Renowned Hungarian cabinetmaker and restorer Árpád Rostás is on Roma civil rights mission
CABINETMAKER AND RESTORER Árpád Rostás has admired the masterful works of his predecessors all through his life and he is constantly striving so that the rest of the world could also be delighted by these masterpieces as long as possible. He has been dealing with the restoration and preservation of antique furniture, objects of art, the furnishings and inner and outer ornamental elements of churches and castles since 1979.
"My job is's to 'save' the works and experiences of old masters for the present and for the future generation," he says, adding that two things concerns him the most, and none of them seem to go in the right direction in Hungary. "One is the Roma issue and the other is the national monument preservation, these are very difficult and urgent problems to be solved," he points out, adding he is sure there are other problems, but in these two, he has insight and interest. "We have to realize that we, who live in the present, are the link between past and future. If we do not start to make an effort to save our national monuments, if we throw away everything, the world will change around us and nothing will be left for the after-ages."
Following Leonardo da Vinci
Rostás restores and reconstructs by applying the technology appropriate for the particular period and he only uses the matching original materials. To do so, he constantly has to research and examine the style of the given period so that the final result does not resemble to the original only on the surface, but completely. "When I start to work, first I always pray and meditate. Some people talk to flowers, I talk to furniture," he laughs. "I mean it literally. If I can't solve a problem, I ask the wood: "Is it all right with you? Can I go through with it?" And I always get a response or some kind of an instruction," explains the master, who is in personal relationship with the wood, almost like being in love. "I'm not a professional restorer, I always think of myself as a carpenter, that's why I need help. Who else could give me the best answer, if not the wood itself?"
Furthermore, Rostás likes challenges. He always keys up when he touches a piece others have already given up on. Like he did so with the stairway of the hospital in Marcali as it was just to be demolished when Rostás turned up. "I am really proud to be the one who could work on that stairway on which once Austrian emperor and Hungarian king Franz Joseph himself walked." His working style and ethic is special but not only because of this. His mordant technique is also unique. He uses dung-water, garlic, potatoes, onion and human urine as mordant which is at least a 3000 year old Chinese method. Leonardo da Vinci also thought that wood should be prepared with dung water at full moon that is how it preserves its beauty. "It is an excellent way of preserving, it drives away the ghosts, the smell slips away very soon and the result is a nice surface, treated without the use of any kind of artificial chemicals," Rostás reveals. When working on a piece of furniture, he always uses some kind of perfume which he heats first and then rubs it into the wood. This way the volatile materials soak into the wood, stay there forever and the furniture will never have fusty and stuffy air. "I enjoy making something standing, something everlasting, that embodies elegancy, quality and exclusivity," he remarks, then adds, "My works are guaranteed till I'm alive."
Rostás always leaves something tiny for the up-coming generations, sometimes his own poem, or a dedication. "For instance I always write down in Hungarian which year I did the work and what materials I used. I have this idea from old masters. When I was restoring the stairway at the Marcali Hospital I found a message from 1883 behind the stairs, in which the late master encouraged those who would find his note to fight for a more beautiful home, a more beautiful Hungary."
Rostás was brought up in a state institution, far away from his family. "I'm actually happy I was taken there. Hadn't been grown up there, I would probably have never become what I am now. At the institution we had the opportunity to get acquainted with art, while I'm sure this wouldn't have been possible in my home village. Originally I wanted to be a cart-maker or organ-maker. Finally, after finishing primary school, I went to Kaposvár to a technical institute, where I gradually fell in love with the carpenter profession. I even won national competitions and I felt that I finally found the meaning of my life," he remembers. Rostás has left his mark at several places in Hungary, mainly in Budapest. He restored the wainscot and the banister of the chamber in the Parliament, the benches of the Synagogue in Dohány Street, he also worked on Palace of Earl Andrássy on Bem Wharf and the wainscot of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, he renovated the antique furniture at the Hertelendy Castle, the furnishings of the Swedish Embassy, the 150 year old mansard windows of Volksbank in Rákóczy Street and the lodgings and cabins of the Gellért Bath, just to mention some of his achievements. However Rostás believes that he is much more appreciated abroad than here, in Hungary. He is constantly called to work, at the moment he is restoring a Scottish castle, but he has already worked in the Louvre, at the Versailles Castle or at the Hungarian Embassy in Wien. "My businessman Maecenas, Péter Bakai suggested me once to go abroad and I didn't regret this advice, I will always be grateful for his help and support. He told me, "Árpád, you must work abroad. This country is possessed by outlaws; they have never cared about quality." Now I can see he was right. In the western countries craftsmen like myself are treated differently," he says bitterly.
