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Andre Kertesz: Photographs With Time's Warm Patina

By Andy Grundberg
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, February 8, 2005; Page C01

The death of Henri Cartier-Bresson in August at the age of 95 marked the end of an era. Cartier-Bresson was the last of the generation that in the '20s and '30s pioneered the candid and often lyrical photography associated with the 35mm Leica camera. For many he epitomized the idea of the photographer as an intuitive observer of social mores who, thanks to lightning reflexes and a finely tuned eye, could capture the essence of life in a fraction of a second.

But Cartier-Bresson was not the first to perfect the street photography associated with him. That honor more justly belongs to Andre Kertesz (1894-1985), a Hungarian emigre to France and later to New York whose pictures were published and exhibited in Paris while Cartier-Bresson was still a student studying painting.

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Andre Kertesz: Scenes from his retrospective at the National Gallery

Kertesz influenced not only Cartier-Bresson but also Brassai, a fellow Hungarian emigre, whose moody pictures of Paris at night in the '30s are indebted to technical skills he learned from Kertesz. But Kertesz's reputation has never quite equaled theirs, in part because of the difficult circumstances of his life and in part because of his difficult personality. This, despite a successful retrospective exhibition that opened shortly before his death at the Art Institute of Chicago and went on to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

A new and more complete retrospective, "Andre Kertesz," which opened Sunday at the National Gallery of Art, shines a welcome spotlight on the photographer's 70-year career. Arranged chronologically and judiciously selected by curator Sarah Greenough, the head of the museum's photography department, the exhibition reminds us not only that Kertesz was a great artist but also that his legacy, like that of Cartier-Bresson, is now a historical relic.

"Andre Kertesz" is a jewel box of an exhibition, partly because of the intimacy of the museum's photography galleries but mainly because so many of the 116 photographs on view are perfect little gems.

The earliest pictures, taken between 1912 and 1924 when Kertesz lived in Budapest, are vintage prints barely two inches tall and an inch and a half wide. Toned a warm brown (presumably a result of their age) and minutely detailed, they invite us to be charmed.

And charming they are. Some are conventional landscapes and genre scenes, but others come from the front lines of World War I where Kertesz served as a soldier of the Austro-Hungarian army. Here Kertesz's knack for lyricism first shines forth. What could conceivably have been a crude subject -- four soldiers visiting a makeshift field latrine -- instead seems sweet, even sentimental. Other pictures show Kertesz's brother Jeno cavorting nude in the countryside, playing Icarus (with wings added later, in ink) or swimming underwater as an apparently headless faun. The latter picture, from the collection of Elton John, foreshadows the photographer's later interest in optical distortion.

The center of the exhibition, and the central period of Kertesz's career, is devoted to pictures of Paris, where he lived from 1925 to 1936. These pictures are larger (postcard size, at first, later nearly 8-by-10 inches) but no less captivating; what most distinguishes them from the Hungarian work is that they look modern. A still life of a fork leaning on a plate, a bird's-eye view of pedestrians seen from the Eiffel Tower, a night view of a glowing storefront -- these are modern photographs but not in the sense of being contemporary. Rather, they exhibit the formal characteristics of modernist painting, with their nearly abstract compositions and vertiginous perspectives.

Indeed, Kertesz sampled various aspects of modernism, having rapidly assimilated all of the modernist art movements swirling in and through Paris in the '20s and '30s. When he visited Piet Mondrian's studio, he took pictures that are composed like Mondrian paintings.

When he got to know the surrealists, he put nudes in front of fun-house mirrors and produced his classic "Distortions" series.

At the same time, he supported himself by working for French and German magazines in the "you are there" candid style that became the standard for all picture magazines, including Life magazine in the United States.

Called "the creator of the literary reportage" by an early historian of photojournalism, Kertesz did specific assignments but much preferred to prowl the streets of Paris looking for unexpected visual poetry. In "On the Boulevards" of 1934, he condensed a woman sitting on a bench and a male passerby with the advertisements that surround them, subtly suggesting that urbanity is a consumer sport.

All of this self-confident experimentation and innovation came to an abrupt end when he and his wife arrived in New York in late 1936.

Expecting to be treated as the star of new European photography, Kertesz instead found himself consigned to the margins of American publishing, scraping for assignments from Harper's Bazaar and other ill-fitting freelance jobs. Ironically Life, which was formed in the very image of the European picture magazines for which Kertesz had worked, gave him the cold shoulder, possibly because it already had on staff a veteran from Europe, Alfred Eisenstaedt. Kertesz became discouraged and embittered. He ended up spending 14 years working for House and Garden magazine, photographing well-kept houses, well into his sixties.

At least this is the Kertesz legend as passed on by Kertesz in his later years, but the exhibition's catalogue essays take pains to debunk it. (The catalogue's essayists are Greenough and Robert Gurbo, curator of the Kertesz Foundation. More than 30 of the exhibition's 116 prints are gifts to the National Gallery from the Kertesz Foundation.) Kertesz's pictures were published and exhibited fairly often in the '40s and '50s, but apparently not frequently enough to satisfy their maker. In any case, all can agree that in the '60s and especially in the '70s Kertesz was "discovered" by a new generation and given innumerable opportunities to publish, exhibit and sell his work. His treasured Paris pictures, like "Chez Mondrian" of 1926, were especially popular and often reprinted.

Many of the photographs from the New York years are in the same league as the Paris work, however. Pictures like "Washington Square," a 1954 view from Kertesz's apartment looking down through bare trees at snow-covered paths, seem fresh and unexpected even today. As the artist aged the pictures grew more autobiographical and symbolic; several color pictures near the end of the exhibition, made with a Polaroid camera in the '80s, show the artist's profile in shadow on a sunset-tinted wall.

Like the Paris photographs of 50 years earlier, these combine sophisticated composition and an appealing sentimentality.

Overall, as an exhibition "Andre Kertesz" improves on the 1985 retrospective of his work in several ways. For one, the earlier show, subtitled "Of Paris and New York," excluded the Hungarian pictures entirely, so the early phase of his development was missing. Despite its wider purview, the current show is smaller and more tightly edited, although longtime Kertesz fans might wish for more unfamiliar images in the selected bunch. And the show's catalogue benefits from new research into the artist's papers and -- dare one say it -- from the absence of the artist in the show's preparation. Earlier exhibitions had to cater to his whims and quirks.

But even while it celebrates one of photography's major artistic figures, the exhibition has a bittersweet quality. For as influential as Kertesz, Cartier-Bresson and Brassai were throughout the second half of the 20th century -- and especially with American photographers, from Garry Winogrand to William Eggleston -- the strand of the medium they championed is now in decline. Today's photographers by and large are more interested in images about images than in finding fresh ways to frame marvelous material in the everyday world. The age of the romantic sensibility in photography may be over, replaced by an age of irony. But as "Andre Kertesz" demonstrates, its innocent charms remain beguiling.

Andre Kertesz is at the West Building of the National Gallery of Art, Sixth Street and Constitution Avenue NW, through May 15. Call 202-737-4215 or visit www.nga.gov. The museum is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission is free.

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