Wednesday, November 17, 2010

André Kertész au Jeu de Paume

André Kertesz, Montmatre, 1927

The Hungarian photographer André Kertész is not usually associated with place. However, coming away from the wonderful retrospective of his work at the Jeu de Paume, my resounding impression was one of just how dependent on Paris he was for inspiration. His dependence on Paris becomes painfully evident when Kertész goes to New York and he tries to find in New York what brought his frames alive in Paris. The lines, the light, the stillness, melancholy and nostalgia of an historical moment as it unfolds, none of these are the trademarks even characteristics he can find through his viewfinder in New York City. 
André Kertész, Mondrian's Glasses and Pipe, 1926

Perhaps the most striking thing about Kertesz’s Paris is the absence of people. On the streets, in the courtyards and apartments of the famous and not so famous alike, people are never the focus of his images. That said, human life, even if in its absence, can be traced across these exquisitely composed frames. People are shadows in a landscape of lines, textures, light and angles. The often reproduced photograph of Mondrian’s glasses, or the Autoportrait from 1927 are now icons of Kertesz’s creativity. Like these photographs, across his life’s work, the human form is reduced to another compositional element that nevertheless adds to the substance and emotion of his vision. In an image such as that at Place Gambetta or the Place de la Concorde, for example, the presence of the human, although minimized, is identifiable such that it creates a deep felt sense of absence. The single emotion that glimmers on these rain-soaked squares and pavements: melancholy. Empty, deserted streets taken in the powerful light of sunrise, at times at night, brim with a sadness and nostalgia as if for a Paris long gone.

André Kerész, Place Gambetta, 1928
For other photographers, modernity and the modern city were articulated and envisioned in the hustle and bustle of life, in the thronging crowds on their way to work, the dazzle of night life entertainment, and the excitement and possibility of industrialization. Kertész’s vision of modernity is different. City, or rather, Parisian life, most notably in the 1920s, is typified by the emptiness and the desertion of streets shown through conflicting and chaotic angles that nevertheless come together in perfectly coherent images. Kertész's  picture of the emotional life of the city did not set new standards. Rather, it is the angles, so canted they are sometimes vertical, his eye for perspectives and lines, the patterns and rhythms of the built environment, and above all, his use of light as the subject, and structuring device of the frame, that revolutionizes photography.

André Kertész, Place de la Concorde, 1927
Kertész and photographers such as Moholy-Nagy and Man Ray among others made their success on the back of their experiments with artificial light, experiments that so re-visioned the composition and substance of photography in the 1920s, that their influence extended to the film frames of the great German expressionist filmmakers. In the works of Fritz Lang, Karl Grüne, F.W. Murnau, the loneliness and emptiness of city life is transformed into a different kind of foreboding. While this historical aspect of  Kertesz’s  photographs is not on display at the Jeu de Paume, their historical import is: the age of these images, primarily because their objectness, is emphasized by the use of contact prints in the early part of the exhibition. Moreover, the layering of light, the perfection of the angles and the delicate balance of the composition remain every bit as breathtaking as they were in their time. 

André Kertész, Chez Mondrian, 1926
Take for example, a photograph such as Chez Mondrian, 1926, in which  Kertesz’s  follows the line of the stairs up the length of the image. Despite the fact that the image is dissected by the door frame, the line of the banister extends into the room in the foreground in the for of the shadow of the perfectly lit vase on the table. Or an image such as one of the Eiffel Tower, where the shadow of one arm of the base of the tower creates a circularity to the ground below that is otherwise rectangulated by the form of the grass and the elongated shadows of the people who cross it. For all their obsessive construction and intricate structural design, the lines are angular, canted and multiple and they conflict such that there is, at this level an imbalance. And the mastery of Kertesz’s frame appears at that moment when we recognize this chaos somehow, impossible, adds up to a perfectly balanced composition.

André Kertész, Eiffel Tower, 1929

Lastly, a quick word about the polaroids that Kertesz made in the 1970s with the new medium. They are magnificent, not only because of the color and their brush with abstraction, but because, as if carrying on the tension between chaos and coherence in the earlier images, the polaroids witness an impossible marriage of snap photography and intricate, meticulous construction. Towards the end of an oeuvre which has been dominated by an obvious obsession with camera set up and frame composition, as well as the processing of the image, the polaroids are thowaway snapshots rendered strange and beautiful by the eye that precedes their execution.

André Kertész, August 16, 1979.

All images thanks to Jeu de Paume

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