Musée de l'Elysée opens a retrospective of René Burri's work
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Musée de l'Elysée opens a retrospective of René Burri's work
René Burri, Les procès des manifestants de la place Tian’anmen vus à la télévision dans une chambre à l’hôtel de la Paix, Shanghai, Chine, 1989 © René Burri / Magnum Photos. Fondation René Burri, courtesy Musée de l’Elysée, Lausanne.

LAUSANNE.- René Burri was born in 1933 and died in 2014 in Zurich, Switzerland. Throughout his life, he was on the front line of global history. He joined Magnum Photos in 1955, becoming one of its members in 1959. Over the course of his career spanning almost sixty years, he travelled to Europe, the Middle East, North, Central and South America, Japan and China, recording with lucidity and acuity most of the momentous events of the second half of the 20th century. Numerous influential people were also captured by his lens including Picasso, Le Corbusier, Niemeyer, Barragan, Giacometti and Tinguely. In 1963, he produced his iconic portrait of “Che au cigare” (Che with Cigar), which brought him to the attention of the public.

From January to May 2020, curated by Marc Donnadieu and Mélanie Bétrisey, the institution has scheduled a new retrospective of his life’s work entitled René Burri, Explosions of Sight. The bonds between René Burri and the Musée de l’Elysée are strong, and anchored in the institution’s history. In 1985, when it was opened as a “museum for photography”, Burri attended for his friend CharlesHenri Favrod. Two years later, his photographic project “Les Ruines du futur” (The Ruins of the Future) was presented. In 2004, the museum hosted his first retrospective. In 2013, Burri decided to set up a foundation in his name at the Musée de l’Elysée.

This new exhibition is the culmination of diligent research and studies carried out by the Musée de l’Elysée teams since 2013 on the entire René Burri collection in family archives and the Magnum Photos archives in Paris and New York. It aims to offer a new perspective on all Burri’s myriad creative activities throughout his life. It reveals a more personal and secret side to one of the most influential photojournalists of our time with a great many often previously unpublished documents: contact sheets, study prints, films, models for books, exhibition projects, notebooks, collages, watercolours, drawings, etc.

Based on a long, chronological “Lifeline” leading visitors through the nine rooms of the Musée de l’Elysée’s two exhibition levels, this project develops twelve “Focal Points”, each showcasing a decisive element of Burri’s creative process in the broadest sense of the term: Cinema; Structures; Myself and the Others; Che; China; Television; Magnum; Book; One World; Colour; Collages; Drawings. In this exhibition, René Burri is shown to be modern and inventive, committed and facetious, curious and generous, unifying and a mentor, a rebel and poet, impassioned and fascinating and above all, particularly explosive!

René Burri: a child of the 20th century with multiple sensitivities
As a child, Burri collected stamps from all over the world. By the end of a career spanning almost sixty years, he had immortalised thousands of anonymous people, accompanied some of the most important artists, architects and writers of his time, pointed his lens at the leading directors or politicians who shaped the history of the second half of the twentieth century, witnessed almost all the conflicts, crises, clashes and important events that shook the planet. Thus, at times at some risk to his own life, he was in Czechoslovakia during the mid-1950s, witnessing the Prague Spring and later the collapse of communism; in Korea as war broke out and at the controversial Olympic Games of the late 1980s; the closure and reopening of the Suez Canal; the heyday and the ruin of Lebanon . . . Although Burri was not in Berlin in 1961 for the building of the Wall, he was there on 23 December 1989 to help bring it down among that intrepid, joyful crowd keen to regain its identity and its freedom, fired by a collective momentum. He also put together a documentary account of the United States’ victorious Space Race and the ruins left in its wake; on the cult of the motorcar and its decline; on the birth of Brasilia and its evolution over time. […]

[…] René Burri firmly believed that humanity, despite its intrinsically disparate nature,had to learn to share the unique territory that is our world. Moreover, aside from a simple dialogue between cultures, he constantly pondered the make-up of our civilisation; about what brings us together rather than what splits us apart; about what we build together and for all people, rather than what we destroy in one fell swoop. His lengthy investigations sparked major, immediately published inquiries into his in-depth view of Europe, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East in particular, of which he was a true connoisseur and a perspicacious observer. […]

[…] Burri appeared to be tackling the fractures of the past with an engaged and profoundly humanist approach, as if attempting to defuse the schisms, neutralise them even, as if he were trying to heal the fissures, if not sew them back together. It is true that he had experienced the momentum of the years 1960–1970, those hopes for absolute equality and solidarity, that peaceful building of a future free at last from the rivalry of the great powers, but real life and geopolitical issues soon put a stop to such dreams and ideals. Burri himself, however, seemed still to cling to these dreams, the ones he drew as a child on sheets of paper, and then leafing through Life, the dreams of Burri the photojournalist, constantly chasing all over the globe in a bid to find out what was really going on, those of Burri the visionary photographer and filmmaker of the great movements of the world, and even the innermost ones of Burri, the craftsman of images, who made collages to try and dispel his fear of flying or the frantic multiplication of images all around him, and lastly those of the most intimate Burri, the colour artist, making drawings once more in the notebooks he always carried in his pocket simply for pleasure and for joy as he watched everyday life go by. […]

Preservation and dissemination of the René Burri's archives
While Burri is famous for iconic photographs that have stood the test of time, his work is altogether more extensive and varied than one might imagine. One cannot fail to be surprised, admiring – and somewhat startled – by all that he has handed down to future generations. Certainly, his photographs – almost exclusively press photos – are an important collection of almost 10,000 proofs, but they are only one aspect of his creative work. The body of his work consists of more than 7,000 contact sheets, 33,000 work prints and 170,000 slides, along with 100 or so collages and over 150 notebooks filled with sketches and book maquettes. Not to mention 100 kilos of painstakingly collected paper archives, documents and magazines. We have the entire collection of the work of this great photographer.

Burri was aware of the value of his archive and, determined to hand down the body of his work, set up his foundation in 2013 in order to preserve it. The statutes tell us that its aim is to ‘bring together the work of the Swiss photographer, to ensure its conservation, its diffusion and its valorisation to museums and the public and to promote its spread throughout the world’. Supporting Swiss photography in all its forms also became one of the aims of the foundation, which chose Lausanne and the Musée de l’Elysée as its headquarters.

René Burri, who was born in Zurich, always brandished his Swiss passport with pride, despite the decades he spent travelling the globe. He never forgot where he came from, and this unusual fact of living between two countries – Switzerland and France – fed continually into his work. He spent more than half his life in his birth country, in any case, with his first wife Rosellina Bischof, with whom he had two children, Yasmine and Olivier, who still live in Zurich. After his wife died, he spent more time in Paris, where Magnum Photos has offices. Some years later, he married Clotilde Blanc, and Leon Ulysee was born of this union. Despite his departure for France, Burri maintained his strong links with Switzerland, which he visited regularly. When it came to choosing a place to accommodate his foundation, it was only natural that he should, with his family’s agreement, think of a Swiss institution. Under the impetus of its then director, Sam Stourdzé, the Musée de l’Elysée offered to provide a home for his archives. Burri had attended the opening of the museum in 1985, and was already close to its first director, Charles-Henri Favrod, and his work was often enhanced thanks to the support of the institution. Since the photographer’s death in 2014, the museum and members of the René Burri Foundation have been working together to preserve and propagate his legacy.

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