While Rostás mainly works on church and state public institutions in Hungary, abroad he has a lot more private jobs to do. According to him, it is not a question of more money there. In England, Scotland and France there are several castles and mansions, but in those countries they are appreciated and valued. Decaying and rotting wooden barriers and railings are not demolished and replaced to new ones unless it is necessary. "I have learnt a lot abroad and I inevitably took up the mentality practiced there. That is why, though it's not easy but painful to say, that I feel better abroad than home. I love Hungary and I always stand up when I hear our national anthem. Yet, I still believe that my work has no chance to be completely fulfilled here, so I will take former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány's advice and, though with agony, leave the country again for a while. I have two beautiful children but I got divorced three years ago. Family is somehow not my thing. I am a wandering carpenter, I go one place to another," he says. In fact, the last time Rostás only came home because he fell off a trestle and got badly injured, he broke his wrist.
The throne of the pope
"When a possible client first meets me, he doesn't trust I'm going to do a good job. Maybe that's because I'm a gypsy. Then when I'm done with a stairway, a wooden facade, a piece of furniture or some other thing, they could hardly believe their eyes. I proudly leave my 'calling-card', a renaissance motif, on everything I work on," he reveals, admitting that the Renaissance style is the closest to him. "I gave the name Michelangelo to my own son. This is my way of honoring a truly great artist and the whole Renaissance art." Now he is making a throne for Pope Benedict XVI, using a 200 year old oak tree, to be fashioned in his favorite stlye. "I'm going to carve the text of the Hungarian national anthem into it, also our historical home-country, but considering the sensitivity of the surrounding nations, I may only put the map of the expurgated Hungary on it," he explains, adding that the throne will be presented to the pope in the name of the whole Hungarian nation. The protocol-presentation will take place 22nd December. "I'm religious, so I would like to give this gift to the Holy Father in person. As he has the throne, I will know I have done something for my country. And I?d also like to make a similar throne for the Esztergom Basilica and one for the Hungarian President. Rostás works on a church during the summer. "This will be the one and only church in that tiny village called Magyarföld. Made throghout of wood, it will stand on a hilltop. I have always been dreaming of building the house of God."
The Roma issue
According to Rostás, finding a solution to the Roma issue is not an easy task, but it is not impossible. "I think the tension between the two nations can only be eased if the leadership of the Roma is completely changed. These people act not for Hungary, not even for the Roma, but only for themselves and besides, they are not suitable and appropriate to communicate and to make a dialogue," he says but adds this kind of attitude characterizes almost every politician. "I wrote an essay on the possible solutions, I sent it to the Prime Minister's Bureau several times, but they were not interested in it," he reveals. He believes if some day the union of people and the support of each other can be a lifesaver, it is the day. But instead what he witnesses is rabble-rousing. "Hatred leads the further hatred. As long as there is one vindictive Roma, or another who gives grounds for complaints, there will be a non-Roma who will hate en bloc the whole Roma nation. It's true that Hungary is not our original cradle." Rostás feels that the more the racism is, the more Roma go down and fail, which results in the further extension of delinquency and crime. "It's a vicious circle, but if left untouched, the issue might be fatal." He also emphasizes that just like in every other nation there are a lot of honest people among the Romas who want to work. "Yet it is a fact, that many of them don't, and as soon as they receive subsidy, they won't. And this leads directly to prejudices. When I'm done with a job, be it anywhere, I'm always told they wouldn't have thought of me that. Not only because I have no degree or any kind of documents of me being a restorer, but because of the browner than average color of my skin. Still, I have no reason to complaint, because I have failed only a trace of jobs because of my being Roma. I always find work, if not here, then there, if not in Hungary, then abroad."Having no credentials, the now 47 year old carpenter will never have the chance to win directly a state assignment, but as sub-contractor he is present at every significant restoration of national monuments.
Film director Lívia Gyarmati made a documentary, The Stairs, focusing on Rostás' case with the wooden staircase at the Marcali Hospital's aula and which film was honored at the Hungarian Film Week. The building of the hospital used to be the castle of the Széchényi family, the stairway a huge and beautiful Baroque work of art and a national monument and it was moldering. Árpád Rostás wanted to perform a qualitative job on it. The municipality of Marcali did not provide a deposit, but after finishing partial works, he also had to fight for his money and it has not always been guaranteed that he would be paid. So he invested some part of the family holdings. "I'm a simple man therefore I often feel it's not easy to find sources. Or maybe I don't have enough experience to sponsor myself, who knows?" he asks, then he puts an end to the story by revealing that his work has still not been paid, but the stairway is beautiful and stable.