Important Art by André Kertész
Kertész took this photograph (of which his brother is probably the subject) when he was a young man, convalescing after being shot during WWI. It has been named as one of the most influential photographs of the twentieth century. The photograph takes an ordinary subject - a man in a swimming pool - and elevates it into a subject worthy of artist's contemplation. Kertész's use of the distorting ripples of the swimming pool's surface is revolutionary in the history of photography, freezing time through the camera lens in a way that makes use of a transient phenomenon to create a permanent image. Curator and Kertész specialist Mirjam Kooiman argues that "throughout his career he had this interest for mirroring surfaces, reflections and distortions - as a reflection on life."
Underwater Swimmer demonstrates Kertész's early interest in these compositional and metaphorical concepts, which would inform the rest of his career and influence a generation of photographers after him. Indeed, Underwater Swimmer catalyzed an interest in depicting swimming pools and people swimming underwater that can be traced forward in modern painting through the likes of Henri Matisse (The Swimming Pool, 1952); David Hockney (A Bigger Splash, 1967); and Samantha French (Rise Up, 2017); and in installation art too, through Leandro Erlich (Swimming Pool, 1999).
Soon after moving to Paris, Kertész photographed the cabaret dancer Magda Förstner in the studio of Hungarian sculptor István Beöthy. He encouraged Förstner to imitate the posture of a Beöthy's sculpture (placed on a stand by her feet) next to which she models. Kertész later recalled: "I said to her, 'Do something with the spirit of the studio corner,' and she started to move on the sofa. She just made a movement. I took only two photographs." The resulting image captures the dancer's body as a set of geometric shapes, emphasizing the sculptural qualities of body and movement. While the photograph might be termed a fluid, or unrehearsed, portrait, it also has some of the compositional qualities of a modern still-life photograph, playing as it does with our assumptions about what is familiar and what is unfamiliar. The triangles made by Förstner's arms and legs are echoed in the overall composition, which uses a trio of formulations of the human body to draw the viewer's eye around the image: Beöthy's sculpture, a framed photograph of a female nude on the wall to the right, and the central woman's body. The use of a vertiginous camera angle shows Kertész's radical use of perspective, while the juxtapositions of the composition can suggest a Dadaist influence.
Kertész took this photograph as part of a series of "portraits" of his friend, the painter Piet Mondrian, most of which do not feature the artist himself. Through using reflections, transparency and shadows, Kertész creates his portrait through absence, drawing the viewer's attention to Mondrian's "presence" through his abstracted possessions. The use of bold monochrome lines also evokes a sense of Mondrian's characteristic paintings, and Mondrian's advocacy for a simplified geometric aesthetic.
The photograph epitomizes some of the key concerns of modernism, particularly through its espousal of radical new forms of expression and its attempts to capture beauty in mundane objects. The art critic Maria Morris Hambourg summed up the impact of the image in the following statement: "Kertész photographed only the table, cropping the top of the image and blackening the corners through overexposure, leaving only the emblems of their leader's concentration and rigor [...] The strictness of the abridgment, the harmony of the geometric elements, and the human character clinging to the spare, personal attributes, made this photograph an icon of European modernism from the first time it was exhibited, at Galerie Au Sacre du Printemps in Paris, in 1927."