A Disguised Background
Hungarian Photography — Royal Academy of Arts (30th June - 2nd October 2011)
Review by David Evans
Eyewitness ties in with Hungary’s Presidency of the European Union. It is an exhibition of work by fifty Hungarian photographers, mainly produced between 1914 and 1989, though the emphasis is on five who emigrated in the 1920s and established international reputations elsewhere. Some might see this foregrounding of a famous five as a cynical marketing ploy by the Royal Academy. Others might want to stress the political cynicism of a newly elected Hungarian government, accused of xenophobic excess, but here seeming to embrace celebrated émigrés of Jewish origin. Both perspectives are worth bearing in mind. Yet they should not obscure the fact that Eyewitness is also a rich exhibition, cocurated with sensitivity by Péter Baki, director of the Hungarian Museum of Photography, and Colin Ford, whose keen interest in Hungarian photography led to important exhibitions at the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television, Bradford, in the 1980s. Both contribute to the catalogue that also includes an essay by George Szirtes, the Hungarian-born poet and translator who has lived in England since arriving as a young refugee in 1956.
Eyewitness foregrounds Gyula Halász, Endre Ernó´ Friedmann, Andor Kohn, László Weisz and Márton Mermelstein, better known as Brassaï, Robert Capa, André Kertész, László Moholy-Nagy and Martin Munkácsi, respectively. There are varying sources for the assumed names. Brassaï adapted the name of his village of birth – Brasso, Transylvania, once part of Hungary, but transferred to Romania after World War One. Moholy-Nagy alludes to the district of Mohol, Southern Hungary, and the surname of an uncle. Robert Capa chose a name with hints of the American film director Frank Capra, it is often claimed, but the exhibition catalogue also notes that ‘Cápa’ is Hungarian for shark and was a boyhood nickname. Fascinating detail, but it is also of immense significance, registering how each of the five felt it necessary at some point to disguise a Jewish background.
They were all born in Austria-Hungary, a dual monarchy that was created in 1857, that was on the losing side in World War One, and that ceased to exist in 1918. It was replaced by a Hungarian Republic, but with major losses of territory and population. There was a shortlived Communist experiment in 1919, but then years of authoritarian Right government, committed in various ways to regaining what had been lost after World War One. A failed Left, an entrenched Right and a resurgent anti-Semitism are amongst the reasons for the five leaving Hungary in the 1920s (In their catalogue essays, both Colin Ford and George Szirtes note that the Numerus Clausus of 1920 was one of the first anti-Jewish laws in 20th Century Europe, strictly limiting the percentage of Jews who could attend university). However, the magnetism of cultural capitals like Berlin and Paris is another major factor, and certainly the assumed names were in part linked to a desire to find employment in these new cities.
Brassaï, Capa, Kertész, Moholy-Nagy and Munkácsi are now taken-for-granted monuments that have been scrutinized for more than fifty years in countless ways, ranging from monographs and solo shows to general surveys of the photographic medium (The last time they were together at the RA was in 1989 as part of an exhibition celebrating one hundred and fifty years of photography). Yet surprisingly there has been limited consideration of their regional roots. An important exception in this respect is the recent exhibition Foto: Modernity in Central Europe, 1918-1945 (Washington, 2007) and Eyewitness continues in a similar vein.
Of the famous five, only two – Kertész and Munkásci – were photographers before leaving Hungary, and the opening section of the exhibition, covering the years 1914 to 1939, presents their early work next to that of sixteen who stayed. Munkásci was already a successful photojournalist, specializing in sport, when he moved from Budapest to Berlin in 1928. In contrast, Kertész only became a professional photographer when he moved to Paris in 1925 and it is surprising to be reminded that some of his most famous images like Boy Sleeping (1912), Circus (1920) and Wandering Violinist (1924) were all created by an amateur who began work as a clerk in Budapest.
Very different from both is the work shown in this section by Rudolf Balogh, inventor of the so-called ‘Hungarian style’. Shepherd with His Dogs (1930) is a brilliant example, using the modern medium of photography to celebrate rural folk, seemingly untouched by modernization. Balogh’s photographs tie in with the nationalistic, backward-looking agendas of the radical Right that dominated interwar Hungary. In contrast, the portraits of peasants and workers by Kata Sugár and Kata Kálmán confirm that the Left was not entirely cowed in this period. Particularly interesting is Kálmán’s portrait Laci Varga, Four Years Old (1931) showing a poor child tucking into a slice of bread with enthusiasm, used by John Heartfield in a now famous election poster for the German Communist Party in 1932.
In some ways, Kertész is the thread through this exhibition. In the opening section, one is encouraged to compare his low-key, everyday observations with the nationalistic mythmaking of Balogh. They are together again in the second section on World War One and its aftermath, but this time the emphasis is on their similarities as war reporters with Balogh’s Soldier’s Grave (Serbia, 1914) being placed next to Kertesz’s Latrine (Poland, 1915).
Section three presents Kértesz and the other famous émigrés. Nothing by him in Section four on World War Two and after. However one of the concluding images of section four dealing with the period since World War Two depicts an overturned Communist monument, Fallen Worker (1993). It is by Sylvia Plachy, who was only thirteen when she fled with her family from Budapest in 1956, eventually settling in New York in 1958. At a later date she studied photography there, and one of her teachers was Kertész.