BUDAPEST: Models strutted down a catwalk in front of Budapest's parliament recently, as part of a fashion show inspired by Hungarian folk motifs, the latest effort to highlight nationalism in art and culture.
The show not only offered new takes on old Hungarian themes but was also held on National Unity Day, a holiday introduced by Prime Minister Viktor Orban in 2010 to promote a united Hungary.
"National symbols are more important now, the emphasis these days is on how the soul of the nation can be consolidated," said Gyorgy Szabo, head of Trafo, an art house famed for staging daring, innovative productions, often by foreign groups.
Since Orban's ruling Fidesz party took power in 2010, Szabo's long-held ambitions to make Trafo a meeting point for the latest international dance and theatre have been increasingly frowned upon by cultural officials who want him to focus on Hungarian talent.
The government-funded design contest that preceded the fashion show, entitled "Re-buttoned -- Hungarian is in Fashion," was just one effort to strengthen the "national" flavour of culture in the capital and beyond.
Fidesz is striving to bring all areas of public life under the control of people who share their vision of Hungary, one that emphasises national pride and patriotism but is also often hostile to foreign influence, members of Budapest's art scene said.
"Whatever strengthens the principles of conservative politics gets the money and is strongly controlled and centralised. And whatever does not serve those ideas is left to wither and die," said Szabo.
Supporters of the government meanwhile say it is only right that most of the available funds be channelled towards distinctively Hungarian arts projects.
"We now have to reinterpret our tasks, the interests of our community, of the nation and of the capital's inhabitants," a spokesman from the Budapest mayor's office said in an emailed statement to AFP.
"We also have to face the moral crises that we inherited from previous years," he added, in a swipe at the former Socialist government of Hungary.
Orban says he is sweeping away the last remains of the old communist regime left intact by the Socialists, with a series of dramatic reforms and a contentious new constitution passed early this year.
But critics -- who felt the new constitution undermines democracy by removing vital checks and balances on the government's power -- say the government is also pandering to the far-right Jobbik party, with its regular criticism of the European Union and International Monetary Fund, from which it is seeking a 20-billion-euro ($25 billion) credit line.
This view gained strength when Budapest Mayor Istvan Tarlos named an open supporter of Jobbik and of the anti-Semitic MIEP party as director of the city's Uj Szinhaz theatre last October.
Despite economic hard times, major projects are in the pipeline, including plans for a vast "Museum Quarter" in Budapest to boost the international profile of Hungarian art.
The planned 150-200 million euro ($188-250 million) project would unite currently separate collections and display Hungarian artists alongside their more famous European contemporaries.
This unification would bring Hungarian art out of isolation, imposed under the Soviet regime, and "position (it) according to its true value," said the project's mastermind, Fine Arts Museum director Laszlo Baan, adding he hoped funds would come from the EU's cultural budget.
An exhibition of Hungarian modernists planned for autumn 2013 at the Musee d'Orsay in Paris is part of his mission.
But while Baan said he was seeking to "reconnect" Hungarian and Western art, Szabo feared politics and economics were dragging the country to the continent's cultural margins.
"We are so far from the London-Berlin-Paris triangle and the critical public here is a lot smaller," he said.
"The big towns keep running on while we are slipping away. The question is when will the distance be so great that we can no longer keep up?" AGENCIES