For several years now, when taking the back roads home from Nagykanizsa, I’ve passed a signpost to Zalaújlak. Each time I’ve promised myself that someday I would visit that village and see what’s there. That someday was today. We drove the long, straight road through the village of Csapi which dates back to the 1300s but didn’t get piped potable water or gas till the 1990s. Telephone wires were strung around then, too, followed by cable TV in 2010 and fibre-optic Internet in 2018. It might have taken a while to get going but Csapi is definitely on the move. Signs of gentrification abound and I suspect this hidden village has been officially discovered. Replete with old vibrant paint jobs, it has potential. [More on Hungarian cube houses and expressing individualism in an era of sameness.]
This five-digit road, an offshoot of Route 7, ends in Zalaújlak. We drove as far as we could and turned around. It was like many other villages in the area, a mix of newly renovated and newly built houses alongside others in various states of disrepair and abandonment. The post office was closed. The shop was shuttered. The only sign of life was smoke coming from a lone chimney. It was strangely quiet.
In one yard sat half a dozen Volkswagen Beetles in various colours, all a shadow of their factory-floor selves. I can’t remember ever seeing one in Hungary before, running or not. I didn’t think to stop to look to see if they had any plates. I did wonder who lived there. I should have taken note of the address and checked to see whose name was on the title deed. You can do that here. It’s a little unnerving.
Maybe halfway through the village on the left sits the József Egry memorial house. Closed, of course. I’ll admit to never having heard of the chap but when I looked him up it seems I’ve been missing out.
Born in Zalaújlak in 1883, Egry is known to those who know as a Balaton festője (the painter of Lake Balaton). He taught himself the rudiments of painting by studying the work of Mihály Munkácsy at the National Museum. And then only on days when he had shoes to wear. His parents, labourers both, had moved to Pest at this stage and Egry’s idea of a holiday was a day studying Munkácsy at the museum. Discovered by art historian Károly Lyka, he managed to attend evening classes in art at the Julian Academy in Paris before getting a two-year scholarship to study under Károly Ferenczy at the Budapest School of Design. And if like me, you are none the wiser, Ferenczy is considered ‘the father of Hungarian impressionism and post-impressionism’ and the ‘founder of modern Hungarian painting’.
Things seemed to go Egry’s way after this. In 1907, his piece a Menhely előtt (Before the shelter) won him a major prize at an exhibition at the Műcsarnok and in 1909, he had his first solo exhibition at Művészházban. For so many young men his age, WWI disrupted his plans. He was drafted in 1915 and during his training became seriously ill. While recovering, he met his wife-to-be Juliska Pauler. They married in 1918, first living in Keszthely and then in Badacsony.
His paintings have a wistfulness about them, an etherealness that is just a silken thread beyond the realm of my wishfulness. I have spent a couple of hours looking through what images I can find and they are beautiful. I certainly wouldn’t say no to Balatoni halászok (Balaton fishermen) and while I’d happily go see his work were it being exhibited, most of it is a little too dissolved for my liking.
If you are interested, you can see Egry’s work in the following museums and galleries:
Balatoni Múzeum, Keszthely
Egry József Emlékmúzeum, Badacsony
Göcseji Múzeum, Zalaegerszeg
Magyar Nemzeti Galéria, Budapest
Thúry György Múzeum, Nagykanizsa
The little memorial house in Zalaújlak isn’t mentioned but one never knows.
Rather than go back the way we came, we turned off at Csapi to check the level of the lake at Galambok. It was surprisingly low, given how flooded the fields are. The fishing stands stood much higher than usual and the leaflessness of the place had me wondering if I was in the right spot.
The villages of Zala keep on giving. Each one is an education of sorts. And for this I’m grateful.