You’ve got until February 6th, 2011, to go see the André Kertesz exhibition at the Jeu de Paume in Paris … at least once! I’ve been twice so far and am well tempted by a third trip to this centre of photography on the edge of the Tuileries gardens and the Place de la Concorde.
Hungarian-born photographer André Kertesz (1894-1985) was part of artsy Paris in the 1920s, taught his fellow countryman Brassaï how to take pictures, influenced Henri Cartier-Bresson and pursued a career in photography well before most people considered photography art. His move to New York in the 1930s had been prompted by a magazine assignment and his wife Elizabeth’s insistance that he really needed to do something about his career. Contrary to all hopes and expectations this decision lead to an incredibly challenging but productive period of difficulties and setbacks.
Not only was he associated with the Surrealists whom he was never an official part of and who had gone out of fashion by the late nineteen thirties, but his photography style was deemed too particular to suit New Yorks’ commercial needs. Kertesz simply wasn’t in demand. He also missed his creative support network of painters, sculptors and other artists he had had in Paris (portraits of Lipchitz, Mondrian and film-maker Eisenstein, amongst others, are on display) as well as his brother Jeno who had meanwhile moved to South America. All this contributed to and amplified his feeling of isolation. However, thanks to his wife’s successful new cosmetics venture he wasn’t forced to put up with all art directors’ and magazine editors’ demands and could persevere with his pictorial preoccupations encouraged by her profound faith in his talent.
He thus continued his photographic explorations of the urban landscape which he had already begun in Paris (he was among the first to exploit the beauty of nighttime shots, odd perspectives and reflections in water and shop windows). His loneliness and general malaise encouraged him to push the poetic dimensions of his oeuvre. In this image below which he poignantly referred to as a “self-portrait” a small cloud is lost and on its own among the tall skyscrapers.
With time, his work began to attract attention and the winds of newly emerging interest (and eventually market) for photography began to blow in his direction.
By the time of his wife’s death in 1977, André Kertesz had received a certain amount of critical acclaim and had started to “make money”. He received a Silver Medal at the Exposition Coloniale, Paris in 1930, a Gold Medal at the Venice Biennale in 1962, and the Mayor’s Award, New York, in 1977. He was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1975, is an Honorary Member of the American Society of Magazine Photographers (1965), and was named Commander, Order of Arts and Letters, by the French Government in 1976.
However, much to his distress, Elizabeth died before his opening in 1977 at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the very city that was and had remained so artistically important to him.
Today it is not just a privilege to delve into an incredibly complete and sensitive review of his life’s work but it is a true pleasure to be shared.