Thursday, November 09, 2006

The Budapest Sun: Hungary’s celluloid heroes return from exile

Hungary’s celluloid heroes return from exile
By Andreea Anca

Andreea Anca looks at an exhibition celebrating five of the world’s finest photographers, all of the same Magyar generation, and all of whom found fame overseas.

Budapest is about to celebrate five of the world’s greatest modern photographers, who fled the turmoil of post-World War I Hungary and found an outlet for their creativity and ambition in the west.

Pictures by Brassad, Robert Capa, André Kertész, Lászlo Moholy-Nagy and Martin Munkácsi will be exhibited together for the first time in Hungary at the Ernst Museum in a show entitled World Famous Hungarian Photography.

While their emigration was undoubtedly a loss for Hungary, it also helped forge the country’s worldwide reputation as a fertile breeding ground for fine photographers.

This event will be a unique opportunity to view these outstanding artists’ work, to wonder at the great talent that Hungary produced in one generation, and to reflect upon why they are claimed by countries such as France, Germany and the United States.

André Kertész (1894-1985) had a great influence on French photography, during and after a long life full of twists and turns.
Kertesz left Budapest for Paris in 1925, bored with a job at Budapest’s stock exchange and eager to pursue his interest in photography, which had started when he was 18 and continued during time as a soldier in World War I, when he captured not only the heroics and carnage of the battlefield, but his comrades during respite, behind the lines, waiting, making music, taking leave, halting on the march. In Paris, he continued taking seemingly simple, compelling photographs of intimate, casual, commonplace moments of modern life, either walking the streets or visiting bistros, nightclubs and dance halls.
After being widely praised in Paris for the “personal” nature of his work, this sophisticated photographer received a chilly reception in New York (where he lived from 1936-1985), and Life magazine criticized his pictures for “talking too much.” Recognition did eventually find him in the US, and in 1965 he was made a honorary member of the American Society for Magazine Photographers. By the time of his death, he had published 27 books.


Kertész and Brassad (1899-1984) met in Paris, and the latter took up photography in 1929, inspired by wanderings around the city with his new friend and his camera. Expanding the themes of his master, Brassad also recorded candid but non-intrusive images of life around him, pictures which have been praised for peering into the simplest yet deepest truths about people. His pictures of Paris by night shed light on a world of cafés, bistros and brothels where a hint of debauchery lurks behind a mask of manners, decorum and ritual.

Brassad – born Gyula Halász – came from Brasso in Transylvania, then part of Hungary, and attended school and the Academy of Fine Arts in Budapest before moving to Berlin in 1921.
Three years later, he left for Paris, where he became a prolific artist, known not only for his photographs, but for his drawings, sculptures, engravings and tapestries. Brassad met most of Paris’s artistic and intellectual elite, and befriended Picasso, who asked him to photograph a group of sculptures he had not yet shown. Later, Brassad went on to photograph artists at work from all over the world for Harper’s Bazaar, images that form an invaluable document of the art world of the period.

Robert Capa (1913-1954), born in Budapest as Andre Friedmann, became one of the most famous of all war photographers, for his close-up images of the dead and the grieving and the hell of the battlefield, many captured at point-blank range. His pictures of soldiers fighting or civilians in refugee camps and ruined cities were illuminated by a conviction that people could retain their humanity in even the most horrific situations. Probably his best-known work – certainly his most controversial, as some have doubted its authenticity – is of a fighter in the Spanish Civil War being felled by a bullet. The four rolls of film shot on Omaha Beach during the 1944 D-Day landings, while under heavy fire, have become known as among the most famous photos in history.

Capa left Hungary in 1931 and moved to Berlin, where he took exclusive pictures of the Bolshevik revolutionary Leon Trotsky, before moving to Paris two years later when Hitler came to power. He was at home in all the major cities in the world, dressed well, ate well, and was known for generosity and charm that made him popular among women, including the actress Ingrid Bergman, with whom he had a brief affair. When he first got to Paris, he ingeniously but fraudulently established a photographic agency under the supposed ownership of a rich American photographer named Robert Capa – a character he invented and a name he adopted after his secret was revealed.

Between the wars, he had time to photograph some of his friends in London, including John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway, and he went on to establish Magnum, one of the world’s leading photographic agencies, which is credited with raising photojournalism towards the status of an art form. Capa met a premature death on the battlefield in Southeast Asia when, on assignment for Life magazine in May 1954, he stepped on a landmine.

Martin Munkácsi (1898-1963) was born in the Transylvanian town of Kolozsvár (now Cluj-Napoca in Romanian), but his career took him to Budapest, Berlin and New York. He was the best-paid photographer of his time, making $100,000in 1940 from news and fashion photography.


Despite his success, very few of his photographs are well known, and American museums even refused to accept Munkacsi’s archive after his death in 1966; only now is he being recognized as a major artist who greatly influenced photojournalism and freed fashion photography from the confines of the studio.
But Henry Cartier-Bresson spotted the spontaneity of his images and acute understanding of style, form and framing. Cartier-Bresson was inspired by the joy and movement in Munkácsi’s photographs of African boys running into a lake in Liberia.

Munkácsi revolutionized fashion photography in both Germany and the US, particularly his images of the ‘new woman’ – a successful, independent, dynamic urban dweller.

László Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946) was a leading creative spirit of the Bauhaus movement. Born in southeast Hungary, he first engaged with Bauhaus in Germany, but fled the Nazi regime to help establish the new design school in Chicago. Proclaiming design as a challenge to American consumerism, Moholy-Nagy saw the camera as the ideal medium for articulating a new vision of life, which would use modern technology to help create a society in which artists and engineers would play a leading role.
His words – “The illiterates of the future will be the people who know nothing of photography, rather than those who are ignorant of the art of writing” - became a motto for the New Photography movement.

The exhibition at the Ernst Museum is an invitation not only to enjoy these beautiful pictures, some of them less well known, but to consider themes including success, failure, emigration, and what an artist gains and loses by living a life in exile. At a time when young Hungarian artists still look abroad for recognition, the focus on these renowned cultural ambassadors should not only inspire pride but sharpen debate about whether Hungary is doing enough to help its native talent flourish.

World Famous Hungarian Photography
Ernst Museum
Nagymezô utca 8.
Tel: 341-4355
November 15 – January 17
Open daily from 11am-7pm
Closed on Mondays


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April 29, 2013  

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