A master of early 20th-century photography is given his biggest retrospective
Nov 25th 2010 | from PRINT EDITION
IN A remarkable, if chequered career spanning seven decades, André Kertész pioneered modern photography. Hovering between abstraction, constructivism and surrealism, yet avoiding any specific avant-garde movement, Kertész, a Hungarian-born émigré, was guided by a personal yet rigorous aesthetic. A new travelling show of 300 images, that begins at the Jeu de Paume in Paris, combines a mastery of shadow and light and eye for geometric shapes with a poetic yet unsentimental vision of life. The largest retrospective since the photographer’s death in 1985, it reveals like no show has done before the power of Kertész’s work.
Kertész photographed for himself rather than aiming for recognition: “[The camera] is very much a tool, to express and describe my life, the same way poets or writers describe their life experiences,” he explained. Armed with an ICA box camera, the 18-year-old Kertész in 1912 first set aside the rules of conventional photography when he captured a young man slumbering, slack-mouthed in a Budapest café in a tight, startlingly modern composition of intersecting diagonals formed by his pose and the newspapers suspended above.
“Sleeping Boy” is one of many images in the exhibition that show how Kertész, using his camera as a sketch book, created a new visual language. His intimate, reportage-style snapshots of fellow- conscripts in the Austro-Hungarian army during the first world war—writing letters, delousing, at the latrines, boxing or courting a peasant girl—anticipate 1950s photojournalism. The 1917 photograph (above), taken while Kertész was convalescing from typhoid, shows a swimmer as he glides gracefully through the water, its surface breaking up with ripples and reflections—one of the aesthetic themes of the modern movement in the 1920s. The profile and reflection of a second swimmer from 1919—cropped and inverted, as surrealists, such as Man Ray, would do a decade later— features Kertész’s athletic younger brother, Jeno, the model in many of his early photographs.
Born in Budapest to bourgeois Jewish parents in 1894, Andor Kertész said he never wanted to be anything but a photographer. A dreary job as a clerk at the Budapest stock exchange prompted him to leave Hungary in 1925 for Paris, then the artistic capital of the world. There, he changed his name to André and applied his gift for capturing everyday life to producing photographic essays, notably for VU, France’s first illustrated magazine, launched in 1928, using his new 35mm portable Leica.
A highlight of the exhibition are his Paris “Portraits in Absence” pictures, which include Piet Mondrian’s “Glasses and Pipe”, a cropped composition of objects and spaces that captures the essence of the Dutch abstract artist’s austere modernist spirit. “Chez Mondrian”, now an emblem of avant-garde photography, shows how Kertész, using a vase, creates a formal harmony between geometric shapes, light and dark, flatness and the perspective created by the curved staircase in the background. Both images appeared in Kertész’s first solo exhibition at the Sacre du Printemps gallery.
Though always a shy man, Kertész was admired by fellow artists in Paris including Ray, Mondrian, Alexander Calder and a fellow-Hungarian, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. He came to regret moving with his wife Elizabeth to New York in 1936, tempted by a job offer at the Keystone Agency. His contract proved short-lived. Keystone complained that his images “speak too much”, while Kertész resented the lack of artistic independence: “I interpret what I feel in a given moment. Not what I see, but what I feel,” he once explained.
Unlike Brassaï, his worldly, Paris-based compatriot, Kertész was a poor self-publicist. Hampered by a shaky knowledge of English and a dislike of studio work, he bluntly refused to co-operate with art directors’ ideas and his commissions dwindled. His 1937 image of a miniature cloud in a clear sky floating next to the brash new Rockefeller Centre in New York reflects his isolation, as does his “Melancholic Tulip” of 1939, drooping in a solitary vase.
In 1949, Kertész signed a lucrative, though unsatisfying, contract with House & Garden magazine, which used him to photograph the homes of celebrities such as Cole Porter and Peggy Guggenheim. In private, he took thousands of high-angle images from the balcony of his apartment overlooking Washington Square gardens, as he documented the changing seasons, revealing a particular fascination with snow scenes. One such image in the exhibition shows the formal perfection of the black branches of the trees, with a lone figure silhouetted against the white.
A turning point came in 1963, a year after the 68-year-old Kertész retired from House & Garden. The photographer was offered a show at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. Back in France, he found some old boxes of vintage prints and negatives from his youth in Budapest and Paris that had been kept by his French friend and agent, Jacqueline Paouillac. Kertész’s recovered archive at last brought him recognition as a seminal figure in photography. This exhibition, which will introduce his work to a wider public, reveals the full extent of his gifts.
“André Kertész” is at the Jeu de Paume, Paris, until February 6th 2011 before moving to the Winterthur Fotomuseum, Zurich, from February 26th until May 15th, the Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin, from June 11th until September 11th and the Hungarian National Museum, Budapest, from September 30th until December 31st.
Article taken from The Economist.