Just after the liberation of the twon, a French woman who had had a baby with a German soldier was punished by having her head shaved. Chartres, Eure-et-Loir, France, 18 August 1944. Image by Robert Capa © International Center of Photography, courtesy of Magnum Photos.
What is it with Hungary? As the Royal Academy’s forthcoming exhibition will show, this small European country punched well above its weight in the photography world in the middle of the last century, giving us people such as Robert Capa, László Moholy-Nagy, André Kertész, Brassaï and Martin Munkácsi.
Eyewitness: Hungarian Photography in the 20th Century will feature work by all five plus 25 others, showing Hungary’s rich contribution from 1914 all the way up to 1989. Interestingly, all five of the big stars of the show left Hungary, and some didn’t even take up photography until their homeland was far behind. Capa (born Endre Ernő Friedmann) left Hungary in 1930 when he was 18, for example, moving to Berlin and taking up image making before heading for France and then the Spanish Civil War. Similarly, Kertész moved to Paris in 1925, where he got involved with a community of émigré artists and introduced his fellow-countryman, Brassaï, to photography. Moholy-Nagy famously moved to Berlin (via Vienna) and the Bauhaus in the early 1920s, where he pioneered photograms, photomontage and visual theory, while Munkácsi also lived in Berlin before moving on to New York in 1934, where he landed a plum job at Harper’s Bazaar and revolutionised fashion photography by taking it out of the studio.
In fact, so much of these photographers’ work was shot overseas, it seems almost strange to fashion this a Hungarian exhibition – particularly when all five were Jewish and forced, to varying degrees, to leave the country. Curator Colin Ford (who put together the show with Peter Baki, director of the Hungarian National Museum of Photography and Sarah Lea of the Royal Academy of Arts) doesn’t duck the question, but argues a peculiarly Hungarian aesthetic runs through their work, and through 20th century Hungarian photography in general.
“The fact that they were Jewish is relevant, because there was, at the time, a government that was anti-Jewish and anti-intellectual, and they fell into both camps,” he says. “There were quotas for the number of students at each university who could be Jewish, so many young people had to leave to get an education. Once they left Hungary no-one else could understand them, because so few people speak Hungarian, so they had to express themselves in other ways. It was also common for Hungarian boys to be given cameras as birthday presents when they were about 12 years old – now everyone has a camera in their pocket, but then that was something quite special.
“But although the fact they were all Jewish was an element, I don’t think it’s more important than the fact they were all Hungarian. I think I could look at most images in this exhibition and begin to detect a Hungarian aesthetic – I wanted people to come to the show and see 250 fantastic images and, subliminally, I think I chose pictures that are particularly Hungarian. Kertész used to speak of “little moments” and used to see “photographs” wherever he went, and one characteristic of Hungarian photography may be great street photography. As it becomes more modernist they start to abstract the pictures and look at the shapes not the real life.
“Now, it’s no longer like that. The exhibition ends in 1989 because, after the Berlin Wall came down and the world began to globalise, art and photography became global too. [These days] you might be able to tell where a photograph has been taken, but they are all taken in the same style.”
Eyewitness: Hungarian Photography in the 20th Century is on show at the Royal Academy of Arts from 30 June to 02 October.
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