Exhibiting photographers: Bácsi Róbert László, Bődey János, Hirling Bálint, Mohai Balázs, Móricz-Sabján Simon †, Pályi Zsófia, Stiller Ákos, Urbán Ádám és Végh László, members of Pictorial Collective
In the two centuries since his birth, it has been fashionable to wonder what national hero and 19th century poet Petőfi would think today. We were more curious to know what he would see if he were to set off on his cross-country journey now: how do Hungarians live today?
In Hungary, most streets are named after Petőfi, and if we put all 2800 of them together, we could go as far as the Atlantic Ocean. Nine members of the Pictorial Collective documentary photography collective have photographed the 266,000 residents living in the Petőfi Streets over the past year and a half. The imaginary Petőfi Street being outlined in their pictures, which extends beyond the borders of Hungary, provides a subjective view of contemporary Hungarian society.
The cult of Sándor Petőfi grew enormously already in the 19th century, and it is almost burlesque how every political system in the last two hundred years has tried to appropriate the actualized image of Petőfi. No one could remain indifferent to Petőfi, who quickly became a national vates, so all the regimes named many cultural buildings, libraries, barracks, and streets after him.
The public space renaming campaigns, which ran in several waves, avoided Petőfi, after whom, for example, in the hardline Stalinist Rákosi dictatorship of the 1950s, many streets were named that had until then borne the names of the Habsburg monarchs. Not the most important public spaces in the towns and villages, as these were reserved for people and slogans directly linked to communism, so our photographers explored the by-streets of villages and towns.
In the last two centuries the world, including Hungary, has moved forward a lot. We have developed more since the Mid-19th century Hungarian Reform Era than in the 800 years since the founding of the Hungarian state up to that date. There was of course room for improvement, as in Petőfi’s time most of society was still made up of the illiterate peasantry. But looking at the Pictorial Collective’s photographs today, it is highly doubtful that “all men” can “lift the horn of plenty in one happy equality” and Petőfi would probably not suggest today either that “no more wandering, Canaan is here, let us rejoice!”
What is striking in the pictures is not the abject poverty and misery, because that is not what the photographers encountered most often during their travels, but the folk do-it-yourself aesthetics that embellish the grey, often to mask the insecurity of livelihood. And yet our environment affects us constantly. But is the name really binding and does the genius loci, the spirit of the place, work? Is it important who are our streets named after? Does Petőfi’s spirit have an impact on the pupils of a primary school named after him?
Petőfi was clear to all in his poems, just as the primary meaning of documentary photography is easy to decode. But there is much more to be retrieved from the poems and the photographs, especially the entire photographic material: the whole is more than the sum of its parts. In another two hundred years, when our descendants look back, what will they see? Depopulated villages or more rapid further development?
Over time, every photo becomes more interesting. Let us also try to look at these photos of our present from the perspective of an imaginary future, it can be an illuminating experience, especially if you keep Petőfi’s lines in mind:
Blue woodlands of the past, they spread behind,
In front are future’s sowings, green, aligned.
One’s far, yet will our bond not sever,
The other’s out of reach for ever.
Like this I wander ways and press
On in the barren wilderness,
And crest-fallen, roam the bare
Present, which is forever there.