One of the great romantic photographers of the 20th century, Andre Kertesz, finally receives his due at the National Gallery of Art with his first U.S. museum retrospective.
In 118 photographs produced over 70 years, Mr. Kertesz (1894-1985) clearly — and often wittily — expresses his love of people and their everyday lives. This affection comes across whether he’s photographing a blind musician in his native Hungary, a bizarre “Satiric Dancer” in Paris or pedestrians walking across Washington Square in New York City.
Born Kertesz Andor in Budapest, he started photographing his native city and nearby countryside in 1912. His mother had given him a 1.8-by-2.4-inch camera, and he used it with great delight to make satiric photographs of his brother Jeno and humorous ones of himself.
The exhibit reflects the contrasting sides of this mercurial artist’s personality. He tended to be happy when settled in one place, such as Hungary (1894-1925), and depressed when getting acclimated to new places, such as Paris, where he stayed from 1925 to 1936, and New York, where he lived from 1936 to 1985. Celebrated photographs from the Paris and New York years clearly illustrate these shifting moods.
One of the exhibit’s most humorous photographs is the surreal “Under the Eiffel Tower” (1929), originally titled “The Ants,” in which tiny men and women rush through the tower’s shadowed patterns. Among the saddest is “Studio Corner of Miss Maxine Picard” (1956). Its crushed mannequins are a distillation of Mr. Kertesz’s initial unhappiness with New York.
Exhibit curator Sarah Greenough, curator and head of the gallery’s department of photographs, arranges the exhibit chronologically by presenting the small Hungarian photographs first, the more celebrated Parisian images second, and the many-sided views of New York last.
The Hungarian years saw Mr. Kertesz first showing his genius for combining disparate compositional elements — pitting horizontals against verticals, sliding diagonals into circles — with evocative light and shadow. He also mastered the compositional and movement challenges of setting images within small photographic formats, as when he caught his brother simulating a high leap by the Greek mythological figure Icarus in the comical “Jeno Kertesz as Icarus” (1919-1920).
Mr. Kertesz continued shooting playful images after moving to Paris in 1926. In the especially comical “Satiric Dancer” (1926), the photographer angled dancer Magda Forstner on a sofa to mimic a nearby twisting sculpture.
He also concentrated on capturing his new artist friends, such as Piet Mondrian, Marc Chagall, Fernand Leger and Ossip Zadkine. One of his most famous photographs of this period is his sparely shot “Chez Mondrian.”
Like many other Hungarians who settled in Paris, Mr. Kertesz Gallicized his name to ease his assimilation into French culture. Like many another emigre artist, he suffered great loneliness when still new to Paris, and he wandered the streets alone at night, photographing empty squares and elegant buildings.
The photographer was successful in Paris with both his commercial and artistic work, but with the rise of Adolf Hitler and growing fears of war in Europe, he moved to New York in 1936. He had hoped to find lucrative fashion-photography assignments. Instead, he found work only at House & Garden, a disappointment that contributed to a lengthy depressive period. By the 1950s, his work was almost forgotten, and he declared himself “dead.”
Things finally turned around for Mr. Kertesz with photographs such as the charming “Glass Sculpture With World Trade Center” (1979) and “Flowers for Elizabeth” (1976). By the time he died in New York on Sept. 28, 1985, he was recognized as one of the great photographic masters of the 20th century, cited by giants of the medium from Henri Cartier-Bresson to Robert Capa as a pathbreaking artist.
Viewers visiting this large, highly varied show, which travels to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on June 12, may find it difficult to follow the twists and turns of Mr. Kertesz’s photographic vision. Although the exhibit takes work, the effort is amply rewarded.
WHAT: “Andre Kertesz”
WHERE: National Gallery of Art, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue NW
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday. Through May 15