Moving away became less possible in the post-war Communist era. Hungary changed its name to the People’s Republic of Hungary in 1949. “The only kind of photography approved by the state was Socialist Realism,” the text tells us, and we again are looking at grand vistas of workers in factories and farmers in the fields, photographs that are more symbolic than lyrical, more state-sanctioned that individual. In the mid-1950s, the republication of Kata Kálmán’s Tiborc (1937), which documented the poverty of the countryside in the 1930s, encouraged new social documentary work in the period, most notably the series by Peter Korniss on Romanian peasants in the 1960s. But as the years move on, the galleries get smaller and the subject matter, aside from Fejes’ “Wedding,” loses its imaginative force. In the end, I doubted the whole concept of Hungarian photography despite the show’s premise. But then this is the point. “Eyewitness” is as much about Hungary as is about European history, and the long struggle between World War I and the formation of the European Union. The exhibition is also an archive of war and ritual, portraits and advertisements, all held together in a kind of black-and-white, dreamlike state that pushes the past farther away. As I left the show, I was reminded of the protagonist in Italo Calvino’s short story “Adventures of a Photographer,” who concludes, “perhaps true, total photography . . . is a pile of fragments of private images, against the creased background of massacres and coronations.”
more from James Polchin at The Smart Set here.