The photograph of nativity players in traditional costume lined up in the snow in front of a Debrecen apartment block looked like it was by a young, contemporary photographer. In fact, the Hungarian National Gallery had chosen it to promote a career retrospective exhibition of around 50 years of work by Hungary’s Péter Korniss.
I knew nothing of this when my partner and I walked into the vast “Continuing Memories” exhibition, which closed on February 11. Stretching across several rooms, Korniss’ work was grouped into visual chapters in the continuing story of Eastern Europe, its formerly isolated villages, culture and the people to whom he became close.
Taken between 1967 and 1978, “The Past” chronicles a way of life unchanged for centuries. To me, at first, this gave the images a romantic quality. I was especially struck by “Girl Turning the Hay” and “Resting Haymaker” (both 1974). These depict the same girl in traditional costume - the first in black and white, the second in color.
The contrast between the way the girl is dressed, in floral print layers, and her incongruously elegant straw hat, with the backbreaking work she’s doing, is profound. There’s also something romantic about the image, especially in color. But Korniss’ intention is not to romanticize, as many of the other images make clear. For instance, “Washing Day in Winter” shows a woman washing a nightdress in a hole she’s made in ice.
Whatever they’re doing, the people Korniss photographs possess enormous dignity. They rarely smile, even when they’re dancing. I later read in the exhibition catalog that it was considered bad form to smile in the dance house.
“The Guest Worker” (1979 to 1988) focuses on András Skarbit, a farmer from northeastern Hungary whose economic circumstances had forced him to become an unskilled laborer in Budapest. Like more than a quarter of a million other guest workers, Skarbit would work in town and return home at the weekends.
Again, I knew nothing of the history behind the images. I could see, though, that the necessities of a brutally changing present had shattered a way of life. Korniss contrasts the harshness of Skarbit’s existence in Budapest with the simple joys of life back home. One picture of Skarbit bending to embrace his granddaughter is especially moving.
“Transition” (1989 to 2016) is concerned with the encroachment of the modern world on the people of remote Eastern European villages. A woman drives a tractor. A couple sit on their verandah under a satellite dish. An old woman stands in her new kitchen as if she’d been transported there from 100 years before. Most bizarrely of all, a poster of Michael Jackson stares out from behind a collection of family photos.
“Tradition” (2005 to 2012) includes “Nativity Players in the Housing Estate”, the image that first led me to believe Korniss was a contemporary photographer. The Transylvanian nativity players are shown in their traditional costume against the gritty, urban backdrop of Debrecen.
In many of the photos, the nativity players carry a model of a church with them - a neat contrast with the brutalist apartment blocks and a reminder of the rich and strange traditions of Eastern Europe.
The last chapter of the exhibition, “In Town” (2012-2017), is a poetic distillation of Korniss’ themes and changing vision. Women in traditional Transylvanian costume, who in the past would have worked as carers in their home village of Szék - where Korniss began taking photographs in the dance hall 50 years ago - are posed against mundane scenes of contemporary city life.
Bulky and unsmiling, the women retain their dignity. The photographs are posed, which adds to the sense that the women carry the weight of the past with them and are more substantial than their flimsy, ephemeral environment. Especially when Korniss uses motion blur in “In the Underpass” (2014).
Somewhat overwhelmed by “Continuing Memories”, my partner and I sat down to rest our legs in the National Gallery café. By sheer good fortune, we fell into conversation with Péter Korniss and he graciously agreed to be interviewed by me. A week later, Korniss and I reconvened in the café.
Korniss put me at my ease right away. A gentleman with excellent English, he is full of life and charm itself. It’s not difficult to understand how he won over the Eastern European villagers and made lifelong friendships. I felt like I’d known him all my life.
“I was born in Transylvania,” Korniss began, “and I still feel very Transylvanian. We moved to Budapest when I was 12. I would have liked to have been a lawyer but in 1956, after the Revolution, I was expelled from the law faculty of Eötvös Loránd University. I didn’t do anything special. I wasn’t a hero. I must have just been a little too loud. After the Revolution there was a depression. I had to do several jobs to survive. I found a job as a picture drier at the so-called photographic cooperative on Andrássy Avenue. After a while, I started freelancing as a photographer for the weekly sports magazine. I got a job at Nők Lapja, the most popular women’s magazine, in 1961 and worked there for 30 years. I finished as the picture editor and art editor.”
The journey to photographing the life of Eastern European villagers began when Korniss began taking photographs for the State Ballet Institute and later for the Pécs Ballet. This led him to photograph the Bihari Dance Ensemble. In 1967, the ensemble’s choreographer took him to the Transylvanian village of Szék, now in Romania, where he encountered the peasant world and the dance house movement.
I asked what Transylvania was like at that time. “When I left where I was born it was a small town with a warm atmosphere. Going back, I found the same warmth and openness in the villages. Transylvanians are especially open and tolerant. This made me feel at home and able to do my work. But, back then, Transylvania was also politically taboo because the socialists didn’t want to stir up nationalism. Ordinary Hungarians knew very little of real life in Transylvania.”
Did the fact that Transylvania was taboo add to the sense of isolation one feels in “The Past” section of the exhibition? “I don’t think so. I found the same untouched culture in the Romanian mountains or Moldavia, which was practically like the Middle Ages. I think it’s more to do with geographic, social and cultural isolation.”
Has the response to the photographs changed over the years? “I’ll tell you a story. When I returned from Transylvania with my first photos, I sent them to a photography competition where there was an open jury process. ‘Nice photographs of the Hungarian State Dance Ensemble’ they said. I said ‘It’s not an ensemble. These are just people who live in the village.’ ‘And all of them got dressed up for you?’ they asked. ‘They live like this!’ I replied.
Korniss never wanted to romanticize the lives of the people he was photographing. “I worked against it very consciously. Their lives were bloody hard. Take the picture of the schoolgirls walking to school in the mud. I always tell people that they did that twice every day, 1.5 hours each way.”
For this reason, Korniss waited until 1998 before showing “Girl Turning the Hay”, sure no-one would believe that she wasn’t dressed up for the photograph. He waited even longer before showing “Resting Haymaker”, the companion color image. “But someone still asked me if she was a model!” he exclaims. “It proves I wasn’t paranoid.”
I told Korniss I thought at first he was a young, contemporary photographer and he was delighted. “The photographic language is always changing with the times. I believe I’m obliged to express myself in a way that’s more adequate to the period I’m recording, technically and aesthetically. I moved from reportage to posed portraits because I wanted to emphasize the dignity and significance of the people who trusted me. I also hesitated before starting to work in digital, but I realized that using digital with my subject matter embodies the juxtaposition of old and new.”
Given the impressive body of Korniss’ work, I asked what drove him to continue to take photographs. “It’s happiness,” he said. “It’s my life. You might have noticed that I always return to where they like me, where I enjoy myself. I always feel richer when I return. Now, though, I have to admit it’s harder to take good photographs. I have so much to live up to. I only have two photos from 2016, taken in the Romanian countryside. But I’m satisfied with this.”
I was curious as to how Korniss was regarded by younger Hungarian photographers. “I have salons at my home a couple of times a year where they bring their work and we talk photography,” he said. “They like me, I think.”
I’m sure they do. I certainly walked away from our conversation into the wintry chill of a Budapest afternoon feeling warmed and that much richer for spending time with Korniss.
Continuous Memories was visited by well over 40,000 people. This is by far and away a Hungarian National Gallery record for an exhibition of work by a single living artist.