András Németh – Katalin Kempf – Beatrix Vincze
Systematic review of the Life Reform and the Arts project
Keywords: life reform, trends, religious reform movements, arts, international influences, network research
The research started in 2004 under the supervision of the Theoretical-Historical and Comparative Pedagogical Research Group of the ELTE PPK, summarizing the results of several national and international research projects (OTKA, OMMA, MMA). It is linked to the international social-historical oriented research that began in the 1990s, which, by examining the processes of modernisation, explored the social processes that led to the emergence of anti-modernist movements against modernisation, which were becoming increasingly dynamic in the western regions of Europe and the United States by the end of the 19th century and which were also strongly prevalent in the artistic and intellectual-philosophical currents of the period.
Lebensreform (life-reform) is a generic term for those reform movements which have in common that the general social crisis that unfolded at the end of the 19th century as a result of modernisation was not to be resolved by radical revolutionary changes, but by reforms in the individual way of life of each person; „returning to nature”, a „natural way of life” and the preservation of health. The multifaceted movement was known as the ‘revolutionary movement’. „The diverse movement’s many ‘core trends’ (vegetarianism, naturopathy, physical culture) were accompanied by a number of complementary trends: various lifestyle reforms of social relations; free love and choice of partner; various youth and emancipation movements for women; various commune-like living communities; naturopathic sanatoria, farming communes, artists’ colonies, the garden city movement, various artistic reform movements; music, singing, dance and movement arts, fine arts, literature, theatre, applied arts, and national studies. Closely linked to these were also a number of contemporary ‘new – and quasi-religious’ revival movements: the various occult movements; spiritualism and monism, the universal theosophical movement, anthroposophy, Far Eastern syncretism, especially various forms of Buddhism, ‘reform-Christian’ sects, various Germanic, Aryan and other neo-pagan movements.
Further research funded by the Hungarian Academy of Arts’ Research Institute for Art Theory and Methodology between 2021-2022 will be based on the above results.
The research is a direct prelude to the exhibition Hidden Stories – Life Reform and the Arts, opening at the Kunsthalle in October 2018, the scientific concept and practical implementation of which was based on the work of the research team’s leading researchers and doctoral students. The life reform movement, which is the focus of the event, also flourished in the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the turn of the last century. The young writers, artists, composers, philosophers, natural and social scientists who appeared in the capitals of Vienna, Prague and Budapest and in the major cities of the region were often themselves followers and even promoters of the fashionable self-reform movements and the various esoteric, gnostic and social reform utopias associated with them.
The exhibition was not just about the different strands of life reform. As the title ‘Hidden Stories’ suggests, it also looked at the ‘hidden’ relationship of the artists of the period to these movements, which has been partly unexplored. The active role they played in various reform movements in the areas of lifestyle, intellectual, religious, spiritual, social and artistic reform, and the influence they had on their works and their understanding of the world. The exhibition was the first in Hungary to present this little-known subject. In doing so, it joined the series of major European exhibition projects that opened with Harald Szemann’s emblematic Monte Verità exhibition, which provided social-historical and artistic overviews of the Lebensreform movement (2001: Die Lebensreform – Entwürfe zur Neugestaltung von Kunst und Leben um 1900, Darmstadt, Institut Mathildenhöhe; 2009: Karl Wilhelm Diefenbach (1851-1913) Lieber sterben, als meine Ideale verleugnen, Munich, Villa Stuck; 2011: Der Prophet. Die Welt des Karl Wilhelm Diefenbach, Vienna, Hermesvilla; 2015: Künstler und Propheten: Eine geheime Geschichte der Moderne, Frankfurt am Main, Schirn Kunsthalle; 2015: Umělci a Proroci: Schiele, Hundertwasser, Kupka, Beuys a dalši (Artists and Prophets: Schiele, Hundertwasser, Kupka, Beuys and others), Prague, National Museum).
The primary objective of the exhibition, the exposure of its messages to the demanding public and contemporary artists of today, was supported by several accompanying programmes with the active participation of the members of the research team: in addition to the guided tours of the exhibition curators, several workshops, exclusive guided tours and thematic days were organised by researchers and public figures who treated the topic with an interdisciplinary openness (e.g. Rudolf Lábán, Monte Verità, Waldorf, Béla Hamvas Day). The event concluded on 15-16 January 2019 with an international conference at the Kunsthalle, Budapest, attracting nearly 100 participants, with the support of the ELTE PPK, the museum and the Hungarian Academy of Arts. The conference explored the interdisciplinary relationship between life reform and art with the participation of foreign and national experts. The papers were published in edited form in English by Lang Publisher in January 2020, while the Hungarian papers were published by Kunsthalle in 2021.
The project, funded between 2021 and 2022, aims to investigate the development of the life reform movement in Central Europe and its impact on the arts and various intellectual currents, as well as on contemporary social reform processes, using reception and network research methods. The focus of the study is on the spread of the movement as an intellectual movement and its manifestation in the various spheres of contemporary society. The comparative analyses of the reception of the life reform in Central Europe also include a differentiated analysis of the art, social and pedagogical reforms rooted in the life reform of the period and the extreme manifestations of life reform ideologies of various orientations that unfolded in Hungarian society.
The research uses a complex toolbox of quantitative and qualitative methods. In addition to various archival documents (statutes, minutes of events, contemporary photographic documents), other literature on the subject, contemporary books and periodicals will be explored, and their related material will be subjected to hermeneutic documentary, iconographic and comparative analysis.
New scientific findings: a) a more complete reconstruction of the role of contemporary artistic, cultural and pedagogical reforms in the unfolding of specific Central European forms of social modernization and, as part of this, of the diverse movement of the life reform movement b) further exploration of the roots of life reform, the networks of relations and the micro- and macro-level components of the main institutionalization processes of the various Hungarian artistic, social and cultural trends and reforms that unfolded in the 1930s, a period that has not been investigated so far.
Practical utility: a) The new research findings communicated through the various events and recent publications have contributed significantly to a more differentiated assessment of the first half of the 20th century, including the arts and related cultural, educational and social reform movements. b) The interdisciplinary nature of the research results means that they can be used not only in the history of art, education and culture, but also in other social science disciplines. c) They can be disseminated to the general public through events that promote the popularisation of the subject.
 András Németh and colleagues: Hidden stories – the life reform movements and the arts. Kunsthalle Exhibition 6 October 2018 – 20 January 2019.
 Németh, András (2018): Rejtett történetek – életreform-törekvések és a művészetek. Magyar Művészet, 6. 3, pp. 58-67.