Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Eva Besnyö. The Sensuous Image @ Jeu de Paume

Eva Besnyö, Untitled, 1931
Eva Besnyö’s photography sits squarely within the international photographic avant-garde of the 1920s, and even more specifically, it communicates directly with the work of her compatriots László Moholy-Nagy and György Kepes. Her work has all of the same influences of the German New Objectivity, the post-Revolutionary Soviet Realist film, as well as the French photographic sculpture in light. Like a lot of photographers from this era, forced into emigration and exile by the rise of National Socialism in Europe, as Besnyö kept moving across Europe to political freedom, her photography went through a number of different parallel phases.

Eva Besnyö, Untitled, (Magda, Mátyásföld, Hongrie), 1932
By far the most compelling phase of her photographic output is that done in Berlin and the Netherlands in the early 1930s prior to leaving Germany under the threat of persecution. The Berlin photographs are, like those of her contemporaries, fascinated by shadows, light, the possibilities of perspective, composition, and the social function of compositional choices. All of these concerns are explored on the empty streets of Berlin, giving the city a deserted, but eerily magical quality. When Besnyö moves to the Netherlands, she takes her fascination with the aesthetic as it is carved in light and shadow with her. The images produced into the early 1930s are all very expressive in spite of their foregrounding of composition, and they have a clarity of vision that is only matched by the most skilled photographers of this time. While in Berlin, the urban environment becomes a canvas for artistic experiment when Besnyö gets to the Netherlands, she uses her photographic technique to echo the flatness, stillness and silence of the Dutch landscape. I kept thinking that her use of the medium was the photographic precursor to Mondrian’s early paintings of the Dutch landscape from the same period.

Eva Besnyö, Untitled, 1933
(John Fernhout, Anneke van der Feer, Joris Ivens, Westkapelle, Zeeland, Pays-Bas)
What is striking about the later photographs is the flattening out of the background in her images so that the frame becomes filled even when there is apparently not so much going on in the frame – the beach, water, walls, snow covered (or not) ground, the sky, tiles on a roof become the abstract substance of the photograph. Besnyö then grades the surface of her image and gives texture and an intensity to the surface of the objects and spaces she photographs.

Eva Besnyö, Untitled, 1931
Coalman, Berlin
In keeping with this tendency, people are not so important as human beings. Rather, in an echo of the “sensitivity” in the title of the exhibition, through the images of people we see the sensitivity of the medium, and the gentle, loving carvings in light and shadow that render human figures. The people always turn their back to the camera, or Besnyö photographedf them from behind. The result is that when the figures are more than shadows on a compositional surface, they occupy their own secret world, with very little, if any, connection to the viewer. And if the figures are more defined than a shadow in light there is often something placed in the foreground that screens the world before the camera off from ours as we look into their world. Moreover, in many of the images, especially at the beginning and end of her career, the shadows form a barrier, reinforcing the isolated world of the people in the image. In this quality, she underlines what it is about modernist photography that makes Chamberlain’s photographs sixty or seventy years later, still resiliently modernist: this was an era before there was a concern to establish a connection with a viewer. 

Eva Besnyö, Der Monteur am Ladenfenster, Berlin, 1931

During the 1930s she worked as an architectural photographer and in the 1970s Besnyö used her camera to militate for the feminist movement. These works demonstrate great skill with the camera, but are more rigid, less expressionist in their search to document. And so, it is the expressionist works at the beginning and end of her career that I found so individual, compelling, and ultimately, “sensitive” in their artistic use of the medium. 

All images copyright Eva Besnyö

No comments: