In 19th century Hungary, as in all Europe, interest in popular culture was closely related to the building of a national identity: "authentic" rural traditions and typically Magyar forms of expression were being rediscovered.
For the painters, these aspirations went hand in hand with a desire to join the most modern movements, and the folk tradition was seen as an alternative to the formal art of the academies. Artists turned to the decorative, coloured motifs of folk art to reinvigorate their own idiom. They wanted to create a synthesis of East and West, the traditional and the universal (István Csók, Chest with Tulips; Anna Lesznai, Ady Cushion). Writers (Zsigmond Móricz), photographers (Rudolf Balogh), architects (Ödön Lechner) and musicians (Béla Bartók, Zoltán Kodály) also looked to their popular culture for inspiration. Bartók extended his ethnomusicalogical research beyond Central Europe, travelling to Algeria and Anatolia, as part of an intense campaign to "collect" folk songs.
The young artists who had moved to Paris at the beginning of the 20th century spent their summers in Hungary, in order to paint from life. These "Neos", as the critics named them referring to Neo-Impressionist painting, would come together around Béla Czóbel in the artists’ colony of Nagybánya (today Baia Mare in Romania).
Károly Kernstok’s estate at Nyergesújfalu, on the banks of the Danube, and József Rippl-Rónai’s estate at Kaposvár were also places where Hungarian modernity would develop and flourish.
Their works show how they had absorbed the painting styles encountered in Paris, Munich or Vienna, but also reveal highly original qualities. Primitivist and Fauve at once, the landscapes, nudes and still lifes are constructed by juxtaposing vivid colours and shapes defined by black contours.
Rippl-Rónai used an individual technique to apply his paint called "corn style" [kukoricás], Czóbel and Márffy played on the juxtaposition and contrast of large areas of colour; Kernstok was however more measured in his use of pigments.
At the same time, Bartók broke free from his classical training, in his Fourteen Bagatelles for piano, influenced by both Debussy and popular folk songs: he laid the foundations for a music reduced to its essence, with a radically dissonant and percussive dimension.