Hidden Stories – the Life Reform Movements and Art

by Beatrix Vincze (Volume editor) Katalin Kempf (Volume editor) András Németh (Volume editor)
©2020 Edited Collection 372 Pages


Around 1900, a series of reform movements emerge that break through the mainstream of modern, technocratic and industrial developments, and in many areas of life seek alternative possibilities and new ways. Enthusiastic, open-minded and inspired by an attitude to life that ventures ideologically, artistically and socially into hitherto unknown zones, one wants to oppose the harsh realities to a different, creative, profound and experiential reality. These diverse aspects and their interdisciplinary interweaving often remained hidden in historical retrospectives. In 2018, an exhibition in an art gallery in Budapest titled Hidden Stories - The Life Reform Movements and Art offered unique and surprising insights into the interconnectedness of people and works. In the subsequent conference of the same name, experts from science, art and culture devoted themselves to the hitherto little-known relationships between artists and individual reform movements. The resulting volume reveals and presents the international effectiveness of artists from Hungary as well as from other countries, who have shaped a changed attitude to life in the expressions of music, dance and performing arts. In artist colonies, garden centers and educational reform projects, they created specially places that allowed a changed lifestyle. There are always different ideological, religious and spiritual views in the background that are analyzed here.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editors
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Preface
  • Contents
  • Opening Speech at the International Conference Entitled “Hidden Stories – the Life Reform Movements and Art” (György Vashegyi)
  • The Meaning of Life through Life Reform: Warm Community and Transcendence as the Focal Points of the Longing Heart in Emotionally Cold Times (Ehrenhard Skiera)
  • Life Reform in Hungary and the Arts: International Reception and National Characteristics (András Németh)
  • Media, Magic, and Art: A Case Study of Salzburg (György Szegő)
  • The Renewal of the Graz Art Scene around 1900 (Gudrun Danzer)
  • Monte Verità: This Is the Place (Nicoletta Mongini)
  • The Makers of Modern Dance in Europe and Hungary (Ágnes Boreczky)
  • Education and Utopias (Johnna Hopfner)
  • The Educational Reform Movement, Modern Dance, and Life Reform (Christine Mayer)
  • Turning towards Nature: The Rediscovery of the Body in the Context of the Youth Movement (Agnes Trattner)
  • Eduard Štorch’s New School as an Example of a School Reform Experiment in Interwar Czechoslovakia1 (Tomáš Kasper)
  • Zoltán Kodály and the Life Reform Movement: Encountering New Intellectual Trends during the Turn of the Century (Béla Pukánszky)
  • Hidden Stories in Choral Singing: The Contribution of Adrienne Sztojanovits and the Choir of the Szilágyi Erzsébet Girls’ Lyceum to the Singing Youth Movement (Zsuzsanna Polyák and Villő Pethő)
  • Life Reform Elements in Children’s Room Design (Júlia Tészabó)
  • Under the Spell of Spirituality: Elizabeth Sass Brunner and Elizabeth Brunner (Imre Lázár)
  • Oriental Influences in the Endeavour of Hungarian Life Reform: Hindu, Buddhist, and Theosophical Aspects (Melinda Földiné Irtl/ Lajos Komár)
  • “Absinthe of necromancy”: Kosztolányi and the Life Reform Movements (Zsuzsanna Arany)
  • The Occurrence of Natural Healing Procedures in András Pető’s Work (Renáta Földesi)
  • The Decoded Muse of Tivadar Csontváry Kosztka: The Impact of Isadora Duncan and the Contemporary Art of Dance on the Painter’s Oeuvre (Zsófia Végvári)
  • Life Reform through Movement: Valéria Dienes’s Movement Pedagogy as a Life Reform Method (Brigitta Balogh)
  • Hidden Stories of the Gödöllő Artists’ Colony (Cecília Őriné Nagy/Zsuzsanna Benkő)
  • The Garden Hungary Theory of László Németh and the Life Reform (Beatrix Vincze)
  • List of Figures
  • Series index

György Vashegyi

Opening Speech at the International Conference Entitled “Hidden Stories – the Life Reform Movements and Art”

Ladies and gentlemen,

I warmly welcome all speakers of this international conference to the Kunsthalle exhibition Hidden Stories – the Life Reform Movements and Art, which opened in October 2018. I would also like to warmly welcome all participants who honour our event with their presence.

