Review of Hungarian Photographers’ Exhibition, Royal Academy

15 Oct

This is probably now outdated but as a commentary on a little-known genre of photography it is still valid and informative.


Hungarian photographs from the 20th century

What is it about Hungarian photographers that makes them so unique as to merit their own personal exhibit in the Royal Academy? Well, it is difficult to pinpoint because the people and their individual styles have been dispersed so widely across the globe. A century of warfare and social upheaval in Europe has dramatically affected the country, which has sent its emigrants to countries both friendly and hostile to it. During WW2 many Hungarian photographers in America suffered considerable persecution and suspicion; the onset of Soviet rule made it difficult for artists to freely express themselves in their own country, though eventually the dissent expressed in the 1956 Hungarian Uprising manifested itself in some portrayals of social issues that escaped government censorship. By the time the USSR dissolved, the exhibit’s creators assert, the blurring of cultural boundaries between Hungary and the rest of the world meant the loss of what had made its photography unique. Perhaps this, though, was less to do with the style of the photography than with its subject matter – a prolific documentation of Hungary’s heritage and traditions.

Initially this took the form of a fascination with, and variable stylistic depictions of, rural peasant life. In 1914 Hungarian photographer Rudolf Balogh asserted: ‘We need photographs to communicate our particularities and our national character.’ This coincided with, and helped influence, the emergence of the ‘Magyar style.’ Balogh’s idealised portraits of weathered working faces and soft-focus landscape pictures of sheep-farming, horse-ranching and village customs dominated the medium until the onset of WW1, when a more sombre subject-matter became popular. Amateur efforts were encouraged by a call from the Budapest newspaper ‘Az Erdekes Ujsag’ (Interesting Newspaper), to enter their photographs of the battlefield in a competition with generous cash prizes; hundreds were collected and later published. Balogh also documented the harsh realities of life during the war, as did one of the exhibit’s other major stars, Andre Kertesz, who focused more on scenes behind the front line. All five of the principal contributors, though (Kertesz, Robert Capa, Brassai, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Martin Munkacsi), experienced the war, three of them as serving soldiers.

Partly as a result of the harsh losses Hungary suffered to its territory and population during the postwar settlement (ceding 72% of its territory and 64% of its population), and because of the fascistic, anti-intellectual tendency of their government, many artists relocated to other countries. Moholy-Nagy went to Germany in 1920, where his innovation of camera-less ‘photograms’ and distortions of perspective proved very popular. He took several images of a woman at a slanting angle to a beach or snowy mountain surface that gain historical significance in retrospect – she later became a cultural heroine of National Socialism. Munkacsi was highly influential on the development of current photojournalistic formatting, in his work for the magazine ‘Berliner Illustrirte Zeiting,’ which had a circulation of around 2 000 000 – impressive even by today’s standards. The glorification of the heroic farm worker in pictures by less well-known artists, in images like ‘Sparta’ (1936), and ‘The Archer’ (1943), are indicative of the continuing cultural stagnation in Hungary at the time.

In France, Kertesz and Brassai made their mark on Parisian culture; while the latter arrived a year before Kertesz, it took his fellow countryman’s encouragement for him to make the transition from journalism to photography. Brassai’s book ‘Paris de Nuit’ (1932), with its atmospheric cityscapes, established his reputation. His unique observations of people and situations were testified to by novelist Henry Miller, who reportedly based one of the characters in his ‘Tropic of Cancer’ on the photographer. Kertesz’s book, ‘Paris vu par Andre Kertesz’ (1934) was equally popular and influential, and he and his friend became lynchpins of the French artistic community, themselves documenting major native artists like Matisse and Picasso. Kertesz was less successful when he moved to America in 1936, in part because Hungary’s declaration of war on the Allies in 1941 meant he was treated, for a time, with considerable suspicion and even censorship; his commercial ventures, when they resumed, were limited to some work for ‘House & Garden.’

In contrast, Muncacsi, when he arrived in New York in 1934 on a commission for Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung, was able to use his magazine experience and legacy of sports photography to innovate at several shoots for Harper’s Bazaar. Divers suspended in midair are used to advertise swimming suits; clothes billow revealingly while simultaneously showing off their cut and texture. He is alleged to have almost founded, and certainly risen to the peak of, the fashion photography industry. Many American fashion photographers – like Richard Avedon, Herb Ritts and Bruce Weber – held him as an influence. Moholy-Nagy did some work in London during the 1930s – his picture of two top-hatted, frock-coated men on the playing fields at Eton is particularly memorable, though his activities were curtailed when he became Director of a major Chicago university in 1937; the baton was then taken up by a new generation, consisting of Lucian Aigner, Cornell and Robert Capa.

Robert Capa’s portrayal of the Spanish Civil War, particularly his ‘Death of a Loyalist Militiamen’, is of historic importance and renown; yet despite his internationally recognised status, when the US (where he moved in 1939) went to war, he had his cameras confiscated. Moving back to England, he managed to also capture a number of stories of life on the home front, and important action shots of the D-Day landings which set the bar for future generations of photojournalists. Unfortunately he died while reporting in Vietnam, but not before the US army could bestow official recognition on him via the Freedom Medal in 1947 – bestowed, no less, by General (then President) Eisenhower. Capa was also there to photograph the destruction wreaked on Budapest by the National Socialist government in 1944; visions of wrecked bridges and fallen statues preclude the later images of the downfall of the Soviet-run government, like ‘Fallen Worker,’ a broken-down piece of communist architecture and timely political comment by one of his photographic successors.

‘Socialist Realism’ was the term used to describe the photography permitted under the reign of the USSR – only one of the words an accurate description of what this genre entailed. Negative images of social issues or subversive political messages were naturally prohibited; idealised visions of rural life or industrious factory-workers predominated, under Angelo, Erno Vadas and Miklos Rev. When Laszlo Haris exhibited ‘Unlawful Avant-Garde’ in 1971 he was prevented from publicly releasing any further material. Increasingly, though, censorship standards relaxed, photography was promoted as a popular and viable art form – even becoming a university course in its own right – and it is difficult to argue that the fall of the Berlin Wall precluded the production of many images of harsh social commentary. ‘Druggies’, and ‘The Cage’ are images that resonate across today’s society.



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