Some of my most significant relationships—to people, places, and projects—are matters of a delicate violence. I’d not venture such a dramatic statement had I not been desperately looking to get out of the heat one afternoon two weeks ago and ducked into a small museum with a rich exhibition of photographs temporarily on view. The air conditioning was just barely strong enough to fight the sweltering heat outside, and the works by Henri Cartier-Bresson on exhibit inside were more than strong enough to fight any fatigue caused by the languid late-summer day. The photographs were on loan from the artist’s eponymous foundation in Paris to the Museum of Rome at Palazzo Braschi, and were divided into two sections—an homage to Rome and portraits. Refreshingly, there were almost no didactic walls or labels filled with irksome curatorial elucidation whatsoever, and most texts were direct quotes of the photographer. Somehow I kept reading what he said not only in light of photography, but also as it applies to life and its related arts.
Entering the show, the viewer—who is naturally set to judge what is about to be seen—is brought into a relationship with the photographer as he speaks of what “our” eye must do, and how it must do it: “Our eye must continually measure and judge. We change the perspective with a slight bend of the knee, and we create coincidences of lines with a simple movement of the head by a fraction of a millimeter, but this can only be done at the speed of a reflex, without trying to make Art.” Is he talking about a photographer’s eye, or that of a draughtsman (he first worked in drawing and painting), surveyor, designer, architect, or stylist? Perhaps he doesn’t intend this on a strictly visual level at all; I succumbed to my usual problem of reading these citations in the most open way possible, where it even seemed he was talking of how readers must measure and judge the words they read, how a turn of the head while crossing the street can create coincidental encounters, and how chance changes in perspective can create new friends of old enemies and vice versa.
The sheer delight he found in his work is palpable in some of the smile-inducing photographs, but also in some of the more serious scenes and portraits—a weighty yet duly appreciative delight. The physical body inevitably factors into the metaphysical outcome: “To photograph is to hold one’s breath when all faculties converge to detect a fleeting reality; at this point the captured image becomes a great physical and intellectual joy.” What I find curious is that in many of the photographs the subjects also seem to be holding their breath. A girl running across a square is suspended in mid-step, between sunlight and shadow, ground and sky, yet she’s so convincingly caught that one could expect to see her just like that, but perhaps in color, upon exiting the museum. For days after the show I found that the words physical, intellectual, and joy unwittingly worked their way into my usual daily descriptive lists of events, sights, ideas, desires, and other experiences. I hardly ever have occasion to use those words, never mind all in the same context.
The photographs of Rome were primarily taken in the fifties. On one of his visits to the postwar city his guide was none other than Pier Paolo Pasolini, and the vivid impressions he took of the expanding Roman periphery and bizarre encounters between the new suburbia and surrounding empty fields carry reverberations of their collaboration. Oddly, the day I visited I was wearing a blouse with unclassifiable sleeves somewhere between short-sleeved and sleeveless, which had inspired a fashion-conscious friend to suggest I change, saying that such a weak cut had no business dressing anything but weak arms, and I was unprepared to support my choice by citing some current celebrity or trend touting that particular look. Then I saw that in the first room was a photograph of three women grouped in the foreground of an otherwise bleak field on the city outskirts; one was smoking, one was talking and gesticulating, and the third listened attentively, wearing a blouse of the very same cut. This was a complete coincidence that nevertheless made me feel part of a moment captured over fifty years ago, and I wonder if his oft-referenced Artless Art isn’t precisely that—creating relationships and connecting people, stillnesses, silences, and motions across differences in space, time, and character. One of three young schoolboys shown taking shelter from the rain under his books and waiting for a scooter to pass by and clear their path could’ve been a friend of mine who lived in that neighborhood until the surrounding fields were completely swallowed up by construction.
In 1943 Cartier-Bresson portrayed Matisse, Picasso, Braque, and Bonnard. All are included here, along with portraits of Beckett, Barthes, Huppert, Roualt, and others. Many of these images have become the most iconic portrait of their sitter, and the lesser-known ones are full of welcome surprises; Roualt looked remarkably meek, almost cowering under a dark crosslike form, in comparison to his very visceral paintings and prints. A New York Times article published earlier this year talks about some of the portraits as they appeared in a Paris exhibition, and the author chooses to read the photographs for what they might say about the “power relationship” between famous sitter and (sometimes more, sometimes less) famous photographer. The fact that the Parisian show was subtitled with a phrase of Cartier-Bresson’s that speaks of “the inner silence of a consenting victim” certainly supports such a view, and complicates the relationships that third parties—at a safe remove from the scene of the crime—can only speculate about.
What other artist, alive and well at the age of thirty-nine, has had the privilege of working on his own posthumous solo show in a prestigious museum? In 1947, when it was widely thought he’d been killed in the war, he actually worked on a “posthumous” exhibit of his work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and in the same year co-founded Magnum. He came to the United States several times, and created a series he later published under the title L’Amérique furtivement, or America in Passing, though “in passing” somehow fails to render the senses of stealth, thievery, and furtiveness inherent in the original. Often his comments about photography and his own creative process can seem obvious, but they are clearly heeded only by the few, no matter how many fields they really apply to: “In order to give meaning to the world one has to feel involved in what one frames through the viewfinder. This attitude requires concentration, discipline of mind, sensitivity, and a sense of geometry.”
What does any of this have to do with violence or delicacy? My favorite quote from the exhibition covers it all, and at the same time raises more questions: “More than anything else I feel a great joy in realizing the portraits. That is the most difficult thing because it involves a duel without rules, a delicate violence.” This is just too exquisite. In this translation I’ve favored the term realizing, rather than the more American creating, as it also loosely reflects the fact that in taking/making/creating a true portrait one comes to realizations about the subject (and by extension perhaps one’s self) as well. The duel without rules is the relationship between sitter and photographer, passive and active, the one who provides and the one who takes. But this is so dramatic, he must be exaggerating; I wonder if any other relationship/duel has rules any more concrete than the ones he claims don’t exist in the portrait-based duel? Surely any sort of relationship is governed by laws and limits, perhaps only unwritten, but enforced by fights, estrangements, and reconciliations? And what of delicate violence? I read this as the silent but inexorable crawl of suburban sprawl across rapidly shrinking countryside caught in these photographs. It is also evident in the ambiguous glances from faces we think are familiar from screen, canvas, and page but about which we really know nothing. A portraitist necessarily violates the subject’s privacy in stealing that moment, that look, that expression—but can only do so in a delicate fashion, or else risk ruining the fragile relationship. Some of Cartier-Bresson’s subjects were close friends, some were short-term collaborators, and others he never even met, lawlessly snapping their likeness as they ran past. Although his mention of a duel without rules is seductively poetic, and I agree with him about the duel, I must insist that some rule or logic does govern it. Our adherence to it or disregard of it is another matter altogether.
This exhibition is up from May 31 to October 30 at the Museo di Roma/Palazzo Braschi in Rome. All the images here are taken from his book covers; cheap internet substitutions for his photographs just won’t cut it, so you’ll have to go find the real thing.
Previous Lunar Refractions can be found here.