Through the lens of Kertesz

In a phrase that has become a motto in the history of photography, the Hungarian artist Laszlo Moholy-Nagy claimed that the illiterates of the future would be the people who knew nothing of photography instead of those who were ignorant of the art of writing. This was said in the period just after World War I, when the utopian thinking that had shaped the avant-garde artistic movements of the time had spilled over into the relatively new medium of photography. Andre Kertesz (1894-1985), a compatriot of Moholy-Nagy, emerged as a photographer in those days of artistic effervescence and experimentation. In Hungary, where he spent his youth, he took photographs, at first of his friends, relatives and the urban landscape, and when he joined the army images of a soldier’s life. When he turned 31, he left for Paris – the world’s artistic center at the time – where he was soon recognized as one of the most avant-garde photographers. His move to the United States in the mid-30s was a big change from the avant-garde scene of Europe. Kertesz felt stifled by the commercial world of photography and soon became disillusioned. Yet the personality that is so distinctive in his photography, the distanced and discreet perspective and clarity of style that marks his work, continued to the end. This sense of coherence that runs throughout his work, from the period in Hungary to the late pictures that Kertesz took from his apartment in New York’s Washington Square, is one of the prevalent aspects in «Andre Kertesz: Mirror of a Life,» an exhibition currently at the Museum of Cycladic Art. The exhibition which is organized by the French institution Jeu de Paume in collaboration with the Thessaloniki Museum of Photography (Vangelis Ioakimidis, director of the museum, is the exhibition’s curator) was first presented in the context of the Photosynkyria event earlier this year. (The exhibition’s catalog is by Agra publications.) Structured chronologically from his years in Hungary and ending with the US photos, the exhibition shows the finesse and force that prevail in his work and reveals Kertesz’s talent for treating form and volumes in novel ways. Perhaps the most obvious example is the «Distortions» series from 1933. Here Kertesz has photographed nude female figures as reflected through a distorting mirror. The results are elongated and liquid forms in a style that can be said to bear the influence of surrealism. Also typical of his work are the vertiginous views that, in many cases, suppress the horizon. One has the sense of observing the world from a distance or from a hidden angle that is situated above or behind the depicted subject. The young girl playing cards in «Saint-Gervais-les-Bains» from 1929, is, for example, depicted from a vertical, high perspective which becomes again prevalent in the late pictures of Washington Square. John Szarkowski, an ex-director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the person who helped promote the work of Kertesz, has also remarked on the play between pattern and deep space that recurs in the artist’s work. In «Sofa» from 1951, for example, the floor’s tiles and their square pattern occupy the foreground of the picture. An elegant sofa stands at the far end of the composition. Kertesz chose ordinary subject matters – views of Paris or New York, pedestrians or chance encounters – but focused on unexpected details that imbued the initial scenes with a sense of enigma and imagination. The significance that shadows have in his pictures is indicative of this sense of enigma and allusion. The towering shadows of the four standing figures in «Shadows» contain both fear and humor. In «Champs-Elysees» from 1929, the shadows of the metal garden chairs allude to human presence and fleeting encounters and capture a strange feeling of time. The picture is one of the many that Kertesz took of Paris. This was probably the most creative period of his career. His work was published in the avant-garde magazine Art and Medicine, a publication that also featured the modern photography of artists such as Germaine Krull, Man Ray, Francois Kollar or Brassai, whom Kertesz actually met in Paris and is said to have introduced to photography. Marking an important point in his career was Kertesz’s collaboration with Vu magazine. Piet Mondrian was one of the many artists that Kertesz met while in Paris. «At the House of Mondrian» is one of his most poetic pictures. It shows Kertesz’s admirable flair for combining density of meaning with the most minimal compositions. Like his compatriot Martin Munkacsi and numerous European artist-emigres, Kertesz left for the USA in the early 1930s. He had signed a contract with the reputable Keystone agency but only worked for them for several months. He subsequently collaborated with House & Garden, Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar and in 1949 signed an exclusive contract with the Conde Nast publishing house. In the mid-50s, he began working with color photography. Disappointed by the professional compromises he had to make and weakened by illness, he terminated all collaborations in the early 60s and started working as a freelance photographer. The National Library and the Museum of Modern Art held large Kertesz exhibitions. He continued his work for another 20 years. Of the few late-period photos included in the Athens exhibition, «Flowers of Elizabeth» (his wife) is one of the most moving. Here one senses the solitude of old age. But one also feels the contained emotion that runs throughout the work of this great artist. Kertesz observed the world with clarity and sensitivity. Through his pictures, the world emerges all the more magical and surprising. At the Museum of Cycladic Art (4 Neophytou Douka, 210.722.8321) through August 18.

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