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 a sub editor 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