Told and Untold: The Photo Stories of Kati Horna in the Illustrated Press @Americas Society

JTF (just the facts): A total of 65 black and white photographs and other ephemera, framed in black and matted, and hung against orange and white walls in a series of three connected rooms. All of the photographs are gelatin silver prints, made between 1933 and 1983. The show also includes multiple vitrines and display cases containing 13 album pages (some double sided)/contact sheets, 18 magazines/spreads, 5 newspapers/spreads, 2 collages/montages, and various other books, exhibition pamphlets, initiations, lithographs, and other materials. The exhibit was curated by Michel Otayek and Christina De León, and a catalog of the exhibition published by the Americas Society is forthcoming. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Kati Horna is a photographer in the midst of active rediscovery. Depending on your particular knowledge of photographic history, Horna might be best known for her humanist photojournalism during the Spanish Civil War or perhaps for her later more evocatively Surrealist imagery. A recent retrospective at the Jeu de Paume (in 2014 here) clarified her story and filled in many of its contextual gaps, tracing her path from Hungary (where she was born) through France and Spain, and eventually on to exile in Mexico, where much of her artistic career took place.

This show builds on that scholarly momentum, examining her relationship with the printed page and resetting her most famous photographs in the newspapers and magazines where they first appeared. It is an analysis that pushes us away from the central idea of precious fine art prints and toward an understanding that Horna’s photographs were nearly always made with wider circulation in mind. Organized chronologically, the exhibit provides a well-edited sampler of Horna’s work from five decades, always bringing us back to the central theme that her most celebrated projects were made in collaboration with the illustrated press.

The show opens with a selection of Horna’s portraits and street photographs from early 1930s Budapest, but quickly moves on to her more important work at the end of the decade in Spain. Double sided album pages document the human side to the Spanish Civil War, capturing refugees and babies amid the bombed out buildings and rubble. Her images for the anarchist press have a more propaganda-style edge, filled with smiling militiamen looking handsome and friendly. But it is Horna’s pictures of the quiet despair of war (in the form of multi-image photo essays) that are the most durably moving – a hand held to a black clad face, a collection of rain soaked marchers under umbrellas, and various children caught in the middle of the struggle deliver the full weight of the social consequences of the conflict. While her childhood friend Robert Capa gave us the intense action of the fighting, Horna often pointed her camera at the bystanders and nearby families, offering us narratives and vignettes that put those battles into a more personal context.

After the war, Horna moved to Mexico City with her husband, and her photography became even more project-based. In the 1940s and 1950s, she did a series on the conditions in the La Castañeda mental institution (including a harrowing image of a screaming child and a famous portrait of an “enlightened” man), a project on women’s roles (some with montage effects), a series of portraits of Mexico City intellectuals and artists, and a selection of images on urban expansion, all for various magazines and periodicals.

By the 1960s, Horna had largely moved on to more expressive essays and photographic narratives, her work becoming more experimental and overtly surreal. A distorted 1962 portrait of the Mexican actress Luz del Amo behind a glass bottle is indicative of this move toward the avant-garde, and her multi-image projects from this period took on more elaborate and fanciful storytelling, from a night at the doll hospital (with its spooky jumble of heads and bodies on overstuffed shelves), to the adventures of a woman with a horned mask and those of a black-clad female vampire. Her most famous series from those years is her “Oda a la Necrofilia”, a stylized look at love, desire, and loss, mixing deathbed scenes, masks, and nudes into a symbolic investigation of emotional suffering. It resonates with the same kind of raw emotional power that many of her best Spanish Civil War documentary images captured, but with a more intensely inward looking perspective.

The exhibit ends with yet another twist in Horna’s long career, a series of geometric studies of modern Mexican architecture, and these images force us to recalibrate our assessment of Horna once again. Across five decades, she was many different photographers – a frontline war photojournalist, a professional magazine photo essayist, a risk taking experimentalist (in both style and narrative), and a formalist, and all of these versions of her artistic self played out in the pages of newspapers and magazines. This persistent creative adaptability is in many ways the key to her place in photographic history. It becomes the common thread that justifiably ties her to some of the other more notable female photographers of the period like Germaine Krull, Margaret Bourke-White, and Florence Henri, and reinforces our view of her deserving reemergence.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum show, there are of course no posted prices. Horna’s work has very little secondary market history. While examples of her work can be found at various galleries, her estate is not officially represented by any specific gallery; Horna’s daughter is the sole owner of the artist’s archive and handles inquiries directly (via email to czarautz@gmail.com).

Read more about: Kati Horna, Americas Society

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