Objects, the unusual and the unrepresentable in the production of Kati Horna

10 June 2022 - no responses

Mexican art from the first half of the 20th century reveals a necessary and inevitable dialogue with the international context. Although Mexican art sought the identity construction of “Mexicanness”, the links with the international context are unquestionable, and such is the case of Hungarian artist Kati Horna. She arrived in Mexico in the 1940s and created a vast array of photographic work in Mexico. She also worked for multiple magazines throughout her life. For these reasons, she was an outstanding figure in the history of Mexican art.

Kati’s life and production were marked by the places she traveled throughout her life, starting with Budapest, then spending a season in Paris (with brief stays in Berlin and Spain) and finally her arrival in Mexico. Her production hints at these series of migrations. One of her most important endeavours in Mexico was her participation in the Magazine Snob (1962) where she published the series: Ode to the necrophilia, Impromptu with a Harp and Artificial Paradise. In these highly experimental photographic series, Kati placed objects so that the real and the imagined would intertwine to present the unrepresentable. Likewise, these unusual compositions give an account of her migrations and the links established between her country of origin, her passage through Paris, Berlin and Spain and her final arrival in Mexico.

[Kati Horna, in József Pécsi’s studio in Budapest. A portrait attributed to Robert Capa. Source https://gastv.mx/kati-horna-en-el-jeu-de-paume-de-paris/]


Katy Horna’s life

Kati Horna was born in 1912 in Budapest into an elite bourgeois Jewish family. She was educated at the school of József Pécsi. In those years, Kati opposed the authoritarian and anti-Semitic regime established by Miklós Horty. Later she moved to Germany where she became acquainted with Bertolt Brecht and joined in his group in Berlin in 1931. Those years were characterised by the rise of totalitarianism and therefore of Nazism, which gave her a critical look at social injustices. Kati was infused with the ideas of the pioneers in modern photography, especially Lászlo Moholi-Nagy (a member of the Bauhaus) who represented a concept that linked the experimentation and the pedagogy of artistic forms. These were related to the social democratic trend of Weimar culture.

Due to social and political instability, Kati fled to Paris where she continued to shoot cinema and fashion scenes. She worked for the French company Agence Photo where she made her first graphic reports such as The Flea Market (1933) and The Cafés of Paris (1934). In these series, objects take center stage. For these reasons, “the objects have always had a special fascination for Kati Horna. She organized the real by representing it and by achieving these transpositions of reality, she created fantastic worlds, in a warm and peculiar environment like that of her own home”. (Sánchez, 2005, p.3)

In Paris she joined a surrealist group, where she met Wolfgang Burger and together they made a series of comics. In these productions, objects acquired human characteristics, for example in The Story of Love in the Kitchen (1935), a carrot declares its love to a potato. This experience in Paris consolidated her interest and taste for sequences and for the use of various objects that she humanized and turned into protagonists, to generate stories.

In 1937, during the Spanish civil war, Kati moved to Barcelona to make an album that was commissioned by the Foreign Propaganda Committee of the Republican government. At that time, Kati documented the horror of the war, her photographs relating everything that happened in those years. Susan Sontag has written about the opportunities and limitations of war photography. Although photos expose the truth, they are also guided by someone who decides on the framing, the position and the gestures; therefore, the photos can be manipulated. Despite the ethical implications involved in capturing suffering, war photography offers the chance to give an account, to witness the terrible (Sontag, 2004). This is precisely what Kati did with her photographs of the war – she bore witness to what happened. In relation to this, George Didi-Huberman warns that whenever suspicion of the image leads to rejection it is because too much is being asked of it. He comments that fragments, small moments, are enough. Likewise, it can be said that the image is a manipulation tool, but frankly nothing is exempt from manipulation (Didi-Huberman, 2017, p.19). In this way, the images that Kati Horna took are fragments of that terrible situation, which places us in a kind of ambivalence, between truth and desires and, of course, within the subjectivities of the photographer. An example of the above is Image 1. Katy decided to portray a group of women with their babies in her arms; the woman in the center of the composition is breastfeeding her baby. Kati Horna decided to give an account of what happened from a feminine and maternal point of view.

[Kati Horna, Woman breastfeeding her son in Vélez Rubio (Almería) (1937)
Source: https://elpais.com/elpais/2019/08/22/album/1566469931_123296.html#foto_gal_6]


After this stage as a photojournalist and after the defeat of the republican regime, Kati Horna moved to Paris and from there she finally went into exile in Mexico. Kati landed in 1939 in the port of Veracruz and ended up in Mexico City. Kati arrived in Mexico at a time defined by migratory flows due to war, which changed the coordinates of post-revolutionary Mexican art. Artists arrived with other formations and proposals that intermingled with Mexican art. The latter had a tradition of nationalist and identity search based on the notion of intermingling.

