WASHINGTON—Courage, perseverance, diligence, business sense and networking abilities—these were among the necessary qualifications for a woman in turn of the 20th century Hungary who pursued a career in photography. Featuring 80 works, many of which have never been on public view in the United States, Picturing Progress: Hungarian Women Photographers 1900–1945, explores the role women played in the development of photography as an art form and as a documentary medium during a time of tremendous social and political upheaval.
The exhibition will be on view March 20 through July 5, 2009, and is part of Extremely Hungary, a yearlong festival of Hungarian visual, performing and literary arts, presenting more than 100 programs at cultural institutions in New York and D.C. Curated by Csilla Csorba, Director of the Petőfi Museum of Literature, Budapest, in coordination with the Hungarian Cultural Center, New York, Picturing Progress focuses on work created between 1900 and 1945, a transitional period that witnessed unprecedented growth in educational and career opportunities for women.
By the first decade of the 20th century the increasingly industrialist economy and mass migration of peasants to the cities radically altered the workforce as well as the role of women within the family. New possibilities opened up for women living in cities as the need for their contribution to the service sector grew. In the absence of artistic training and educational possibilities in Hungary, young women went abroad to be trained in Vienna, Dresden, Hamburg, Berlin and Paris. Many studied in Bauhaus schools or joined the studios of prominent male photographers. Some women were able to make their livings as photographers and receive professional recognition. While trying to learn photographic techniques, women typically honed their skills by handling clients, assuming touch-up work, and performing other minor jobs at a male colleague’s studio.
With little start-up capital, women rented and ran studios, ideally situated in highly visible locations. Along with performing routine jobs (taking portraits and photos of weddings and christenings), studios began to specialize and develop individual styles. The absence of men in the Hungarian workforce between the two world wars provided women even greater opportunities in a variety of professions, including photography. Women joined the undercurrent of Hungarian photo art as their studios evolved into hotbeds of intellectual and artistic ideas, serving as meeting places as well as venues for exhibiting “modern” art.
During the late 1920s many Hungarian women photographers recorded the aftermath of the war and the ensuing economic crisis. Driven by their deep concern for social justice, they utilized the camera lens’ documentary capabilities to advocate for human progress. Artists such as Kata Kálmán (1909–1978), Judit Kárász (1912–1977), and Kata Sugár (1910–1943) created enduring bodies of social photography, hoping to induce sympathy from the public and form solidarity to help the downtrodden. Nora Dumas (1890–1979), who rose to prominence in France, photographed the austere life of French peasants, who, despite economic hardship, embodied the joy of life.
While portraiture provided the primary income for running a studio, and socially conscious documentary photography made the pages of international journals, still life, landscapes, and movement studies also found their way into the oeuvres of women photographers. Softening lenses and rough-textured paper were used to create blurred, velvety contours for an impressionistic image. Olga Máté (1879–1965) was one of few women who achieved success in commercial photography. Her Still Life with Eggs and Mushrooms, 1920, despite its mundane subject matter, communicates the beauty of simple forms. The expressive power of the human body became a popular subject as modern dance grew into an international phenomenon. Marian Reismann (1911–1991) captured the spirit of female creativity and perfection of the female form in her photograph of Hungarian dancer Lilla Bauer.
Some of the artists featured in Picturing Progress continued their work abroad and many received international acclaim: Ergy Landau (1896–1967) and Rogi André (1905–1970) lived and worked in Paris; Nora Dumas, Jutka Miklós (1884–1976)), Rosie Ney (1897–1972), Ilka Révai (1873–1945) in France; and Éva Besnyő (1910–2003) in Germany and later the Netherlands. These women contributed to the acceptance of photography as an art form in Hungary. Picturing Progress gives voice to their legitimate place in history.
Extremely Hungary and the Hungarian Cultural Center
The exhibition Picturing Progress: Hungarian Women Photographer 1900–1945 is part of Extremely Hungary, a yearlong festival showcasing contemporary Hungarian visual, performing and literary arts in New York and Washington, D.C. throughout 2009. The festival reveals the roots of Hungary’s thriving contemporary cultural and its impact on American society through a broad spectrum of events at leading cultural institutions in the two cities. Extremely Hungary is organized by the Hungarian Cultural Center in New York, which sponsors a range of programs celebrating Hungary’s past, present and future. The festival is made possible in part by funding from the Hungarian Ministry of Education and Culture. For more information about Extremely Hungary, please visit the festival’s Web site at www.extremelyhungary.org.
Picturing Progress: Hungarian Women Photographers, 1900-1945 is organized by the National Museum of Women in the Arts and is generously sponsored by the Hungarian Museum of Photography, the Petőfi Museum of Hungarian Literature, Dr. Béla Gömör, the Hungarian Ministry of Culture and Education, and the Hungarian Cultural Center, New York. Additional funding was provided by the Honorable Mary V. Mochary and the Members of NMWA.
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About National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA)
The National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA), founded in 1981 and opened in 1987, is the only museum solely dedicated to celebrating the achievements of women in the visual, performing and literary arts. The museum’s permanent collection features 3,000 works from the 16th century to the present created by more than 800 artists; including Mary Cassatt, Frida Kahlo, Alma Thomas, Lee Krasner, Louise Bourgeois, Chakaia Booker along with special collections of 18th-century silver tableware and botanical prints. The museum also conducts multidisciplinary programs for diverse audiences and maintains a Library and Research Center which is accessible to the public. NMWA is located at 1250 New York Avenue, NW, Washington, D.C., in a landmark building near the White House. It is open Monday–Saturday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m. and Sunday, noon–5 p.m. For information, call 202-783-5000 or visit the museum’s Web site at www.nmwa.org.