women’s folk dress and its ornamentation as well as folkweaves, folk carvings and leather.
As she said, leather bears on itself the qualities of the natural environment that once existed. She encountered this material again in the mid-1970s, when she worked as a designer in the Leather and Gloves Factory in Marosvásárhely. They used large, tanned leather sheets dyed in various colours to make the components of the clothing items based on patterns, and the leftover leather bits of playful shapes would pile up on the factory floor. Erzsébet Katona Szabó’s creativity as a designer is shown by the fact that the leather waste, waiting to be disposed of, was given a second chance through being reused. Colourful leather skirts, bodices and smaller accessories were sewn in the factory, among other things, and later, from the early 1980s to the 2000s, these were supplemented with attires designed and prepared in the artist’s own workshop.
Fashion and the culture of clothing have their own framework and rules. The artist’s desire for creative freedom conceived her leather collages and leather boxes, which are displayed at the Műcsarnok’s current exhibition.
Ancient times revisited
Pyramids, monuments of ancient Egyptian culture, are lined along space-like desert landscapes. Systematically arranging hewn blocks of rock into spatial forms bore crucial importance in this long-gone civilisation. Pharaohs once dreamt of eternal life, which is strongly manifest in Egyptian architecture too.
Erzsébet Katona Szabó builds, cuts and sews her works using pieces of leather, which, regardless of size and colour, chime with the visual idiom of ancient Egyptian architecture. The individual pieces are akin to slabs of stone placed around, next to and above one another, while the cubes create the impression of weightless, floating forms in her works.
Diverse European origins
The origins of Erzsébet Katona Szabó’s style are to be sought in the diversity of European art, with the characteristic traits of Hungarian folk art traditions as well as those of the Viennese and Hungarian-style Secession, which emerged in the late 19th century, being equally discernible. During her studies in Transylvania she attended a school in Marosvásárhely, which was in the Secessionist building of the Palace of Culture (1913), designed by Marcell Komor and Dezső Jakab, where she was surrounded by a rich architectural ornamentation, such as by the works of Aladár Körösfői-Kriesch, Ede Toroczkai Wigand and Sándor Nagy.
With the foundation and running of the Gödöllő Applied Arts Workshop and art garden, Erzsébet Katona Szabó has been nurturing the Hungarian Secessionist tradition and the intellectual/spiritual legacy of the turn-of-the-century Gödöllő Artists’ Colony. The stylistic features of the founders of historic Secession can be found in her distinctly feminine new-secessionist tapestries from the 1990s, decorated with scroll motifs and combined with pale blue and light pink colours.
Mystical leather collages
The constructive and the organic approach, which developed in the 20th century, are equally emphatic in Erzsébet Katona Szabó’s leather collages and leather boxes filled with a magical charge. The works demonstrate a dark and light-toned palette, ranging from black through anthracite to the sand colour of deserts. These objects draw us in like labyrinths and observing them we find ourselves entrapped in space. Where is the way out or the way back in this maze? Here are several collages with diverse decorations, laced, light filtering through the oriental-inspired openwork material. Some of the larger pieces have smallish, open doors in them, holding the promise of passage into an unknown world.
Her monumental work The Wall (2003–2005) is among the most important ones in her oeuvre. It is supplemented by an ensemble of small collages, titled Sighs (2019). According to the artist’s concept, this group of works symbolises the Berlin Wall and the changes in the wake of its demolition, but the objective observer is free to attach other symbols, outside 20th-century European history, to these pieces: The Wall might evoke associations with the Great Wall of China and the Wailing Wall of Jerusalem.
Using photographs, the Műcsarnok exhibition also initiates visitors into the process during which the artist took leather back into nature: she covered the trunks of trees in the garden of the Gödöllő Applied Arts Workshop with slips of leather and allowed them to mature and age. She returned them to nature for some time. Later she removed the leather slips from the trunks are made new works from them. Such is the nature of leather in the art of Erzsébet Katona Szabó.
curator of the exhibition: Éva Markovits