More Than a Thousand Words

Rediscovering A Master Of Simple Images That 'Talked'


February 06, 2005|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

Andre Kertesz, the Hungarian photographer who, along with Frenchmen Eugene Atget and Henri Cartier-Bresson, helped invent modern photography, was one of the most influential artists of the 20th century, yet for most of his career he was ignored by the art world.

Part of the reason had to do with the contentious debate over whether photography was art, an issue that wasn't settled until the 1970s. And part stemmed from the nearly three decades of artistic isolation that Kertesz endured after immigrating to New York from Paris in the 1930s.

In Paris, his talents had blossomed amid the artistic ferment after World War I. But in New York, he churned out hack work to make ends meet while the American press ignored him because, as a Life editor put it, his pictures "talked too much."

How much Kertesz's pictures "talked" -- and how clearly they spoke of his keen responses to the world around him -- are the subject of a revelatory exhibition that opens today at the National Gallery in Washington.

Titled Andre Kertesz, this first major U.S. retrospective of the artist's vintage prints traces Kertesz's early development in Hungary, the heady years in Paris during the 1920s and '30s, his gradual lapse into obscurity over the next three decades, and finally, the masterful late photographs that he took from his apartment window during the last decades of his life.

Kertesz's genius lay in the realization that ordinary people, engaged in commonplace activities, could be vital subjects of art.

He learned to compose deceptively simple pictures made with the apparent spontaneity of snapshots, and he pioneered the use of small hand cameras outdoors to record the quotidian incidents of everyday life. "I am a lucky man," he once claimed, "because I can do something with almost anything I see. Everything is interesting to me."

Show highlights

The show includes many rarely seen photographs from every phase of the artist's career, including the delightful, near postage-stamp-size contact prints that Kertesz made as a teenager.

Among these tiny gems are some of Kertesz's most memorable images: two lovers embracing on a park bench in The Kiss (1915), a Gypsy violinist performing on a muddy lane in The Blind Musician (1921), an elegantly dressed woman cavorting on a black divan in Satiric Dancer (1926).

The pictures are wonderfully concentrated vignettes; Kertesz thought of them as a kind of visual diary. And from the start, he showed a talent for original composition.

In a picture like Chez Mondrian (1926), a still-life of the modernist painter's Paris studio, the perfect balance between light and dark rectangles formed by the walls, door and hallway recalls the severe geometric organization of Mondrian's paintings.

The image is divided in half vertically by a doorframe; on either side a series of smaller rectangles appear against the paneling inside the room and on the painted walls outside, each a mirror image of the other. The curve of the staircase in the corridor and the white vase with flowers on the tabletop lend a dynamic yet harmonious symmetry to the design.

Kertesz became a master of such visual understatements. His images have an unforced naturalness that belies their sophisticated organization.

He also had an inventive eye and keen psychological acuity, as evidenced in the distorted nudes he created in the 1930s and the portraits he took of his wife, Elizabeth, that suggest her complex character.

Born in 1894, Kertesz received his first camera the year he graduated from high school. Two years later, he was drafted into the army and took his camera with him to record the everyday lives of his fellow soldiers.

Rediscovered in the '70s

After the war, he returned to Budapest, but soon left again to work as a photographer in Paris. There, he won assignments from the picture press and mentored younger artists such as Brassai, Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa. It was largely through their work that Kertesz's influence was passed on to subsequent generations of photographers.

In 1936, Kertesz moved to New York to do fashion illustration for an ad agency, a job for which he was unsuited. But the worsening situation in Europe made returning to Paris unwise. So he stayed in New York, found work as a commercial photographer and watched his hard-won reputation as an artist gradually become forgotten.

Kertesz wasn't rediscovered until the 1970s, when he again began to exhibit widely. By then, he had quit commercial work and achieved a measure of recognition as one of photography's grand old men.

He spent the final decades of his life photographing the streets below his apartment window until his death in 1985, a revered figure among photographers and an art world that had finally learned to appreciate his singular accomplishment.

"For me, the camera was there to document, to show how I lived," Kertesz wrote in 1979. "It is very much a tool, to express and describe my life, the same way poets or writers describe their life experiences. It was a way to project the things I found."

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