During the two-day scientific conference – a highlight of this exposition in the Kunsthalle – the results of a comprehensive interdisciplinary collaboration will be discussed. Those responsible for the scientific basis of the exhibition concept include András Németh, a professor at the Faculty of Education and Psychology at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest; his collaborators Ágnes Boreczky, Júlia Tészabó, Beatrix Vincze, and Katalin Kempf; the movement artist Márk Fenyves, who tragically died of a sudden heart attack at a young age; and the doctoral students of the research group’s doctoral programme. This dedicated team has been researching the dissemination and development of the life reform movements and their pedagogical reception in the national and international environment since 2004. In view of the complexity and multifaceted nature of the subject, the work of the authors was supported by two experts: Ehrenhard Skiera, a professor at the European University of Flensburg, and the artistic director of the Kunsthalle György Szegő. The exhibition was designed by Attila Ertsey, and the graphic design was the work of István Orosz and Sára Plavecz.

Under the aegis of the chief curator András Bán, the staff of the Kunsthalle presented an outstanding and heroic achievement in the preparation of the exhibition. In addition to his conceptual and coordinating activities, András Bán also deserves great recognition for the preparation and editing of the accompanying publications of this exhibition.

The two aims of the Kunsthalle in organizing this large-scale exhibition and conference include firstly the ceremonial act of joining artists and the public. Secondly, the organisers aim to expose the life reform movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries (which were quite effective at their time but have since fallen into oblivion) as well as their impact on contemporary art in the interest of today’s artists and interested parties, as well as for the sake of research.

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As the title “Hidden Stories” also suggests, the exhibition reveals the hitherto little-known “hidden” relationships of the artists of the time to the individual reform movements: It presents the active role of the artists (both from Hungary and elsewhere) in the various spiritual, lifestyle-related, religious, social, and artistic reform movements, demonstrating the influence of these movements on their works and worldview.

The exhibition does not explain the “hidden story” of life reform and art by means of works of art alone, but documents them through contemporary photographs and exhibits of other art genres of that epoch. The Kunsthalle can pride itself on being the first museum in Hungary to have devoted itself to this subject; and in doing so, it joins the great European exhibition projects in Germany, Austria, and the Czech Republic which have offered excellent overviews of the social and art history of the life reform movements.

With this exhibition, the Kunsthalle set for itself duel goals: stimulating scientific research on the one hand, and on the other hand familiarizing art lovers open to modern art and contemporary artists with the messages of the life reform movements. Several of the Kunsthalle’s programmes, such as the relevant chamber exhibitions, studio talks, and exclusive guided tours, have already served this purpose.

The two-day conference was organized by the Research Group for Historical, Theoretical, and Comparative Pedagogy at the Faculty of Education and Psychology at Eötvös Loránd University and by participants in relevant doctoral programs. The sponsors were the University, the Art Hall, and the Hungarian Academy of Arts. Within the framework of the event, the broad and complex socio-historical connections between life reform and art will be discussed by renowned domestic and foreign experts providing interdisciplinary perspectives. The conference is not only intended to serve the discourse of various branches of science, but also to deepen the dialogue between generations and professional groups. The panel of young researchers will contribute to this mission, as well as a workshop following the conference in which school and museum educators will be introduced to the cultural and historical significance of the life reform movements and their pedagogical references, which are still relevant today.

On behalf of the Hungarian Academy of the Arts, I wish all the conference participants successful and fruitful discussion.

