Through more than five hundred photographs, drawings, paintings, films and documents, the Centre Pompidou
is devoting a completely new retrospective to the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson: the first in Europe since the artists death.
The public are invited to journey through over seventy years of work that established the photographer as a key figure in modernity.
The exhibition reveals his work far beyond the decisive moment that long sufficed to sum up his genius for composition and skill in capturing movement. Ten years after his death, now that the thousands of prints he left to posterity have been brought together by the foundation that bears his name, the exhibition proposes a genuine reinterpretation of Henri Cartier-Bressons work. The man known as «the eye of the century» was one of the great witnesses of our history.
The Centre Pompidou retrospective illustrates the depth and variety of his work and his wide-ranging career as a photographer one that covered Surrealism, the Spanish Civil War, the Second World War, decolonisation and the Cold War.
The exhibition features the photographers iconic pictures, but also puts the spotlight on lesser-known images. It reassesses a number of little-known photo reports, brings to light collections of paintings and drawings, and focuses on Cartier-Bressons forays into the world of film.
Both chronological and thematic, the circuit is structured around three main viewpoints: the period between 1926 and 1935, marked by his contact with the Surrealists, his early work as a photographer and his travels all over the world; a second section devoted to Cartier-Bressons political commitment when he returned from the US in 1936 until he set off for New York again in 1946, and a third sequence opening with the creation of Magnum Photos in 1947 and finishing with the early Seventies, when Cartier-Bresson stopped doing photo reports.
Most of the major retrospectives dedicated to Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) in recent years have striven to define the unity of his vision. However, the photographers career was long: beginning at the end of the 1920s, it only ended at the dawn of the 21st century and saw various periods of development, making it difficult to reduce into one single stylistic entity. In contrast to these unifying approaches, this exhibition aims to show that there was not just one but several Cartier-Bressons.
Until his death in 2004, all solo exhibitions supervised by the photographer featured photographs printed specifically for the occasion as a single set of prints in one or two formats, on paper of the same quality of grain, tonality and surface. This resulted in a great uniformity, which tended to even out the diversity of the work. This retrospective respects the historical temporality of the images production, by choosing, as far as possible, prints produced at the time they were taken.
Encompassing Surrealism, May 1968, the Spanish Civil War, decolonisation and the thirty-year post-war boom, the exhibition chronologically retraces Cartier-Bressons journey. Ten years after his death, and from a body of work produced over several years, it presents, far beyond the myths and clichés, a reinterpretation of the immense body of images he left behind. Through more than 500 photographs, drawings, paintings, films and documents, bringing together his most iconic images, as well as the lesser-known, the exhibition intends to construct a history of his work and, through it, of the century.
I have always been passionate about painting, writes Cartier-Bresson. As a child, I painted on Thursdays and Sundays, and dreamed about it every other day. The young boy began to draw very early on. He decorated his letters with little drawings and filled notebooks with sketches. At the same time, he began to take amateur photographs. From the middle of the 1920s, he regularly painted with Jacques-Émile Blanche and Jean Cottenet, before joining André Lhotes academy. The oldest preserved paintings date from 1924. They are obviously influenced by Paul Cézanne. The young man contracted the geometry bug in André Lhotes studio. The canvases he painted between 1926 and 1928 are very carefully composed according to the principles of the golden section. At the same time, Cartier-Bresson began to spend time with the Surrealists and to produce collages in the style of his friend Max Ernst.
Henri Cartier-Bressons photographic work arose from a combination of factors: an artistic predisposition, unremitting study, personal ambition, a little spirit of the times, personal aspirations and a great many encounters. It all began in the 1920s, under the twin stars of painting and amateur photography, then developed through several defining moments, such as his trip to Africa in 1930-1931. His work shows evidence of his love of art, and the hours spent reading and observing paintings in museums. It was profoundly marked by the teachings of André Lhote and his American friends: Julien Levy, Caresse, Harry Crosby, Gretchen and Peter Powel. From the first, he became acquainted with the pleasures of composition. In the company of the rest, he discovered the photographs of Eugène Atget and of the Nouvelle Vision. The first Cartier-Bresson is the product of these various influences: a complex alchemy.
