31 May 2019

Eva Besnyo: Photojournalism as Art

What is it about Budapest and photographers?  For most of his life, the Budapest native Andre Kertesz (1894-1981), now lauded as the father of photojournalism, was known as "the unknown soldier" of modern photography even though he was the first to receive  a solo exhibition of his work (at Galerie au Sacre du Printemps, Paris) in 1927.  And then there is Eva Besnyo (1910-2003).  It was not until 2012 that her work was the subject of a retrospective in Paris at Jeu de Paume (L'image sensible).  One of the few times Besnyo's work has been shown in the United States was when a single picture was included in the hugely successful exhibition (and accompanying book) The Family of Man at the Museum of Modern Art in  1955.  Curated by Edward Steichen, it was sentimental mishmash and brought little attention to the Hungarian/Dutch Besnyo which was a missed opportunity for American viewers.

For her work as a pioneer of photojournalism recognition was long in coming.  In the Depression days of the 1930s when Besnyo was starting her career, her nearest American counterpart, Dorothea Lange, was up to something entirely different.  Besnyo's objectivity and lack of romanticism in images do not manipulate the viewer's emotions as Lange intended hers to do.  Taken on vacation in the summer of 1931, Besnyo's little gypsy boy, an outcast in Hungarian society, carries the battered cello that earns his subsistence across his back (note the diagonals, a ptominent feature in Besnyo's work).  We may interpret his carrying a burden larger than he is as a commentary on his prospects in life but that is our interpretation.  Besnyo observes.

The Besnyos of Budapest changed their name from Blumengrund to make it easier for the father, a lawyer, to succeed professionally in the anti-Semitic climate of Hungary.  Her father gave Eva her first camera, a Kodak Brownie, when the girl was fifteen.  It was Eva who encouraged the boy next store to try photography; he did and went on to become famous under his new name - Robert Capa.  Both would raise photojournalism to an art form: neither were attracted to the pictorialism  popularized through Alfred Stieglitz's journal Camera Work.

Rather than attend university like her sisters as their father wished, Eva apprenticed herself to photographer Josef Pecsi.   At his studio from 1928 to 1930 she learned about micro-photography (see the work of French photographer Laure-Albin Guillot). But it was the gift of a book from her friend Gyorgy Kepes that changed her life, she later said.  The book was The World is Beautiful (Die Welt ist Schon) by a German avant-garde photographer Albert Renger-Patszch and it introduced her to the movement New Objectivity that influenced her future course.

Bela Besnyo would have preferred his daughter move to Paris than to the Sodom-and-Gomorrah that was Weimar Berlin.  "Paris is romantic," Eva admitted, "but you can learn so much in Berlin."  So Berlin it would be and when Besnyo arrived there in 1930 with her new Rolliflex she found work at Rene Ahrle's advertising agency and then a job as a photojournalist with Neofot, a picture agency similar to the Bonney Agency in Paris..   In a further bid for independence Besnyo opened her own studio the next year, becoming part of a generation of women who achieved economic and personal freedom through photojournalism.  Making street life their subject they legitimized their presence in public life.

When Hitler came to power in 1932 life in Germany became stressful for Jews.  Nazi brown-shirts roamed the streets, attacking people with impunity.  Besnyo was early to recognize the need to plan for a way out. She eventually married John Fernhout, a Dutch cameraman who was the son of a well known artist Charley Toorop.  Even when the relationship ended Besnyo remained close to her mother-in-law who helped her find her way professionally in her adopted country.  After the Nazis occupied the Netherlands in 1940 Besnyo was forbidden to work openly so she subsisted on the few private commissions she was able to scrape.  Eventually she went underground, using forged identity papers.  Her beloved father was killed at Auschwitz in 1944 while the rest of her family survived.  Her photographic archives were destroyed by aerial bombing.

Giving birth to a son in 1945 and a daughter in 1948, Besnyo had experienced the difficulties of working and being a parent and so was immediately sympathetic to the Dutch feminist movement, Dolle Mina in the 1970s.   Her work at this time became more socially engaged and her wit and humor,  previously in the background of her work came to the forefront. You get an inkling of it from her photograph of a garage sale in 1950s Amsterdam; a jumble sale does resemble the layers of an onion opening to the viewer/buyer.
Besnyo's great strength as a photographer may work against her visibility, it is that she has no signature style. From Budapest to Berlin to the Netherlands where her works have been memorialized in a series of stamps there is always another revelation around the corner. 

Images: Eva Besnyo, photographs courtesy of Maria Arthuria Instituut, Amsterdam.
1. Eva with Rene Ahrle, Berlin, 1931.
2, Roma boy with cello at Lake Balaton, summer of 1931.
3. Interior of Dutch Haka consumer cooperative at Jutphaas, 1934.
4. Yard sale at Prinsengracht in Amsterdam, 1950s.

08 May 2019

At Fin-de-Siecle Vienna: Peter Altenberg's Front Row Seat

"There are only two things that can destroy a healthy man: love trouble, ambition, and financial catastrophe. And that's already three things and there are a lot more."

While the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) averred that he needed to walk in order to think, the first identified "urban flaneur" was Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), stalking life through the streets of Paris. Baudelaire, the inveterate walker, and Peter Altenberg who preferred to watch the world go by from a table in a Viennese cafe were compatriots of the pen.

