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In the current retrospective of the 20th-century photographer André Kertész at the National Gallery of Art, lead curator Sarah Greenough has taken an old-fashioned approach: She has chosen to display Kertész’s work more or less chronologically. Eschewing the new art history for the old, the postmodern for the traditional, she guides the viewer from Kertész’s Hungarian juvenilia through his classic Parisian prewar period, his troubled early years in the United States, and finally his happier senescence. As a result, the exhibition does exactly what a retrospective should: It displays the wide-angle view of an artist’s life and work.
Kertész, born in 1894, was a high modernist known for his black-and-white celebrations of urbanism. At the apex of his artistic career, in Paris, he served as a clear-eyed observer of city life and joyous chronicler of the repeating geometrical patterns of his mechanical age. Kertész worked by wandering the streets, seeking to capture the fleeting, unexpected intersections of people and the built environment within the bustling megalopolis. He once described his work as “photo-reportage,” which he equated with “literary journalism.”
Given a camera by his family at age 17, Kertész—the son of a Jewish bookseller and coffee-shop owner in Budapest—delighted in documenting his environs. He continued to make photographs after he was conscripted into the army during World War I and after taking a bank job in his 20s. At the time, Kertész typically made direct-contact prints from his glass negatives. (A photographic enlarger would have been a luxury.) These negatives were roughly 2-by-2-and-a-half inches, and the resulting works—sometimes cropped further by the artist’s steady hand—virtually demand that visitors to the National Gallery put their noses up against the glass.
The constraints of these photographs’ tiny proportions demanded something of Kertész, too: a fealty to clear composition. Complicated surface textures would have been lost in images so small, so the broad outlines had to work harmoniously. Consider Bocskay-tér, Budapest (1914), an image limited not only by its size but also by the long exposure required by its nighttime setting. The photograph—of the whitewashed side wall of a house, its polygonal shape crossed briefly by the shadows of two walking figures—doesn’t have much detail, but Kertész’s choice to stick to basic, instantly recognizable human and geometrical forms imbues it with a melancholic mood.
For the young Kertész, the human form was by necessity an archetype. In the street portrait Jeno Kertész (1923), the artist’s brother’s face is unrecognizable, given the small size of the print, but his body perfectly divides the urban backdrop into light and dark halves, the nearby curbs and roof lines merging with the horizon somewhere behind his chest. The title character in 1917’s Underwater Swimmer, Esztergom has his curving outline made more sinuous still by the light-refracting water. The street sweeper in 1917’s Esztergom is depicted midsweep, without tonal subtlety and circumscribed by the area that he (or is it she?) is supposed to be clearing. And the leaping mythological figure in Jeno Kertész as Icarus (1919–1920) is essentially a black crescent set against a bright sky.
The artist’s move to Paris in his early 30s seems to have corresponded with a tangible artistic maturation; there he kept company with such celebrated artists as Piet Mondrian, Sergei Eisenstein, Marc Chagall, and fellow Hungarian expatriate Brassaï. Appropriately, this phase of the exhibition opens with 1925’s remarkable Eiffel Tower. A portion of the image—namely, a series of brick walls in the foreground that block the legs of the tower—echoes earlier experiments with flat, geometrical surfaces. But this time, Kertész has added a dash of whimsy: The enormous girdered structure stands shrouded in fog, with only its faintest upper outlines visible.
It was Kertész’s Paris shots of high-angled views (of pedestrians, of patches of snow) and bold lines and shadows (from staircases, railings, slatted chairs, or window mullions in the late-afternoon sun) that made his reputation in Europe. But, the exhibition reminds us, the formula of Eiffel Tower—the combination of the formal and ordered with a touch of the unexpected—is the quintessential Kertész.
Behind Notre Dame (1925–1926) offers a classic Parisian scene—stalls or packing pallets stacked along the Seine, not far from the gracefully arched architecture of a stone bridge. In this case, though, the rigorous matrices are transformed by fabric draped Christo-like over them. In Siesta (1927), a high-angled perspective on the narrow sidewalk space between the sheer wall of a building and a row of trees, Kertész captured a moment when the space was dotted with reclining figures, their midday languor echoing that of the exaggeratedly drooping trunks that prop up their heads.
It’s hard not to chuckle at the absurdity of that tableau. Nor is it easy to resist Montparnasse (1928), an image of a man dragging a wheeled cart saddled with a marble statue, as if the laborer were ferrying some stony-faced tourist in a rickshaw, or Satiric Dancer (1926), in which a woman on a couch winkingly echoes the leggy pose of a nearby sculpture. Nor the handful of shots from his noted Distortion Series, in which he photographed models reflected in fun-house mirrors.
By the time the visitor enters the next phase of the exhibition, such humor has all but vanished from Kertész’s work. The Great Depression, the impending war, and the increasingly troubled prospects of Europe’s Jews were obvious reasons for the shift in tone, but they were only part of the story. Kertész emigrated to New York in 1936, a step ahead of the Nazis, seeking a steadier income for himself and his wife.
