Tuesday, 6 February 2018

The Blind Musician and the Voyeurs

Károly Escher: The Angel of Peace, 1938

If asked why Hungary should have produced a significant number of important photographers my first answer would be in the terms I have just used in talking of my mother: history, health, opportunity, necessity and general circumstance. And, indeed, I am sure all these played a part. But beyond those it may not be fanciful to suppose that the very isolation of the Hungarian language - which, despite producing many marvellous writers, depends on translators of whom very few speak or read Hungarian - forced ambitious Hungarians into the other less verbal arts: into music, film, and photography. It may also be that the anxiety and adaptability produced by the nation’s geographical shape-shifting, the amoeba existence I mentioned at the start, conditions and refines tendencies and sensibilities. A constantly reiterated history of losses and recoveries - the individual now in the bosom of the nation, now marooned – might well make one sensitive to precisely such realms of feeling.

And we should, perhaps, add another destabilising factor. Kertész, Capa, Moholy-Nagy, and Munkácsi were all Jews, each of them part of one particular wave of exiled, expelled, terrified yet ambitious and talented émigré Jews, generations of whom had been washing about the world for a couple of millennia. After the fall of the Bolshevik republic of 1919, the leaders of which were mostly Jewish, the reaction in Hungary led to a series of anti-Semitic laws and produced a dangerous, oppressive atmosphere, especially for those who had supported the revolution. There were plenty of reasons for getting out into the world, to export your anxieties and search for delight in an open, international visual language. That did not mean there was an exclusively Hungarian sensibility to export, but the bedrock of Hungarian existence was always insecure. In that sense it was faulty but almost infinitely adaptable. André Kertész’s young friend and assistant, Sylvia Plachy, was a refugee from the same event that caused my own family to flee. It was in New York that she met Kertész.

Sylvia Plachy: Tightrope Walker, 2011

I think there are two chief tendencies in the Hungarian imagination, one essentially expressing itself as realism in the form of documentary: the other looking to fantasy, a fantasy sometimes violent, sometimes lush. (Hungarian film gives examples of both.) Work at either extreme might be outstanding. But the journey across the extremes could produce an idiosyncratic yet universal blend that speaks to both. Here it is in André Kertész.

André Kertész: Satiric Dancer, 1928

I want, finally, to return to Károly Escher and his Angel of Peace. The photograph is dated 1938, a year before the war. Is the image an example of irony or of hope? Is it perhaps comedy, a bitter joke? Surely, it is all these things, and more.

One last poem, an excerpt, from an early poem on photography written after my first return to Budapest in 1984. It follows my mother in her photographic work. It is called The Photographer in Winter. It is winter in Hungary and my mother is preparing to go out with her camera.

Voice 1
You touch your skin. Still young. The wind blows waves
Of silence down the street. The traffic grows

A hood of piled snow. The city glows.

The bridges march across a frozen river
Which seems to have been stuck like that for ever.
The elderly keep slipping into graves.

Your camera is waiting in its case.

What seems and is has never been less certain –
The room is fine, but there beyond the curtain
The world can alter shape. You watch and listen.
The mirror in the corner seems to glisten

With the image of a crystalline white face.

The white face in the mirror mists and moves
Obscure as ever. Waves of silence roll
Across the window. You are in control

Of one illusion as you close your eyes.
The room, at least, won’t take you by surprise
And even in the dark you find your gloves.


Voice 2
I see you standing there, not quite full length.
Successive sheets of ice preserve and bear

You up, first as a girl with wavy hair,

And then a prisoner, a skeleton
Just gathering new flesh. The layers go on
So fast that I am troubled by your strength.  

And now it’s winter, and this dreadful weather
Is always at the very edge of spring

But cannot make or fake it. I can’t bring
Another year to light. You sit alone
With all the pictures that the wind has blown
Away and art must somehow fit together.


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