Long prone to melancholy, Altenberg became dependent on alcohol and a variety of other drugs. He also suffered from insomnia, having no reason to keep regular hours.  After being committed to mental institutions four times  during the period 1909-13, his pessimism only increased with the outbreak of World War I. At a time when many regarded Austria as a charming asylum, Altenberg actually ended his days in one, dying there of pneumonia in 1919.

"Do you recognize that stack of empty slivovitz bottles?!?  Indeed I know, they're mine - " Ebullient punctuation and succinctness,  Altenberg is our contemporary.  As is his gimlet eye for social cruelties and his unseemly relishing of pretty young girls.

 Altenberg revealed himself to be conflicted in ways familiar to us.  A man who praised the pastoral life, yet  never deserted cafes  and their creature comforts, a Nietschean believer in the primacy of the aesthetic, yet a  champion of the rights of  working people who found beauty in humble things disdained by his peers. Unusually for a man of his time and place, Altenberg displayed empathy for  women, children and servants.  In The People Don't Always Feel Altogether Social Democratic we find him arguing for equality as the carriage with driver he is riding in buttresses class distinctions. He brushed aside the extreme social stratification of his time  like a annoying cobweb.  If this contradicts what I just wrote in the previous paragraph, well, that's Peter Altenberg for you.

In writing as in life, Altenberg elided the contradictions between bourgeois respectability and sexual expression, frequently consorting with prostitutes and demimondaines while maintaining a Romantic's attitude to women.  When a young woman he was wooing protested that his interest in her was only sexual, he replied "What's so only?" Persecution Complex is Altenberg's argument with Sigmund Freud and the radical new  psychoanalysis.  Altenberg  himself had been diagnosed with "over-excitation of the nervous system," resulting in an "incapacity for gainful employment," a diagnosis  that left him free to pursue the bohemian life he preferred. This did not prevent him from portraying his psychiatrist as a humorless stuffed shirt in Sanitorium for the Mentally Imbalanced

He may  not  be well known to non-German readers, but Altenberg has always been a favorite of other writers. Thomas Mann  recalled reading of Altenberg as "love at first sound." His friend, the playwright Arthur Schnitzler, dubbed Altenberg a "professional neurotic" but was eager to steal his ideas. Franz Kafka described Altenberg's talent for  "finding the splendours of the world like cigarette butts in the ashtrays of coffee houses."   Altenberg and Schnitzler were nominated to be co-recipients of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1914 but no prize was awarded that year.

Who was Peter Altenberg?  Born in 1859 to a prosperous Jewish family that supported him throughout his life, Altenberg's finances were also supplemented through the patronage of admiring friends.  He showed no inclination to pursue a career, motivation was never a strong point with him. He failed his high school composition examinations even though he was a talented writer. Nevertheless, Altenberg published eleven books while never making a living from them.  Camping out in a series of cheap hotel rooms, Altenberg's real life was lived in the cafes where he spent most of his time, absorbing atmosphere, intuiting the psychic states of those around him, and writing everything down. He was a self-described "little pocket mirror" that reflected the world as he found it  "(I) loathe and revile people yet can't live without them." 

Altenberg also wrote poetry on the backs of the postcards he collected, postcards having been a  recent Austrian invention (1869).  This habit inspired his friend Alban Berg to compose Five Songs On Postcards to  lyrics by Altenberg.  Berg was a composer of the Second Viennese School, meaning he combined romantic lyricism with the arbitrary rigor of the twelve-tone row. When the piece premiered in 1913, the audience rioted and the piece was withdrawn, not to be performed again until 1952. At the time, people said that within a week, half the audience had taken themselves to the couch of Dr. Freud.

Altenberg's "telegrams" written on the fly and published in newspapers. They belong to a genre called the feuilleton,  a term  from French suggesting at once sheets of paper and the flutter of little leaves.  They appeared in such popular publications of the day as Ver SacrumSimplississmus, PanJugendWendingen  and Die Bombe (The Bomb). He also wrote poetry on the backs of the postcards he collected, postcards being a recent Austian invention (1869).  This habit inspired his friend Alban Berg to compose Five Songs On Postcards with lyrics by Altenberg. When the music premiered in 1913, the audience rioted and the piece was withdrawn, not to be performed again until 1952. At the time, people said that within a week, half the audience had taken themselves to the couch of Dr. Freud!

As the  Habsburg Empire slid ever closer to political instability, Vienna remained a charming place to escape the exigencies of daily life. The educated class had come to regard political activity as futile, so narcissism was a ready escape. The writer Theodore Herzl, only nineteen  in 1879, identified the neurotic personality of his time as one "falling in love with his own spirit, and thus of losing any standard of judgment." If this sounds to our own preoccupations, then reason enough to pay attention to Altenberg now

Oskar Koksochka (1886-1980) wrote poetry and plays but his portraits and landscapes,  the embodiment of expressionist, are his lasting legacy.  Kokoschka said that when he painted portraits he painted the soul of his sitter and not their likeness or, as he wrote in his autobiography, "the distillation of a human being that would survive in my memory."  Kokoschka's Altenberg, balding and mustachioed,  reveals angst in every fiber of his face and hands.  However, one sitter, Adolf Loos, was so taken with the artist's version of himself that he said "This picture is more like me than I am."

In Telegrams of the Soul Peter Altenberg is well-served by his translator Peter Wortsman (Brooklyn, Archipelago Books: 2005).

1. Oskar Kokoschka - Portrait of Peter Altenberg, 1909, oil on canvas,  private collection, New York.
2. Ludwig von Zumbach  - cover art for Jugend magazine, 1896, Albertina Museum, Vienna.