About Kati Horna

  • Biography
  • Influences & Criticism
  • Analysis of Major Works

Kati Horna [born Kati Deutsch] was born on May 19, 1912, in Budapest, Hungary. She is a Mexican photographer by adoption. An article entitled “The Woman Who Captured Robert Capa’s Heart” in The Independent states, “She was a legendary war photographer, a woman who alternated dodging death on battlefields with a glamorous, star-studded life-style; she was a self-effacing, left-wing intellectual who preferred to stay out of the limelight, hidden behind the camera's lens.”

At the early age of twenty, she was an apprentice at the Pesci studio in Budapest, where she learned basic photographic techniques. In 1932, she enriched her knowledge in Paris and started creating a series of documentaries with her Linhof camera for a French agency. During this time period, Kati Horna produced two well-known series entitled El Mercado de la Pulgas [1933] and Reportage dans les Cafes de Paris [1934].

In 1937, amidst the Spanish War, she was commissioned by the Republican Spanish government to make a propaganda album; to do so, she moved to Barcelona. Mexico was, for Kati Horna, her motherland and her patriotism was felt only for this country. She participated in numerous large publications there and became a professor at the Universidad Iberoamericana where she was spotted for her qualities as a reporter and works related to Surrealism. Her most popular works include La Castaneda [1945], Fetiches de Snob [1962], Sucedio en Goyoacan [1962], Mujer y Mascara [1963], and Una Noche en el Sanatorio de Munecas [1963].

Although Kati Horna is most remembered for her powerful Civil War photographs, her personal life is of equal significance and importance. Kati Horna was the teenage sweetheart of photographer Robert Capa [1913-1954], a Hungarian combat photographer and photojournalist who covered five different wars: the Spanish Civil War, the Second Sino-Japanese War, World War II across Europe, the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, and the First Indochina War. Capa’s images of the Spanish Civil War and the Vietnam Wars made him one of the greatest photographers of all time. For decades, their relationships remained well-kept and secret. Horna first met Capa as a teenager in Budapest. Even though they both had other relationships on the side, the bond that they started that day lasted a lifetime of peace and war; they became inseparable, according to Kati Horna’s daughter, Norah Horna. In their youth, both Kati Horna and Robert Capa were members of the same left-wing intellectual movement, and both took up photography with passion. Though Capa’s love life tends to be remembered for his numerous striking conquests such as Hollywood actress Ingrid Bergman and photographer Gerda Taro, it was with Kati Horna that he had fallen in love.

This relationship deeply influenced Horna and her work. In fact, Horna’s first portrait was of Capa, and he took one of her as well. Norah Horna states, “When Capa met my mother he was instantly struck by her…She was a banker’s daughter from the prosperous area of Buda; he was from humbler origins, from the industrial area of Pest. But she fascinated him, and he remained fascinated by her throughout his life. They spent a great deal of time together, and their relationship affected each one very deeply.”

At the age of eighteen, the couple was separated when Horna went to live in Berlin. Their paths crossed again in Paris, where Capa had now started a studio. From there, he made frequent trips to Spain to photograph the Civil War. Kati Horna followed him, though she did not receive the same type of commission Capa did; he was working for the prestigious Life Magazine, she preferred to work for lesser-known publications such as Umbral, which she felt supported her anarchist cause. Another difference between the two was the style, technique, and subject matter. Capa favored working at the front lines of the War; capturing shots such as Falling Soldier [1936]. Horna, however, focused on the effect of war on women, children, and other members of society. Dawn Ades, an art history professor at Essex University, notes the unique character of Horna’s work, “They are compassionately observed scenes from behind the front lines. She also created some striking images by using superimpositions. In one picture, two negatives are superimposed and then printed, so that an old woman and child appear as though ghosts in the middle of a house ruined in the fighting. The image is specific to the Spanish conflict, but it could express the fate of victims in any war."

Before leaving Europe for Mexico, Horna met the man she would later marry: Jose Horna, who was a craftsman and a sculptor. Fourteen years later, in 1954, Capa was blown up by a landmine in Vietnam. Horna was devastated, but carried on her own work and eventually became one of Mexico’s most respected documentary photographers and significant Surrealist photographer.

