Monday, September 06, 2010

An Exhibit Worth 300,000 Words (but I use just 685)

Calle Cuauhtemoctzin, Mexico City 1934-5
Photography Exhibit Review

Henri Cartier-Bresson
The Modern Century
Art Institute of Chicago
Through October 3, 2010

With nearly 300 pictures by the legendary French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004), the first major exhibition since his death--now showing at the Art Institute of Chicago after being organized by New York's Museum of Modern Art--provided a wonderfully in-depth introduction to the work of an artist I knew relatively little about, other than his name and fame.

With wall after wall lined with beautiful silver-gelatin prints, the exhibit does a great job of illustrating how the extent & import of his worldwide travels combined with the innate acuity of his lens--he's cited as one of the first major photographers to utilize a handheld camera--helped Cartier-Bresson capture "The Modern Century."

Shanghai, 1949
From his early images brimming with unique character, such as the one above, through post-WWII excursions documenting China on the brink of Communism (the photo at right depicts a rush to retrieve gold from a bank with the value of money about to plummet), the Soviet Union after Stalin's death, lighter fare such as baseball in Milwaukee in 1957 and even in his myriad portraits, Cartier-Bresson was a master at depicting--as the exhibit's wall text sums up in a word as simple yet expansive as his images--civilization.

The only negative, so to speak, was that beyond what could be gleaned from a plethora of his photographs, the exhibition provided scant insight into Cartier-Bresson the man. Except for a full chronology of his travels, which was exhaustive to the point of being incomprehensible, there was almost no biography provided, nor a picture of Henri himself. It was only through the Chicago Tribune's fine review of the exhibit and Wikipedia that I learned that Cartier-Bresson was born in 1908 to a wealthy family, that he was a painter before turning to photography, that he worked with renowned film director Jean Renoir who made him act so he could understand how it felt to be on the other side of the camera, that he served in the French Army as a Corporal in the Film and Photo unit during World War II and most notably that he spent 35 months as a Nazi prisoner of war and was presumed dead thereafter but resurfaced to contribute to what was meant to be his posthumous exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).

Dessau, Germany, 1945 - Denouncing of a German informer
But while I would have appreciated the exhibit offering a bit more connectivity between the artist and his work, I did value the keen observations the wall text made about the photos themselves. Such as saying that "many of his pictures lovingly describe age-old patterns of life, untouched by modern industry and commerce" and revealing that although the volume of photographs he took in the United States was second only to the number taken in France, his U.S. photos are among the least well-known and while his work is largely notable for its neutral observation, "his image of the United States incorporates a distinctly critical thread, alert to American vulgarity, greed, and racism."

I also liked the way the exhibit juxtaposed two Cartier-Bresson photo essays--one on Communist China's "Great Leap Forward" and the other illustrating American Capitalism through pictures taken for the Banker's Trust Company annual report--in a way that revealed plenty of similarities amongst the seeming dichotomy.

In showcasing so many indelible images across many subjects, themes and decades, The Modern Century is clearly a truly superlative exhibition of a remarkable and important artist. I encourage anyone who can to get to the Art Institute by October 3rd to see it--Free Admission Thursdays from 5-8pm should provide adequate time to take it all in and also check out the excellent photography exhibit downstairs showcasing the architecture of Louis Sullivan--or catch it when it subsequently rolls into San Francisco and Atlanta. (If you are a Bank of America customer, you can also get Free Admission to the Art Institute--and other museums--on the first weekend of each month. The Cartier-Bresson exhibit runs through Sunday, October 3 and does not require extra admission, so you can catch it free that way too, as I did this past weekend.)

For those unable to be in the right place at the right time, in addition to several images I've gathered above and below, you can see the whole exhibition online through MoMA's website and even download a PDF with a list & images of all the photos.  

(Images shown from and other online outlets; reproduction rights owned exclusively by Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson, Magnum Photos, MoMA and the Art Institute of Chicago. No infringement intended.)

Alicante, Spain, 1933
Dessau, Germany, 1945
New York, 1946
Brie, France 1968
Coronation of King George VI, London, 1937
Easter Sunday in Harlem, 1947
Greenfield, Indiana 1960
Juvisy, France, 1938
Los Remedios, Mexico, 1963
Madrid, 1933
Milwaukee, 1957
New York, 1947
Romania, 1975
Jean-Paul Sartre, Paris, 1946
Ezra Pound, Venice, 1971
Martine's Legs, 1967

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