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André Kertész Photographs at the National Gallery

The Critics:

Andy Grundberg, Andre Kertesz: Photographs With Time's Warm Patina (Washington Post, February 8)

Review by J. T. Kirkland (Thinking About Art, February 9), along with a Second Viewing (Thinking About Art, February 27)

Joanna Shaw-Eagle, Romance through the camera (Washington Times, February 12)

Ken Johnson, Unmasking a Chameleon of the Lens (New York Times, February 25)
I enjoy looking at photographs of Paris, and I have posted before on the work of Eugène Atget (plus here and here), Brassaï (plus here and here), and Henri Cartier-Bresson. So I was glad to go, on one recent weekend, to the retrospective of André Kertész photographs (at the National Gallery of Art until May 15). The exhibit's first room has a selection of tiny prints, and I do mean tiny. Although the museum narrative tries to explain away how annoying this as a museum experience (to paraphrase, "although these proofs are tiny, Kertész always claimed they were enough for him to see"), I decided that it was not worth my time to examine those little prints without a magnifying glass. As none was provided, I skipped the room completely.

André Kertész, The Vert-Galant under the Snow, 1935, gelatin silver print, 24.5 x 19.7 cm (9 5/8 x 7 3/4); 50.8 x 40.6 cm (20 x 16), Margaret W. Weston

André Kertész, Clock of the Académie Française, 1929, gelatin silver print, 17.2 x 23.5 cm (6 3/4 x 9 1/4), National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of The Howard Gilman Foundation and The André and Elizabeth Kertész Foundation

André Kertész photographs reproduced courtesy of the Estate of André Kertész and the Jeu de Paume/French Ministry for Culture and Communication
What follows in six subsequent rooms was more than enough to make me happy. While I think you would probably get more out of seeing enlarged images of the tiny prints on the Internet than squinting at them in the museum, it is definitely worthwhile to see the larger prints in person. There are many excellent images of Paris, some of them quite famous, such as the stairs of Montmartre (1926), with its gorgeous railing shadows; one of his Paris self-portraits from 1926; the Odéon Theater at night; the street behind the Hôtel de Ville; looking down from La Tour Eiffel, Paris, 1929, and chairs in the Luxembourg Gardens. It's all beautiful to see. What made me so happy was to see some of the shots Kertész did on visits back to Paris in the 1980s. Paris in black and white is just as beautiful then. It's just a photogenic city.

One of my favorite photographs is slightly surrealistic, the Clock of the Académie Française, Paris, from 1926. It's a view of the Pont des Arts, looking toward the Louvre, through the clock face in the façade pediment of the Institut de France. As it turns out, the Getty owns another print of this photograph, which is shown with the following recollection by Kertész:
One day in 1932, I was standing in front of the Académie Française and decided to take a look at what was behind those massive gates. I noticed that, for the average French citizen, even the sight of this national institution was awe-inspiring. I simply became very curious and wanted to know what was behind that imposing facade. As I wandered farther and higher up in the building, I ended up in the huge attic...the clock was under the cupola. Its glass face with Roman numerals gave me this fantastic view onto the Pont des Arts with the Louvre behind it.
Well, he didn't remember the date exactly, but I guess that's how it happened. Based on my experiences of working in that building, in the grand, old Bibliothèque Mazarine, I can't imagine that this serendipitious adventure of wandering up to the attic could happen today, but maybe it did then.

There is a great set of photographs taken in the home and studio of Piet Mondrian. The most famous is the elegant Chez Mondrian (1926), but I prefer the somber still life of Mondrian's Glasses and Pipe (1926). The economy of composition that Kertész achieves here allows your eye to focus on the play of light and shadow. That effect is perfected in the sparest photograph in the exhibit, the masterful Fork, Paris (1928). You should go see the exhibit, if only to look at that image as a real photograph. There is also a beautiful image of Mondrian's studio, reduced to geometric lines just like a painting in the famous mature Mondrian style.

Oh, yeah, Kertész took some pictures in New York, too. I enjoyed the more surrealistic photographs from this period, like Arm and Ventilator, New York (1937) and the Distortion series (Distortion, Distortion, and Distortion 172). One of the eeriest images that Kertész ever made, because of subsequent events in New York, was New York, 1972, in which the towers of the World Trade Center disappear into a foggy sky. Those buildings also appear in another photograph that is in the exhibition, Glass Sculpture with World Trade Center (1979). You can't see many of the more than 100 photographs in this show, except by going to the National Gallery, but there are ten images in this slide show from the museum, this set of twenty images from the Washington Post, and a few more small images in this press list. For other Kertész photographs, there is this page from and this page from Artnet.

André Kertész will be at the National Gallery of Art until May 15. The museum will screen André Kertész of the Cities on April 6, 7, and 8 at 12:30 pm. According to their Web site, "Teri Wehn-Damisch’s fifty-minute documentary portrait from the 1980s follows the artist as he visits the haunts of youth in Budapest and records his impressions of Paris and New York."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Ridiculous review. Skipped one room entirely because the prints were too tiny? The Underwater Swimmer print alone was worth the visit.