Baja is a small town on the left bank of the river Danube in Northern Bácska. The Danube forks under the town; one of its two branches, the mildly bending Sugovica separates Petőfi Island from the rest of the town. During the early 19th century, the noise of water-mills and the hammering of ship builders commonly broke the silence. Large grain barges carried Bácska’s wheat to Vienna. Baja’s multiethnic (Hungarian, German and Bunjevci, or Catholic Croat) population were prosperous land owners, excellent traders and skilled artisans, who, through hard work, created a pleasant life for all the people of the town.
In the second year of the 20th century, a young and enthusiastic art teacher and painter, Sándor Éber (1878-1947) settled in the town. His life, his art, and his diverse cultural activities were very much part of Baja’s cultural history during the first half of the 20th century. The Éber Memorial House, Éber’s home and studio in Jókai street, was one of the centers of cultural life in Baja. Within the intimate walls, every memory is still vibrantly alive as a piece of reality.
Today, if the visitor walks down Baja’s narrow, peacefully meandering Jókai street, the Éber Memorial House, with its yard overgrown with ivy, will invite him to see the treasured heritage of three painters, Sándor Éber, Sr. and his two children, Sándor Éber, Jr. and Anna Éber. Besides the paintings, drawings and sculptures, this house is also home to the Ébers’ invaluable collection of documents of local historical and literary importance and of ethnographic and folk art objects from the Bácska and Sárköz regions. At the same time, the memorial house is not merely an exhibition space for estates and art collections. Within the walls of this old house, the visitor encounters objects reflecting the art life, the bourgeois values, and the preferred style of a little town from the early 20th century, the very impressions of the spirituality of a bourgeois life style.
Sándor Éber, Sr. was born in Ráckeresztúr in 1878. From 1896 to 1900, he studied under Bertalan Székely in the Budapest Mintarajziskola, a school of applied art. He was attracted to monumental genres such as fresco painting. He came to Baja in 1902 as a professor of the teacher training college. He taught in the institute for two decades. Young and enthusiastic, he worked on a new methodology of teaching art and drawing. The results he achieved in this field were internationally acknowledged. His dedication to the reform of visual education brought him success when in 1914 the Ministry of Religion and Public Education commissioned him to elaborate the modern syllabus of art education.
Sándor Éber, however, was not entirely happy just teaching. The influence of Bertalan Székely, his former master, did not weaken in him during his years in Baja. In 1906, he painted his first fresco onto the wall of one of the classrooms of the teacher training college with the title “Art Education”. From the 1910s, he painted a number of monumental murals, frescos and seccos, in a decorative style combining Art Nouveau with popular Hungarian elements. His commissions came mostly from churches and orders. He worked in the lounge of the Cistercian cloister in Baja (1910) as well as in a number of churches in the area ranging from Szászvár (1913), Hajós (1916-17) and Hercegszántó (1924) to the Franciscan church of Nagykanizsa (1927) and the church of Kelebia (1929); his works adorn the aula of Baja’s Béla III Secondary School (1932), the church of the Franciscans in Pécs (1933), the church of Bácsborsód (1934), Baja’s downtown (1938) and Józsefváros churches (1943), the church of Tolna (1939) and Baja’s Rókus Funeral Chapel. During his life, he adorned the walls of 22 churches and schools with his murals, including the facade of the Csátalja elementary school.
Besides his monumental works of art and the related sketches and color studies, he also made numerous smaller panel pictures, landscapes, portraits and figural compositions. His works of art reflected the beauty of the fertile lands of Bácska and of the flood-plains of the Danube, recorded the intimate details of the faces, homes and gardens of the people in these lands as the very parts of this landscape, glorified the delicate features of his wife, and immortalized his loved ones, family members and artist friends.
For the young teacher, settling in Baja inevitably meant breaking away from the art life of Budapest. Nevertheless, he worked with unparalleled dynamism and resilience. He painted and taught, while also taking foreign study trips, for example to Rome and Florence. In the two rooms overlooking the street, the visitor can see the works of art of Sándor Éber, Sr. In the first room, the visitor finds a bust in gypsum, a half-length portrait of his wife Julianna Bartsch, daughter of Samu Bartsch, biologist and director of the teacher training college. Éber sculpted the portrait in 1909, during his study trip to Rome. During this trip, Éber also made another sculpture, one of the first of all the portraits of his wife, which is probably one of the artist’s most beautiful works of art with its warm tones and delicate materiality. He also painted numerous portraits of his wife, the mother of his children, who, as an understanding and helping partner, took most of the problems of the big family upon herself. They had seven children.
