Awakening, gobelin by Noémi Ferenczy, 1926-27

Noémi Ferenczy: An Artist in Changing Times

If we organised a poll in Hungary to find the best-known twentieth-century Hungarian woman artist, Noémi Ferenczy (1890–1957) would probably be the strongest contender. She is arguably also the best-known applied artist; one of the few positioned in the mainstream canon as autonomous artistic personalities. Ferenczy was, indeed, an outstanding practitioner of her craft. Credited with introducing the art of gobelins to Hungary, she employed the technique to create a unique, self-contained pictorial world. Her artistic creativity has been highlighted by numerous studies and exhibitions, most recently by the retrospective organised at the Ferenczy Museum Centre in Szentendre and the accompanying extensive, bilingual catalogue-monograph authored by Emőke Bodonyi.[1] This article will focus on how Ferenczy made her way in the turbulent political conditions of early- and mid-twentieth century Hungary. She was a woman, daughter of a well-known artist, a committed Communist, a strong personality who wished to work alone and make a living from her craft. Her career and reputation were shaped – sometimes helped, sometimes hindered – by these aspects, as well as by the radical political and cultural shifts that marked Hungary’s twentieth-century history.

A career unfolds

Noémi Ferenczy was born into a family of artists. Her father, Károly Ferenczy (1862–1917), was one of the most widely respected painters of the era; founding member of the Nagybánya artists’ colony and professor at the Hungarian Royal Drawing School. He is still regarded as a central figure of Hungarian early modernism. Her mother, Olga Fialka (1848–1930), had also painted until her marriage. Noémi’s older brother, Valér (1885–1954), became a painter and her twin brother, Béni (1890–1967), a sculptor. This environment and the family’s numerous contacts in the art world obviously gave Noémi an advantage over other aspiring women artists of her time. Nevertheless, instead of following her father’s path, she chose an artistic technique that was uniquely hers.

Noémi’s interest in weaving developed early on, when she discovered the textiles produced in the villages surrounding Nagybánya. This interest in the vernacular would relate her to other contemporary practitioners of craft, for instance Anna Lesznai (1885–1967) or members of the Gödöllő Artists’ Colony, but in Ferenczy’s work the vernacular inspiration never became prevalent. This may have been due in the first instance to the influence of her father, who suggested in 1911 that, instead of learning from villagers, she should train at the ‘most competent place in weaving’: the Manufacture des Gobelins in Paris.[2] While learning the technique, Ferenczy disapproved of the Manufacture’s method of copying oil paintings instead of creating their own designs. In 1912 her parents helped her set up her studio in Paris, where she received individual tuition from one of the masters of the Manufacture. From then on, throughout her career, Ferenczy was determined to entirely produce her tapestries herself. This set her apart from other textile artists of her time, many of whom specialised in either design or weaving – a distribution of labour that was very often gendered. Rather than by her formal training, the young Ferenczy was inspired by medieval tapestries and by the stained glass windows of Chartres Cathedral. Her colourful, detail-rich early works, often with biblical themes, show this inspiration.

Adam and Eve, tapestry design by Noémi Ferenczy

Noémi Ferenczy: Adam and Eve, 1913, gouache design, Ferenczy Museum Centre, Szentendre – photo:

Returning to Hungary due to the war, Ferenczy met the progressive intellectuals of the Sunday Circle, developing lifelong friendships with the art historians Károly (Charles de) Tolnay (1899–1981) and János (Johannes) Wilde (1891–1970). She supported the Council Republic of 1919, but did not take on official roles. Plans for her to lead the Gödöllő textile manufacture and move it to Budapest were never realised due to the fall of the short-lived regime. In 1920 Ferenczy moved back to Nagybánya/Baia Mare, which had become part of Romania. There she helped organise a general workers’ strike, for which she was arrested and spent a few weeks in prison. She remained active in the Communist movement, taking part at the Fifth Congress of the Communist International in Moscow in 1924.

