The photographs of Eva Besnyö (1910–2003) are hardly known in America. This fact was made clear to me before my recent trip to Paris, when no one recommended that I go see an exhibition of her work at the Jeu de Paume. Not surprisingly, the recommendations that came in included exhibitions devoted to R. Crumb, to Gerhard Richter, and to Christopher Wool.
Before going to any of the recommended shows, I decided to see the Besnyö exhibition. I knew almost nothing about her, and what little I did know I got from looking at thumbnail images on the internet. I had the feeling that if I didn’t see this show, it was unlikely that I would have another chance to see a large selection of her work. The artists were international stars; Besnyö was not and most likely never would be.
(One of the only times her work was shown in America was when it was included in the poorly conceived, thematically-driven, highly successful photography exhibition The Family of Man exhibition curated by Edward Steichen at the Museum of Modern Art in 1955. There were 508 photographs in that exhibition, guaranteeing that no one could look at all the work carefully. Steichen wanted to prove the universality of human experience, which assured that the show would fall into the pit of sentimentality and bathos. It was a sad misuse of photography by Steichen, who should have known better).
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Here are a few facts about Eva Besnyö: She was born in Budapest, the second of three girls. Her father was Bela Blumengrund (1877-1944) and her mother was Ilona Kelemen (1883 – 1981). She was Jewish, and her father, who was a lawyer, changed his name to the Hungarian sounding one in order to get ahead. She grew up fluent in Hungarian and German.
In 1928, rather than attending the university like her older sister, Panna, she became a student of the relatively forward thinking, Hungarian photographer Jozef Pesci. In 1929, while still Pesci’s student, she received a copy of the photo album Die Welt ist Schon (The World is Beautiful) by the German photographer Albert Renger-Patzsch. According to Besnyö, the book changed her life. It is also in 1929 that she began making the photographs that reveal Renger-Patzsch’s immediate impact as well as Besnyö’s ability to look at the the harsh facts of everyday life without becoming sentimental.
Die Welt ist Schon consists of 100 photographs of objects, nature, advertising and architecture. Everything is treated in the same detached, objective manner. Karl Kraus characterized the book as “Red Indians gaping at civilization.” Walter Benjamin asserted that the photographs were about their salability rather than about knowledge, triggering a debate that continues unabated.
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Renger-Patzsch was associated with the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity), an attitude towards life and art that many Germans understood as distinctly American: the cult of the objective. Along with Regner-Patzsch, August Sander is another photographer associated with this tendency. (Karl Hubbuch, Otto Dix and Christian Schad are among the painters associated with it). The difference between the two photographers is that the human being is at the center of Sander’s work, while the world of things is at the center of Renger-Patcsch’s. Besnyö situates herself between the two, finding her own way.
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The other influence on Besnyö was Låslø Moholy-Nagy’s New Vision, a term he coined to define his belief that photography enabled the viewer to see the world in ways the eyes could not. In 1930, at the age of 20, she moved to Berlin, rather than to Paris, where Hungarian photographers such as Andre Kertesz and Brassaï had gone. According to Besnyö, “The whole German side interested me. Paris was the Romantic, old-fashioned trend. The second reason was Gyørgy Kepes, who was a good friend of mine and had gone to Berlin as an assistant to Moholy.”
It was Gyørgy Kepes who said to Besnyö; “If you want to be a photographer, you must go to Berlin.” It was from this relationship and the circle around Moholy-Nagy that Besnyö learned of Russian Constructivism and began incorporating the diagonal into her photographs.
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I made two trips to Besnyö’s exhibition. While looking at it for the second time, it occurred to me that one way to introduce her to an American audience unfamiliar with her work is to consider it in relationship to American counterparts such as Dorothea Lange and Helen Leavitt, among others.
The point of these comparisons is not to suggest that one photographer is better than the other, but to begin to grasp what is unique about Besnyö’s vision, and how it was informed by the aesthetics of New Objectivity (or what the Germans considered distinctly American).
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Besnyö is part of the generation of women who took up photography between 1920–1940, in part because it enabled them to gain a level of economic freedom that women had not previously attained. They could become self-supporting through their work. They could also take the streets as their subject matter.
