The Pick - Eyewitness: Hungarian Photography in the Twentieth Century

June 30, 2011

Credit: László Fejes, 'Wedding' (1965)/Hungarian Museum of Photography

Eyewitness: Hungarian Photography in the Twentieth Century

Royal Academy of Arts, London

When it comes to photography, Robert Capa once said, "It's not enough to have talent, you also have to be Hungarian." Although he was doubtless speaking in jest, this ambitious exhibition (until 2 October) makes very clear that it was indeed Hungarians who created many of the iconic images of the 20th century.

This was not merely because they charted their own country's transition from peasant economy through Modernist artistic experiment, political upheaval and war, to Soviet satellite state and beyond. Eyewitness opens in a world of horsemen on wide-open plains, itinerant musicians and dancing in the street outside the workhouse. In 1919, children in the countryside stand gaping in astonishment at André Kertész's camera.

By the final section we are in a drab post-war regime drowning in propaganda. Heroic factory workers stoke their furnaces. The "straight road" depicted in Miklós Rév's striking print from the mid-1950s leads the farmer with his cart directly to the smokestack and power station ahead. A wedding group from 1965 walking in line along the balcony of a very shabby building vividly captures the dourness of life under communism. Equally memorable is one of the final images, of morose Russian soldiers on a train, one strumming a guitar, as they leave the country in 1990.

Yet, interesting though all of this is, it is Hungarians at war or in exile who stake a far greater claim to the nation's significance in the art of photography. Capa's dying militiaman is one of the most famous images of the Spanish Civil War, and his pictures of the Normandy Landings, the ruined Warsaw ghetto and a shaven-headed female collaborator being paraded through the streets shortly after the liberation of France are equally iconic.

Less familiar is Capa's extraordinary photograph of a Haifa refugee camp in 1950, with a tent, a washing line and a wailing child standing on one foot forming a jagged sequence of diagonals and conveying a poignant sense of a world torn apart.

If Capa and others were crucial in showing us the reality of war, it is Brassai's street scenes, barges, lovers and artists' studios, and even his billiards-playing prostitute, which fix for ever a particular sense of Paris. Martin Munkácsi pioneered new styles of fashion photography for Harper's Bazaar. László Moholy-Nagy, a radical photographer back in Hungary, was reduced to illustrating a mixed bag of popular titles ranging from Eton Portrait and The Street Markets of London to An Oxford University Chest, as well as designing special effects for a science fiction film, during his brief stay in London before moving to Chicago.

All proved highly successful in reinventing themselves and offering unusual perspectives on their adoptive countries. And the best pictures on display here, both the familiar and the less well-known, almost convince us that photography is essentially a Hungarian art form.

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