Eyewitness: Hungarian Photography in the Twentieth Century at the Royal Academy

By Culture24 Reporter | 22 July 2011
a black and white photo of a snowy street scene at night
Zoltan Berekmeri, Winter's Evening in Bekescsaba, 1955© Hungarian Museum of Photography
Exhibition: Eyewitness: Hungarian Photography in the 20th Century at the Royal Academy of Arts until October 2 2011.

Brassaï, Capa, Kertész, Moholy-Nagy and Munkácsi may be among the biggest names in twentieth century photography and photojournalism. But each one had been changed in the wake of the owner’s leaving his native Hungary to seek fame and fortune in Europe and USA.

Now the Royal Academy is exploring the explosion of Hungarian talent with an exhibition of over 200 photographs, tracking the careers of the major players while revealing homegrown traditions and stylistic developments in that country’s photography.

Many less familiar names stayed behind to ply their trade throughout the 75 years of photographic history covered by the show. And works by Rudolph Balogh, Károly Escher and József Pécsi have been loaned from the Hungarian National Museum of Photography.   

a photograph of a procession of nuns walking across a cobbled square
Erno Vadas, Procession, Budapest, 1934© Hungarian Museum of Photography
This may surprise all but the most expert visitors. But it highlights a diverse milieu in the central European country, where changes in modern photography were interpreted with clarity and originality through the prism of Hungarian history.

So, Rudolph Balogh’s Shepherd with His Dogs (1930) reflects a Magyar (Hungarian) penchant for capturing the traditions of rural people. Meanwhile, Károly Escher’s Bank Manager at the Baths (1938) captures the excesses and compromises of pre-war, pre-communist Hungary. 

Ernö Vadas’ Procession is a better known image of the swan-like wimples of an army of nuns, as they march across the cobbles of Budapest in 1934. And the more recent work of Péter Korniss reveals the emotive pull towards social documentary in post-war Hungary. 

But naturally, it’s the five big names who offer the biggest draw. A welcome re-run of Brassaï’s Paris by Night series from the 1930s can now be seen alongside earlier works by the man who gave him the necessary contacts and lessons, Andre Kertész.

Capa’s famous but controversial Death of a Loyalist Militiaman, from the same turbulent decade, is also on display. Plus, there is a re-appraisal of the abstract photograms of Laszlo Moholy-Nagy.

And finally, for fans of fashion photography the pioneering Harper’s Bazaar work of Hungarian-American émigré Martin Munkacsi showcases the outdoor photography of models and celebrities that went on to revolutionise the fashion shoot.

This wide line up allows curator Colin Ford to cover a range of themes from New Objectivity to Social Documentary and perhaps give credence  to Robert Capa’s famous pronouncement that: “It’s not enough to have talent, you also have to be Hungarian.”

More photographs from the exhibition:

a photo of a group of people walking behind a bride in white along the walkway of an apartment block pockmarked by shell holes
Laszlo Fejes Wedding, Budapest, 1965© Hungarian Museum of Photography
a photo of a large man floating in a pool
Karoly Escher Bank Manager at the Baths, Budapest, 1938© Hungarian Museum of Photography
a black and white photo of a shepherd wearing an emormous shoulder to toe sheepskin jacket flanked by two dogs
Rudolf Balogh Shepherd with his Dogs, Hortobagy, c. 1930© Hungarian Museum of Photography
  • The Royal Academy has teamed up with Metroprint and the Independent to create a photography competition inspired by the works in the exhibition. See the Royal Academy website for more details.
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