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Ranging from the experimental to the photojournalistic, from street scenes to portraits, and from new architecture to the aftermath of the aerial bombardment of Rotterdam, July 1940, Besnyö explored the different terrains that photography was opening up, while at the same time helping to define them. The various bodies of work make it difficult to characterize her.
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One of Besnyö’s iconic images is “Boy with Cello” (1931), which she took during a visit to Hungary. The photograph shows a Gypsy boy from behind. (The Gypsy people were outcasts in Hungarian society.) He is walking down the middle of a tree-lined road, which extends into deep space. On his back is an immense cello — it is larger than the boy — that sits diagonally on his back, going from the lower left-hand corner to the upper right hand corner.
If we compare Besnyö’s “Boy with Cello” to Dorothea Lange’s best-known image, “Migrant Mother” (1936), the formal differences are immediately apparent. Lange’s photograph is a portrait, with the woman’s lined, stoic face the center of the viewer’s attention. On each side of her, a child’s head rests on her shoulders. She is their strength, what holds the family together. She looks off into the distance, as if unsure of what the future will bring.
Lange was a humanist, who believed that her photographs could arouse the viewers’ sympathy, broaden their awareness of the plight of others, and move them to action.
Besnyö had less lofty goals, but that doesn’t mean her photograph is less powerful. We see the boy from behind, carrying his only means of survival. He seems to be completely on his own, with no family or loved ones. The cello’s diagonally oriented strings fold a formal element into the photograph, dividing it into two triangles and endowing it with an emotional distance. We cannot see the boy’s face, which suggests that we might intuit his plight, though we will never know it.
Each of these photographs comments on the space between the photographer and the subject, with Lange suggesting that it can be bridged, and Besnyö advancing that gap cannot be overcome.
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Besnyö’s oeuvre includes many photographs of children. The earliest ones are from 1930 and the latest one included in the exhibition is from 1960. It is hard to know how many of these she took. Both world events and her private life interrupted her photography. Unlike her American counterparts, Besnyö left her native country to broaden her possibilities. While she was able to get out of Berlin before the Nazis took over, she could no longer publish under her own name during the war because she was Jewish (she eventually went underground in the Netherlands and forged passport photographs and identity papers). She made discrete bodies of work, which, superficially at least, seem to have little to do with other groupings within her oeuvre. And yet, despite the interruptions and restrictions she had to endure, she became a modern master.
In “Borgerstraat, Amsterdam” (1960), the image is of a recessed area of a building façade featuring two doorways that form a V. The view is from an angle, so that we see only a slice of the space. All the visible protagonists are children. A girl seen in profile is looking into the doorway; she forms with the edge of a wood-framed store window that divides the photograph about a third of the way across, starting from the right side. A boy is standing behind the girl, looking over her should at the photographer; the look on his face is surprised, mirthful and conspiratorial.
Between the girl standing on the street and boy standing just inside the doorway is another girl, who is lying on her back with her legs raised above her head, her bare legs and underwear visible to everyone standing around her.
Innocence, the allure of experience, and the desire for knowledge have meshed together into an image that implicates everyone, including the viewer. The entanglement of those looking at the image is what makes the photograph so powerful. The boy sees us looking at the girl lying on her back, whose face remains hidden. The transition from innocence to experience is seldom smooth. In their own way, all the children are stumbling towards the future.
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“Borgerstraat, Amsterdam” could be placed beside any of Helen Levitt’s photographs of children. It is at once full of innocence and more sexually edgy than Levitt’s work. And it is certainly not the only memorable image of children Besnyö made. And yet, as far as I could tell from the exhibition and accompanying catalogue, she is not known for her photographs of children. In fact, she seems to have no signature body of work, which is one of her abiding strengths. Just when you think you have gotten some sense of her, she slips through your fingers. (For in calling attention to these two photographs, I haven’t mentioned the aerial views of street scenes, the photographs of men working on Alexanderplatz, the advertisements, the ruins of Rotterdam after it was bombed, the cast shadows of the photographer on her subject matter, which anticipate Lee Friedlander, the bathers at the lakes at Wannsee, and portraits of women doing men’s jobs.) That’s one feature that held my attention while making me curious to learn more.
Eva Besnyö, 1910–2003: l’image sensible continues at the Jeu de Paume (1, place de la Concorde, Paris, France) until September 23.