Péter Nádas, In der Geisterbahn (On the Ghost Train), 1963, gelatin silver print, 9 x 7".

Péter Nádas, In der Geisterbahn (On the Ghost Train), 1963, gelatin silver print, 9 x 7".

Péter Nádas

Kunsthaus Zug

Péter Nádas, In der Geisterbahn (On the Ghost Train), 1963, gelatin silver print, 9 x 7".

The novels of Hungarian writer and photographer Péter Nádas arouse contrary opinions. Susan Sontag rated A Book of Memories (1986) a masterpiece; Michael Hofmann said it “isn’t merely bad but rotten.” Guardian reviewer Tibor Fischer dismissed Parallel Stories (2011) as navel-gazing “historical soup” and characterized Nádas’s admirers as credulous postmodernists or guilt-ridden, over-intellectualizing Germans. Fischer’s text triggered some thoughtful proNádas responses online, locating his work in a present-day “culture war.” Hungary’s right-leaning, populist-nationalist administration apparently regards his work as elitist, cosmopolitan, and not properly Hungarian—a characterization that many might take as a recommendation in itself.

Organized by Nádas himself and Matthias Haldemann, director of Kunsthaus Zug, the exhibition “Péter Nádas. In der Dunkelkammer des Schreibens. Übergänge zwischen Text, Bild und Denken” (Péter Nádas. In the Darkroom of Writing. Transitions between Text, Image and Thought) includes a shelf stocked with Nádas’s literary oeuvre, in both the original and translation, and offers multiple contexts for reappraising those contentious texts. Most importantly, it showcased five decades of the writer’s photography, contrasting his realist-documentary practice of the 1960s and ’70s with his obsessively introspective recent work, characterized by serial experiments focused on things rather than people: a wardrobe, a window frame, the corner of a room, or, in “Der Baum” (The Tree), 2000–2001, a wild pear tree photographed daily from the same viewpoint for over a year. Nádas later used these Polaroid images were later used in his 2002 book, Der Eigene Tod (Own Death), a reflection on his experience of a heart attack. This seems to be Nádas’s most explicit experiment in the juxtaposition of his own words and images: It counterpoints a short story reliving the attack’s shocking revelation of the split second separating life from death with his photographic diary of the tree’s slow, cyclical, vegetable existence.

Elsewhere in the Kunsthaus, extensive loans from European collections provided a further context, national and international, for Nádas‘s work. There was a gloomy collection of twentieth-century Hungarian paintings, most trapped in doomed stylistic love affairs with Cézanne, Picasso, Nolde, and other assorted modernist and Expressionist masters. More absorbing was an extensive display of Hungarian photography. Here, the shoe was on the other foot; portraits, documentary images, landscapes, and still lifes by Moholy-Nagy, Capa, Kertész, the Sugars, and others formed a canon of clear-sighted, technically brilliant, often moving imagery.

Thus, the show aligned Nádas with two of the last century’s impossible quests: those for perfectly transparent realism (the “decisive moment” of classic documentary) and perfectly transparent expression (the effort to reshape existing cultural forms to serve one’s inner vision). These missions, rather than postmodernism, seem to be the proper frame of reference for Nádas. His youthful photographic practice compares well with the best of the Hungarian documentary tradition. In der Geisterbahn (On the Ghost Train), 1963, for example, catches a white-faced pair of thrill seekers by surprise. As they brace against each other, their body language weirdly combines fright, repression, erotic excitement, and predatory aggression. This image captures precisely the kind of emotional and bodily intensity Nádas has explored in his later writing.

Later in his career, expression succeeded realism, as extreme duration and a fixation on tiny variations replaced decisive moments. Four hundred–plus photos of trees, from three distinct series—Polaroid, C-print, and black-and-white—took up a whole room in the exhibition. Technical and age-related fluctuations in each small image overlay the trees’ seasonal changes of dress. One’s eyes slid unanchored, around a pictorial kaleidoscope, which tempted comparison with Nádas’s writing and its refusal of the mechanisms that allow sustained page-by-page reading (changes of narrative pace, generation of suspense, identification with characters, and so on).

Eventually, though, this comparison breaks down. Nádas’s prose propels readers into a temporarily fascinating, anti-humanist, almost psychopathic mental landscape that soon proves intolerable. By contrast, his later photography allows itself an austere measure of beauty and melancholia, and among the most engaging earlier works are his portraits of friends: the gorgeous, intimate, tiny gelatin silver print of Magda, 1965, for instance. For Nádas, the fit between darkroom and writing desk might not be as neat as this show’s title suggests.

—Rachel Withers