Roofer by Noémi Ferenczy, tapestry design

Noémi Ferenczy, Roofer II, watercolour, 1937, Béla Dornyay Museum, Salgótarján – photo:

In the 1920s, Noémi Ferenczy lived in Braşov, Romania, but kept close contacts with the Hungarian art world. Her works were regularly displayed in Hungary, as well as in Romania and abroad. In 1932 she moved to Budapest. By this time, her style had changed: her compositions became more monumental, with fewer, but larger figures. Her central theme was human labour. This subject matter was related to her politics: one tapestry, Woman Carrying Firewood (1925), was framed by hammer-and-sickle motifs. Nevertheless, the aim was not simple political agitation, but to represent the active, productive human being in harmony with nature and its own self. In 1934 Tolnay published a monograph on Noémi Ferenczy, in which he characterised her as one of the greatest artists of the time, whose work embodies the Sunday Circle’s key notion of the ‘reality of the soul’: ‘The human soul is never sufficient for itself: in order to become a self-contained cosmos, it needs an external medium. Noémi Ferenczy found the medium of the fulfilment of the soul in work.’[3]

The monograph was volume 4 in a book series introducing Hungarian contemporary artists, written by eminent leftist-liberal art critics. It was the only monograph in the series that featured a woman artist, and the only one focusing on a practitioner of craft. By the mid thirties, Noémi Ferenczy had achieved a unique place in the canon of figurative modernism promoted by opponents of the increasingly autocratic Horthy regime.

Artist and craftswoman

Let us go back to the moment where Noémi Ferenczy chose to study tapestry making. As mentioned above, that decision was a forceful one that ultimately made her stand out among her artistically gifted relatives and helped her carve out her own path. It was, however, not made in a vacuum. While her brothers received more formal artistic training in Nagybánya, and later at academies in Munich and Paris, Noémi did not. In this respect, her choice of a technique considered as ‘more feminine’ than fine art was predicated on contemporary expectations of gender. She was not alone. Without equal access to artistic education and subject to bias and derision from art critics, women in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Hungary faced severe obstacles in the field of fine art. By opting for craft, they could build careers and garner critical acclaim in a field that was considered more ‘naturally’ theirs. Hence, turn-of-the-century Hungary saw the rise of personalities such as the Gödöllő designer Mária Undi (1877–1959), the pioneering lacemaker Mária Markovits (1875–1954), or the above mentioned Lesznai. Their progress was underpinned by the arts and crafts movement, which blurred the distinction between arts and crafts, raising the status of the latter.

By the interwar period the old hierarchies had been reaffirmed. When Tolnay described a craftswoman as a great, innovative artist, this was a radical gesture on his part. As Ferenc Gosztonyi has shown, it reflected the Sunday Circle’s notion of great art, which rested on the idea of transcending modern individualism towards a new community spirit.[4] Previous distinctions between fine art and craft had defined the former as the product of the individual creative genius and the latter as derived from the collective knowledge of nameless producers. Turning the hierarchy upside down and valuing the collective higher, Tolnay presented a practitioner of craft as one of art history’s great figures, who channeled the collective through her creative soul.

Awakening, gobelin by Noémi Ferenczy, 1926-27

Noémi Ferenczy: Awakening, 1926-27, gobelin, Ferenczy Museum Centre, Szentendre – photo:

The question of individual creativity and its expression in the ‘collective’ medium of tapestry must have preoccupied Ferenczy too, but her answers may have been slightly different from Tolnay’s. An interesting discrepancy between the monograph and Ferenczy’s actual work process is noted by Bodonyi. Tolnay saw Ferenczy’s preliminary designs as containing the artistic idea, which was then subsumed into the collective through the traditional process of weaving. Ferenczy, by contrast, saw her painted designs as supporting the process of artistic creation, which carried on until the weaving was finished. It was only in this last phase that the true effect of the composition and the colour scheme emerged, and she, the thinking artist, had the power to make modifications up to the end.[5]

Noémi Ferenczy, Forest, 1942-43

Noémi Ferenczy: Forest, 1942-43, gobelin, Ferenczy Museum Centre, Szentendre – photo:

Her insistence on carrying out the entire creative process meant that Noémi Ferenczy worked alone. She followed a strict work ethic, withdrawing into almost monastic solitude when she was immersed in a project. Still, finishing her monumental carpets took a long time, which must have contributed to the fact that she struggled financially up until the last years of her life, despite her growing prominence in the art world. In 1935 her work was displayed at retrospectives in Amsterdam and Rotterdam. In 1937 her one-woman show was staged at the Fränkel Salon in Budapest and she was one of the artists who represented Hungary at the Paris World’s Fair.

