As regular readers of this column will know, I am not a great admirer of photography exhibitions, but the current show in the RA’s Sackler Galleries is more enjoyable than most.
I have long loved the work of André Kertész and Brassaï, and besides presenting a lavish selection of their photographs, this show offers the context of their fellow Hungarians to further illuminate their achievement. The effect is interesting, if not entirely happy. Nothing seems to diminish Brassaï, but Kertész suffers by comparison. In the company of such relatively unknown photographers as Imre Kinszki, Rudolf Balogh and Erno Vadas, Kertész looks less strikingly original. Although the presence and example of his peers helps to explain Kertész’s work, it also slightly dilutes its magic.
The exhibition begins with a wonderful image by Balogh of a diminutive shepherd in a shoulder-to-ground fleece, looking rather like a wandering haystack flanked by dogs. There are some of Kertész’s original contact prints from c.1918, including one of a traditional Hungarian well with its winching gear attached to a living tree. In this first room there are some classic Kertész images: an underwater swimmer enveloped in ripples and reflections, then ‘Lovers’, ‘Boy Sleeping’ and ‘Circus’ — in which a couple peer through a hole in a fence, an image Lowry used much later (1963). In this section is also Károly Escher’s complex semi-abstract ‘Swing Boat’, all shadows and different weights of line. There’s also rather an amusing set of beguiling ladies, some half-naked, and a vintage oil print, by Olga Máté, showing the kind of brushmarks you’d expect in a painting.
The high viewpoints and shadow-structures of Balogh’s ‘Milkmarket on Margarett Island’, Vadas’s ‘Procession’ and Kinszki’s ‘Morning Light’, all recall images for which Kertész later became celebrated in Paris and America. A different kind of looking appears in the brilliant shape-recording of Martin Munkácsi, particularly in the deftly caught moment when a group of boy bathers runs into the water at Lake Tanganyika. Next to it is a glorious patchwork counterpane of meadows in the Isère Valley by Brassaï. In this section is also the more consciously modern and abstract vision of László Moholy-Nagy, such as his beautiful aerial shot of the Berlin Radio Tower. Then a whole wall of Brassaï’s iconic photos of Paris, such as ‘Bank of the Seine’, ‘Eiffel Tower’, ‘Champs Elysées’ and a prostitute playing Russian billiards.
A mixed wall of Kertész and Brassaï is one of the high points of the exhibition, with Kertész’s ‘Satiric Dancer’ (static on a sofa) juxtaposed with Brassaï’s celebrated shot of Matisse and his model, in turn balanced by Kertész’s ‘Chagall and his Family’. Next to them is Brassaï’s Picasso in his studio companioned by an ornate stove, and Kertész’s exquisitely structured masterpiece of Mondrian’s studio with its artificial tulip.
Robert Capa shouldn’t be ignored, master of the war photo (forgive me for not dwelling on these), but pretty good, too, at Welsh miners. Enjoy Moholy-Nagy’s Sackville Street Hatters and top hats on the playingfields of Eton, and for contrast a couple of lovely nudes by Munkácsi. Kertész in New York offers more definitive images before a section brings us up to date with Hungary’s postwar photographers.
Round the back of the Academy, in magnificent galleries once the home of the Museum of Mankind and currently leased by Haunch of Venison, is a heavy-hitting two-man show by Giuseppe Penone (born 1947) and Richard Long (born 1945). Penone comes off best, particularly with an installation of what look like large rectangular sheets of bark arranged in a grid formation on the floor. Entitled ‘Space of Sculpture — cedar skin’, these sheets are actually cast in bronze from wax impressions of cedar bark. Twenty-three of them hold the floor, while a 24th is mounted on branches for legs and draped with a leather pelt. The rucked and seamed surfaces are frozen between flatness and undulation.
Penone, who goes for the big effect, evidently favours the outsides of things, for his other spectacular exhibit is a room of vast graphite drawings on black paper mounted on canvas, called ‘Skin of Graphite’. Formidable. Less impressive is Richard Long’s contribution. However poetic his meditations in the face of nature, I am fed up with photographs and wall texts about walking, and stone circles that look out of place in galleries. I’d have more respect for him if he stayed out on the trail and only rarely ventured into galleries and museums, but there are Long exhibitions everywhere (London, Berlin, Cape Town). Back to the land, Mr Long.
Another photography show dominates the Whitechapel Gallery. My usual advice to buy the catalogue and view the show more comfortably at home doesn’t work for the German photographer Thomas Struth (born 1954). He makes such huge colour photographs (the cynical might say they were designed for museum consumption only) that you have to see them to experience their full impact.
My initial response that they were rather overblown and he was overrated was somewhat qualified by further looking. The size of the photos still annoys me, because they must be intended to be overbearing, and I don’t particularly wish to be overborne. I mean, ‘El Capitan, Yosemite National Park, California’ is a striking image, a bit contrasty for a postcard, but not bad nonetheless; except it’s 150 times larger. And the interior of San Zaccaria, Venice, has a richness to it. I dislike the portrait groups and most of the machinery images are utterly without glamour or interest for me, whether space shuttle or spectrometer. The general effect is self-indulgent and pretentious — in scale and lack of content.
On the ground floor of the Whitechapel, the most powerful image is of a semi-submersible drilling rig, squatting like a temple in a Korean shipyard. Upstairs, the most remarkable shot is ‘Cerro Morro Solar’, of man’s habitations invading and undermining a hillside in Peru. There are a number of crisp, smaller black-and-white photos, and a group of jungle close-ups that exert a certain fascination, but the other two memorable images are the urban panoramas ‘Ulsan 1 and 2’. The subtlety of colour in these vast photographs has to be seen at first hand to be appreciated.
However, I’d rather spend time in Gallery 7, where seven public figures have selected their favourite works from the Government Art Collection (until 4 September). This is the first in a series of displays organised around the little-known GAC, which holds more than 13,500 works of art spanning five centuries. Two-thirds of the collection is usually on display in offices and official residences throughout the world, and fulfils an important role of cultural diplomacy. Among the works gathered here are Lowry’s Easter fair at Daisy Nook, Cecil Stephenson’s vibrant abstract ‘Painting: Design for the Festival of Britain’ and Sickert’s ‘La Giuseppina’. But best of all is ‘In the Cellar Mirror’ by Norman Blamey (1971), a masterpiece of observational clarity by a seriously neglected artist. Worth a visit.