Eyewitness: Hungarian Photography in the 20th Century

Tom Calvocoressi admires a near-century of melancholic images.

Eyewitness: Hungarian Photography in the 20th Century
Royal Academy of Arts, London W1

Lake Tanganyika, circa 1930 - four young, nude, African boys run silhouetted towards the surf, arms outstretched. Paris, 1931, night - an inky Seine reflects gaslight from the Pont Neuf. Chartres, 1944 - a shaven-headed woman clutching a baby is paraded through the cobbled streets. What do these instantly recognisable images from the first half of the 20th century have in common? They were all taken by Hungarian-Jewish émigré photographers - Martin Munkácsi, Brassaï and Robert Capa, the last often called the "greatest war photographer".

The Royal Academy's captivating exhibition is a broad survey of Hungarian photography and, indeed, the genesis of modern photography, from the early 1900s to the collapse of communism in 1989, and focuses on five photographers who made their name in exile - Munkácsi, Brassaï, Capa, André Kertész and László Moholy-Nagy - as well as other Hungarian photographers who stayed in the homeland.

That such a remarkable wealth of talent emerged from one country seems to have been the happy result of Hungary's large and innovative illustrated press industry and its vast population, but also some unquantifiable coincidence - perhaps it was just something in the goulash. As Capa once said, "It's not enough to have talent. You also have to be Hungarian."

What is clear is that these photographers are artists. Their work flirts with the movements of the era - modernism, futurism, surrealism, constructivism, and so on - while also being at the frontier of photographic experimentation. Even in the early, so-called Magyar-style images, with their romanticised depictions of peasants, it is the eye of the artist that gazes through the lens: the juxtaposition of a gramophone in an open window with children dancing in a ring in the background in Munkácsi's Workhouse, for example, has a shape and form that elevate it from clinical documentation.

The five principal photographers had international success. Brassaï's images of Paris are definitive; Kertész created spare, lonely images of New York. In the US, Munkácsi went on to transform fashion photography after receiving a commission from Harper's Bazaar. Capa's extraordinary images of the Spanish civil war and the Second World War set a new standard in photojournalism - his closeness to the action and empathetic eye gave the world some of its most important images. That all these photographers remained outsiders gives a tension and melancholic edge to their work, as well as a uniquely Mitteleuropa filter.

Those left behind in Hungary under communist rule saw artistic innovation banned and a return to the purist Magyar photography of yore. Many bravely continued to innovate and express themselves within the totalitarian confines. Miklós Rév's Straight Road shows the tension between old agriculture and new industrialism, while Tamás Urbán, in his later socialist-realist works such as Crib, was one of the first artists able to depict the social deprivation of communist rule - a world away from the glorified propaganda of the regime.

Thomas Calvocoressi is Chief Sub (Digital) at the New Statesman and writes about visual arts for the magazine.

This article first appeared in the 15 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The coming anarchy

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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.