His home, his studio, the Éber House, was considered one of the art centers of Baja’s cultural life. After concerts, the first room, which overlooks Jókai street, was witness to many a spirited evening conversation. On these occasions, the good friends seated in the “rural baroque” chair of 1767 included János Tornyai and István Nagy, noted representatives of the school of Hungarian Great Plain painting, and actor Kálmán Rózsahegyi. During the conversations, Éder painted their portraits. He also accepted commissions to paint other well-known personalities, ranging from Cultural Minister Count Gábor Bethlen and art historian Lajos Fülep to Pope Pius XI.
Members of the Éber family, music and art loving friends and acquaintances, visiting critics often had late night discussions sitting on the black empire furniture above which Éber’s experimental impressionist and plein air works are displayed. His landscapes are characterized by definitive lights and shades and dynamic contours. He uses oranges, reds and radiant blues (Mély út, or “Banked-in Road” from 1919; Lány az agyagos parton, or “Girl on the Clayey Shore” from 1919). His paintings represent the landscape of the Great Plain and of the banks of the Danube, sometimes dissolving plein air shapes, sometimes relying on dynamic lines.
His self-portraits, which he often painted in every phase of his life, have a very important place in his art. In the first room of the Éber Memorial House, the visitor will encounter his Kucsmás önarckép, or “Self-portrait in Fur Hat”, from 1930. It is a picture radiating wisdom and resignation.
Éber organized the first exhibition of his collected works in Baja in the fall of 1925. He presented 180 works. The occasion was a real art sensation in the life of the little town. In March 1926, his collected paintings, drawings, portable frescoes and sgraffito sketches were displayed in the National Salon in Budapest. From then on, he participated regularly in the exhibitions of the National Salon. In 1930, Éber was awarded the Grand Prize for his portable fresco entitled Éva. During the fall of the same year, he exhibited in Baja and Pécs with István Csók, Oszkár Glatz, Lipót Hermann, Béla Iványi Grünwald and Gyula Rudnay.
Entering the second room of the Éber Memorial House, the visitor may see Sándor Éber, Sr.’s fresco and secco drafts, sketches, and models. These reflect his thorough training in the art as well as his humane artistic approach. Éber was a forever experimenting artist; he tried his hands in almost every art and genre from making dies and paints to making portable frescoes; from sgraffito to one of the monumental decorative genres of modern art: multi-hue stone mosaics; from chalk-making to machine engineering.
He was an enthusiastic and skilled organizer of Baja’s music life as well. For ten years, he was the conductor of Baja’s male voice choir; he was a founding member and later president of the Franz Liszt Society. He performed in the concerts organized by the Society. His review of Béla Bartók’s Baja concert in the spring of 1928, which was printed in the local newspaper, reflects Éber’s modern approach to music aesthetics. He was an ardent protector of the city’s monuments. In 1919, he proposed that an art colony be established in Baja.
In 1947, he organized an exhibition from his late works in Baja, Pécs and Szekszárd. His painter children Anna and Sándor, Jr. also participated with their own works. Sándor Éder, Sr. died in December in the same year. The funeral oration was given by painter Gyula Rudnay, the director of the Baja art colony, which, by then, had been established.
The studio, however, did not become deserted for a moment. Two of his seven children, his daughter Anna Éber (born in 1905) and his son Sándor Éber, Jr. (1909-1985) were inspired by the magic spell and atmosphere of their father’s studio.
From 1927 to 1931, Sándor Éber, Jr. studied under Gyula Rudnay in the College of Art. It was Rudnay who drew his attention to pastel very early on. After his study trip to Paris, from 1940 on, he worked almost exclusively with pastel. He returned to his hometown in 1931. He taught in Baja for 38 years in Béla III Secondary School, in the Technical Polytechnic and in the Teacher Training College. Later he worked as a school inspector, visiting the schools of Baranya and Bács-Kiskun counties. His art history lectures were important events in the cultural life of the city. Influenced by his father, he learned fresco and sgrafitto. His murals adorn the walls of many institutions in the region.
