The Poet of Modernism, André Kertész Retrospective, The Hungarian National Museum, Budapest

Text by Alison Frank

Following on from the Royal Academy of Arts‘ show, Eyewitness: Hungarian Photography in the 20th Century earlier this year, The Hungarian National Museum celebrates the career of Hungarian-born photographer, André Kertész, originally named Andor Kohn, (1894-1985) who spent most of his career as an exile, first in Paris, then in New York. The Hungarian National Museum‘s retrospective of his career contains two sections. The main section gives a chronological overview of Kertész’s career; curated by Michel Frizot and Annie-Laure Wanaverbecq, this retrospective was previously exhibited in Paris, Berlin and Winterthur (Switzerland). The second, much smaller section, is a special Hungarian addendum curated by Eva Fisli and Emöke Tomsics as part of the museum’s international conference, Views of Kertész.

The latter section looks at the reception and influence of Kertész’s photography in Hungary from the beginning of his career to the present day. It begins with a copy of the magazine where Kertész published a photograph in 1917, and ends with some pieces by contemporary photographers responding to his work. This text-dense segment of the exhibition explains that under Communism there was an attempt to appropriate the work of Hungarian nationals living on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Successful Hungarian émigrés were taken as examples of innate Hungarian talent, and their work was scrutinised for its sociological dimensions. This led to Kertész being incorrectly categorised in Hungary as a social realist photographer rather than the independent documentarian of emotion he considered himself to be.

The exhibition’s main retrospective spreads across five rooms: one each for Kertesz’s Hungarian, Parisian and New York periods, a round room for his photographic nude “distortions”, and finally a long narrow room displaying magazine spreads of his photojournalism.

Kertész was 18 years old before he received his first camera, but as early as the 1910s, he was already experimenting with night-time and underwater photography: his Underwater Swimmer (1917) appears particularly ahead of its time. Kertész began by taking photographs of friends and family, especially his brother Jenö who was willing to be photographed in a variety of dramatic and athletic poses. When he was conscripted during the First World War, Kertész took photographs of fellow soldiers at rest. Capturing lighter, informal moments of military life, these images offer an unaccustomed image of World War I.

In 1925, Kertész moved to Paris, where (the exhibition notes explain), he became “one of the leading figures in avant-garde photography”, alongside Man Ray. Characteristic of his modernist experimentation was The Fork (1928), in which he made clever use of shadows to alter the object’s usual appearance. For the light-hearted and “racy” Parisian magazine Le Sourire he created a series of “distortions” of female nudes, which he achieved through the use of curved mirrors (hence the curators’ decision to exhibit these images in a curved space). Some of these images are intriguing artistic abstractions; others create bizarre funhouse mirror effects, while others still give a disconcerting impression of deformity.

Kertész achieved a more consistent impression with his photographs of artists’ studios, starting with Mondrian’s. In these, the photographer managed to create a portrait of the artist in absence, making use of light, shadows, personal items and occasionally art pieces to evoke the style and personality of the studio’s inhabitant. In Paris, Kertész made his living through photojournalism, contributing to the birth of a new medium of expression. He worked primarily for the news magazine VU, creating more than 30 photo essays between 1928 and 1936.

In 1936, Kertész moved to New York, where he would spend the rest of his life. He was lured to America by a contract with the Keystone agency, which was broken after just one year. Not speaking English, and classified as an enemy alien during World War II, Kertész felt isolated and unhappy in New York. These feelings were reflected in Kertész’s photographs of lone clouds, menacing pigeons, and general abstraction which rendered the city anonymous. His work was not well-received in New York, and in order to survive, Kertész spent 14 years taking conventional shots for Home and Gardens magazine. Following his retirement in 1961, Kertész saw his work gaining international recognition, with exhibitions at the Venice Photography Biennale, the Bibliothèque Nationale and the MoMA. In 1982 the Ministry of Culture in Paris awarded Kertész the Grand Prix National de la Photographie.

Long after he had become an established photographer, Kertész said, “I regard myself as an amateur today, and I hope that’s what I will stay until the end of my life. Because I’m forever a beginner who discovers the world again and again.” Kertész saw photography as a sort of visual diary that documented the way he felt about the world around him, and insisted that emotion was the basis of all his work, rather than an artistic impulse. The power of Kertész’s images seems accordingly to emanate not just from their strong and balanced composition, but from the intense feeling that they capture.

André Kertész Retrospective, 30/09/2011 – 31/12/2011, The Hungarian National Museum, 1088 Budapest, Múzeum krt. 14-16, Hungary.

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Víz alatti úszó, Esztergom, 1917
Courtesy La Bibliothèque nationale de France