tue 16/09/2014

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

André Kertész's 'Lost Cloud': A wistfully memorable image of exile

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.

Brassai-MatisseIt 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.

Munkacsi_Three-boys-at-Tanganyika-1930The 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.

The quintet were part of a Hungarian diaspora which transformed the intellectual life of many another country

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