Written by: Gabrielle Bonifacio
A pair of 19th century candelabras. A gilded bronze mantelpiece. A painting from 1770 of a prince, and a golden apple that started a war. At first glance, these objects have little in common. Yet there is one thing tying them together: their owner. His name is Ari Kupsus, and he fixes castles during his spare time.
A Finnish entrepreneur, antique collector and historiophile (I’m told he’s partial to the Empire period; think Napoleon the first), Kupsus has curated quite an eclectic resume over the years. With the distance between his country and mine---not to mention a schedule ribboned with exhibitions and a literal masquerade---I was unable to have the pleasure of meeting him in person. However, Kupsus was kind enough to deliver in-depth answers to my questions through email.
A self-described “castle-lover”, Kupsus spent years satisfying a hearty appetite for “beautiful historical buildings” by travelling frequently to cities like Paris and St. Petersburg, where there was no shortage of history or beauty. The castlework, however, didn’t start until later, when, on a serendipitous trip to Hungary, Kupsus fell madly in love---with Budapest. As the story goes, all it took was one look at Keleti Railway Station for Kupsus to be enthralled. For those unfamiliar, Keleti Railway is a bustling port for local and international visitors to travel anywhere from Munich to Zurich, pick up loved ones or perhaps admire some art while they wait. Decorated with frescoes and guarded by statues of Railway pioneers, James Watt and George Stephenson, the Keleti’s design is more museum-like than what we’re used to seeing at the Skytrain. It was inevitable that a man like Kupsus, who cites “the huge variation [of] high culture” as one of Budapest’s greatest virtues, would feel the same. According to an interview for the Budapest Local, His original plan was three days in the country, a quick taste of the Balkans before returning home to Finland, his original place of residence. On the second day, he cancelled his ticket. Two decades later, Kupsus has accomplished plenty in the Arts & Culture sector, directing his energy toward establishing initiatives which benefit both the local and international community. When asked today, his enthusiasm for Hungary burns as bright as that fateful day at the trains. In fact, he wholeheartedly lists “music, arts, theatre, literature, opera, ballet [and] museums” in response to the question ‘what is the absolute best part of Budapest’? Which is to say, he loves it all.
Kupsus alleges that he was first inspired to “try to bring back the lost history of [the] country” after an encounter with none other than the Count and Countess Karolyi. The pair were restoring their family country house at the time, and it was then that Kupsus made the life-changing decision to work on not only preserving, but refurnishing important cultural heritage sites. It was the poor condition of castles and chateaus in Hungary, many of which had been neglected or damaged through years of war and later communism, which spurned Kupsus to “try to bring back the lost history of [the] country.”
But how exactly does one go about restoring castles?
In this case it starts with an investigation, the centre of each project maintaining a deep respect for the history of the land and its past residents. “Try to find as much information as possible from the possible living members of these families as well as villagers who were hired by the Count,” Kupsus explains, before adding that “one [must] also know the historical interior design periods and styles to be able to create authentic interiors.” You know, just in case you thought this was easy. To my surprise, however, finding the antiques themselves wasn’t as difficult as Nicholas Cage’s character in National Treasure would have you believe. Void of archaic tunnels and booby traps, many “suitable antiques” are actually “found all over Europe”, with reasonably priced items often found in Sweden and Finland. Whenever he travels to Europe and Asia, Kupsus always keeps a keen eye open at antique markets and shops, a strategy that has no doubt contributed to his title as the owner of the largest Russian Empire furniture collection in Hungary.
Another of his main projects is a unique residency opportunity, where ten international artists are invited to stay at the Amadé-Bajzáth-Pappenheim castle for eleven glorious days of art, wine and other festivities. It’s an initiative he deeply enjoys, as it gives him the opportunity to “get to know interesting artists from different countries and cultures.” In return, Kupsus hopes artists walk away with international connections, friendships and a new appreciation for the Hungarian countryside and its rich history. This, and: [to] “enjoy the hot summer of Central-Europe.”
His gallery’s website offers an enticing glimpse into the village, describing a visit as “a journey in the history of art”. It’s the type of place that demands fancy art terminology like “Baroque”, boasts plenty of “Calvinist and Roman Catholic churches” for any tourist or historian’s delight, and probably looks even better than the best of what Google Images has to offer (which, for the record, is several homogeneous shots of the castle’s front with a few overhead views that include greenery for miles).
As this year’s only Canadian participant, our director Lisa Wolfin is one of the lucky few who can attest that it really is as good as it sounds, and in no small part due to the man behind the magic.
Nestled by the windows of a cafe with a clean, wood aesthetic and an assortment of vegan options, I am easily charmed to hear about Wolfin’s experience exploring the castle and beyond. Her tales are frequently interwoven with Kupsus acting as a guide, taking the artists on several excursions that included drinking underground and coasting along the countryside to visit more of Hungary’s castles. His character is conveyed through several glowing epithets, with Wolfin describing him as “the loveliest man”.
As she outlines her trip, it becomes increasingly clear that it is an adventure of cinematic proportions. Whilst there was some semblance of regular programming---Artists had the day to create their two pieces (unrestricted by medium) and were given lunch by the chef who taught children at other camps held at the castle---there were certain whimsical details that almost belonged more in the pages of a fairytale than a brochure.
“Everyday there was something going on,” Wolfin recalls.
Like the chef displaying their culinary prowess by stirring in a giant cauldron (of the witch-like variety) in an open field for people to watch. Or garden parties that helped pass the yawning summer nights. Or a poetry reading of Khalil Gibran's masterpiece, The Prophet, done by the current ambassador of Lebanon.
On witnessing his infamous salon concerts (wherein guests are treated to an intimate performance by a classical opera singer and an award-winning pianist discovered by Kupsus himself), Wolfin declares, with utmost sincerity: “it was like a movie.”
The sentiment of constant excitement was a recurring talking point throughout our conversation, yet it was balanced by a small town that seemed to lend itself to a more leisurely pace.
The all around folksy flair is rather fitting when you learn that the village where the castle resides is named after a legend. A pocket of land resting on the bottom of the Bakony mountains, Iszkaszentgyörgy (Saint George of Iszka) honours Saint George, who, according to legend, defeated the dragon which terrorised the region. Though there have obviously been significant developments since the Middle Ages, one thing that hasn’t grown is a population that rounds out to 2000. In hindsight, I shouldn’t have been surprised when Wolfin casually mentioned that the village bus driver was also the village yoga instructor.
This was one quirky anecdote amongst many about a trip that never used brevity as an excuse to be dull. Because Kupsus kept the artists busy till the very end, the camp culminating in what Wolfin calls the “village dance” (described endearingly on the website as the “village disco”), a night where locals were invited to a gathering reminiscent of a John Hughes film. There was a gym, and a live band. Everyone dressed up. Everyone danced. In a world torn by strife, there is something undeniably heart-warming about imagining such a scene.
In fact, some might say it was nothing less than magical.