Ehrenhard Skiera

The Meaning of Life through Life Reform: Warm Community and Transcendence as the Focal Points of the Longing Heart in Emotionally Cold Times

Abstract: Since Lyotard’s much quoted dictum regarding the end of the “Great Narratives”, their failure now seems to be finally confirmed after the demise of communism. It reflects – as negation – a development that began in the Florentine Renaissance and can be understood as the increasing self-empowerment of man. The diagnosis represents the best tradition of the Enlightenment, albeit with a fatal self-reference, namely that the Enlightenment with its humanistic goals is merely a “narrative” – a poetic construction. But perhaps a narrowed view is the cause of Lyotard’s gloomy diagnosis; for today, one can certainly also speak of a strengthening of the great narratives, in addition to those of religion, those of the nation too: the Volksgemeinschaft, as well as the old, naive belief in progress, which again finds supporters en masse. Max Weber spoke of the “demystification of the world”, but he still believed in the charm of the “pre-postmodern” Enlightenment. And he himself could not completely escape the magic of harmonistic narratives with quasi-religious signatures. Weber may have mocked those “modern intellectuals” who – despite the Enlightenment – continue to “furnish” their souls with ideological garbage, but he placed the real community under his special protection. This is certainly due to his sympathy for life reform, and especially to his own experience in the Bündische Jugend. With his discourse on demystification, he rehabilitates at the same time the longing of the heart for community and (implicitly) the driving, anti-modernistic force of life reform, since it tries to save the soul and the world threatened by the functional coldness of modernity. It does this with “smaller narratives”, or doctrines of salvation: those of the reformed body, reformed food, and a new art in all its branches, including architecture and urban planning, free love, reformed education, renewed spirituality, an intensified relationship with nature, the cosmos, and “Mother Earth”, as well as racial purity, fraternal-sisterly communities in new sociotopes, and so on. These smaller narratives can be colourfully mixed at the individual and group level, and sometimes synthesised into gigantic narratives, as in anthroposophy. The often described political abstinence of the early protagonists of the life reform movements needs to be relativized on closer inspection. Life reform has had a lasting impact on our lives; this little known – and for many still “hidden story” – needs to be further clarified, no less so because of its possibly still partly inspiring impulses in the search for a “better world” in the transcendence space of the future.

Keywords: life reform, anti-modernistic, salvation, reformed body, food, new art, spirituality, sociotopes

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Introduction: The Multivalence of Life Reform; On the Hybrid Shape of a Cultural Appearance

In the first comprehensive attempt to boil life reform down to a concept, it already became clear that it was a multivalent, hybrid phenomenon; I choose the word “phenomenon” to indicate the openness of the movement. Krabbe had indeed chosen the focus of social reform in his work Gesellschaftsreform durch Lebensreform (1974), understandably at a time when much of the young population was concerned with societal changes in the sense of democratization and participation, and in creating a new world without exploitation. In the title of his work, he also spoke of “a social reform movement” as opposed to “movements”. At the same time, he succeeds in working out the multi-layered and almost nonchalant eclecticism that characterized this “phenomenon” in the first third of the 20th century.

Thus, he relativizes the central aspect, which he emphasizes in the title itself. Life reform can indeed be understood as a movement, but only if we weaken or “fluidize”, as it were, the originally political core of the concept: a goal-oriented and organized political mass movement that identifies a relatively unambiguous goal and a relatively unambiguous enemy. Life reform articulates itself in many different “movements”, each with their own respective leaders and each with its own forms of propagation and self-assurance through multifaceted milieus, personal networks, and so on, but it cannot be clearly defined.

For this reason, Harald Szeemann chose the fertility goddess Artemis of Ephesus as a symbol for his internationally respected travelling exhibition at Monte Verità at the end of the 1970s. Szeemann’s exhibition outlined a broad thematic circle, which was to be further explored in terms of content; to fathom its dimensions as a whole is a decades-long task, a research task that will likely never come to a conclusion.

