Sep 2011 Journal

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Art Notes (review)

You don’t have to be Jewish to be a Hungarian photographer, but it certainly helps. The Royal Academy of Arts’ current exhibition, Eyewitness: Hungarian Photography in the 20th Century (until 2 October), features, among others, Brassaï, Capa, Kertész, Moholy-Nagy and Munkácsi, many of whom were forced out of Hitler’s Europe and went on to influence the course of modern urban photography.

All were Jewish, but not all admitted it. Their influence on European art ranged from fashion photography to eye-witness accounts of war, from glamour to social democracy, and in some cases abstraction. Their camera work is immediate and vibrant; their sense of alienation gives it edge.

Hungarian photography is the acknowledged root of all photo-journalism, spawning the growth of picture agencies such as Keystone Press. There are controversial war images, for instance Robert Capa’s Death of a Loyalist Militiaman, which some believe to be a fake. Yet Capa is often considered the greatest war photographer, recording the Spanish Civil War and the D-Day landings.

These Hungarians were rootless, longing for self-expression. They were treated like enemy aliens in the USA and even had their cameras confiscated. Colin Ford, co-curator with Peter Baki of this exhibition, suggests that their photographic genius may be attributed to an inability to express themselves in a foreign language. Knowing my own highly voluble Hungarian family, I am a little sceptical.

For André Kertész, life as a photographer began when he was given a camera as a barmitzvah present. Moving to Paris in 1925, he portrayed Parisian life, often featuring dancers. László Moholy-Nagy was a Bauhaus teacher in 1922 and pioneer of photomontage, in which he explored the importance of light in his experimental images. Martin Munkácsi took up fashion photography with Harper’s Bazaar in the USA in 1934, moving fashion outdoors, liberating it from the confines of the studio and adding his own dynamic touch.

One of the most moving photographs in the show is Capa’s Collaborator Woman Who Had a German Soldier’s Child. This narrative masterpiece sends shudders through your spine as the young woman is marched through the streets of Chartres by a jeering crowd, trying to remember that she fell in love, not with a Nazi officer but with a man.

The annual BP Portrait Award, at the National Portrait Gallery, maintains its high standard this year. In the past, the judges have flirted with super-realism, a technique by which the painting so resembles a photograph that you can barely see the difference. This year, Ian Cumberland’s photo-realistic portrait of an unshaven, smirking man with a blonde quiff, Just to Feel Normal, wins third prize. The judges chose Wim Heldens’s portrait of a ponderous young man in a black jumper as first prize-winner. His Distracted recalls the subtle play of light and shade of the Dutch Masters, while in the second prize-winner, Louis Smith’s full-length painting in a rococo gilded frame, Holly, an artfully draped nude, handcuffed to a rock, like Prometheus, gazes beatifically to heaven. Another nod to the Old Masters, it is a cynical reference to Renaissance artists such as Guido Reni, who painted San Sebastian pierced with arrows.

Gloria Tessler

previous article:A Kindertransport memoir
next article:Nuremberg library restitution