House and Decorated Kitchen from Ajak

About Ajak

The village of Ajak lies on the Northern part of Szabolcs-Szatmár-Bereg County, Southeast from Kisvárda, on the border of the ethnographic regions Nyírség and Rétköz. Ethnographically Ajak is particularly interesting. It is remarkable for its ornately decorated kitchens, traditional costumes and rich folklore.
Ajak’s folk culture has developed among typical peasant forms. The true aspects of the village have been formed over the centuries by Hungarian, Ruthenian and Slovak settlers. After the drainage in 1860, the inhabitants changed the former intensive livestock -framing to agriculture. In the second half of the 19th century, many tobacco growers settled in Ajak, due to the prosperity of tobacco. Most of them were Hungarians who arrived from the town of Gyöngyös. However, Slovaks from the County of Heves came at harvest time, and some of them settled down over time. The foreign-speakers soon assimilated to the Hungarians. They lived in the Western part of the inner area of the village, East of the Greek Catholic Church, on the former territory of Kisajak. (Thus, there have been the Slovakian (Tótvég) and Hungarian (Magyarvég) part of the village, near the Calvinstic Church.) The newcomers had a relationship with their former sites from the county of Heves and this played an important role in the development of both, costume and interior furnishing of the village. Today’s festive woman costume of Ajak evolved from the special clothes of the tobacco grower maidens, settled from Heves, and from the fashionable wear of the racy women. The people from Heves had influence on the tiny floral red, yellow and blue patterns that were embroidered to the clothes.
They obtained their varied and decorated leather clothes from Kisvárda and Ajak. Embroidered furs were precious, mothers gave to their daughters to wear them, and the old furs were completely worn out. Wealthy people gave their daughters furs as a wedding present, and the furs were sold only when the whole female branch of the family died out. Headscarf with checked pattern was used as a fashion statement, and it is fashionable even today in Ajak.
The majority of the agricultural population, enclosed by large estates, earned their living as agricultural day-men in Ajak. They went to near and distant estates to work as seasonal workers, or travelled to Kisvárda to sell tobacco. They were known as sagacious and hard-working people. They barely had the opportunity to buy a land, so they spent their money to decorate their houses and buy clothes. The liking of gaudy, colourful costumes, and of the decorated kitchens are expressions of the same colourful and patternful spirit. This special feature distinguishes the people of Ajak from the people of other villages within the County of Szabolcs.
However, these improvements were effective only in this small community, because they did not spread across the border of the village. Thanks to the explosive transformation of the lifestyle, the periods of the golden age, the stagnation and the decline followed each other in rapid succession.


The Decorated Kitchens from Ajak


If we want to study the history of the decorated kitchens of Ajak, we have to go back to the nineteenth century. Peasant women of Ajak created the method of wall-painting on the turn of the 20th century. They decorated the yellow or grey painted walls with white lime stains.
More skilled women dip taters with scalloped edges cut in four slices to the lime and did not use a brush. It was Mrs. János Gácsér, who first applied the multi-coloured, so-called fuchsia floral decoration, to which she used a tuft.  Mrs. Takács, Anna Ragány learned this technique from her and even developed it, creating a “school” in Ajak. At the same time with the fuchsia floral decoration, it was fashionable to paint national coloured squares on the wall. From the combination of the two evolved the Painting with Roses and Birds – even before the First World War (Mrs. Takács died 1969). The use of living colours, the effort to cramming occurred not only in the painting of the decorated kitchens, but it can be seen on the costume of Ajak, on the homespun, becoming slowly more colourful, and on the walls of the houses.


What was the House in Ajak like?

The houses in Ajak have been built mostly with the end oriented to the street. The sandy clay soil is very suitable for the loam-wall construction, because it is clingy and becomes hard. According to its stoker and type, the houses in Ajak belong to the house- type of the Great Hungarian Plain. Each of them had a kitchen with open chimney and a room with furnace. Smoky houses didn’t have any ceiling, because it was coverd by the chimney, with an open end, and with its “whistle” through the roof.
Later, the open chimney became smaller, dividing the smoky house into the chimney bottom and the kitchen. The slot of the furnace opened to the chimney bottom. If two families lived together, furnace was set up in both: in the “first” house and the “back” houses. The kitchen was separated by girder and arch from the smoky chimney bottom.
This change made the use of more complex painting techniques possible instead of wall-painting with simple lime stains.


The Golden Age

The decorated kitchen-painting designed by Mrs. Takács, Anna Ragány spread quickly in Ajak.  The community seemed to be receptive to it. The decoration skills of some of Mrs. Takács’s followers – Mrs. Balaskó, Mrs. Gerzsenyi, Mrs. Molnár, Mrs. Rozinka – got to artistic levels. They all managed to use a particular method of the common motifs, and also to shape the rhythm of the colour compositions. They painted the carefully lime-washed wall with yellow or sky blue colours. If traces of the former decoration had to be covered up, they lime-washed the walls three times.  They “breached the bottom” (In the rim decoration appears striving to cram.), then, they divided the vacant surface into squares with rosemary. Each square was a closed composition. A rich, colourful bouquet with a rooster sitting on the top was painted in the middle. Different flowers were following each other in a defined order. Each square was centrally composed, but this does not mean unanimity, and implies reassuring order. The painting of the initial row of motifs was the most difficult task. It was the job of the “main master”, while carefully lime-washing and the decorating of the “roses” in the squares with rosemary was made by the housewife.
The decorating was not considered as a real work, it was done in “minor details”, sometimes taking even one week to finish it. The decorated kitchen made a lot of joy to its creators. The decorators were actually wide – known. Sometimes three or four people got together to undertake a painting, so it could be completed within three days. They continued decorating even in the evening by the light of candles. Each woman painted different type of rose into the squares with rosemary, but the alternating patterns followed each other in specified order, so that the composition formed a harmonious whole. To avoid the monotony, they changed the colour of the repetitive flowers. The large surface area and the painting technique provided greater freedom to the composer. They could imitate nature to a greater extent than any other popular art. They never decorated strangers’ kitchens, they did only for relatives and good neighbours, as a favour or for returning help.
The decorating women and maidens were highly respected members of the village society. The nubile, who was skilled in decoration, was more appreciated. The lads were more willing to court to such skilled girls.


Rapid Decline

Construction customs have changed with times even in Ajak. The open chimney began to decrease, and was followed by the covering of a part of the chimney bottom. Finally, the full range of kitchen was covered with ceiling. The court has lost its former role. In many houses, the space under the arch was boarded and the rear place was used as a tool – chamber. The kitchen with loft fit no longer to the decoration.
Today, no decorated kitchen can be found in Ajak. That explains why the house with painted kitchen from Ajak, set up in the Rétközi Museum, is so precious. It is the work of Mrs. Mihály Hasujó and of her daughter. She was one of the last painter women in Ajak. While news about the painting women in Kalocsa travelled around the world, only a few people know about the painters of the decorated kitchens in Ajak. Their works have equivalent value of folk art with that of the women in Kalocsa. They deserve their works to be preserved.