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On Exhibit

Kertesz, Seeing The Unseen

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 11, 2005; Page WE41

THE NATIONAL GALLERY of Art certainly seems to love its Andre Kerteszes, taking the opportunity to show off the photographer's best pictures -- more than a couple of which it happens to own, conveniently for us -- in not one but two horn-tooting exhibitions. The most recent was in a 2000 roundup of recent acquisitions; before that, in a 1999 sampling of photos from the permanent collection.

And what's not to love? Although providing mere glimpses into the Hungarian-born photographer's 70-year career, those two group shows allowed Kertesz's arresting visual sensibility to stand out in a crowd of art stars. Now, with "Andre Kertesz," the first retrospective this comprehensive in the United States, the National Gallery has given us the rest of the story.

Hungarian-born photographer Andre Kertesz's "Meudon" (1928), above, and "Underwater Swimmer, Esztergom" (1917), at left, which shows a seemingly headless swimmer, are part of the National Gallery of Art's retrospective of the artist's works. (Collection Soizic Audouard, Paris/estate Of Andre Kertesz And T)

Organized chronologically, the show divides Kertesz's work into three geographic chunks: images produced in the artist's native Budapest and Hungary between the time he received his first camera in 1912 at age 17 and his departure for Paris in 1925; in the City of Lights, where he lived for 11 years; and in New York, where he moved in 1936 and remained until his death in 1985. The inclusion of Kertesz's earliest pictures allows us to see not simply the mature artist, but the talented neophyte he grew out of.

Known for subtly strange, often poetic juxtapositions of street life, Kertesz once remarked, late in his life, that an artist doesn't need to imagine things. "Reality," he said, "gives you all you need." Yet this epiphany only gradually seems to have dawned on him, as is evident from the handful of images Kertesz created with a mythological theme among his works in Hungary.

In several of these early photographs, none of which was printed much larger than a postage stamp in order to save the cost of photographic paper, the artist's brother, Jeno, cavorts like a faun, or like Icarus, leaps skyward. In one, Kertesz has, apparently, even drawn wings onto his brother's back. It is only in "Underwater Swimmer, Esztergom," an overhead shot of a seemingly headless swimmer due to the refraction of the water, that we get a taste of what would become Kertesz's affinity for the surreal of the everyday (although the artist himself would resist the term in favor of "the real"). Another of Kertesz's earliest photographs, the 1912 "Sleeping Boy," in which a youth is caught napping in a Budapest cafe, is as straightforward an image as they come. Compositionally, however, with its echoes of stark geometric shapes throughout the frame, "Boy" bears the clear hallmarks of the eye for unexpected, yet unexpectedly clever, framing that would become the artist's hallmark.

It isn't really until Kertesz left for Paris, at the urging of his then girlfriend and later wife, art student Erzsebet Salamon, that Kertesz found his voice. Or at least the voice for which he is known. There, roaming the streets, parks and cafes of the city, he was to find his gift for turning his gaze upon the things most people turn away from, look past or through, or never see at all: enigmatic, sheet-shrouded bundles left sitting on the sidewalk behind Notre Dame cathedral; a legless flower vendor and the well-dressed woman ignoring him; the long shadows cast by the letters painted in the window of the Cafe Extra at midnight; the passage of an overhead train between two nondescript buildings; a fork leaning against a plate.

These are things so commonplace that our brains have learned to erase them in a sense. It is only when Kertesz freezes the passage of time and trains our eyes on what is already in front of us that we really see things. Therein lies his artistry, or his poetry, if you will, in his ability to notice what we overlook.

It is a dying (some might say dead) art form.

There is a touch of the autobiographical in many of Kertesz's pictures. His shadow or silhouette often falls in the frame, as in the gorgeously understated "Martinique" from 1972, in which a dark human form can be seen behind a smoked-glass door. Even when it is absent, his best pictures hum with a sense that the man who took them felt something.

Nowadays, though, the pre-eminence of the photographer's eye is in decline. Cutting-edge photography is less about seeing what's there than envisioning what might be. The camera isn't so much a tool to record the world in novel ways as it is a magic wand that can reinvent it.

Kertesz always insisted, only somewhat disingenuously, that he was, as he called it, an "amateur." And so he was in a way. Not in the sense of the unskilled or unprofessional hack, but in the root sense of the word, as someone who does what he does not for fame and fortune, but for love. Make no bones about it: Kertesz was ambitious, and he often complained bitterly about his first couple of decades in New York, during which his reputation and income sagged, until his "rediscovery" by the art establishment toward the end of his life.

What he tried to maintain in his art was, as curator Sarah Greenough points out in a catalogue essay, a kind of artistic virginity. Kertesz's genius was his passion, his romanticism, his knack for seeing something fresh, as if it had never been looked at, at least not quite that way, before.

ANDRE KERTESZ -- Through May 15 at the National Gallery of Art, West Building, Sixth Street and Constitution Avenue NW (Metro: Archives/Navy Memorial). 202-737-4215 (TDD: 202-842-6176). www.nga.gov. Open Monday-Saturday 10 to 5; Sundays from 11 to 6. Free.

The following public programs are associated with the exhibition:

Friday at 2 -- Gallery talk. Meet in the West Building Rotunda.

March 5 at 12:30 -- Film screening: "The Circle of Andre Kertesz." East Building Auditorium.

March 6 at 2 -- Lecture: "Picturing Paris: Emigre Photographers in the City of Light, 1920-1940." East Building Auditorium.

March 6 at 6:30 -- Concert: Music of Bartok and Beethoven by the Takacs String Quartet. West Garden Court. Concertgoers are admitted first-come, first-seated at 6. For information, call 202-842-6941 or visit www.nga.gov/programs/music.htm.

March 13 at 6:30 -- Concert: Music of Antonin Reicha and other Hungarian composers by the National Gallery Chamber Players Wind Quintet. West Garden Court. Concertgoers are admitted first-come, first-seated at 6. For information, call 202-842-6941 or visit www.nga.gov/programs/music.htm.

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