Look Me In The Eyes – A Review of ‘Voici Paris – Modernites Photographiques 1920-1950’
During my recent visit to Russia I was lucky enough to catch the beautiful exhibition Voici Paris – Modernités Photographiques 1920-1950 at the Multimedia Museum for Actual Arts in Moscow. It was first shown at the Centre Pompidou last winter, but it was hardly noticed by the anglophone photography blogs and press. Even though it has now closed in Moscow too, the exhibition impressed me so much that it deserves all the attention it can get. Just like films that originally bombed at the box office, my hope is that it might turn into a cult classic yet.
Voici Paris seems at first a bit of an odd name for the show, since there are few photos on view that identifiably depict Paris. The title refers to the gathering of an incredible number of gifted photographers in the French capital from the 1920s until the 1950s. This turned the city into a hotbed of artistic activity and put it at the forefront of developments in photography. The exhibition includes early images of practitioners such as Man Ray, Cartier-Bresson, Brassai and Kertesz, who would go on to become giants in the history of the medium. It also shows works by quite unknown but equally excellent artists such as Marianne Breslauer, Daniel Masclet, André Steiner and Sasha Stone.
Spanning the years from the roaring twenties to those shortly after the Second World War, the exhibition addresses all the major shifts and upheavals taking place in art and society during that epoch.
Spanning the years from the roaring twenties to those shortly after the Second World War, the exhibition addresses all the major shifts and upheavals taking place in art and society during that epoch. Separate parts in the exhibition have been allocated to surrealism, new vision, social documentary, neoclassicism, and the rise of the printed press and advertising. The show also pays attention to technical developments in photography. This includes experiments with photograms and solarisation, which can be found in the surrealism section. The social documentary part of the exhibition includes pictures in the vein of Lewis Hine and Jacob Riis, depicting grinding poverty and noble workers toiling in dangerous occupations. It is easy to imagine that the seeds for what would later become Magnum were sown during this time. But this part also has a lighter side to it. There is the image of a family relaxing on the banks of the Seine by Henri Cartier-Bresson. It seems eerily similar to how in the 1960s film maker Jean Rouch would depict his fellow Parisians holidaying in St. Tropez in his masterpiece Chronique d’un été.
The influence of the revolutionary movements in Russia is making itself felt in the new vision section. Here the use of high vantage points, straight lines and odd perspectives, as well as a preoccupation with a thoroughly modern and urban environment can be directly attributed to Russian artists such as Alexander Rodchenko and Dziga Vertov. Their experiments with montage is also reflected in the press and advertising section and in the surrealism part. The exhibition contains a wide variety in approaches, ranging from clearly autonomous works, to graphic designs for advertising pages and commissioned portraits for fashion magazines. Classic still lifes and the celebration of the human body feature heavily in the neoclassicism section. Diverse in its contents as the exhibition may be, it bristles with energy and life. It clearly shows the heady dynamics of the era. It honours the experimental fervor and the excitement of the artists. The exhibition is astounding, invigorating and humbling at the same time.
Diverse in its contents as the exhibition may be, it bristles with energy and life. It clearly shows the heady dynamics of the era. It honours the experimental fervor and the excitement of the artists. The exhibition is astounding, invigorating and humbling at the same time.
This feeling is heightened by the presentation of the photographs in the MAMM. Even though the exhibition consists of almost 250 pictures presented in exhibition galleries located on two different floors, it constitutes but a small selection of images drawn from Christian Bouqueret’s private collection. He started accumulating these photos in the 1970s. Ultimately his collection numbered more than 7000 pictures, made by about 120 photographers. It was acquired by the Centre Pompidou in 2011. The works are presented simply and classically in black frames and white passe-partouts. The exhibition spaces are plunged almost into complete darkness, apart from the photographs themselves. They are lit in such a way that every picture looks like a light box. Indeed, I walked up to the frames and inspected them closely, since at first I could not believe they were just prints. The presentation conjures up images of magic lanterns, raree shows and cabinets of curiosities. Viewing each photograph provides a thrill. It gives the exhibition a magical and nostalgic atmosphere.
One set of images at the start of the exhibition drew my attention in particular. It was a group of experimental close-ups of individual eyes, shot by André Steiner. The framing of eyes has been repeated in almost exactly the same way by Alex Prager in her recent series Compulsion. In it, she combines close-ups of eyes with constructed scenes of disasters. So wittingly or unwittingly, the influence of these Parisian photographers and their experiments lingers on to the present day.