James Hyman on André Kertész in Europe

On the third floor of a small building nestled amid bespoke tailors and the nearby Royal Academy of Arts, the James Hyman gallery hosts a rare exhibition of unseen work from the influential André Kertész displayed until the 13th of June.

The Hungarian born photographer struggled to gain success and recognition during his career. Unlike his friend and compatriot Brassaï, he was a poor self-publicist and turned down many commissions on the principle that they were against his ideas and creativity.

He is now regarded as a pioneer of modern photographic composition, laying the foundations for photojournalism as it is known today. Henri Cartier-Bresson once said: “Each time André Kertész’s shutter clicks, I feel his heart beating.”

In 1964, the American photography writer and curator John Szarkowski wrote: “Kertész’s work, perhaps more than any other photographer, defined the direction in which modern European photography developed.”

The art dealer and curator of this exhibition, James Hyman, is a specialist in 20th century British fine art and photography. It took him five years to gain access to the archive of the Estate of André Kertész but when he did, he was thrilled to find a large body of work that had never been exposed before.

“I wanted to do something different from other galleries,” Hyman says. “The main representation for André Kertesz is in America. They have spent a lot of time promoting the work he did when he permanently moved to New York and for an American audience, it had a resonance.

André Kertész in Europe begins with the artist’s earliest photographs, made in Hungary in the 1910s before exhibiting unknown, later works, made in Europe after the Second World War.

Although it is often assumed that, after Kertész moved to New York in 1936, he seldom travelled, he did in fact return regularly to Europe. These trips to Europe include visits to London, France and Budapest in 1948; to Venice, France and Budapest in 1963; Hungary and Spain in 1971; London, Paris and Milan in 1972; France in 1975, 1976, 1979, 1982, 1984; and little known visits to England in 1972, 1980, 1983 and 1984.

“Being a European, I wanted to think about what he had done in Europe. The normal narrative is that he was in Hungary, then in Paris and then in New York. What this exhibition is trying to prove is that he kept on coming back to Europe, and he also made several visits to England. It was exciting to work with the Kertész Estate and discover these unheard-of English pictures.”

In the first room of the exhibition, we are faced with some of Kertesz’s more familiar work; a large print of the photograph titled Muguet Seller depicts a wounded war veteran brandishing the fete du travail flower to an unconcerned lady. On the next wall hangs Mondrian’s Glasses and Pipe and besides the iconic capture, an image from the Distortion series, the surrealist-influenced images that resulted from the tight relationship he developed with the French Dadaists.

Seen together, these three photographs summarises Kertesz’s early career perfectly. They reminds us that Kertesz was as interested in wandering the city streets as as he was capturing delicate still life compositions, as he was in exploring high-art conceptualism. Some images have

At this point, the exhibition begins to reveal photographs that were, until now, hidden form the public sight, and illustrate a world that has changed since its last visit to Europe. Beach scenes with women sunbathing topless, a Manchester art gallery displaying Warhol’s images of Marilyn Monroe and Kertesz’s images of Paris street life, in the age of the New Wave.

One picture stands out. Henry Moore’s Shadow is as enigmatic and ghostly as it is nostalgic. In this asymmetrically framed photograph, we can distinguish a small print of Mondrian’s spectacles resting on a mantelpiece, the imposing shadow of Henry Moore looming over it. Kertész visited his friends forty years later and gifted him the print. In this shot, he places himself directly in the artist’s studio. The photograph becomes almost autobiographic.

“As artists get older, their work become not just about the world around them and that preoccupation, it becomes self referential,” Hyman says.