Eyewitness: Hungarian Photography in the Twentieth Century, Royal Academy

London is awash with Hungarian photographs. Several galleries, among them the Hotshoe Gallery, Michael Hoppen, Hoopers and the Chris Beetles Gallery, have taken the cue of Hungary’s year in the presidency of the EU to concentrate on the remarkable contribution of Hungary to photography, and to modernist photography in particular.

Much Hungarian photography is marvellous, and the Royal Academy, more than 20 years after its last photographic show, has engaged Colin Ford, one of the few world-class photohistorians in the UK, to act as the lead curator.

Indeed, this ambitious overview, centred on five very well-known Hungarian photographers – Brassaï, Capa, Kertész, Moholy-Nagy, Munkácsi – and other lesser ones around them, has much to recommend it. It has a pleasing historical sweep, in which one can see many of the patterns of European history graphically laid out. First, Austro-Hungary as a well-connected power, alert to artistic and political happenings elsewhere, then split. Then the brief revolution of Béla Kun in 1919, and a country swinging between ideologies until the great silence falls after the failed uprising of 1956.

It was not only photographers who came from Hungary. A remarkable number of owners of picture libraries, agents, and picture editors did too. The great Stefan Lorant, editor of both Picture Post and Lilliput, served for a brief period as editor of the fascinating Budapest paper Pesti Napló (Pest Journal), although much of what he knew he had learnt in Berlin in the 1920s, where there was an explosion in all kinds of publishing.

Two of the leading lights here have recently had massive retrospectives devoted to them: André Kertész (in Paris) and László Moholy-Nagy (in Madrid). It is hard to imagine an overview throwing new light on photographers of such eminence, and it hardly does.

The renowned war photographer Robert Capa is represented here by numerous pictures but a lesser-known one of a girl in a refugee camp in Haifa, Palestine, in 1950 catches my eye. The main lines of the composition are given by the strong triangle of the tent behind her, and she leans away from that, wailing, clearly not fitting into the new world that she must now inhabit.

Moholy-Nagy was a theoretician of modernism and a proselytiser on its behalf, and arguably only a photographer as a by-product of his interest in graphics and communication. Martin Munkácsi, once a sports photographer, became the father of modern fashion photography: he took models out of the studios and photographed them and their clothes in fluid motion.

Kertész and Brassaï did much work in public but neither was really a journalist of Munkácsi’s sort. Kertész was always introverted, even shy, and preferred to work when possible for books. His little elegiac Polaroid studies of glassware are here, as un-journalistic a series as you could ever find.

There is a lovely Brassaï here that I’ve never seen before, of the bull-running in Bayonne in 1936 seen almost as an 18th-century fête champêtre under the cathedral, but Brassaï liked to work in series in the manner of a modern contemporary artist. His famous nocturnal views of Paris are almost like a movie, and his revolutionary studies of graffiti, collected and respected like some kind of urban tribal art, more like modern sculpture. They are missing from this show.

Do all these photographers really have a national feel in common? It’s far from clear that these great photographers produced specifically Hungarian pictures. Nor is it clear why one country produced so many. The catalogue contains one suggestion: that Hungarians, speaking as they do a language that no one else speaks, fell upon the camera with relish as being transnational and multilingual, and giving them a communication tool they had sorely lacked.

All five of the great photographers left Hungary, and all five changed their original names. But Hungary when they were still there had been as open to international influences as anywhere else in Europe, and it is hard to find either a subject matter or a style that was not also much viewed elsewhere. All five photographers were of Jewish background, and one could just as plausibly have constructed an inquiry into the contribution their Jewishness made to their work. The highly literate Brassaï, moreover, who might have made a career as a writer or a painter, didn’t even learn to use a camera until after he had left Hungary. One can’t say that Hungary made him the photographer he was.

So the exhibition struggles a little with its own internal coherence. Nevertheless, it presents fine works, known and less so. Some of the early work is very strong, and in several different registers: notably by Rudolf Balogh, Imre Kinszki, and Károly Escher. There is a weak section devoted to the stopovers a few Hungarians made in Britain on their way elsewhere as refugees. Moholy-Nagy made some intriguing but fairly feeble views of Etonians and then left for Chicago. More revealing is the later section in which deplorable, pastiche socialist-realist art photography is gradually challenged by such brave and interesting photographers as György Stalter and Tamas Urban. The few glimpses we get show those two as genuine, rather old-fashioned documentary photographers.

The catalogue of the exhibition is splendid, producing a lot more historical information than can be shown on the walls. The catalogue also by definition shows reproduced photographs. On the walls it should be a different story. Yet an inordinately high proportion of the works on view are late prints made from earlier negatives. They are, in effect, reproductions, and they look consistently weak next to the few vintage prints that are hung beside them.

There is no justification for this. The Royal Academy would certainly not countenance exhibiting poor versions of paintings or engravings without exceptional causes, and doing so here is a big disappointment. It has recently started admitting photography to its summer show, and this year grants photography a central position in it. But by presenting so many less good (or in some cases, frankly no good) versions of its Hungarian photographs, it does its audience a big disservice. Photographs are objects as well as depictions, and too many of those here are uninteresting objects.

Until October 2, royalacademy.org.uk

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