Lluís Reverter, secretary general of la Caixa Foundation, opened A Floating World. Photographs by Jacques Henri Lartigue (1894-1986), accompanied by the exhibition curators, Florian Rodari, Martine d'Astier de la Vigerie. The exhibition was organised and produced by la Caixa
Social Outreach Programmes in cooperation with the Donation Jacques Henri Lartigue, the body established to conserve and disseminate the donation that the photographer made to the French government in 1979, and which loaned all the pieces in the exhibition at CaixaForum Madrid.
As part of its cultural programmes, la Caixa Social Outreach Programmes focuses particularly on the most contemporary art, work created in the 20th and 21st centuries. In exhibitions devoted to the cinema cine and photography, la Caixa seeks to illustrate the influence that images exercise on contemporary sensibilities and to highlight the role that the great 20th-century visual artists play in defining our vision of the world. To this end, la Caixa has organised anthological exhibitions devoted to such great names in photography as Eugène Atget, Robert Doisneau, William Klein, Diane Arbus, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Willy Ronis and filmmakers like Charles Chaplin and Federico Fellini.
On this occasion, la Caixa Social Outreach Programmes presents the first major anthological exhibition devoted in Spain to Jacques Henri Lartigue (Courbevoie, 1894 Nice, 1986), without doubt one of the greatest photographers of the last century. Entitled A Floating World. Photographs by Jacques Henri Lartigue (1894-1986), the show illustrates the interests of a man devoted to exploring, with the greatest sensitivity and under an appearance of happiness and nonchalance, the emerging concerns of a period marked by radical change.
Lartigues photographs date to a period that was shaken by events and great social changes (World War One, the Russian Revolution, the Nazi occupation of France, and so on), yet he does not focus on such conflicts. On the contrary; he seeks to portray innocence, spontaneity and the joy of being alive.
Reflecting the artists fragile, moving gaze, the exhibition A Floating World. Photographs by Jacques Henri Lartigue (1894-1986) also depicts the new lifestyles that emerged during the early-20th century, when women began to play an active role in society and technological progress generated new forms of leisure.
The fact that Lartigue took photographs for his own pleasure has made it impossible for either curators or critics to really classify his work. As a result, his photographs are usually presented in chronological order, or grouped by theme. On this occasion, however, the organisers have decided to go one step further and to demonstrate, from a approach never before taken with this artist, the extent to which these images, admired for their grace and beauty, form a unique document that illustrate a period and a way of life that have since disappeared; that of the French bourgeoisie in the last century.
A Floating World. Photographs by Jacques Henri Lartigue (1894-1986) features more than 230 exhibits. Of these, 182 are modern prints of Lartigues photographs, whilst the show also includes 18 modern recreations of his stereoscopic pictures with their original three-dimensional effect. Lartigue took these pictures with a stereoscopic camera, a device very much in fashion at the time, in the attempt to capture reality in all its dimensions.
The show is completed by a section entitled The Supports of Memory, whose aim is to give visitors an insight into the different techniques that Lartigue used to create and organise his works. The section includes 23 vintage prints, produced between 1905 and 1926, as well as 3 cameras that belonged to Lartigue, some stereoscopic glasses, 8 autochrome prints (coloured photographs), four albums of original photographs and 6 volumes of the diaries and agendas that he kept throughout his life.
1894-1986: a lifetime devoted to taking photographs
Jacques Henri Lartigue occupies a very special place in the history of photography: that of a talented amateur who always spoke of painting as his principal passion and regarded photography as a secondary occupation. However, from 1902, when he was eight years old, until his death in 1986, taking photographs was like breathing for him.
Lartigue was born in Courbevoie, near Paris, in 1894, into a family of industrialists. His father bought him his first padre camera when he was eight years old, and at a very young age Jacques Henri began to keep a diary formed by photographs and short texts. This habit stayed with him all his life, and the diaries now form an extraordinary document portraying the lifestyle of a generation that discovered, amongst other things, fashion, sport, and motor racing.
Lartigue was a sickly child who soon learned how quickly his happiness could disappear. For this reason he decided to narrate his life and, through the story he told, to construct his own persona, just as, by constantly portraying it, he built his own happiness. For Lartigue, happiness is indissociable from its preservation; this joy must be retained through writing, photography, and albums the final stage in creating his autobiography.
Throughout his life, Lartigue conserved the fresh outlook of childhood and the insatiable curiosity of youth. His photographs celebrate the present moment whilst concealing the anguish that the passing of time caused him.
Discovered by chance, late in life, in 1963, when he was nearly 70 years old, by John Szarkowski, then curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in Nueva York, Lartigue became known and recognised in his native France and throughout the world thanks to the glory he achieved in the United States. In 1974, the French president, Valéry Giscard dEstaing, invited Lartigue to take his official photograph. It was the firm friendship that grew up between the two that persuaded Lartigue to donate his entire work to the Republic in 1979.
