Kati Horna — did you know Gisele Freund?


Horna as a girl. Attributed to Robert Capa.


We could argue that it was overdetermined that photography would become the premier popular art form — in fact the premier formal art form — in the world by 1950. (And that shift racketed through the art world and partly created the great blocky canvases of the 1950s.) During the interwar years both in Europe and in the United States, brilliant photographers fell out of slouch hats and started shooting everything in sight. What were the factors that made that happen? OK, here’s a try:

One- the technology of photography had become accessible and manageable. You could carry a good camera around with you.

Two – Lots of things were happening. Bad things, mostly. Photojournalism had already advanced to a point that dictated that world events should be captured on film.

Three – the pool of potential photographers doubled as women took up cameras. In fact, wait, they had already done so. Photography became a woman’s profession (as well as, not more than, a man’s profession) early on, even before the advent of handheld cameras. Partly, one guesses, this was because women had been socialized to find the vital core in human relationships, and most photographic studios focused, then as now, on portraiture.

Four – photography is adaptable to all styles of art, including abstract and surrealist art. This is where, in a sense, our current subject comes in.

Kati Horna (nee Deutsch Blau) is featured in an exhibit at le Jeu de Paume in Paris right now. Like many women artists and intellectuals, her light has been obscured by the famous company she kept. She grew up with Robert Capa (originally Endre Erno Friedmann) and Emerico “Chiki” Weisz in Budapest in the 1920s. All leftists, they all fled Hungary in those years, arriving by separate routes in Berlin in 1930. Horna (I will use her later married name) was already taking photographs and in Berlin she met Brecht, who reinforced her growing commitment to using art to make social change. The three friends left uncomfortable Berlin for Paris a few years later — Horna returning briefly to Budapest and then landing in Paris at the height of its power as a world capital of photography.

From Horna’s Paris cafe series, 1934.


Horna moved in the direction of surrealism. She claimed later that she was able not to starve in depression Paris because of her darkly comic egg photos, satirizing Hitler and his followers, staged by her and illustrated by the painter and cartoonist Wolfgang Burger. The mustachioed egg in various postures and expressions addresses a crowd of like eggs. For some artists, surrealism was a gesture to politicized art, but quite obscure in practice. For Horna, the art’s message had to accompany and inform composition. Some of her efforts — really throughout her career — were (AS WITH ALL ARTISTS) not so successful, and some were lovely and powerful.

From the Hitlerei series by Horna and Burger.


Horna also attempted to combine her photojournalism with surrealist expression when she covered the Spanish Civil War in 1937. Unlike Capa, who went to the battlefields, for the most part Horna focused on civilian life. She met her future husband, Jose Horna, in this period, and together for the next decades they collaborated on collages and other processed photographic/artistic products.

Photograph by Kati Horna, Andalusia, 1937.  This is NOT one of her surrealist images!


Back in Paris, the Hornas made the wise choice to flee the Nazis and, like a number of leftwing artists and activists in those years, chose Mexico as a goal partly because of its reputation as a socialist country, and partly because it was a great place to live. The Hornas moved to Mexico City and stayed there for the rest of their lives, creating a kind of salon for other surrealist artists of all nationalities. Kati Horna expanded her magazine work, mainly contributing to experimental and arts magazines, and became, as well, a portraitist of her friends and colleagues, and in 1973 the head of the photography workshop at the National School of Arts.

copyright Kati Horna. Photograph 1963.


This is where my initial question comes from. Horna and Freund took similar paths to and through photography. This is an auspicious time to raise the question of the ties among the photographic and artistic activist communities of the mid-century Western world, because several rooms of the Pompidou’s reorganized modern art exhibition (1905-1970) are devoted to European photography of Latin America and of Africa, and Gisele Freund’s lovely portraits of her artist friends in Mexico are featured along one entire wall. When Freund fled Europe in 1942 (late, for sure), she settled initially in Argentina, only moving to Mexico in the 1950s. But there, her contacts significantly overlapped Horna’s. They pursued somewhat different photographic styles, but both became documentarians of their own intellectual communities. They were both women pioneers of the field. They were both Jewish left-wing refugees from Nazi Europe, and both involved with men who had like commitments (Freund made a marriage of political convenience with Pierre Blum, but she was most intimate with the lesbian household of Adrienne Monnier and Sylvia Beach. In fact there is some lovely footage of Freund in her later years talking about the community around Monnier and Beach, in my favorite film of all time, Paris Was a Woman).

Frida Kahlo, photographed by Gisele Freund, 1950


There are probably a couple of reasons for the odd disjunction, at least in the historical record, between these two women photographers. One is that Paris is a big city, and Freund was close to a different set of activist artists than Horna was. Another is that Freund settled only briefly in Mexico before returning to Paris in 1953 and staying there until the end of her life in 2000. A third, somewhat painful, reason may be that Robert Capa, Horna’s good friend, ejected Freund from the Magnum agency in the 1950s when Freund got into political trouble with the Communist-hunting U.S. government. Those were painful times that yielded ironic decisions and ruptured many friendships in progressive communities. Freund, not incidentally, also became persona non grata in Argentina when LIFE magazine published one of her photos of Eva Peron in jewels during the government’s austerity campaign. That’s when she moved to Mexico.

Gisele Freund, photographed by Birgit Kleber, 1996

Both women died in 2000: Horna in Mexico, and Freund in Paris. Freund was of course the more celebrated and notorious of the two photographers, with honors and recognition coming to her in her adopted France even before her death. Horna has been the subject of a number of retrospective exhibitions, but it is fair to say that though much of her work is exquisite, the surreal portion of the archive is less accessible to most casual photo viewers. Nonetheless, she was a joyous worker, by all evidence, and through her collegial contacts and her teaching she influenced younger photographers, and built the world archive of photography in a direction of experimentation and merger with other artistic genres that has continued to the present.

3 thoughts on “Kati Horna — did you know Gisele Freund?

  1. Photo caption: Horna as a girl. You have to know that I was waiting for the next photo of Horna as a Boy. What a time we live in. 🙂


  2. I’ve lingered over this same question for quite awhile, and was so glad to see someone else thought it an interesting thing to ponder. Watching Paris Was A Woman again thanks to you. Thanks for this post!

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