Sándor Éber, Jr. was the master of pastel. “As a kid, I kneaded colorful crayon-doughs for my father. I got to like them immensely” – he says. He borrowed his subjects from the natural environment – the Danube, the forests in the flood-plains of the river, the fens – of his homeland, and from the lives of the old fishermen of the region. The backwaters, the Cserta-Duna, the shallows, the old trees, the fishermen’s barges, the silent waters appearing in his works all reflect the unchanging beauty of eternal nature. But as the century proceeds towards its end, Sándor Éber, Jr.’s art also becomes gloomier. In his 1969 exhibition catalogue, he writes the following words: “The ancient water-mills only survive in my pictures. Icy floods devastated the arches of the Vöröshíd (“the Red Bridge”). There is but one surviving fishermen’s barge ringing in the Sugovica with its carved, proud prow. I must hurry. The Danube too will be confined within a new, unnatural river bed.”
In the third and fourth rooms–the studio–of the Éber house, the visitor encounters the works of Sándor Éber, Jr. Some folk pottery and ginger-bread forms also hang on the walls. Sándor Éber, Jr.’s landscapes hang above the inlaid furniture he designed. The many styles and fashionable isms of the 20th century were never attractive enough for him to betray the simple beauty of nature. The serenity of the grand river and the glowing red hues of the willows of the flood-plains remained his preferred subjects for the rest of his life.
He took good care of his father’s artistic estate and of the Éber collection, which consists of rarities of interest for the art historian, for the student of local history, for the ethnographer, and for the archeologist. Sándor Éber, Jr. continued to collect ethnographic objects. He enriched the collection with pitchers, water pots and distaffs (girdable tools used for the manual spinning of hemp and flax) and woven fabrics from the multiethnic region of Bácska.
From her father’s studio, Anna Éber’s career lead straight to the National Academy of Arts. She took Gyula Rudnay’s courses. In 1930, she won a year’s grant to live, study and work in the Accademia Belle Artin of Florence, whereafter she continued her studies in Rome at the Academy of Fine Arts. In 1930, she participated at an exhibition organized by the National Salon under the title The Roman School; she was awarded the silver prize.
Instead of staying in the little town, the young and talented artist opted to live in Budapest. From 1932 to 1958, she gave evening courses organized by the Cultural Commission. Later, from 1959 to 1969, she worked as an art teacher. During the 1950s, she made decorations for the Hungarian Film Factory. She decorated public buildings and painted landscapes and portraits.
She donated nine of her works to her home town, each painted in bright, happy colors. These are displayed in the room overlooking the courtyard. Anna Éber’s triple portrait of her mother bears witness to the deep love and admiration with which the painter looked at her mother. Her painting Édesapám alszik, or “My father, asleep”, is a memorial of the father, expressing the very strength and belief she inherited from her artist father. This is the ars poetica that radiates from each of her works of art: “I see life in every bud, I see trees, flowers, sunsets… I paint the sentiments of my soul, I paint symbols… I am only happy when I can paint; however tired I may be, when I paint, new energies spring up within me…”
Walking through the Éber Memorial House, the visitor might ask: what is this place exactly? Is it a gallery? A museum? A folk art collection? It’s neither, yet it is a little of each of them. It is a cross section of two hundred years. It is a house which, during the turn of the century, consisted of two little rooms and a kitchen. As years passed, as the Éber’s seven children were born one after the other, always new rooms were added to the building until it reached its present form, this is the architectural history of the house. There is, however, another story to it; as Sándor Éber, Jr. said in the fall of 1981: “As, walking along the eroding, clayey bank of the Danube, you see when the flood came and when the clay deposits formed, you can see in this house when during the last 150 to 200 years the oil lamp burned with high light, when it ran low… Now it has just been refilled…”Can one look at these pictures, this house–the Éber Memorial House–impartially, without nostalgic sentiments now, at the end of the 20th century, 100 years later? It is a house that talks to us, standing there in a little town, in Baja’s peaceful, meandering Jókai street–a house that invites the visitor for a chat, and then expects him back again and again.