I was first introduced to photographer André Kertész’s work by my stepfather. In our home, there is one uniquely small book of his photographs that fits perfectly in the palm of my hand. It has always stood out to me. Most likely because the book’s cover is moss-green and soft like velvet, but also because it would get lost if it was placed on the shelf alongside the other books. So it floats around the house, ready to be picked up and flipped through during moments of boredom or curiosity.
Kertész’s photographs in the Art Institute of Chicago exhibition, “Postcards from Paris,” are pleasantly minuscule as well. Whether it was an economical choice or an artistic one, the entirety of the exhibition is his original postcard-size prints. They are windows—portals—through which one can see something absolutely magical and almost surreal, even in the most simple settings. As a viewer, you have to get up close to each photograph, your nose almost touching the glass of the frame, an act that is not ideal with museum sensors and alarms.
In a video interview from 1984 posted on the Art Institute website, Kertész explains, “I am interested in real beauty. The most important thing for me is catching the atmosphere.” He describes that he chose the carte postale paper because it was the most beautiful. He cared for his photographs like he cared for close friends. In the video he says that he was mostly an artist for his own self-interest. It had never occurred to him to sell his photographs until a curator asked him to. Before that, he was simply gifting his postcards as tokens of appreciation.
Having been friends with artist Piet Mondrian, there are multiple portraits of him at his studio. One in particular, “Chez Mondrian” (1926), depicts the abstract painter’s empty apartment. The image seems to be split in half, with the left side of the room revealing a flower vase on a table and a hat hanging on a coat rack, and the other half of the image showing the staircase outside the apartment door. The curve of the staircase as well as the contrast between shadows and light in the room are even more intriguing because of the smallness of the image. Following the line of the staircase, as well as some lines on the walls and in the room, it feels as though he was also capturing what Mondrian painted.
André Kertész’s photographs, now about one-hundred years old, are no bigger in size than our smartphone screens. Yet there is something inarticulately perfect about the smallness of these carte postales that is the complete opposite of how we take photos today. They are bathed in a nostalgia of Paris in the 1920s when artists would sit in cafes and meet to discuss their ideas, taking notes on napkins and making art for art’s sake. They are soft, calm and introspective. This is not an exhibition to quickly skim over, it is meant to be looked at carefully, one by one, to absorb the beauty of the small scale. (Mána Hjörleifsdóttir Taylor)
“André Kertész: Postcards from Paris” is on view at the Art Institute of Chicago, 111 South Michigan, through January 17, 2022.