Snap – Hungary’s genius, Eyewitness at the RA

18 Jul

Robert Capa famously said ‘It’s not enough to have talent, you also have to be Hungarian’.  Even though most of Hungary’s famous photographers decided to leave their home country and make their names in Germany, France and the US, having visited this exhibition, I see his point.

Centring around five major photographers – Robert Capa,  Brassaï, André Kertész, László Moholy-Nagy and Martin Munkácsi -this exhibition presents a chronological journey of Hungary’s conflicted history (all Jewish-born these men were forced to change their names due to the frequent anti-Semitism they encountered), looking at the lives of these artists and revealing their achievements and genius.  With around 200 photographs, by over 50 photographers, ranging in date from 1914-1989, I think everyone was ready to expect a mess but the Royal Academy has produced a beautiful show with striking, provocative images arranged in a coherent and concise manner.

Robert Capa, Death of a Loyalist Soldier, 1936.  Image via www.royalacademy.org.uk.

In many ways, these five photographers gained recognition as a result of leaving Hungary.  Yet, their technique and style was much influenced by the photographic traditions of their homeland.  It was in Budapest, for example, that some of the first photography stories were printed in the 1920s.  Many others, such as Károly Escher, Rudolf Balogh and Jószef Pécsi, did remain in Hungary and the exhibition includes a good spectrum of such work.

László Fejes, Wedding, Budapest, 1965. Image via www.independent.co.uk.

I think this exhibition was a big gamble.  Although Hungarian photography is getting more popular, I wouldn’t have thought it is popular enough for an RA summer show.  Maybe they have enough people already coming through the doors that they’re happy to take the risk or maybe they just felt these amazing artists deserved some more attention.  Whichever you believe, their gamble has paid off – when I was there, it was packed.

As you know, I’m normally the first to criticise grey walls but here they work.  The black and white photographs have a serene and calming quality.  There’s no problem with reflections.  The exhibition is uniform and well-conceived.  My one small niggle was that queues built up while people stuck in the dead-end sections of the exhibition were looking into the cabinets.  Oh, one other thing…  The wall labels now include the catalogue numbers which I thought slightly weird.  If you see people walking around catalogue in hand, this is why.

The personalities of the photographers are evident in their works.  Kertész, for example, was shy and never felt fully comfortable outside Hungary, while Brassaï was a confident socialite who had spent four years working in Berlin before moving to Paris in 1924.  His new home became the focus of his work and the centre of his life.  Fascinated by the cultures and sub-cultures of the city, his works delve into Paris at night and the restless wandering souls who occupied the city.   Bijou of Montparnasse stares out at the viewer. Expensively attired and heavily made-up, her face reveals the tire and strain of years of work.

Brassaï, Bijou of Montparnasse, 1932.  Image via http://thingsbecomethings.blogspot.com.

Munkácsi’s works inspired many American fashion photographers, including Herb Ritts.  Perhaps the most accomplished photojournalist here, he began working in the medium aged only 18.

His work Four Boys at Lake Tanganyika is carefree and inspiring, the perfect social commentary of a young family playing on the beach.   Their raw nakedness against the white foam is poignant and striking.  The sharpness of the image, created by use of a high shutter speed, results in an image filled with dynamism and vitality.  Henri Cartier Bresson said “it is only that one photograph which influenced me.”

Martin Munkácsi, Four Boys at Lake Tanganyika, c. 1930.  Image via www.bbc.co.uk.

The exhibition also includes Munkácsi’s photograph of the Nazi superstar Leni Riefenstahl (I won’t go into Riefenstahl’s life story and her claims for that is not what is relevant here).  Wearing hotpants and a vest, her dark hair, chiseled features and smooth skin appear more pronounced by the snow.  This photo appeared on the front cover of Time in 1936 to mark the Fourth Winter Olympics that Hitler had inaugurated earlier that month.  Munkácsi was fascinated by bodies in movement; innovative for his time, he was making history with every shot he captured.

Martin Munkácsi, Leni Riefenstahl, 1931.  Image www.artvalue.com.

I studied Kertész at school and his works still have a special resonance for me.  With little formal training, Kertész began taking photographs of rural scenes and everyday moments in Budapest.  He was then known for his trench photography while he served from 1914-15.  A shy character, his work expresses an overriding interest in the daily routines of people.

Strict regulations were imposed on Hungarian photography in the latter half of the 20th century.  No Hungarian photographs of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 were allowed to be published and photography began to lose some of its earlier vigour as the political climate trampled freedom of artistic expression once again.  Experimentation continued on the fringes and during the 1980s the art form began to re-emerge and flourish.  The Hungarian contribution to photography is still felt today and, as this exhibition shows, many modern-day artists and photo-journalists alike are indebted to these figures.

Károly Escher, Bank Manager at the Baths, 1938.  Image via www.bbc.co.uk.

These photographs present the glamour, truth and terrifying realities of the time.  The strength of this material, and the incredible range of photographic media here, has influenced generations of photographers and much of what we see in newspapers, magazines and art galleries can be referenced to these works.

Eyewitness: Hungarian Photography in the 20th Century is in the Sackler Wing at the Royal Academy until 2nd October 2011, www.royalacademy.org.uk.

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2 Responses to “Snap – Hungary’s genius, Eyewitness at the RA”

  1. Sebastian Vaghy August 4, 2011 at 9:58 pm #

    Enjoyed reading this, very good stuff, thanks .

    • chloenelkin August 8, 2011 at 10:23 am #

      Thank you – please do keep reading.

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