Around 1900 and the following decades, life reform was somehow “in the air”, and was virtually everywhere as well as – albeit with different importance and accentuation – partially embedded in all groups of society. Its ideological spectrum is extraordinarily extensive, in that in some of its forms it also takes up and remixes aspects of the traditional “great narratives” of religion, esotericism, politics, and social reform motives of various provenance.

It also covers almost the entire spectrum of human life, and in part far beyond, exploring cosmic development as well as the post-mortem and pre-conceptual fate of the human soul. Which of the manifold aspects the individual latches onto and how he makes use of the manifold spiritual and practical benefits is largely left to himself, especially since life reform moves in a field of discourse ←16 | 17→that denounces the wickedness of the world and the imperfection of man, but does so in a form that can hardly affect or even shake the political system.

Life reform “lives” in an environment weakly controlled by politics and religion. Thus, individuals can, for example, turn to vegetarianism, propagating and celebrating it with quasi-religious fervour, or buy reform clothes while maintaining his enjoyment of meat. Or they can use the intestinal cures recommended by the new religious movement of Mazdaznan to remove their constipation, and at the same time not care about spirituality at all.

But followers of the life reform movements can also decide to expand all this in a great synthesis into their own meaningful, comprehensive view of the world. Some outstanding examples among the modern “teachers of humanity” founded movements that offer recipes for life reform and the salvation of the world up to the present day. The best known are Blavatzky’s Theosophy – worked out before the actual widespread upswing of life reform but becoming closely connected to it – as well as Steiner’s Anthroposophy and the Mazdaznan movement.

Despite the large number of individual studies available, we are still a long way from being able to define a clear core of life reform. The important exhibitions of the last 20 years, including the Budapest exhibition on the subject in 2018–2019, show the extraordinary diversity of the appearance of life reform.

I would like to demonstrate a perspective that considers a single aspect to be at the core of life reform, published in 2006 which, incidentally, is very meritorious. In it, Florentine Fritzen unfolds the core statement that the “life reform movement in the 20th century” is essentially about “living healthier”. No one will seriously deny the importance of this aspect, but when raised to the essential point, shortened or even distorted valuations will result. Thus, Florentine Fritzen minimizes the importance of other roundabout aspects as a “colourful decoration”,

leaving the true core of life reform left open. As a nutrition-related religion of self-redemption, it certainly does not promise eternal life, only an extended one; but with it, the religious aspects of life reform as a whole are by far not adequately described. As such the new nutritionist, dietician, or hygienist were not held responsible for the eternal and final meaning of life.

The dimension of meaning in the archaic version, in accordance with the ultimate meaning of life, must therefore not be minimized or excluded with regard to life reform. It is certainly no mere “decoration”.

Because this view seems appropriate to me, I want to develop this further in a few steps, using the following references:

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(1) on the credo, the various social movements, and the sociotopes of life reform;

(2) to the aforementioned “great narratives” of Theosophy and Anthroposophy, as well as to the doctrine of Mazdaznan which is lesser known today;

(3) then with regard to the question of the heart of (almost) every human being: how do I find a suitable partner in life? This requires taking a look at the micro-level of social existence;

(4) With the concluding remarks I want to deal with the topicality of life reform, considering the fundamental motives which unfold today among other issues in the political sphere.

The Gospel of the Third Way, Social Movements, and Sociotopes

Fidus was probably the most influential artist of the German youth and life reform movement (Frecot et al. 1997). His famous “light prayer” (ibid., p. 473) is regarded as the new symbol of struggle; in a vignette, he shows the path of becoming which is to be taken. At the crossroads, three signposts point the way to the future: one way, “capitalism”, leads to the right, directly into the yawning abyss; a second way, “communism”, leads already further, but loses itself meandering upwards to the left in the clouds on the horizon, disappearing into cloud cuckoo land; the third and final way, “land reform” (which can be read as “life reform”), leads in a straight line to the sun rising on the right above (ibid., p. 15). This third way leads us to the sun, the life through which light passes: upwards and skywards.