Kati Horna died a tranquil, normal death in 2000 and her works have kept an important place in frequent exhibitions in Mexico, Spain, and other countries as well. Norah Horna, who was Kati Horna’s only child, had no idea how extensive her mother's archive of pictures from Spain was. "It had all been hidden away," she says. "She spoke of her experiences in Spain very rarely. The important thing now is that my mother's work, which has been buried for so long, is about to be more widely known. She was an extraordinary photographer with a talent at least equal to many of those of her era who found fame."

The Second World War brought Remedios Varo [Spain, 1908-1963], Leonora Carrington [England, b.1917], and Kati Horna [Hungary, 1912-2000] together in Mexico City. Had these three artists not escaped from France between 1939 and 1940, Leonora Carrington believes that the Nazis would have killed them all. The reasons are as follows: Carrington was the British lover of Max Ernst, who was seen as a ‘degenerate artist’ by the Nazis, Remedios Varo was a left-wing Republican during the Spanish Civil War with her lover Benjamin Peret who was a left-wing writer and poet close to Andre Breton, and Horna was Jewish and an active Republican in the Spanish Civil War. It is obvious then, that politics, artistic and intellectual circles, as well as her relationship with Robert Capa were the major influences in Horna’s body of work.

Horna was in Paris during the early 1930’s where she photographed scenes from daily life in flea markets and the boulevards. Key works from these series include Doll, Series Flea Markets of Paris, 1933, and Couple with Dog, Series the Cafes of Paris, 1934. Being the childhood friend and ‘secret’ lover of Robert Capa in Budapest, Horna developed her love for photography by attending the classes of the photographer Jozsef Peczi. From there, she followed Capa to Spain and began documenting the Civil War. After they ended their relationship, however, Horna continued to work as a photojournalist during the Spanish Civil War with her partner, the Andalusian Jose Horna. In 1938, both of them escaped to Paris where they lived and worked until they had to move out of Europe.

Horna’s artistic influences focus on photomontage and the use of photography and collage in Dada, Bauhaus, and Surrealist movements. By the time Horna arrived in Mexico City, at the age of thirty-one, her life had been shaped by the liberating artistic developments in Paris [the beginning of Surrealism], conflict, and war. During this time period, Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, and Kati Horna became very close friends, but they also became very artistically linked. The Surreal Friends state, “In Kati Horna’s lifetime, photography did not have the celebrity status that is has nowadays, although some, such as Brassai, Henri-Cartier-Bresson, and Robert Capa achieved the kind of fame we now associate with many photographic artists.” The article goes on to discuss the fact that great photographers of the time such as Cartier-Bresson systematically refused to view what they were doing as ‘art’; to them, it was a job that was done with a good eye and skill. Kati Horna would have agreed.

Horna’s earlier work is on par with that of Cartier-Bresson, Brassai, and Capa with her reportage of the Spanish Civil War and even though she is most likely the least known of the three surreal friends, she is most probably the most impressive in some ways. First of all, she was not brought into the artistic circle by affiliation: there was no Max Ernst for Kati Horna. The work that she achieved and her rank in the art world were achieved, mostly, on her own. She worked in isolated settings in order to stay true to her own ideals and artistic integrity.

She mainly focused on this documental aspect in her work, she was strongly influenced by Surrealism and it became present in a large majority of her prints such as Sugar Skulls [1963], or Leonora Carrington in Renaissance Style [1987]. She mixed a variety of subjects and separated her work into two realms: that of social milestones and staged scenes. The nature of her work is very visually striking and appealing. Much like she helped those around her generously at all times [helping Carrington and Varo in times of need], she strongly cared for the students she taught at the Universidad Iberoamericana.

What made her work particular and inspiring was that she was in the vanguard for women photographers in general, but for women war photographers in particular; it was rare to see a woman with a Leica strapped on her shoulder, in the lines of danger and fighting. While her male contemporaries such as Capa were off finding the most advantageous locations to photograph fallen soldiers and sensational front-line shots, Horna was wandering through the scarred cities of Barcelona and Madrid, documenting the devastating effects of war. Her images of elderly women, young mothers, children, and babies were “both heartbreaking in their immediacy and visionary in their choice of subject matter.” Horna had found the right balance of emotion and applied aesthetic theory; she was becoming a fine artist. These types of photographs were the ones that kept her artistic voice and genius thriving. On the other hand, in order to earn an income, Horna began a series of photographing the country’s artistic elite for magazines. It remains true, however, that it is in her more offbeat work that her real capacity as an artist shone – she had a rare ability to use inanimate objects such as masks, dolls, and puppets, to convey strong senses of emotion, struggle, and reality.

