- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 5, 2009

If your idea of Hungarian culture is Franz Liszt’s piano music, think again. Hungary spawned some of the most forward-looking artists of the 20th century, particularly in the developing medium of photography.

Among these pioneering photographers were Endre Friedmann (known as Robert Capa), Andre Kertesz and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy who emigrated to the West and earned international fame.

Left behind in Budapest were artists as equally talented. Complementary exhibitions at American University’s Katzen Art Center and the National Museum of Women in the Arts reveal their little known accomplishments through painting and photography created between the two world wars.

The small but fascinating displays are part of Extremely Hungary, a yearlong festival showcasing Hungarian visual, performing and literary arts at cultural institutions in Washington and New York.

The more surprising of the two is “Lajos Vajda” at the Katzen. This short-lived collagist and painter — Vajda died at age 33 — synthesized strains of art from East and West in unexpected ways. “We would like to bond the art and the cultures of these two poles … wanting to become bridge builders,” he wrote in 1936.

Vajda’s photo collages were briefly introduced in the National Gallery of Art’s marvelous 2007 exhibition, “Foto: Modernity in Central Europe, 1918-1945” and the Katzen shows more of them along with his eclectic drawings and paintings.

The fast-moving survey comes across as a laboratory of visual ideas, shifting between abstract and figurative imagery. Vajda spent his brief career experimenting with different styles and media, as if searching for the right expression to represent the turbulence of his times.

A testing ground for the different political movements of the 20th century, Hungary moved from a monarchy to a democratic republic, a communist dictatorship, a Nazi-supportive regime, and back to communism, all within a few decades.

The ascendancy of the radical right led many artists and intellectuals to leave Hungary, as underscored by the itinerant careers of the female photographers whose work is displayed at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Like many of those photographers, Vajda was Jewish and subject to anti-Semitic laws passed in Hungary during the 1920s and 1930s.

He trained at the Hungarian Academy of Fine Arts in Budapest and joined a group of artists led by magazine publisher and art critic Lajos Kassak, an influential Hungarian figure during the modernist era.

After being expelled by the academy for showing his work in what was considered a scandalous, leftist exhibition, Vajda moved to Paris in 1930.

His early graphic drawings, influenced by Russian constructivism, gave way to hallucinatory photomontages influenced by French surrealism. Such fragmented images proved to be apt metaphors for a continent torn apart by war and economic depression.

Vajda returned to Hungary in 1934 and shifted his focus to a more nationalistic art. Scenes of townscapes inspired by peasant villages combine line drawings with the fractured technique of his collages and cubist still lifes. This interest in vernacular architecture reflects the influence of Hungarian composer Bela Bartok who researched native folk tunes and incorporated them into his music.

In the late 1930s, as fascism overtook Hungary, Vajda’s imagery became increasingly dark and disturbing. In the exhibit, portraits resembling Byzantine icons are followed by intensely hatched charcoal drawings of swirling shapes, some resembling plants.

This last series, executed on large sheets of butcher paper, foreshadows the gestural abstract painting popular in Europe and the United States during the postwar years. Vajda had found his voice but it was too late: in 1941, he died of tuberculosis in a Jewish forced-labor camp.

Photography by Vajda’s female contemporaries is the subject of “Picturing Progress,” the more predictable show at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. The exhibit covers some of the same territory as the National Gallery’s “Foto” show, but narrows the focus to the work of 21 Hungarian photographers.

The 80 portraits, landscapes and experimental images, created between 1900 and 1945, prove that these undervalued women were just as adept as their more famous male counterparts in advancing a modern vision.

“Window-dressing” by Jolan Vadas, for example, is as disorienting as the work of Moholy-Nagy with its reflections and armless mannequins.

Despite restricted professional opportunities, several of the female photographers apprenticed with top talents and ran their own businesses. Marian Reismann studied photography in Munich before opening a studio, Foto Marian, in Budapest where she mentored younger female photographers. Ergy Landau, an acquaintance of Moholy-Nagy, established her own firm in Paris.

One of the few female photographers who garnered as much critical acclaim as her male colleagues was Olga Mate and the exhibit clearly shows why. Two of her most striking shots, “Still Life With Eggs and Mushrooms” and “Children in Front of a Black Wall,” take advantage of shadows to create graphic compositions.

Another star is Kata Kalman, whose work is memorable from the National Gallery’s “Foto” show. Her exhaling “Smoking Woman” might well be a symbol of the modern female photographers represented in the show.

As shown in the second gallery, Miss Kalman’s specialty was photographing blue-collar workers in intense close-ups. Along with her contemporaries Kata Sugar, Judit Karasz and Klara Langer, she sought to raise public awareness about the plight of agricultural and industrial laborers through such images. Her 1937 book “Tiborc” (“Peasant” in Hungarian slang), which is on display, is considered a landmark in sociological photography.

In addition to scenes of hardship, the exhibit includes portraits of the creative Hungarians who gathered at the women’s photography studios. Pictured are Bartok and his wife, pianist Ditta Pasztori, and other musicians as well as dancers and writers.

Both exhibits remind us that modernism in the interwar years was a far richer movement than standard interpretations suggest. Hungarian photographers and artists put their own spin on the spare style through their interest in folkloric traditions, political awareness and social advocacy. For them, Bauhaus minimalism was clearly less, not more.

WHAT: “Lajos Vajda”

WHERE: American University Museum, Katzen Arts Center, 4400 Massachusetts Ave. NW

WHEN: Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; through April 19


PHONE: 202/885-2787

WEB SITE: www.american.edu/museum


WHAT: “Picturing Progress: Hungarian Women Photographers 1900-1945”

WHERE: National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave. NW

WHEN: Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.; through July 5

ADMISSION: $10 adults; $8 seniors and students

PHONE: 202/783-5000

WEB SITE: www.nmwa.org

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