The stunning selection of images featured in the Royal Academy’s thought-provoking exhibition reveals a painful history, captured beautifully. Positioning Hungary at the forefront of developments in the photographic medium, the exhibition also provides a fascinating overview of the nation’s unique experience as a central participant in many of the major events of the 20th century. Although at times these two narratives deviate, the photographs themselves are consistently fascinating and compelling.
The exhibition is arranged chronologically, focusing on the work of Hungarian photographers both at home and abroad. The first room presents examples of the ‘Magyar style’, otherworldly views of Hungarian daily life between 1914 and 1939. Epitomised in Kata Sugár and Kata Kálmán’s striking portraits of rural workers, these romanticised visions appear incongruous with the scenes of World War I, which are confined to a display stand in the middle of the gallery. But after this initial friction the main themes of the exhibition blend more convincingly in the remaining galleries.
…the potential of a single image to communicate a range of complex emotions.
The focus of the exhibition narrows to follow the most famous exponents of Hungarian photography (Brassaï, Robert Capa, André Kertész, László Moholy-Nagy and Martin Munkácsi), during their emigration to Western Europe in the 1920s and to America from the 1930s. In the second room we see how these photographers embraced the work of the European avant-garde, including Picasso, Matisse, Chagall and Mondrian who are the subject of several portraits. Combining their native influences with new artistic forms, the Hungarian photographers produced exciting results, from Brassaï’s sumptuous Parisian cityscapes to Moholy-Nagy’s experiments with negatives and photograms at the Bauhaus.
The next section focuses on the rise of photojournalism and fashion photography, and it is in the former area that the stylistic and historical narratives combine most effectively. There is a real sense of the developments in modern warfare simultaneously pushing the boundaries of photography, with the speed of the action driving photographers to seek out new ways of capturing images. The story of how Robert Capa’s films of the D-Day landings were destroyed by overeager Life journalists highlights the pressure to achieve these shots and makes the resulting photographs all the more potent. For me, Capa’s breathtaking images mark the high point in the exhibition. His photograph of a shaven-headed woman, cradling her baby as she is surrounded by a jeering mob (Woman Who Had a Child with a German Soldier Being Marched through the Street), in particular epitomises the potential of a single image to communicate a range of complex emotions.
…give a satisfying overall balance to the exhibition.
The exhibition then begins to lose focus as it gallops through the 1960s to the early 1990s. Although a clever exhibition design makes maximum use of the Sackler Wing of Galleries, the narrative appears to have been constricted by the limited available space, suggesting the scope of the exhibition is over-ambitious. Yet the late Communist-era images in the final gallery give a satisfying overall balance to the exhibition. Anachronistic and ominous Socialist Realist photographs, appropriating the ‘Magyar style’, contrast dramatically with contemporary images of people living on the fringes of society, and testify to the endurance of the Hungarian people over a turbulent century.
This is a captivating exhibition, which despite being almost overwhelmed by the scale of its themes manages to deliver impressive results and leaves a lasting impression.
The exhibition continues until 2 October.
Images courtesy of the RA