Philippe Halsman – Astonish Me!: In Rotterdam

It is no surprise that Rotterdam in the Netherlands is the latest city to showcase the works of groundbreaking photographer Philippe Halsman. The retrospective ‘Astonish Me!’ is a perfect supplement to the edgy streets of Amsterdam’s funky little sister; Having been re-built after the war, the unique architecture and futuristic thinking is the ideal place for visiting artists, and Halsman’s work fits seamlessly into the super modern Kunsthal Museum.

Austrian born, the self-taught photographer has an intriguing past. Halsman was wrongly committed to ten years in prison on charges of murdering his father- he was released after he had been in solitary confinement for part of the time.  With a none too certain future, he fled to Paris, but soon realised that his destiny lay not in Europe but America, and with the help of his close friend Albert Einstein, he secured an emergency visa in 1940 and sailed to the States.


He was accepted in New York, and throughout his 30-year career, he made his mark on the influential movers and shakers by welcoming them to his studio and gaining the moniker ‘Master of Portraits’. He is quoted as saying “My aim is to produce a photograph that will go down in history as the defining image of that person” which is why his images are so iconic, and gained him a record 101 covers for ‘Life’ magazine.

Openly fascinated by human nature, charismatic Halsman and his trusty assistant (who also happened to be his wife), made friends with some of the high profile subjects and began photographing them for other projects. Most famously Marilyn Monroe, Rita Hayworth, Duke Ellington, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Richard Nixon and Albert Einstein who took part in his intriguing “jumpology” series, where the subjects were caught mid jump!

Designed as a way of exposing the real character of the ‘sitter’, Halsman wanted to showcase that it is impossible to pose mid air, and this resulted in a variety of self conscious, reckless and downright silly jumps!

This is only a small part of the show, which crams in over three hundred never-before exhibited works including contact prints, vintage prints, photo-montages and personal family Christmas cards.

With Marilyn Monroe’s career taking off, Halsman is one of the photographers whom she allowed access to her sheltered life. Gaining confidence in front of the camera, the exhibition displays contact sheets ranging from her original coquettishness to a much more natural beauty.


Salvador Dali became another high profile friend, and collaborated for a series of surrealist images. Thanks to many rolls of film and Halsman’s clever wife working magic on the negatives, the images are not all that they seem!

This is a must see for art and photography lovers, offering a history lesson of ‘Who’s Who’ of the 50s and 60s, and with a plethora of other museums in the area, it is the ideal cultural weekend away.

Only 45 minutes from London City airport Rotterdam is rightly becoming a weekend break destination, and with luxury boutique hotels like the Mainport, offering stunning rooms, delicious cocktails and spa just minutes from the culture, it is the perfect place to relax after all the art.

Kunsthal, Westzeedijk 341, Rotterdam, Netherlands, +31 10 440 0301