If we want to summarize the most important ideological congregations of this new Gospel of the Third Way, the following interconnected ideas should be mentioned:

(a) A “new” spirituality: an attitude that seeks, in feeling, the unity of man with nature and the cosmos. Numerous spiritual renewal programs serve the spiritual vacuum left behind by modernity and World War I. Life reform itself can be understood in many of its forms as a “religion of earthly life” by shifting the pursuit of bliss into this world. In addition, the numerous, mostly unrealized temple building projects and monumental architectural fantasies aim at the symbolization of the spiritual dimension, which transcendently exaggerates existence (Linse 2001, p. 193).

(b) The special creative power of the soul, much invoked by Klages and others. As a counter-reaction to the coldness of rationalism and purposeful thinking, also in opposition to approaches of scientific psychology (such as experimental psychology and depth psychology), the neo-romantic ←18 | 19→tendency developed “of a cultivation of the inner life, which wanted to acquire space for the formation of hearts and the subtle listening to moods and which demanded personality and individuality in view of the social mass” (Buchholz 2001, p. 147).

(c) Spirituality and soul require something other than rational access to nature, of which the life reformer feels a part. It becomes a “refuge” and “source” as well as a sensualistic projection space of the longing of the heart. Nature is no longer the foreign, the uncanny, the scientifically to be examined, nor is it to be conquered by us:

“With the term ‘nature’ the life reformers connected promises of salvation and hopes of salvation, nature, that was the unadulterated, the original, the eternally healthy and the recovering. Accordingly, the addition “nature” or “naturalness” appears in many of the concepts of life reform, such as “naturopathy”, “natural food”, “natural health institutions”, ‘nature conservation’ or ‘natural way of life’, ‘natural nutrition’, ‘natural clothing’, etc. ‘Back to nature’ was one of the most famous calls in the circle of life reform, and this was meant in a double sense, namely on the one hand as a demand for the renewal of man’s integration into nature and on the other hand as a command to pay more attention to the natural in man himself.” (Wolbert 2001, p. 185)

And if in the child anthropological, didactic, and methodical concepts of contemporary pedagogy nature are applied, the gospel of nature also resonates here as a saving power. The concepts of natural teaching, natural learning, natural pedagogy, and the nature of the child are considered in activities at the didactic level such as natural singing and dancing, natural gymnastics, painting after nature, and making observations outside in living nature (in contrast to “dead” preparations in the classroom). All of this is based on the (irrational) belief that without the objection and influence of sociocultural determinants (to which also the medium of knowledge, language, belongs) one can, as it were, directly trace the essence of objects and the essence of man.

(d) The human body belongs to nature, preferably in its naturalness and nakedness; the body, not the intellect, reflects full life. The praise of the healthy and beautiful body already contains the seeds of that later sweeping aberration which presumes to pass judgement on the imperfect, acting as the sounding board for the idea of breeding and the ideologies of race hygiene.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (February)
Life reform art progressive education modern dance theosophy anthroposophy buddhism artist colonies esotheric Central Europa
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2020. 372 pp., 14 fig. col., 31 fig. b/w, 1 tables

Biographical notes

Beatrix Vincze (Volume editor) Katalin Kempf (Volume editor) András Németh (Volume editor)

Katalin Kempf is research assistant and PhD student at the Department of Education in the Faculty of Education and Psychology at Eötvös-Loránd University (ELTE) in Budapest. András Németh is professor for Theory and History of Education at the Department of Education in the Faculty of Education and Psychology at Eötvös-Loránd University (ELTE) in Budapest. Beatrix Vincze is research assistant and lecturer of Education in the Faculty of Education and Psychology at Eötvös-Loránd University (ELTE) in Budapest.


Title: Hidden Stories – the Life Reform Movements and Art