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Nat’l Gallery to Open Kertész Retrospective

If it’s true that there is nothing quite like a sense of alienation — or at least its simulacrum — to inspire great art, then 19th-century Hungarian photographer André Kertész probably has the affliction to thank for his celebrated status as one of the brightest stars in the photographic firmament.

Kertész, a double expatriate who immigrated first to Paris in the 1920s and then again to New York during the height of the Great Depression, brought a cool, often quirky, detachment to his mainly gelatin silver prints that defies easy categorization. Leaping nudes, eating utensils, streetscapes and skyscrapers, even the odd companionless cloud, are just a sample of the subjects included in a lavish new retrospective of the late Hungarian’s work — he died in 1985 — opening Sunday at the National Gallery of Art.

To say that Kertész started small, literally, is hardly hyperbole. His first serious camera held glass plates of a mere 4.5 centimeters by 6 centimeters. And most of the dozens of contact prints that line the walls of the first two rooms of the exhibit are barely larger than a postage stamp (he didn’t own an enlarger at the time, explained the show’s curator, Sarah Greenough). In the miniature, it can be difficult to get swept up in this early work — shot mainly between 1914 and the early 1920s — although there are glimmers of future brilliance here.

Several photographs from this period of his brother Jeno, likely inspired by Kertész’s post-World War I association with a group of Hungarian artists who espoused notions of the “heroic nude” and were heavily influenced by biblical and mythological stories, are perhaps the most compelling of his pre-expatriate work.

See Jeno in the buff as Icarus, the mythological son of Daedalus who flew too close to the sun and lost his wings, as he thrusts upward against a cloud-filled sky. See Jeno, still in character, take flight on the beach (this time with wings drawn in). See the naked Jeno prance like a faun and then pose reflectively — “Le Déjeuner Sur L’Herbe”-style — against an Arcadian backdrop of field and stream. Ah, Jeno.

But it’s really Paris, Kertész’s self-described “best girlfriend,” that serves as the organizing force in the exhibit and his work. It’s where Kertész moved in search of advancing his craft, and where he begins to hit his stride. In these pictures, Kertész’s philosophy — namely that “you don’t see” the subjects you photograph, “you feel” them — becomes more evident.

For Kertész, unlike Henri Cartier-Bresson (whose work Kertész influenced), there is no decisive moment. Rather, the interplay between photographer and subject is paramount.

In Paris, he is lonely and wanders the streets. He produces plenty of poignant, if prosaic shots, depicting, among other things, stacked crates draped in canvas, shadowy boulevards of mystery and empty chairs sitting in the Luxembourg Gardens. These pictures are stripped-down poetry, as lyrical and minimalist as a Simon and Garfunkel ballad. As one critic would write a few years later, describing an exhibition of Kertész’s works, they represent a “simple, nude and true beauty.”

It’s also in Paris that Kertész comes into his own as a photojournalist selling his pictures to illustrated magazines such as Vu. He begins using a Leica camera whose 35-millimeter film, as opposed to merely glass plates, allows him to capture moments in quick succession as they occur.

Kertész’s now-iconic images of Paris accentuate his outsider status. The best of these are nearly always shot from angles that put Kertész in the role of distant, omnipresent entity looking down on creation. Filtered through the lens of the Académie Française’s transparent clock face, Kertész’s camera captures pedestrians crossing a bridge to the Louvre; from an Eiffel Tower perch, he homes in on passersby scurrying buglike below. (Kertész continues to employ this technique after his move to New York with equally felicitous results, most flawlessly in his 1954 “Washington Square,” which depicts a lone figure traversing a serpentine path set down amid a snowy backdrop of skeletal trees.)

In the midst of the artistic ferment percolating in just about every 1920s Parisian nook, Kertész couldn’t fail to inhale some of the zeitgeist. A series of female nudes reflected in a funhouse mirror invokes some of the mad distortion of nudes by artists such as Henry Moore, Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. And, despite Kertész’s later efforts to disassociate himself from the surrealistic movement, traces of it, and also dadaism, are sprinkled throughout the exhibit — both in the Paris and New York photos.

You see these movements’ influences, as well as Kertész’s undergirding theme of alienation, in the lone arm of a repairman extending from a ventilator, in the ballerinas grand jetéing through an urban milieu, in what appears to be a headless child carrying a sailboat, and finally in the eerie, slightly disturbing image of a torsoless set of legs climbing a set of stairs in “Disappearing Act,” a trompe l’oeil Kertész created by pasting part of the staircase from the same negative over the upper half of the individual. (A predilection for the faintly macabre is also evident in some of his earliest works. In “Underwater Swimmer” — lent from the private collection of British rocker Elton John — Kertész’s submerged male figure appears as if decapitated.)

Both artists and immigrants frequently create new realities for themselves, and Kertész is no exception (after his move to Paris, he changed his name from Kertész Andor to André Kertész). But with Kertész, his alternate realities raise questions about his work given his declarations that his life influenced his art, rather than the other way around, said Greenough. Seen in that light, every deviation from reality (and Greenough said she discovered many in the course of her research) in his self-promoted backstory has implications for his work — whether it’s his faulty assertions that he came to Paris as a relative photographic naif, or that he was “lured” into moving to New York to work as a fashion photographer (quite the opposite actually).

His later years in New York, where he arrived in 1936, were artistically fruitful, though unhappy personally. He struggled to establish a career for years (again, he roams and snaps photos to fill the time), and landed not at the fore of the artistic vanguard, but as a staff photographer for House and Garden magazine. But he couldn’t really go back to Paris even if he wanted. He was Jewish and there was a war, after all. And things did eventually improve for him. By the 1970s, his reputation and commercial viability were on the upswing. He was going places again.

Fittingly, one of the last photographs in the exhibit shot not long after the construction of the World Trade Center features a hazy view of the two famous towers hovering specter-like in the distance, a glass sculpture in the foreground. The scrapers are as faint as shadows. Nearly 30 years later, life would, in this case painfully, imitate art, when on the six-month anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, two ephemeral shafts of blue light were beamed onto the site of the wreckage.

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