Issue Number: 111
Many of the leading photographers of the twentieth century hailed from a country that was isolated by its language and political instability. Novelist John Banville considers their striking images and asks why this wealth of talent came out of Hungary
Martin Munkácsi, 'Four Boys at Lake Tanganyika', c.1930. Photo: Hungarian Museum of Photography/Estate of Martin Munkácsi/Courtest Howard Greenberg Gallery, NYC. In 1931 a picture by Martin Munkácsi, a former sports photographer turned journalist, was published in the French magazine Photographies. This landmark photograph was Four Boys at Lake Tanganyika. The young Henri Cartier-Bresson, who was starting out on his career and had already studied the work of André Kertész, among others, said of Munkácsi’s wonderful snapshot: ‘I suddenly understood that photography can fix eternity in a moment. It is the only photo that influenced me. There is such intensity in this image, such spontaneity, such joie de vivre, such miraculousness, that even today it bowls me over.’
Munkácsi was born in 1896 in Transylvania, that part of Hungary ceded to Romania after the First World War. His name before he changed it was Márton Mermelstein, and he was Jewish. Indeed, it is remarkable that the five major figures in the exhibition ‘Eyewitness: Hungarian Photography in the Twentieth Century’ – Brassaï, Capa, Kertész, Moholy-Nagy and Munkácsi – were all Hungarian Jews who had changed their names more or less radically, were compelled to leave their native land, and were all master photographers.
How are we to account for this wealth of photographic talent springing from a single country? We may point to Hungary’s tragic history in the first half of the twentieth century. As exhibition curator Colin Ford points out in his catalogue essay, after the Great War Hungary lost nearly three-quarters of its territory and all access to the sea. It suffered an economic collapse and was also an isolated state, since its language has no links with other European tongues except perhaps Finnish. Yet these conditions, however extreme, are hardly unique among the nations of the earth, and even if they were, would that explain why Hungary should have produced at least half a dozen major practitioners of the youngest art, photography? The RA show also includes, among others, Károly Escher, György Kepes (see cover) and Rudolf Balogh, while honourable mention might be made of Andor Kraszna-Krausz, who established the Focal Press publishing house in England, and Stefan Lorant, co-founder in 1938 of Picture Post, one of the finest of the pre-War news photography magazines.
Arthur Koestler, another troubled Hungarian Jewish émigré, famously remarked that to be Hungarian is to be part of a ‘collective neurosis’, but what exiled son or daughter of whatever people has not made the same or a like bitter observation of his or her predicament? And anyway, of the five photographers represented in this exhibition, László Moholy-Nagy is the only one who might be considered in any way to suffer ‘neurosis’, and then only if we take account of his early flirtations with avant-garde movements such as Fauvism, and his religious wrestlings – in his early twenties he converted from Judaism to Calvinism, a very large leap of faith indeed.
Martin Munkácsi, 'Nude in Straw Hat', 1944. Photo: Hungarian Museum of Photography/Estate of Martin Munkácsi/Courtest Howard Greenberg Gallery, NYC. These five men were in their way nineteenth-century humanists – all save Capa were born in the 1890s – and celebrators of the natural spontaneity and joie de vivre that so impressed Cartier-Bresson in the work of Munkácsi. Who could look at Brassaï’s Paris night scenes, or Kertész’s daytime versions of the same city, at Munkácsi’s bathing beauties or his flying dogs and dancers, at Capa’s trudging soldiers or fleeing civilians, even at Moholy-Nagy’s exquisite experiments with light and geometry, and doubt that these artists were rapt attenders to the ‘music of what happens’ that the poet George Szirtes speaks of in his RA exhibition catalogue essay?
Perhaps the most striking thing about the mighty five gathered here is that, despite the similarities of their backgrounds, and the fact that they all needed to leave their native land, each of them forged a distinctively individual style. There is no ‘school’ here, no discernible anxiety of influence, no obvious exchange of technical or stylistic trademarks. Could there be a greater contrast in styles than that between, say, Brassaï’s wonderfully louche probings of the underbelly of Parisian night-life and Robert Capa’s blood-and-dust reportage from the world’s mid-twentieth-century battlefields? And while Kertész is known to have encouraged Brassaï to abandon painting and sculpture and take up photography, there is certainly little sign in the latter’s work of the influence of the former.
Did these five artists think of themselves as Hungarian first and world citizens second, or vice versa? None of them seems to have quite relinquished his lonely native language. Kertész famously never mastered French or English although he lived in Paris from 1925, before moving to America in 1936. Moholy-Nagy, in exile in London after the Nazis closed the Bauhaus and then in the US during the Second World War, was notorious for the comic malapropisms he frequently produced due to his poor grasp of English. Munkácsi was by then already a successful fashion photographer in America though still unable to communicate with his models except through sign language; while Capa employed a mishmash of tongues known to his war front colleagues as ‘Capanese’.
It is a paradox that while photography can be vividly lifelike, a moment’s reflection will tell us that it is in fact nothing like life as we experience it. We never see the world stilled, as it is stilled by the camera. What, then, does photography offer?
André Kertész, 'Lost Cloud', 1937. Photo: Estate of André Kertész 2010/ All Rights Reserved/ Courtesy Vintage Gallery, Budapest. A kind of narrative, perhaps. Colin Ford quotes Robert Capa’s brother Cornell, a fine photographer unfairly overshadowed by his brother’s greater fame: ‘What I do best are probably groups of interrelated pictures which tell a story. My pictures are the “words”, which make “sentences”, which in turn make up the story.’ For our five, perhaps photography was a language – a language of images, that is – through which they were enabled to speak directly to an international audience with whom otherwise they could not communicate to any profound degree. Photography, perhaps, was for them a means of alleviating the loneliness of exile, both physical and linguistic. Commenting on his affecting study Lost Cloud, André Kertész said: ‘What I felt when making this photo was a feeling of solitude – the cloud didn’t know which way to go.’
Two fundamentals of photography are looking and recording; but to look and record is also to bear witness. These five artists, as this show attests, have left us extraordinarily rich and varied versions of a manifold world. Would they have been capable of looking so far and so piercingly outwards if they had not come from a landlocked country the language of which speaks only to itself? Through the lens they learned ‘which way to go,’ and went there, to see on our behalf.