That a known left-wing artist was chosen to promote the right-wing, authoritarian Hungarian state abroad is a good example of the complexities of such official displays. The regime wished to present itself as ideologically firm, but also fresh and modern, and it was ready to employ the skills of artists with opposing political leanings in the service of this goal. It is not a reflection of Noémi Ferenczy’s artistic or personal character, but rather of the complex relationships between the art world and the authoritarian state, that she soon received and fulfilled another large official commission.

The Saint Stephen tapestry

In 1938 official Hungary celebrated the Memorial Year of King Stephen I (Saint Stephen; r. 1000–1038). Remembered as the founder of the Kingdom and the ruler who converted the Hungarian people to Christianity, Stephen offered a suitable historical reference point for the Horthy regime, whose ideology rested on two main pillars: the idea of a ‘Christian’ Hungary and the idea of the territorial integrity of the historical Kingdom. The Memorial Year was marked by large celebrations and public works, and the commemorations did not end with 1938. Between 1939 and 1942 the Executive Committee of the Saint Stephen Memorial Year sponsored a project to decorate town halls across the country with tapestries showing scenes from the king’s life. In 1939 Ferenczy was commissioned to design and weave a tapestry for the Mayor’s reception hall in Nyíregyháza in eastern Hungary. The chosen subject was Foreigners and Hungarians in the Court of the King, a scene from King Stephen’s Admonitions, a treatise written for Stephen’s son, Prince Emeric, by a court cleric and traditionally attributed to the king himself.

Noémi Ferenczy had her misgivings about state ideology, but she needed this large commission. Furthermore, she was taken with the subject; one open to different interpretations. The relevant passage of the Admonitions stated that ‘a kingdom with one language and one set of customs is weak and vulnerable. Therefore I order you, my son, to graciously support and hold dear those who arrive, so that they prefer to live in your land, rather than elsewhere.’ Based on these words, Saint Stephen can be – and has been – held up as a symbol of openness and internationalism, as well as of nation-building. Indeed, in nineteenth-century culture he had represented a liberal nationalism: the idea of a multiethnic state, as opposed to the ethnic nationalism symbolised by Chieftain Árpád.[6] Nevertheless, there was no doubt the tapestry would ultimately serve state ideology. When it was inaugurated on 17 November 1941 as part of the festivities marking the departure of the Nyíregyháza hussar regiment to the Soviet front, it was described as ‘radiating the ancient Hungarian imperial idea; Saint Stephen’s idea, which is destined to rule the Danube Basin’.[7]

Design for the St Stephen tapestry by Noémi Ferenczy

Noémi Ferenczy: Design for the St Stephen tapestry, 1940, watercolour, Béla Dornyay Museum, Salgótarján – photo:

Ferenczy set to work enthusiastically. Her surviving drawings and gouaches show the evolution of the design.[8] At first, Stephen was not perched on a throne, like in the final version, but standing in the doorway of the castle at the same level as the visitors. In another early design, some visitors are carrying shoulderbags: attributes of the wanderer. After Ferenczy presented her designs, ‘diplomatic relations lapsed’ – as she herself put it – between her and the Committee. Only one of their objections is known: according to Ferenczy, they made her remove the wanderers, whom they described as ‘beggars.’[9] Her modified designs were accepted in February 1940, and the tapestry – nine square metres in size – was finished in March 1941. It showed King Stephen sitting on a throne on top of a set of stairs, under a canopy, in front of a brick wall. He is approached by figures wearing robes of different colours and styles; one a monk with a tonsure, one carrying a lamb. Ferenczy later recreated the figure of the Wanderer in a separate tapestry, in monumental format. It is notable that it was this detail that clashed with the aesthetic norms of the regime – possibly because, as an apparent anachronism, it evoked Ferenczy’s preoccupation with contemporary society.

Regime change

Struggling to survive and work during the war, Ferenczy was filled with new hope after 1945. Her first disappointment came when she aspired to become head of the new Department of Gobelins at the College of Fine Art, but was sidelined in favour of Endre Domanovszky (1907–1974) by an (unsurprisingly) all-male jury, the members of which – as Ferenczy noted bitterly – had learnt what they knew about gobelins from her. Domanovszky was an outstanding designer of tapestries – but his designs were mostly woven by his wife.

