The eye and the image alike deceive us. A beach in France, right on the coastline, a wave making its feeble final crest onto the sand, all is calm, serene, almost boring…then we notice the silhouette of a human hand just visible at the top of the frame.
Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) spent his life taking photographs which his countryman Roland Barthes would judge to always have some sort of punctum, the element which jolts the person looking out of the overall environment of the image and into a startling personal connection. The Modern Century, a collection of M. Cartier-Bresson’s photographs from 1931-1981, is currently on exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago until October 3…and it’s worth the money to get in and luxuriate in punctum central.
M. Cartier-Bresson, if the helpful maps and itineraries the Instiute provides are any indication, visited every country in the world during those fifty years seeking out moments of civilization at its most personal and unrehearsed, and the mostly chronological exhibit traces the growth of an artist’s mind: a transition from single slices of life to tightly organized series where each individual piece is breathtaking on its own and culminates to great effect.
The exhibitors know something of juxtaposition. Pictures of whores gleefully leering out of stalls in Mexico are mounted side by side with a mother in Italy cradling a wrapped-up bundle which our minds imagine and which we try to deny ourselves. The images of Gandhi’s funeral capture an entire country in devastated mourning, in expressions and body language similar to a picture fifteen years later at the funeral of protestors killed in anti-Algeria demonstrations…but no, there is even more hopelessness, more inconsolability in the Indian photos, a true recognition of a giant leaving the earth. But next to the funeral pyre, in a picture dated six months later, we see Nehru indulging in intimate laughter with Lady Mountbatten in a collonnaded scene while Lord Mountbatten stands in too-too-proper British attention. Life goes on. And photos of the U.S.S.R. in bleak 1970s devastation are in the same room as M. Cartier-Bresson’s impressions of America. New York City rises, but there are unsettling scenes from the south of blacks either demonstrating or simply living, a white presence always looking threatening in the background.
We see M. Cartier-Bresson’s photos of the 1968 crisis, of hedonism around the world, his brilliant celebrity portraits…a godlike Carl Jung, a pensive John Huston, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus with their pipes, the smoldering young Truman Capote. But the highlight of the exhibit for me were two photo-essays delivered in full. One is a 1958 shoot for Life of the Great Leap Forward, which when published used none of M. Cartier-Bresson’s own captions. The mood is one of futility for Mao’s China, a sense of a mighty work which will come to nothing (signs are translated as saying that SOME districts of China will receive lasting change), but the workers struggling to become modern and industrial are depicted as admirable, sympathetic men and women doing their utmost towards an end they may not fully understand. And his 1960 illustrations for the Bankers Trust annual report (How did that commission come about?)…this is a cliche by now, but he’s got the alienation of Mad Men down pat.
Lately, I have been slightly underwhelmed by one-man shows of painters and applaud those of other artists. The 2008 retrospective at Los Angeles’s Hammer Museum of architect John Lautner ‘s work was perfectly chosen and constantly fascinating, and now M. Cartier-Bresson receives a similar treatment. Every silver-and-gelatin print is superb and worth dwelling on. Including the one where two dogs on a Paris street watch two other dogs have sex.