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Domján József – Peacocks and the Phoenix
Domján József – Peacocks and  the Phoenix

Top:Bird Song; Shepherd; Peacock. Bottom: Morning Star; b&w folktale figure; same figure in color.

Once upon a time this young man, the oldest of his poor family’s 12 children, lost his job as an engine fitter during the years of the worldwide depression, along with innumerable others.  His family in poverty, he took off on foot to try his fortune. He trekked through several countries, hills and vales, covering about 10,000 miles, supporting himself by doing all kinds of odd jobs. Instead of the proverbial ash-baked biscuits in his satchel, all he took with him was his strong will to live and his mother’s love. Since he was born on the national holiday of March 15th, she used to tell her firstborn that the town was adorned with flags, and schools were closed in observance of HIS birthday.  And that it also meant that he would be famous.  He could not imagine how he would ever be able to live up to that noble prediction.

During his wanderings, he arrived in Milan, Italy one day.  Hanging out at a street corner near La Scala, he watched workers having trouble carrying pieces of scenery into the theater.  One of them suggested asking “that bum” to help.  They asked, and he helped.  Meanwhile some of the pieces became damaged.  The “bum” offered to repaint them.  He did and his work turned out to be spectacular.  They could not pay him, just gave him a free ticket to the Opera…

Walking back to Hungary, the “Hermit from Italy” as they called him, stopped near Lake Balaton, at Csatka where he watched a group of camping fine-artists.  At the end of their trip they left all their remaining art materials, broken pastels and such to him.  Upon their return the following year, the artists teasingly asked the Hermit what he had done with the pastels.  He unpacked his production and spread the collection on the grass, exposing as phenomenal a display of color as anybody could ever imagine.  That was his first ever exhibit.

All were in awe.  Some of the artists suggested that he should not study art, but rather let his natural talent prevail.  Others, however, urged him to develop his ability and get a formal art education to perfect it.  Following that advice, he applied to the Academy of Fine Arts in Budapest and, out of 156 applicants, he was one of the top three admitted.

After six years, having completed his formal studies, he became a faculty member.

At a relaxed summer camping event of the Academy, students were chatting about an exhibition called Spiritual Arts they had seen at the Nemzeti Szalon.  A young student had been so impressed with it that she kept the catalogue and was raving about some paintings “with dark purple-black clouds, pale white and rose flowering trees and clouds at sunrise”.  Her classmates started laughing, pointing out to the innocent, stunningly lovely girl that the artist of the paintings she had admired was just behind her!  She turned around and saw the man with blue eyes, smiling: Domján.  (Did you notice that this far he had been nameless?)

The girl, Waldman Éva, was quasi hit by lightning out of the blue.  Her life turned around.  The intellectual middle-class young lady suddenly found herself severed from her life of old friends, parties, coffee-houses, theater, fashion, and embraced by the love of art, forever.  Or should I say: love before first sight?

The feeling was obviously mutual: Domján József, known in art circles by his nickname Spiri, fell under the spell of the strikingly beautiful Éva and the two soon married, body and soul.  Their daughter, Alma, was born in 1945, their twin boys, Dániel and Mihály in 1947.

Spiri traveled to Stockholm, visited the art museum and made friends with the curator.  They conversed in German.  He was presented with a boxful of Hungarian artwork in storage for years to be exhibited, and was asked to sort out the good ones from the mediocre ones.  His selection was that of an expert.  The curator asked him for some of his own work and referred him to the best gallery in the city.  He had some paintings in his portfolio, and one single woodcut.  All that was exhibited at the gallery.  The brilliant colors fascinated the Norse public and an art critic published a rave review.  The report reached Hungary and was translated – erroneously – as if his whole show had been woodcuts.

Upon his return to Budapest, Domján was informed by the authorities that his woodcuts will be exhibited in three months at the National Gallery.  There was no room for protest.  Spiri went home and told his wife that they will both have to work day and night to prepare enough material.  And they did.  The husband of their household helper gave them pieces of scrap wood from his shop for making templates.  Éva, a remarkable artist in her own right, designed most shapes and details, while József performed miracles with his inimitable, magical colors.  The collaboration and the exhibit was a great success.

Having seen the exhibit, the Chinese Ambassador invited him to China, the homeland of woodcutting.  The Chinese celebrated him and he was given their famous prize which is awarded only once in a hundred years.  It came with a wish of “May you live 10,000 years!”