The Surrealist influence
Via the intermediary René Crevel, whom he met through Jacques-Émile Blanche, Cartier-Bresson spent time with the Surrealists around 1926. Too shy and too young to talk, as he would later say, he took part at the end of the table in several meetings held by André Breton in the cafés on Place Blanche. From these associations, he retained a number of motifs emblematic of the Surrealists world, like wrapped objects, deformed bodies and dreamers with closed eyes etc. But he was even more influenced by the Surrealist attitude: the subversive spirit, a liking for games, the importance given to the subconscious, the joy of strolling through the streets, and a certain predisposition to embracing chance. Cartier-Bresson would be particularly touched by the principles of convulsive beauty set out by Breton and would continue to put them into practice during the 1930s. From this point of view, he is without doubt one of the most authentically Surrealist photographers of his generation.
Like most of his Surrealist friends, Cartier-Bresson shared many of the Communists political positions: a fierce anti-colonialism, an unswerving commitment to the Spanish Republicans and a profound belief in the need to change life. After the violent riots organised in Paris by the far right leagues in February 1934, which at the time were viewed as a danger of rise in European fascism expanding into France, his activism became more tangible. He signed several tracts on the call to the struggle and unity of action by the forces of the left. During his travels to Mexico and the United States in 1934-1935, most people he met were highly involved in the revolutionary struggle. On his return to Paris in 1936, Cartier-Bresson was radicalised: he regularly took part in the activities of the AEAR (association of revolutionary writers and artists) and began to work for the Communist press.
Cinema and war
Cartier-Bresson said of cinema that it had taught him to see. It was during his trip to Mexico in 1934 that the first indications of his desire to produce films himself appeared. The cinema interested him within the context of his own activism. As he could address a larger audience than through photography and would be better able to pass on the message through a structural narrative. In 1935, in the United States, he learnt the basics of the film camera from a cooperative of documentary filmmakers inspired by the political and aesthetic ideas of the Soviets and united around Paul Strand under the name of Nykino, a contraction of the initials of New York and of the word cinema in Russian. With them, he produced his first short film. On his return to Paris in 1936, after having tried without success to get hired as an assistant by Georg Wilhelm Pabst, then by Luis Buñuel, he began a collaboration with Jean Renoir which would last until the war.
The decision to become a photojournalist
In February 1947, Cartier-Bresson inaugurated his first major institutional retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. Several months later, with Robert Capa, David Seymour, George Rodger and William Vandivert, he founded the Magnum agency, which rapidly became one of the worlds leaders for quality photojournalism. After his exhibition at the MoMa, Cartier-Bresson could have chosen to be purely an artist. But he decided to become a full reporter and get involved in the Magnum adventure. From 1947, and up until the beginning of the 1970s, he took many trips and produced numerous photo-reports from all four corners of the globe, working for almost all of the major international illustrated magazines. In spite of the press constraints, the media systems limited time frames and the contingencies of commissions, Cartier-Bresson would nevertheless maintain a high level of excellence in his photographic production during his decades of reportage.
In parallel to his photo-reports, Cartier-Bresson also regularly photographed certain subjects in every country he visited and over many years. Produced alongside his photo-reports, or completely independently, these series of images ask some of the great questions of society in the second half of the 20th century and therefore have a real research value. They are not the result of a commission, they were not taken in the hurry imposed by the press and they are a lot more ambitious than much reportage. These thematic and cross-disciplinary surveys that Cartier-Bresson himself describes as a combination of reportage, philosophy and analysis (social, psychological and other) belong to the field of visual anthropology, a method of understanding man in which the tools of analogue recording play an essential role. I am visual, said Cartier-Bresson moreover [
]. I observe, I observe, I observe. Its with the eyes that I understand.
From the 1970s, Cartier-Bresson, who was then over sixty years of age, gradually stopped taking reportage commissions, i.e. taking photographs within a restrictive framework. Given that Magnum moved a little further away each day from the original spirit behind its foundation, he withdrew from the agencys affairs. His international renown continued to grow: he became a living legend. In France, he embodied, almost alone, the institutional recognition of photography. Which obviously did not please him. He spent a great deal of time supervising the organisation of his archives, sales of his prints and the production of books and exhibitions. Even though he had officially stopped being a photographer, he still kept his Leica within reach and occasionally produced more contemplative images. But above all, he frequently visited museums and exhibitions and spent most of his time drawing.