Eyewitness: Hungarian Photography in the 20th Century

London’s galleries have put on an impressive show this summer, but one exhibition stood out as unmissable. This was the Royal Academy’s “Eyewitness” exhibition, which features Hungarian photography from the 20th century. This was always going to be an ambitious feat, given the wide ranging and diverse subject matter. The photographs span almost a century of political and artistic upheaval and innovation. These remarkable artists brought new ideas and techniques to the spheres of photography and journalism.

The earliest photograph displayed was taken in 1912, and shows a young man sleeping in a café. This image exemplifies the popular technique of creating a ‘Z’ shape using the lines of the background. The most surprising aspect of this portrait is that it was taken by a very young Kertesz, who was then an amateur photographer. This early work pointed to a skill which would be lauded enthusiastically in the years to come.

The photographs from 1914 were primarily composed in the ‘Magyar style’, which involved layering film to produce romantic images which presented Hungary as a rural idyll. Rudolf Badogh was a renowned photographer and keen proponent of this technique. His words appear to have inspired this exhibition, as well as several generations of Hungarian photographers: “We need photographs to communicate our particularities and our national character.” It has been suggested that photography was the most effective way to communicate this to a global audience, since Hungarian was not spoken elsewhere.

With the outbreak of the First World War, Badogh moved away from his halcyon fields with no horizons. He recorded the brutality of war, paving the way for celebrated war photographers. One of the most famous of these was Robert Capa, whose work is displayed later in the gallery alongside that of his brother, Cornell. Robert Capa, who died in the course of his work, was described by Stefan Lorant as “the greatest war photographer in the world”. His Death of a Loyalist Militiaman, taken during the Spanish Civil War, is certainly one of the most recognisable and powerful examples of its kind.

For Hungary, the 20th century was one of war and suffering, fuelled by the violent clash of ideologies. I was especially moved by the images ofBudapest’s iconic bridges, destroyed in the Second World War. This was a tragic symbol of a once great nation felled by the horror of war.

More than many other countries, Hungary experienced the extremes of fascist and socialist rule. It fared equally badly under both. The 1950s saw the rise of Soviet-style government, interrupted briefly by the revolution of 1956. These were dark days for Hungary, as this uprising was violently suppressed by the Soviets. This oppression was intellectual as well as physical. The state censored art which it perceived as challenging its authority. The only photography officially permitted was that which reflected Socialist Realism.

The most striking example of this censorship was László Fejes’ Wedding. This was the piece which led to Fejes being banned from publishing his work, and one for which he won a World Press Photo Prize in 1965. Even as the international community was celebrating his brilliance, his prizewinning work could not be displayed in his home country. Fejes was punished for his depiction of a wedding party walking across the balcony of an apartment block in Budapest. This seems innocuous enough, until you notice the bullet holes: scars which speak of the revolution the authorities tried to hide.

The Hungarian photographers responded to this challenge by producing more and more controversial works depicting poor living conditions and drug abuse. The final image is a glorious celebration of the regime’s demise. A statue of the archetypal socialist worker falls towards the viewer as two distant figures appear in jubilation. This captures the rebellious spirit of the Hungarian photographers.

Cultural identity is a key strand which runs through these works. We see how this has been challenged and shaped by political events and the Diaspora of the talented. These photographers saw daily life with rare clarity. They captured people and sensations with equal skill whether the subject was a fashion model or a Republican fighter. The Royal Academywas right to celebrate such remarkable contributions to art and the media. “Eyewitness” was a triumph, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

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