He accepted a job with a well-known photo agency, but almost upon his arrival, Kertész began chafing under its regimen of in-studio fashion assignments—work that neither stimulated him nor properly utilized his skills. He broke his contract to pursue freelance work—which led to a protracted legal dispute—and subsequently had only spotty success. During this period, he struggled with his health, and due to the war, he was cut off from his old circle of artist friends in Paris. For a while during the conflict, the U.S. government even banned Kertész, a resident alien, from photographing on the streets of New York. When he again found steady work, after the war, it was photographing home interiors of rich Americans for House & Garden—hardly the kind of material that had stimulated him in ’20s Paris.
“In Paris,” writes André and Elizabeth Kertész Foundation curator Robert Gurbo in the catalog, the photographer “had embraced the theme of the romantic outsider, but in New York this theme was slowly transformed into one of bitterness, loneliness, and isolation.” As the retrospective makes painfully clear, this despairing mind-set came through vividly in the photographs Kertész took on his own time. In Lost Cloud (1937), a small puffy cloud in an empty sky seems blocked in its path by an outsized skyscraper—an image that might have seemed a charming oddity in Paris but that in New York came freighted with pessimistic overtones. In Melancholic Tulip (1939), he used a fun-house technique similar to that of his Distortion Series to portray a flower in a tall vase—prematurely wilted. And in 1949’s Lion and Shadow, the photographer’s ghostly shadow comes face to face with a snarling toy lion in a shop window.
Kertész’s portrayals of the human form, too, became darker, even ghoulish. In Arm and Ventilator (1937), the arm of an unseen workman pokes through a rotary fan’s casing—a flick of a switch away from being chopped off. In Homing Ship (1944), a child crosses a wet, sunless park with just his two legs visible, his top swallowed by the overgrown toy boat he’s carrying. And in Studio Corner of Miss Maxine Picard (1956), three blotchy mannequins suffocate under a translucent layer of plastic sheeting.
Only in the late ’50s did the fog lift for Kertész. He and his wife moved to a building in Greenwich Village, and after a decade and a half of increased financial security from the House & Garden gig, he quit the magazine to focus on projects more to his taste—and to tend to his legacy. Finally, he was beginning to draw attention from photographic professionals and curators in the United States; a turning point came in 1964, when roughly 70 of his images were shown at the Museum of Modern Art. Kertész went back to his own archives, rediscovering long-lost caches of negatives, reprinting and recropping old images with a fresh eye, often quite fruitfully.
One can sense a shift in tone in the final grouping of the retrospective, the period from 1962 to 1985. Among these is a series of images overlooking Washington Square Park (where the artist’s apartment was located) that reprised—to sometimes spectacular effect—his old high-angle images from Paris. A Washington Square from 1966 is a celebratory frenzy of footprints and vehicle tracks in a thin layer of snow; one from 1968 depicts carefree youngsters playing on a sunny day. Another high-angled image, made from a window in Tokyo, features a passel of identically dressed, umbrella-carrying pedestrians following an arrow painted on rain-slicked pavement. Finally, Kertész’s humor had returned.
This is not to say that all was well. The artist engaged in a cranky feud with onetime colleague Brassaï, and both he and his wife suffered from chronic health problems. (Elizabeth Kertész died of cancer in 1977; André, after extensive attempts to memorialize her in photographic still lifes, passed away eight years later.)
Yet even his most melancholy images from this period exude an enthusiasm that betrays none of the rage of his earlier American work. A notable image from this period is Kertész’s 1976 self-portrait alongside four plaster life masks. In it, the once-tortured artist bares his aging visage—tousled gray hair, visible veins in his forehead—and brightens it with an impish grin as he leans, casually, against a mantelpiece.
Most strikingly for a master of black-and-white, the aging Kertész began to take color Polaroids around his apartment and out his windows, embracing not just the simplicity of the process but also its unpredictability. Calling them “sketches,” he made quickie Polaroids by the dozen, enjoying variations in both the hues of the available light and in the camera’s ability to render them. Some images produced a liquidity of form that recalls his Distortion Series—except this time with the stunning addition of amber and aqua tones.
Such bright, bold works constitute not just a fitting late-life pursuit for a man who after years of hardship had finally achieved the renown he deserved, but also a fitting conclusion to an exhibition that takes the long view. As the National Gallery’s retrospective demonstrates the sweep of Kertész’s career, it echoes the arc of the century that Kertész’s life roughly bracketed. Starting in the cities, small towns, and rural fields of the Old World, Kertész’s photodocumentary record carries viewers concisely but inexorably forward, from Europe to America, through war and peace, from youth to age, and from happiness to pain and back again. For an exhibition to distill such a grand narrative from approximately 120 photographs is no small achievement.CP