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A Great Novel at the Hungarian National Gallery

05 • 06 • 19Ágnes Bihari

At the bottom of the snow-covered hill, a girl in an unbuttoned fur coat stands in the foreground; she is leaning slightly to one side and is holding a snowball in her left hand, playfully taking aim at the camera. I do not know who the girl is, but the hill is very familiar to me: it was in our street, and for a long time one could cross it on a little trail, which ran right down the hill to the Melinda Street apartment building, which is visible in the background. Of course, in the meantime, the site has been built upon. It is now closed off by a tall brick wall. The photo was taken in 1952, and I found it – like other browsers of fortepan.hu – by using the search function to “revisit” the sites of my childhood. Whenever I typed in a street name or the name of a local institution, a whole series of photos appeared on a timeline running from 1900 until 1990. In my case the picture of the girl in the fur coat was one of the photos that popped up, most of them being black and white photos taken by private individuals.

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The office of Lajos Miklós, a vehicle manufacturer. Hungarian National Museum - Fortepan, 1940.

Fortepan was the name of a type of negative film manufactured by a state-owned enterprise that came into being through the nationalisation of the former Kodak factory in Vác. It is also the name chosen by the online archive, which has been accessible since August 2010 and which now has 114,810 categorised and searchable keywords. The pictures in the archive, most of which are personal, private photographs (i.e. they were not made by professional photographers), can be viewed in high resolution, downloaded, and used – free of charge – for any purpose (subject to the donor’s name being acknowledged).

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Photo: Museum of Fine Arts – Hungarian National Gallery.

The anecdotal circumstances of the launch of the Fortepan website and the great efforts made by its founder are well known to the public and especially to photography enthusiasts. Over the years an extremely valuable collection of photos has been created thanks to the efforts of Ákos Szepessy and Miklós Tamási at junk clearances during their student years, Tamási’s many hours of unpaid work over a long period (selecting, scanning, editing, website construction, community building), the work of Fortepan activists and volunteers (identifying the people and places in the photos and when they were taken, as well as choosing keywords, etc.), and the input of donors and volunteers.

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Photo: Museum of Fine Arts – Hungarian National Gallery.

Public awareness of Fortepan has doubtless been increased by the weekly appearance of a thematic selection of its photos in the “Nagykép” column of the “Index” news website. This has been a feature of “Index” for more than six years. The photos shown in the column always cover different topics, while the accompanying texts provide background information on the various pictures, thus placing them in context.

The mega-exhibition now taking place on two floors of the Hungarian National Gallery is clearly a major leap forward for Fortepan.

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Photo: Museum of Fine Arts – Hungarian National Gallery.

Of course, there has to be a justification for putting pictures that are already freely accessible online (in a well-structured, albeit a rather old-school format) on show at a museum (where there are high entrance fees). That is to say, the Fortepan exhibition at the Hungarian National Gallery has to offer quite a lot more than does the Fortepan website. Well, the exhibition certainly strives to provide what it can. It is a two-in-one exhibition or even more than that. The ground floor is home to the best installations and the most interactive and entertaining section: with special projections of changing pictures, picture pairs that can be turned, original pictures arranged in a spectacular formation ready for a vote, readers’ personal letters, and material running into the museum shop. In terms of function, one side of the ground floor introduces the exhibition, while the other side serves to conclude it.

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Photo: Museum of Fine Arts – Hungarian National Gallery.

On the first floor, the curator István Virágvölgyi has divided the core of the content into four major blocks – Children, Young People, Adults, and the Elderly – with subjects, events and sites separated from each other by as much as fifty years being placed side by side. This part of the exhibition comprises 200 printed pictures of nearly identical size and format which are far from museum-quality prints. In addition to this, there are the modules placed in the exhibition space with sixteen series of illustrated stories taken from the selections that appeared on the “Index” website, as well as the thematic photos arranged in mosaic fashion on tableaus fixed to the walls. The Fortepan photos are very multifaceted and could be grouped and presented according to an entire range of different criteria – with the purpose of creating the greatest number of interesting stories. And of course, some of them would be far shorter and better focused.

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Every Past is My Past. Photo: Museum of Fine Arts – Hungarian National Gallery.

The visitors struggle to cope with the great number of images and the brevity of time. The information given is of a high standard and well structured, particularly in the case of the stories installed on boxes. And, of course, visitors can choose whether they want to walk around the exhibition in a linear fashion or zig-zag from one part to another. There’s no denying the exhibition is a lot to see in one go. And at the end of the spaces on the first floor, we even get two sets of interviews, as well as access to the online archive in the form of two laptops and a projector.

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Photo: Museum of Fine Arts – Hungarian National Gallery.

It is said that people today like well-edited photo series that tell stories. The exhibition at the Hungarian National Gallery is a multiplicity of stories – a great novel with lots of actors and countless storylines. The exhibition catalogue, which has been “fattened” into a rather heavy yet spectacular picture-book (with texts by László Baán, András Török, and Judit Gellér), is excellent, but perhaps the glossy paper should be avoided next time.

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Photo: Museum of Fine Arts – Hungarian National Gallery.

The Fortepan collection has received further pictures from many sources (e.g. donations from archives, Hungary-related material obtained/received from abroad, and photos donated by professional photographers such as the brilliant Tamás Urbán), but it continues to reflect the interests, tastes, habits, and ideas of the editors – and particularly the founder, Miklós Tamási. Any photos received must first pass through their filter before they are published. And it was Tamási’s personal decision that the selection of photos shown at the Hungarian National Gallery should avoid dark tones where possible (in the case of the very few surviving photos on the topic of the Holocaust, this was inevitable, even if we don’t look at the murdered victims).

Today, this unique collection, which has preserved its independence but categorically rules out adopting some kind of commercial basis, would require a more stable financial framework – money, sponsors, funding. Perhaps this explains why Fortepan shows so many sides of itself in the exhibition at the Hungarian National Gallery and why there are so many live events, meetings and discussions surrounding the exhibition. The exhibited material seems to be crying out: “Hello, we are here!”

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Photo: Museum of Fine Arts – Hungarian National Gallery.

The girl holding a snowball on a hill in Buda, mentioned in the introduction, is (of course) absent from the exhibition, but her essence can be felt in almost all the Fortepan pictures.  The title of the exhibition – “Every past is my past” – was borrowed from a wonderful poem by Zsuzsa Rakovszky. And it was a good choice: the family hanging playfully on to a wooden gate in the forest is, indeed, my past too, for it contains within it that strange, complex and not entirely painless recognition that we see as a mirror image in the Hungarian personal photographs. Thanks to these photos (and the other strange pictures that comprise Fortepan, such as photos by crime scene investigators, pictures taken at school ceremonies, and photos documenting major urban construction projects) the past gains depth and nuance. Knowing, accepting and embracing that past is suppletory and enhances the development of character and identity.

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Photo: Museum of Fine Arts – Hungarian National Gallery.

Jegyzetek

Every Past Is My Past

​Hungarian National Gallery​

​1​6 April 2019 - 29 September