The work of iconic French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson is celebrated in Paris.
The subtitle of a new retrospective of the 20th century’s best known photographer at the Pompidou Centre in Paris could be: Almost Everything You Know About Henri Cartier-Bresson is Wrong. Or, at least, Long Overdue a Rethink.
Its curator, Clement Cheroux, has risen to the unspoken challenge that any Cartier-Bresson exhibition now presents: how to shed new light on the life and work of an artist who so defined the medium that yet another celebration of his genius might seem superfluous.
Cheroux has wisely chosen to tackle his life chronologically, mapping out through around 500 images the stages of Cartier-Bresson’s creative development, while allowing us surprising glimpses of the private individual behind the legend. The show includes family albums, portraits of the artist, early paintings, late drawings, and even a couple of striking, surrealist-influenced collages.
The vast exhibition is a journey into a singular way of seeing that takes some circuitous but always rewarding byways and emphasises the importance of two touchstones: surrealism and radical politics. Of the former, Cartier-Bresson once said: “Surrealism has had a profound effect on me and all my life I have done my utmost never to betray it.”
In this context even familiar images take on a new sense of suggestion; well-observed tableaux that capture the innate absurdism of the everyday.
Among all the deftly-observed human drama, a series of interior shots of the offices of the Nazi SS on Avenue Foch, Paris, are ominously suggestive and almost unidentifiable as Cartier-Bresson photographs. A group of nine images from Dessau records the interrogation of a female prison guard who cowers as she is berated, then beaten, by former inmates. These stills give way to a section of a short film showing the same event in all its unsettling power.
Out of this tireless chronicling of a tumultuous decade came Cartier-Bresson’s commitment to Magnum, and a second life as a global reportage photographer. Well-known images are included here: Matisse sketching at home; an owlish Sartre deep in thought.
Elsewhere there are a handful of quietly sensual images, including one of his wife Martine Franck’s long, stockinged legs resting on a sofa, as well as a few rare snapshots of the master at work taken by accomplices. One senses that for all his wanderings, real and artistic, Cartier-Breson was most at home as a photographer observing people.
> Henri Cartier-Bresson’s retrospective is running at Centre Pompidou, Paris in France (www.centrepompidou.fr) till June 9.