“I fled Hungary, I fled Berlin, I fled Paris, I left everything in Barcelona. When Barcelona fell I couldn’t go back to look for my stuff, I’d lost everything again. I arrived in a fifth country, Mexico,with my Rolleiflex in a bandolier – I couldn’t carry anything else.” – Kati Horna
The third exhibition currently at Jeu de Paume is the first retrospective in Paris of the work of Kati Horna. Ranging from war photography to surrealist montages, her work is both delicate and direct. Her images have an intimacy about them – often focused on small settings, or close-ups, details or set-ups in little rooms and cafés. You get a sense of Horna being literally close to her subjects.
Born Katalin Deutsch Blau in Hungary in 1912 – Robert Capa was a childhood friend – she died in Mexico in 2000. In the intervening years Horna witnessed the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and World War I, fleeing Budapest for Berlin, and then on to Paris. During the Spanish Civil War she travelled around Spain, at the invitation of the Republican government, documenting everyday life at the front. She met her husband, the Andalusian artist José Horna, in Spain. When he was interned in a French prison camp, Kati managed to get him freed and they escaped back to Paris, and thence to America and Mexico.
This exhibition is extensive and thoughtfully presented, but it does ask more questions than it answers. The main one is: what kind of woman was Kati Horna, to have achieved so much – to have had such an interesting and successful career – and still be quite under the radar of photographic history today? It’s not like every other Hungarian Jewish 25-year-old girl was running around Europe in the 1930s getting official invitations to document civil wars…
Fortunately the Michael Hoppen Gallery, which represents her estate in London, is a little more informative. Horna was the daughter of a prosperous banker from Buda. As a teenager she lived in Berlin, where she met Bertolt Brecht, and was inspired by the Bauhaus, Surrealism, and the Constructivist thinker Lajos Kassak, who saw photography as a tool for social change. When Kati’s father died in 1933, she set about earning a living as a photographer, studying in Budapest and then moving to Paris. In Paris she photographed people – and dogs – in cafés (some of the most charming images in this exhibition, annoyingly not available for reproduction.) When the Spanish Civil War broke out, she and Capa covered the conflict, in their own very different ways. She photographed women and children, suffering rather than heroics.
In Mexico, she was friends with a circle of Surrealist artists, including Leonora Carrington (two photographs in the exhibition show Horna’s daughter’s cradle, decorated by Carrington with a freaky creature frieze – the poor little mite perched inside looks understandably petrified.)
Throughout her career she worked for magazines, from anarchist titles like Umbral in Spain, to S.NOB, an arts publication in Mexico, with the odd fashion/beauty shoot along the way. Later in life she taught photography at the Universidad Iberoamericana and Mexico’s National School of Arts.
“Photography, with its various possibilities, allows you to liberate and develop your own sensibility and express it in graphic images.” – Kati Horna
The last exhibit is a slideshow of abstract photographs of walls, for a Mexican book project. They are the only colour images in the exhibition, and they are fabulously, violently bright. Suddenly rounding the corner to be confronted by these pictures is like being Dorothy, whirled away from grey Kansas to the technicolour Land of Oz. These bursts of brightness are an optimistic end, after all the photographs of wartime Europe, and the dark imagery of surrealism.
(until September 21st 2014)
© Fiona Hayes 2014