Some of the old Chinese masters, however, might not have liked a foreigner breaking into their sacred territory.  While in China, Domján had a toothache and saw a dentist.  On his return home, the toothache recurred with a high fever.  Upon thorough examination, his Hungarian dentist identified some poison placed into the tooth that would have killed him in a few short days!

My father started teaching both of them English, and we became friends.  They were an exemplary family.  The three children seemed to embody the wishful adage that “Children should be seen but not heard”, and all that without any military overtones.  The whole family was vegetarian.  József claimed that he could not spare the energy required for the digestion of meat from his work.  To him, art, the creation of something from nothing, was sacred.

While Éva advanced in her English studies, József showed little or no progress.  Meanwhile I was working on drawings to separate a studio apartment for us newlyweds from the lovely large dwelling of Éva’s parents on Rózsadomb.  Before the project could have materialized though, the Revolution of 1956 broke out and changed life for all of us.  My husband and I left Hungary and we lost track of the majority of our friends, including the Domjáns, for several months.  By spring ‘57, however, we heard that the family migrated to Switzerland.  We exchanged letters until, toward the end of that year, they too came to the United States where we already had settled.  They visited us in Stamford, Connecticut and József, rather disappointed, asked: “Where, on this heap of trash is there any culture?”

When I visited them in New York in late summer of ’58, I could empathize.  They lived in the pre-Lincoln-Center Upper West Side.  Having taken the wrong subway, I had to walk several blocks through human and animal waste, broken glass, avoiding empty bottles thrown out from windows, to get to their apartment building.

Nonetheless, their misery did not last too long.  József, with his proverbial will to be, to do, to create forced America to give him what he thought was meant to be his.  He sought out the foremost art gallery in the city, walked in with his portfolio and, in his very broken English, asked them to exhibit his work.  He was informed that the Gallery was solidly booked for two years.  Domján said, OK, but he would like to leave his portfolio with them.  He did and, upon reviewing his work, they offered to open his show in a few weeks.

They moved to New Jersey.  Nature – flowers, horses, birds – has ever been the foremost inspiration of Domján’s art, mixed in equal proportion with folklore – figures of shepherds, illustrations to folk tales – stemming from his homesickness for Hungary.  His peacock attraction began in his early years.  This bird, a well-known symbol of eternal love, freedom, purity and light had also been an important character in Magyar folklore, thus it amply fed into his themes.

Spiri’s fame and artistic recognition was growing.  More and more galleries showed his work and Hungarian families as well as an increasing number of museums were buying his woodcuts, which had become his signature genre.  From New Jersey the family moved to a distinguished gated community, Tuxedo Park, New York, surrounded by old-money mega-houses of millionaires.  One of their neighbors was none other than Queen Zita, widow of the dethroned last emperor Karl Habsburg of Austria.  Evelyn’s cousin was her secretary who conveyed an invitation to Her Majesty for the Domján’s.  They accepted and, wanting to reciprocate, Joseph invited the Queen to their house for a barbecue…  She sent her regrets on the basis that it would be against protocol.

In Tuxedo Park they had a comfortable house and studio where, creatively and productively, Evelyn worked in the sunny end of the house and Joseph in the cool north exposure.

Then one day in June, 1970 a massive fire destroyed it all.

It seemed that their whole world, art, the fairytale, had come to an end.  It would have annihilated most everyone else.  It took a Domján’s will to ultimately overcome the all-consuming tragedy and, akin to the mythical Phoenix, reborn from the ashes, to re-build their nest, their studio, his kingdom.

Recovering and with renewed strength, they enjoyed almost a quarter century of incredibly fruitful life together. Joseph and Evelyn collaborated and co-produced an increased volume and quality of new work, including even some tapestry.  Evelyn painted some houseful of furniture with precious Hungarian motifs of flowers, animals, folk stories.  Their children enjoyed creative lives with their own families: Alma, a PhD in bio-chemistry, wife of John Melbourne, MD in Connecticut and New York; Daniel, an MD in Missouri and Michael, PhD, professor of psychology in Austin, Texas.

Joseph passed 25 years ago in 1992, Evelyn in 2009.   

The permanent collections of over 150 museums worldwide have more art by Domján than by any other Hungarian artist.

Now, isn’t this the closest anyone can get to “Living happily ever after”?

Olga Vállay Szokolay is an architect and Professor Emerita of Norwalk Community College, CT after three decades of teaching.  She is a member of the Editorial Board of Magyar News Online. 

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