Since Kati arrived in Mexico and following her experience in Europe, she became interested in contemporary photojournalistic narration, working as a photojournalist for the magazines Women (1958-1968) Mexico This Month (1958 and 1965) Snob (1962) Design (1968 and 1970) also participated in others such as the Magazine of the University of Mexico (1958 and 1964) Time (1962) Magazine of Magazines (1963) Architecture ENA and Architects of Mexico (1967) Works (1973). In addition, she also took photographs for exhibition catalogs, theater programs, publications, and others. In 1945 she was in charge of photographing the Castañeda mental hospital, where she documented events there from a perspective that offered a different reading of the world of madness. “In the Castañeda series, Kati Horna reproduces the world of the confinement of madness, turning it upside down more human like the Dance or the Singing Lesson, however the reality of the Courtyard of the forgotten is forceful, in it, she captures the silence and the shared loneliness” (Sánchez, 2004, p. 10)

In the late fifties, at a time when muralism was dying, to be replaced by a new generation of artists with new proposals, Mathias Goeritz founded the School of Design at the Universidad Iberoamericana and Kati oversaw the photography courses. There she met the artists who would comprise the so-called “Rupture Generation” such as Rogert Von Gunten, Jose Luis Cuevas, Federico Silva Santamaría and Manuel Felguérez. These artists proposed a break with post-revolutionary muralism, and sought a return to easel painting with an abstractionist tendency. Kati Horna begins to be influenced by these new forms of production that tended towards abstraction and renounced narratives of a nationalist nature.


Fetishes: Ode to necrophilia, Impromptu with a Harp and Artificial Paradise

One of the most important works of Kati Horna in Mexico is the Fetiches series for Snob Magazine, since through her photographic series she intermingles the traces left by the migrant character of her life. The first issue of Snob Magazine appeared in June 1962, Salvador Elizondo was the director of the magazine, while the editorial staff was made up of Emilio García Riera, Jorge Ibarguengoitia, Juan García Ponce, Alberto and Cecilia Gironella, Jomi García Ascot, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Luis Guillermo Piazza, Tomás Segovia, Leonora Carrington, and Kati Horna. Throughout the various pages that made up the magazine, the writers invented words and stories, making fun of the conventional. Kati oversaw the Fetish section, where she published 3 stories titled: Ode to necrophilia, Impromptu with a Harp and Artificial Paradise

In Ode to necrophilia, Kati shows a visual metaphor about death, through various objects such as a mask, umbrella, and candles; the non-representability of the fragility of life is questioned. The photo is situated in an intimate space and shows a woman – who is the painter Leonora Carrington – dressed in black, assuming a wide variety of poses. She was accompanied by her mask and a candle, like someone grieving over the death of someone. The image 2, represents a bedroom, the woman is standing, wearing a black skirt; one of her hands carries a mask while the other holds an umbrella; the woman turns her gaze, and we can see her reflection in the mirror. The construction of the image is complex. Masks have always had a mysterious power because they reveal and hide. The candle is an element capable of illumination and being a source of life, but it is also related to its opposite, that is, to darkness. Finally, the umbrella is an element that protects from the rain and the sun, but makes no sense in an interior space. These elements speak to us of references to fragility, to the absent and present, to the exterior and interior. Elva Peniche mentions that “through a play on words, the fetish not only refers to an attraction to death and a type of sexual perversion, but also glorifies them through an ode” (Peniche, 2013). So it is a contrasting image between the intimate and the public, the pain and the enjoyment, the death and the life, the unusual and the everyday, the absent and the present.

[Katy Horna, Serie Ode to necrophilia (1962)
Source: https://coleccion.malba.org.ar/oda-a-la-necrofilia-de-la-serie-homonima/]


In Ode to Necrophilia, Kati consolidates her interests developed throughout her life, combining her training as a Hungarian photographer, while also creating a series that characterised her production since her first works in Paris. Of course, we should mention her passage through a war that led her to conduct an ontological reflection based on the medium of photography. Additionally, Kati made these works at a time of experimentation in Mexico with a tendency towards abstraction developed by the “Generation of Rupture”. In this way these series show the multiple influences that crossed his life, and the migrations that left a deep mark on her work.

[Kati Horna, Serie Artificial Paradise (1962)
Source: Sánchez A. ( 2004) Kati Horna y su manera cotidiana de captar la realidad discurso visual, México, CENIDAP]


The second fetish was Impromptu with a Harp, in these photos, the actions are marked by the undressing of the woman. For these photos, Kitzia Poniatowska was the model and the harp belonged to Rosario Castellanos. The work refers to a musical improvisation characterised by the theatricality of the model, where the harp takes center stage, as an object capable of seducing. The frames used discover and conceal, placing us in an intermediate space between what we see and what we cannot see. Finally, in the third fetish Artificial Paradises, artifice is highlighted using a photographic resource such as collage, photomontage, and graphic intervention. They are complex images with a high degree of experimentation (Image 3). This series represents a woman reclining, duplicated, an interplay between what we can see and what we cannot, between the real and the unusual.

In this way, the production of Kati Horna is very important for the development of Mexican art. She made many photo reports, and worked for multiple magazines of the time. This demonstrates the tremendous impact that the photographer of Hungarian origin made in Mexico. Her artistic quests are marked by her biography, as well as the migrations she made throughout her life. The series of fetishes made for Snob Magazine, show how her life, the places that she visited, and her personal relationships come together to create this type of photography, where the production of a series stands out and where objects play a leading role in reflection and pose existential questions. Kati Horna is an artist who relates the confluence between Latin American art, art produced in Paris and of course the art produced in Eastern Europe.


By: Cecilia Noriega



Peniche E. (2013) “Fetiches de Kati Horna. Fotografía y Surrealismo”, consulted in https://reflexionesmarginales.com/blog/2013/03/28/fetiches-de-kati-horna-fotografia-y-surrealismo/

Sánchez A. ( 2004) Kati Horna y su manera cotidiana de captar la realidad discurso visual, México, CENIDAP

Sánchez A. (2005) El encanto de Kati Horna, México, Cenidiap

Post a comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

The maximum upload file size: 15 MB. You can upload: image, audio, video, document. Links to YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and other services inserted in the comment text will be automatically embedded. Drop files here

scroll up