It failed me, for a while, to write about the André Kertesz show, at Jeu de Paume (until February 6th). Not for a lack of interest, since this exhibition is superb and presents (in a fairly classic manner) a thorough panorama of Kertész‘s work. Rather, because his photography is polymorphous, he is interested in everything: we begin (in Hungary), in extremely ordinary scenes; houses, streets, gates, represented simply, far from pictorialism. The scenes from World War I show the good soldier Kertész, in full bonhomie, as if in summer camp. Nothing brutal, nothing deranged, children reading, twilight landscapes, all in small format. How do we grasp this artist? Where do we find the lines of his work? How not to sound didactic in a discussion of his work?
Without a doubt, having gone back to the show (frustrated by not knowing how to write about it), it is by placing the emphasis on his manipulations, his distortions, his games with images. It is but one aspect of his work, but it is that perhaps which most reveals his creativity, inventiveness, his distance from mere representation. His most well-known series is that in which he uses warped mirrors to turn the bodies of his models into monstrous figures, grafts of enormous, tormented flesh; one thinks of Bacon, even Bosch; but this hydrocephalus and polymastic woman, a monster both devouring and devoured, is also a parent to Die Puppe. These photographs were custom made for a soft core magazine cheerfully titled ‘Le Sourire,’ (The Smile), in 1933, the hour in which Europe darkened. The article that accompanied them, by the poet Aimée-p. Barancy (coincidentally, a friend of Céline), is titled ‘Window open onto the Beyond’: a coquettish review, but literary. The photographer, inveterate voyeur, is present, like the painter or sculpture with his model, Picasso or Pygmalion, demiurge à la Robert Walton. One never tires of looking at these women who are no longer truly human, this profligacy of flesh, of roundness, of orifices, on which so many have already written (Distortion n°41, 1933, MEP).
Another distortion is that of water, and his famous photograph of a swimmer (his brother, I believe) is a gorgeous example. In that image as well, the diluted, distorted representation of the body fascinates, and unsettles us (Nageur sous l’eau, Esztergom, 1917, BNF). But it is without any trick of mirrors that Kertész sculpts the body of the Hungarian dancer Magda Forstner, echoing the sculpture of Ètienne Beothy (left); even if clothed, she is a talisman, an idol, an object of desire, and of a voyeuristic compulsion to watch. Not that Kertész (who was briefly the husband of Rogi André before marrying Elizabeth) didn’t know how to represent tenderness and affection. But his formal research seems to have unleashed in him unsuspected desires and slumbering demons.
Another complex aspect of his work is that of shadows. This self-portrait in shadow, if not the fruit of some schism (real or metaphorical) between model and operator, must be the fruit of a complex calculus to determine the trick of mirrors and ideal placement required in order to realize this tour de force (give it a try!). Combining thus mirror and shadow, two eternal vectors of self-portraiture, one positive, one negative, he denotes a magnificent reflection on the shadow of the artist, his presence imprinted within the work, inscribed in the history of art from the daughter of Dibutades to the publicity for Égoïste (Autoportrait, 1927, Estate of André Kertész).
Lastly, in his New York period, besides the polaroids taken from his window at the end of his life, I loved, aware of his depressive tendencies and phobia of America, this image of a cloud, free and simple, floating blithely before the cold and imposing mass of Rockefeller Center (Le nuage égaré, 1937, Sarah Morthland Gallery).
Photos Courtesy of Jeu de Paume.