The question remains unclear, then, as to why Horna was not more famous in her time or even why she is not more recognized today for her lifetime’s accomplishments. The most obvious explanation seems to be her lack of desire to flirt with publicity. Kati Horna was content with simply being a photographer, nothing more. Today, retrospective and publications are flourishing in order to give Horna the applause she merits.

Kati Horna’s body of work is extremely versatile in subject and form. Ranging from the stranger, ironic fascist statements she made with a series of photographs of eggs painted with Hitler’s face to her war documentary series and daily life scenes in Paris, Horna experimented with numerous processes, ideas, and themes, which is what makes her pieces so successful both on their own and in a series. 

In regards to Surrealism, Horna experimented with the use of inanimate objects to express emotion, photomontage to create surreal situations [as seen in Staircase to the Cathedral – 1937], and collage to channel irony and the improbable [Leonora Carrington in Renaissance ­ 1987].  Ilene Susan Fort states In Wonderland, that “whereas the photographer Hans Bellmer mapped desire onto the reversible and manipulated body of a doll that he constructed himself, Horna photographed ready-made children’s dolls—toys that play a variety of roles. Nowhere perhaps is the Freudian concept of the uncanny—the instance when something is simultaneously fragile and strange: for example, looks dead but is alive, or vice versa—more present than in photographs of dolls, where though lighting and context the doll can appear to be alive. This is especially disturbing when the doll is mutilated twisted, or broken as in Horna’s La Muneca [1949]. It is not so much that the illusion is convincing, because it is obvious that what we see is wood or plastic or ceramic, but rather that something interrupts this perception—the tilt of the eyes, for example.”

Let us now analyze this image by Kati Horna, La Muneca, or The Doll, from 1949 in order to unveil the many layers of meaning and technique behind Horna’s oeuvre. In this photograph, the main subject is a baby doll’s head, placed on an ambiguous base, resting on wooden floorboards, near what could be an open door. The abstruseness and relative desolate simplicity of the scene adds to the overall eerie and unnatural feeling of the piece. The doll, clearly not human in its features and lack of hair, nearly comes to life in this setting with the help of light and shadow. Suddenly, the face is illuminated and given depth, especially in the areas of the left side of the face, nose, and mouth. The mouth itself is half open with what seems to be the beginning of a smile or laugh; all the more perturbing when observed in context of the photograph. The glass eyes of the doll also seem illuminated by the light and gaze directly into the viewer’s eyes, as if to invade their intimacy. This mixture of what is alive yet clearly dead, tangible yet fake, joyful yet gloomy, frightening yet playful, is what makes such a work effective in regards to channeling the unconscious mind and questioning reality; one of the founding points of the Surrealist Movement.

Let us now analyze one of Horna’s photomontage pieces, which deal with the horrors of the war on civilians. Entitled The Aragon Front, Spain, this silver-gelatin print dates back to 1938. There are three distinct subjects in this piece, all forming one unified composition. In the background, one can note the clearly destructed and demolished home of a working class citizen. Walls are crumbled on the ground, the floor is covered with debris, and there is only one wall acting as the sole foundation of the house. In the middle of the floor, we see a chair tipped on its side with a broken leg. The technique of the photomontage includes an overlaid image of a very elderly woman holding a very small child by the arm, on her back. Her crooked smile exposes only a few teeth that are darkened and clearly not healthy. Her face is overwhelmed by the presence of wrinkles and the veins on her hands are jolting out as the focus of the photograph. She looks out at the viewer with a regard of desolation and fatigue. This is clearly the portrait of a hard-working woman who has lost something very significant in her life. In sharp contrast to her old age, we see a very youthful infant on her back. His complexion is darker than hers, but it is not until observing the piece more thoroughly that one can realize it is this way because it is covered in dirt and grime. His smooth face shines in the light and, again, the juxtaposition of old and new skin is poignant. The child looks down, drearily, as his mother or grandmother holds his arm. This montage forces the viewer to grapple with the difficulty of war and its aftermath; the destruction, the hurt, the desolation, and what this all means for incoming generations.

Working with a variety of subject matters and techniques, has allowed for Horna’s work to move beyond the reportage. Rather, she has masterfully and ingeniously depicted terror and war. She has done so without photographing a wounded soldier or a family crying; rather, she has taken elements from various aspects of society and meshed them together to create a narrative packed with truth, emotion, and horror, all while staying in the lines of fine art.