|Károly Escher, The Horse of the Apocalypse, 1937|
I can only speculate about my mother’s time with Escher. It might have lasted a few years or just a few months. Being registered as a Jew (though I only discovered this after her death) she would not have been allowed to follow a normal professional career so it is likely she took a number of small private jobs and flitted about from employer to employer. In any case she was arrested in the autumn of 1944 and sent to two concentration camps, both of which she narrowly survived.
If she arrived in Budapest in 1940 Escher would have been fifty already with a long career behind him. He was born in Szekszárd, a small town in the south of Hungary but moved to Budapest while still a child. In his 1959 autobiography he tells us that he always wanted to be a photographer, ever since his eyes “learned to see rather than just look”. By twelve he was taking pictures with a box camera. He was apprenticed first as a locksmith then as a technical draughtsman but would go out photographing every Sunday with a friend. A group of keen amateurs formed around him. Pretty soon he found work in the early film industry.
As a film cameraman he recorded meetings and events under the short-lived Hungarian Soviet in 1919 and was probably fortunate not to suffer for it in the years following the fall of the Bolsheviks, and the establishment of Admiral Horthy’s much longer-lived right-wing authoritarian regime in 1920. He survived but returned to photography, or rather what he called photojournalism in 1928. By that time those who were to be world-famous had already left the country: Kertész, for example, left in 1925. Escher did not, and that, as Robert Frost wrote in his poem ‘The Road Not Taken’, “made all the difference.” For Frost that meant the road to great reputation as a poet: for Escher it meant obscurity outside his native country.
There is a marvellous photograph by Escher, The Horse of the Apocalypse,, not a typical work – if there is such a thing as typical Escher – in which a large farm horse is being paraded at an agricultural fair. A great pile of cloud rises to a peak behind the horse. Behind the horse, there appears to be a plain, or possibly a wide, high-fenced field. The man leading the horse is working hard to keep up with it, running, it seems, to prevent the horse running away with him. He is formally dressed, in a three-piece suit and a homburg. He looks at us from under the brim of his hat with shaded eyes. His dark moustache lends him a magisterial air but his free hand is extended towards us in a gesture hard to interpret. Maybe he doesn’t want to be photographed. Maybe he is warning us to keep out of the way. And so we should, because the dark horse is extraordinarily powerful and its white noseband simply emphasises its power and darkness. It is clearly moving fast. Its mane is flowing and its right front foot is a blur, throwing up what seems to be a cloud of black smoke.
On one level this is an image of primordial energy only just under control, though we cannot be sure of the extent of that control. The horse is ageless, the man behind him firmly fixed in time. The pile of clouds suggests approaching thunder, though it is chiefly the horse that is thundering for now. In less than two years an apocalyptic war will, we know, break out, though Escher cannot be presumed to know that. And yet, everything about the picture – proportion, focus, framing and contrast – implies premonition, a dream image about to enter a crucial moment.
Escher was forty-seven when he took this, already twenty years into his career as a photojournalist. It lends itself to a certain speculation. The legendary Irish hero Finn Mac Cool asks his followers: ‘What is the finest music in the world?’ One suggests the cuckoo calling from the hedge, another says the ring of a spear on a shield, another the baying of a pack of hounds, yet another the laughter of a happy girl. ‘All good answers,’ says Finn. ‘Yes, but which is the best?’ they ask. Finn responds: ‘The music of what happens.'
I often think it is through the power of symbolism that great photography most affects us. The image strikes us at several levels beyond the literal or documentary. It begins as documentary, and indeed functions as such, but it sees something beyond appearance and social or historical context. It discovers an existential condition. How it does that, if it does, is a complex matter and not specifically to do with Hungarian photograph. All I am sure of is that it is to do with choice of subject, with framing, composition, image quality, texture, colour and so forth. Whatever the combination between these things Hungarian photographers seem to have managed the trick remarkably often.