Visual Arts

EXHIBITION REVIEW: John Sadovy – ‘Freedom First – the 1956 Hungarian Revolution in Pictures



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img_8867-1Freedom First is one of many events currently in London to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, when student protests against Soviet occupation transformed into a violent uprising, killing over 3,000 people and forcing more than 200,000 Hungarians into exile. Given that many of these refugees found a new home in the UK, the place the exhibition is held – 12 Star Gallery in the House of the European Commission in London – seems a fitting location. Yet, the gallery space does its purpose justice only if enough people are present: empty, the spaces between the walls are too wide, giving the impression of a simple foyer, rather than an exhibition space.

img_8867-2The photographs shown are printed on board without framing, which shows them as historical documents rather than artworks in their own right. This is a shame, as John Sadovy’s compositions are striking and carefully arranged images: there’s a soldier visible through the damaged Hungarian flag for example, or the images of General Pál Meléter, capturing him as an admired leader and hero in superb character portraits. In a little cabinet, Sadovy’s awards for covering the revolution are displayed alongside the first printed edition of these images in Life magazine. Opposite, a column’s covered in flyers and leaflets both in English translation and the Hungarian original, as they were circulated in the early days of the conflict.

img_8883-1There doesn’t seem to be a particular storyline to the exhibition, which works well: it allows you to wander freely without losing any part of the story. The labels in the colours of the Hungarian flag include quotes by Sadovy and the journalist Tim Foote, which creates a strange dynamic: on the one hand, we see the events from the perspective of outsider eye-witnesses, and on the other hand the exhibition-environment emphasises grand ideas of freedom drenched in nationalism. In 1956, this nationalism doubtless formed a sense of unity that helped the revolution to hold up as long as it did- even though it failed in the end.  However, the exhibition doesn’t contextualise this. Instead, we’re confronted with Sadovy’s personal accounts used as evidence for a fight of national self-determination. But the photographs are hardly celebratory: they bear witness to violence in its rawest forms: heaps of corpses on the streets of Budapest covered in lime scale, bodies drenched in pools of their own blood.

One of the most problematic sets of images is Sadovy’s capturing of a group of revolutionaries finding, escorting and then executing at close range a group of men from ÁVO, the Hungarian Secret Service. These images show unarmed men executed without trial, Sadovy witnessing the final moments of their lives. Yet, rather than displaying the series with critical engagement, the nationalist frame of the exhibition seems to justify these actions. Hungarians are praised for their bravery in taking action, Sadovy’s praised for his bravery in crossing the frontline to get most close-up shots – but what about those who died innocently, Russians and Hungarian alike? What the exhibition most sorely lacks is engagement with the humanity left even within conflict. Instead it gives us a strict commemoration from the point of view of the ‘Hungarian nation’, without considering who this group includes – or excludes.  Such an intense focus on ‘official history telling’ is generalising at best, perpetrating violence for freedom at worst.

img_8863-1Without any doubt, the exhibition’s greatest success is the unearthing of unknown works by Sadovy, a Czechoslovak-born and British-raised photo-journalist, whose support of Charter 77 strikes of social engagement and civic action. Yet Sadovy’s humanity barely shines through the photographs shown. There are several issues with having an exhibition like this, given the current social and political climates in Hungary and the UK: even though the events commemorated are located in the past, excavating them today is inevitably tied to the contemporary world. Praising the UK’s acceptance of Hungarian refugees in the 1950s in this context is cynical. Celebrating Hungarian nationalism and a violent fight for freedom even more so. The commemoration of traumatic moments in a nation’s history is always difficult – and can hardly succeed without a critical engagement with where we stand today.


Freedom First: the 1956 Hungarian Revolution in Pictures continues until 21st October at the Star Gallery, Europe House. It is supported by the Hungarian Cultural Centre, London.

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