This disappointment notwithstanding, the new Communist regime held Ferenczy’s work in high regard. It, too, sought legitimisation through art. Ferenczy received the prestigious Kossuth Prize in 1948, and finally a professorship at another Department of Gobelins established at the College of Applied Art in 1950. Nevertheless, like all autonomous creative artists, she was in a precarious position. In the 1950s, criticism of her work as ‘formalist’ became vocal. She was made to retire from teaching, then reemployed, then made to retire again. She died in 1957, leaving everything to the six female pupils she had been training in her last years, and who had been her pride and joy.

As a product of the Horthy regime, the Saint Stephen tapestry disappeared from the Nyíregyháza town hall after 1945. Its whereabouts were unknown until 1966, when a newly employed curator, Péter Németh, came upon a cylindrical container in the storage room of the András Jósa Museum in Nyíregyháza and was curious enough to open it.[10] The commission itself was still a touchy subject, but the tapestry was by Noémi Ferenczy, whose position in the canon as a left-wing artist worthy of admiration had solidified after her death. The tapestry was finally put on view. In summer 2020 it was on display at the retrospective organised in Szentendre.

Ferenczy lived in an age of extreme turbulence, marked by two world wars and several instances of regime change. Her career shows the limits and possibilities that shaped the path of a creative artist in these times. Her work was influenced by her artistic and political convictions, but also by the opportunities she was afforded – or was not. Her reputation was built by her own dedication, but also by her art critic friends, and by the political will of opposing regimes. This does not diminish her as an artist; it just positions her as a typical cultural producer of twentieth-century Hungary. Her outstanding oeuvre, her pioneering of the gobelin technique, her unmistakeable imagery, in turn, position her as one of the most significant ones.

Nóra Veszprémi

[1] Emőke Bodonyi, Teremtés: Ferenczy Noémi művészete / Creation: The Art of Noémi Ferenczy (Szentendre, 2020). Previous studies include: Judit Pálosi, Ferenczy Noémi (Budapest, 1998); Judit Pálosi, ‘Ferenczy Noémi művészi és tanári munkásságának eseménytörténete’ [The history of NF’s work as an artist and educator], Ars Hungarica 13.2 (1985) pp. 181–198.

[2] Noémi Ferenczy is quoted in Zsófia Dénes’s memoirs: Úgy, ahogy volt és… [As it was and…] (Budapest, 1981) p. 351. See Bodonyi, Ferenczy Noémi, p. 50.

[3] Károly Tolnai, Ferenczy Noémi (Budapest, 1934), p. 17, quoted in Ferenc Gosztonyi, ‘“Cézanne után”: Tolnai Károly 1934-es Ferenczy Noémi-monográfiájáról’ [After Cézanne: On Károly Tolnai’s 1934 Noémi Ferenczy monograph]  Enigma  26.100 (2019/2020) pp. 112–124.

[4] Gosztonyi, ‘“Cézanne után”’.

[5] Bodonyi, Teremtés / Creation, pp. 68–69.

[6] Katalin Sinkó, ‘Árpád versus Saint Stephen: Competing Heroes and Competing Interests in the Representation of Hungarian History,’ Ethnologia Europeana 19.1 (1988) pp. 67–84.

[7] Quoted in Péter Németh, ‘Ferenczy Noémi gobelinje Nyíregyházán’ [NF’s gobelin in Nyíregyháza], in Szent István emlékezete falikárpitokon 1938–2000 [The memory of St Stephen in tapestries], ed. István Zombori (Szeged, 2001), p. 31. On the celebrations see pp. 29–32.

[8] For a history of the commission and Ferenczy’s designs see Judit Pálosi, ‘Szent István kárpitok’, in Szent István emlékezete falikárpitokon 1938–2000, pp. 22–25.

[9] See her letter to Tolnay quoted in Pálosi, ‘Szent István kárpitok’, p. 24.

[10] Németh, ‘Ferenczy Noémi gobelinje Nyíregyházán’, pp. 32–33.

DOI 10.17605/OSF.IO/B7NPG

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