The Passing of Time
Even from childhood, Jacques Henri Lartigue was obsessed with remembering all his experiences, and it was this obsession that led him to make photography an instrument of memory. This need to remember, so deeply rooted in the young Lartigue, was closely related to his desire to trap happiness. He saw memory and happiness as two realities that are exposed to the same threat of disappearing, and his genius was in photographing neither memory nor happiness, but what constitutes their essence: fragility. In Lartigues photographs, happiness is always related to the human body and its interaction with the space around it. Happy people are buffeted by waves or gusts of wind, struck by sunlight. Bodies constantly lose their verticality and rise up again from the ground. To photograph happiness, the artist needs the ability to capture almost imperceptible movements: a sudden, fleeting gaze, a gesture made whilst falling off-balance.
A Modern Gaze
Lartigues gaze as a photographer comprehends the ambiguous nature of reality, that what is infinitesimally small can be larger than what is very big, and that what is slow can reach the same speed as what is fast. His photography captures that essence, and this is where the truth resides in his work, for Lartigue is a veritable master at conjuring up the instant. Although they appear static, his photographs always point to the possible continuation of time, a way of escaping ordinary restrictions and perspectives.
To accentuate this impression of ambiguity, Lartigue makes masterful use of framing at different stages in the photographic process. Firstly, at the moment he presses the shutter release. At that moment, his camera is a prolongation of his body. At times, the camera is at ground level, reproducing a childs amazed vision of the adult world. At others, it adopts the pace of a passer-by or a cyclist shooting down a slope. At yet other times, his framing is the result of a reflection, particularly when Lartigue is working in the dark room: this is where he manipulates his images, enlarging a detail or cutting part to intensify the overall effect.
Lartigue gradually took framing more and more into account when taking his photographs. His works feature countless architectural elements doors, windows, plays of shadows, gaps discovered, mirrors in which his characters appear trapped. Rather than finding anything to hold onto amidst the lines all around them, though, his subjects seem to float through them unchecked.
In the early-20th century, a great transformation completely redefined our perception of reality: the idea of speed. Distances were reduced thanks to the technological revolution in transport whilst, thanks to Einstein, time became relative.
In his youth, Lartigue attempted to capture the physical reality of speed, to translate, through his images, his feelings about machines. He pursued this goal above all at automobile racetracks, where his father, a great motor racing fan, used to take him. In his photographs, Lartigue manages to show us what he felt about the experience of speed: a reduced, compressed space, often deformed, the violent transformation of the field of vision.
Born at the time of the first modern Olympics, into a family in which sport played an important role in education, Lartigue was an excellent tennis player as a young man, as well as one of the first people in France to regularly practice winter sports. Speed fascinated him, and he spent his whole life combating the bodys rigid restrictions. He also sought to reflect this aim in his sports photography, and to this end, lines move, spaces become enlarged and new perspectives emerge constantly.
Lartigues most frequent dream as a child was of flying. It is no surprise, therefore, that aviation should have fascinated him from an early age. In 1904, he was in Normandy to witness, with his camera, Gabriel Voisins attempts to take off, capturing the aviators first flight a few metres above the ground. From 1907, moreover, he began to regularly visit airfields with his brother, and his childhood dream finally came true in 1916 when he flew in an aircraft for the first time. It would be no easy task to count the number of jumps and take-offs that we can find in Lartigues work; for him, these leaps are an image of life itself, a symbol of vitality.
However, every jump is followed by a fall, every ascent by a descent. Leaps, somersaults and climbs nearly always end in the crash to earth, in a big splash, and in laughter. Lartigues photographs are imbued with a light tone as they defy gravity.
There are only young, beautiful women in Lartigues universe. The constant quest for happiness and beauty that he had embarked on in youth completely excludes all deformity, all sign of aging, staying at arms-length from anything that might mar a sunny day or remind us of ugliness and death.
In spring 1910, when he was not yet 16, Lartigue discovered fashion and, above all, models. For months, his camera slung over his shoulder, he patrolled the avenues around the Bois de Boulogne, near his home, where distinguished ladies used to walk out at particular times to show off their new dresses.
However, what our young photographer sought to capture was not their fashionable garments but, rather, the elegance of the women themselves. His first portraits of these promenading ladies are marked by new distance, revealing the fear he felt towards the female universe, a fear caused by the difference in ages and by his sexual desire. Affected by his erotic feelings, Lartigue hides. Hence the oblique framing he uses to portray these women, the very low angle he adopts. As he gains in experience, however, Lartigues gaze changes, and he looks his lovers in the eye. In contrast to the rest of his work, Lartigue explicitly asks these languid ladies to do nothing, not to move.
In Search of the Unknown
In the early-20th century, everyone dreamed about enjoying the new pleasures offered by speed and sport and of exploring the new territories that this modern age was constantly discovering. The young photographer and his brother Zissou also played out such dreams as children, dressing up as their favourite heroes: aviators, racing drivers, explorers of distant worlds, etc. Caps, goggles and fur coats turn their wearers into extraterrestrials. This group of photographs features a new type of explorers, masked figures weighed down by their peculiar attire, practically unable to move.
Finally, the last section in the exhibition illustrates Lartigues fascination with the infinite and nature, where people confront their solitude. In this part of Lartigues work, individuals appear to have little more consistency than a blade of straw; they are like ghosts swayed by winds or drifting at the mercy of the waves. Our time on earth is ephemeral; that is what these images repeat to us constantly as they show the impossibility of holding onto happiness and remind us that we are but transitory inhabitants of this world.