Eyewitness: Hungarian Photography in the 20th Century, Royal Academy | Visual arts reviews, news & interviews
Eyewitness: Hungarian Photography in the 20th Century, Royal Academy
The century unfolds through the lens of Hungarian émigrés
A subtly haunting and brilliantly composed photograph by André Kertész lives on as a wistfully memorable image of exile: in Lost Cloud, 1937, a small, isolated cloud drifts we know not where next to a New York skyscraper. Kertész is one of the quintet of Hungarian Jewish photographers who are acknowledged as among the greatest of the last century. Kertész, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Robert Capa, Martin Munkácsi and Brassaï are the most familiar among the staggeringly accomplished Hungarian photographers who feature in the Royal Academy’s exhibition Eyewitness.
It is to the Transylvanian Brassaï, trained as a fine artist, that we owe not only seminal images of Paris by night, but memorable portraits of the 20th century’s greatest artists. Among the latter we find Picasso smoking a cigarette in his Paris studio dwarfed by a huge and exuberant stove and Matisse in a white coat, like a doctor’s, observing with warm appreciation the nude he is drawing (pictured right).
To Moholy-Nagy we owe a variety of photograms (cameraless photography, where objects are placed on sensitive paper or plate) as well as witty aerial views and dramatic scenes of construction sites. And to Martin Munkácsi we owe not only the translation of the vibrancy of his sports photography (including an image of Leni Riefenstahl in 1931 skiing in a bathing suit) to that of fashion – the inspiration of Richard Avedon among others – but the single photograph that evidently convinced Henri Cartier-Bresson of the power of photography to capture the essential moment: Munkácsi’s Four Boys at Lake Tanganyika, c 1930 (pictured below), their black silhouettes outlined against the foaming waves as they splash through the sand. The sheer euphoric exuberance of the scene has a power beyond words.
Robert Capa is perhaps still the most celebrated (and controversial) war photographer of the 20th century. Here are not only his Death of a Loyalist Militiaman (but is it?) from the Spanish Civil War, but also his blurred photographs of the D-day landings, now among the classics. Other terrifying images of the complexities of war include an apparent lynch mob in Woman who had a German Soldier's Child, Chartres, August 1944, and his deeply disturbing Last Victim of the War, Leipzig, which shows a soldier’s crumpled body cascading from a balcony in what was obviously once an elegant apartment, his left hand resting in an oozing pool of blood.
The quintet were part of a Hungarian diaspora which transformed the intellectual life of many another country. In the 1930s Moholy-Nagy had passed through England, window-dressing for Simpsons department store in Piccadilly, now Waterstones, before going on to the new Bauhaus in Chicago.
The peasantry and the profound poverty of rural life is a continuing theme. In a series of images by Rudolf Balogh, taken in 1930, a peasant and his two sheepdogs are poised on a vast grassy plain, six longhorned Hungarian cattle drag a cart and a rider rounds up some magnificent Magyar horses. He is also the photographer of the quietly savage, profoundly disturbing Hanged Civilian, Budapest, 1919, the dangling besuited figure like a life-size doll. Others, too, retreated from the political turbulence of totalitarianism in the cities to the curiously soothing medievalism of rural life. Photographers such as Erno Vadas, whose Harvest, 1937, shows us a dozen workers making a beguilingly abstract pattern with their scythes in an endless wheat field.
Among the final images are Imre Benko’s Russian Soldiers Leaving, 1990, a wistful trio on the train going home, one strumming a guitar; and the toppling of a statue of Lenin in Budapest, 1992.
Taking us from the cusp of World War One to the fall of communism in the Nineties, Eyewitness is an expertly paced compilation of 200 images. These were photographers who transformed the scenes they witnessed – the method matters less than the eye behind the camera – into images which distill the intricacies of human lives.
- Eyewitness: Hungarian Photography in the 20th Century at Royal Academy until 2 October
- Find the exhibition catalogue on Amazon
Subscribe to theartsdesk.com
Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £2.95 per month or £25 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.
To take an annual subscription now simply click here.
And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?
more Visual arts
The American who made colour photography an art form
A forgotten Slade alumnus restored to prominence
Fact and fiction coalesce in work by an artist born into an acting dynasty
Not comedy, not documentary and offering some very poor advice
Our man in France guides us through the highlights of the world-famous photo festival
Defined by sexual readings of her flowers and other paintings, the American modernist gets a much-needed retrospective
The first edition of the capital's annual all-night art festival brought light in dark times
An ongoing series of portraits has served as a tonic during difficult times, but its value is more personal than artistic
A glimpse inside artists' collections offers fresh insight into their own work
Magnificent new extension has light and space enough for new art and new visitors
An oh-so-cool response to the outpourings of Abstract Expressionism
Kent's festival of art has grown up, but it hasn't lost its spark