New York

Andre Kertesz

French Cultural Service

From time to time in Andre Kertesz’s work there is a picture that bespeaks the uncertainties of courtship. One famous photograph from 1915 in Budapest frames, with a closeness that mimics their embrace, two well-dressed lovers on a garden bench, brushed lightly by the dark leaves that surround them. Her gloved fingers are clasped, immobile, around the small of his back, but his bare and ringless hands hold her shoulder close in, and wait with cautious hope and gentle pressure just above her breast. If she leans just away from his kiss, her amused and barely resistant smile also predicts her acquiescence. His dark face, its features hardly visible to the camera, is submerged in its passionate intent. In the French Cultural Service exhibition, the photograph Country Fair, 1929 (a new picture to admirers of Kertesz who have followed his work mainly via his spate of recent books) gives us a similar story. Here the young man watches his friend for her response, glances at her calculatingly from under heavy eyebrows; the thick stick he bends in his hands betrays his stringent purpose, and from that stick, painted roses seem to dangle down the booth front on which these lovers lean. She hides from his look behind one of amusement, but she is also flattered and overwhelmed by his attention. Like the young woman in Budapest she leans away from her suitor, and she keeps a cigarette burning in case she needs to retreat.

The tentative and forceful overtures of these couples are like the photographer’s own flirtation with the delights and grotesqueries of his long walks. The educated imagination at play in the world of fact brings with it the fantasies of order, the dreams of continuity, the devices, strategies and hobbles of a lifetime of socialization, and is repeatedly amazed, beguiled, confounded, reproached and invited by the animal capriciousness of real things. So the photographer cultivates a habit of being flexible, a suitor’s sense of where he might succeed and where fail that neither preconceives the shape and content of his work nor leads him completely astray from the ideas that constitute his life and place. He watches himself emerge as strong or soft in the course of this perpetual exchange, and his work names the debate itself as internecine or delightful, according to his experience.

This debate, as I call it, is as much the subject of Kertesz’s photographs, at some metaphorical remove, as are the lovers, the animals, the acrobats, landscapes, houses, statues, trees and shadows that are their substance. And in few photographers’ work do fantasy and fact, both distinct and interfused, become so physically manifest. One picture in the current exhibition, Rue Bonaparte, 1963, shows a little boy leaping off a windowsill, out of an imaginary muraled landscape in the window, into the open arms of a girl who waits in knee-socks to catch him. The somber trees and pale castle of the painting climb the full height of the casement, until, in its uppermost panes, they merge with mysterious, distorted, black reflections of real rooftops across the street in which the photographer stands. The curve of the boy’s arms echoes the arch at the window’s top, but also resembles the curved hood of a car which separates the photographer from the children. Has the artist suggested, by means of these interwoven coincidences, that our rational landscape of hard, mechanical facts may be indistinguishable from the products of its dreaming?

In Kertesz, such minglings of the tenable and unbelievable will often become hilarious and sometimes bizarre. Two dogs, in one picture, sit bespectacled and top-hatted on chairs outside a cafe, displaying in their teeth two newspapers that inexplicably proclaim, in enormous type, “La Vie D’une Femme.” When Kertesz’s photographs address the grotesque it is never with fear, despair or disgust: a cripple plays the violin, a dwarf drops a coin into a blind beggar’s cup while a somewhat more robust man strides past indifferently, an amputee extends a bouquet to a fashionable and oblivious woman as she hurries into the Metro. At his most baleful, Kertesz might call humans, as did Pope, “The glory, jest and riddle of the world.”

The photographs in the current show are as various as 64 years’ work in the medium could make them. They reveal to the viewer the spuriousness of the classifying by genre to which both popular and critical understanding of photography resorts: such hopeless terms as “documentary” or “street” photography, millstones around the necks of many great pictures: fail to apply here. For Kertesz’s work has fully employed that special property of his mechanical instrument, its faithful attraction to a vast range of transitory subjects. The sum of his work manifests that process of discovery which extends from pattern, yet constantly overturns pattern, and is the equivalent of healthy life itself. The resulting myth is at once recognizable and unique. Perhaps this camera’s consummate pursuit of the world is not an inspired response to reality’s intrigues, but a provocation of them. We may invoke Wallace Stevens’s lines on this answerless question:

“. . . A more severe/More harassing master would extemporize/Subtler, more urgent proof that the theory/Of poetry is the theory of life,/As it is, in the intricate evasions of as . . .”

Leo Rubinfien