Henri Cartier Bresson Retrospective at Le Centre Pompidou, Paris

 12 February – 9 June 2014


Echoing the Guardian’s review of his retrospective, which declares that ‘he defined the art of observation’, the French photographer Henri Cartier Bresson’s work takes us on a journey. He takes us through the twentieth century, decade by decade, capturing its changing atmosphere across a plethora of cultures. He lived from 1908 to 2004 and worked throughout his life to build this extraordinary portfolio. It would not be too much to say that Bresson is perhaps one of the most dynamic photographers the world has ever seen. From Ghandi’s funeral in India to the Jazz Age in America and the horrors of both World Wars, these photographs bring us into the lives of their subjects. The magic of the thematic retrospective is the fact that Le Pompidou focuses on the diversity of the photographs and the visible paradoxes rather than presenting the 350 photographs and films as a unified life’s work.



The exhibition begins with the section Rising Signs which I’ll admit I found less than stimulating. The collection of nihilistic photographs depict shop windows and streetscapes, which fail to capture the imagination. However, as you progress through the rooms, you’re quickly submerged in his portraiture like the beautiful centrepiece George Hoyningen-Huene New York, 1935 depicting a handsome young man with an elongated neck taking a photograph. George Platt Lyne’s portrait of the same period is equally stirring as a display of raw human emotion.



Referred to as the Golden Ratio, Andre Lhote taught Cartier-Bresson the value of geometry in his work. This led him to choose backgrounds with dynamic textures and geometric structure and set him apart from his contemporaries. This is demonstrated by his group portraits in Seville, 1933. One of which depicts malnourished children clambering through the very wall that frames them. There is also a portrait of a beautifully dressed, but desperately melancholy child in Valencia who is presented against the remnants of a painted wall. Beyond their aesthetic value, these images of the poor in Spain illustrate the strength of his social conscience, which goes on to underpin his work in Mexico and Cuba.



Les Vendeuses des Journaux, taken in Mexico, 1934 captures the desolation of poverty, whilst remaining loyal to the notion of love in war. Along the same theme is a moving portrait of an immaciated father clutching his starving child in Madrid, 1933. This Spanish body of work echoes his contemporary Pablo Picasso’s quotation,

“what do you think an artist is...he is a political being, constantly aware of the heart breaking, passionate, or delightful things that happen in the world”.

Cartier Bresson's relationships with pivotal artists of the time were well known. This is illustrated by his portrait of Henri Matisse sketching amongst his birds or a blurred Giacometti moving through his towering sculptures. These images present Cartier-Bresson as a sort of commentator on Modern Art.



Cartier-Bresson is very much placed in the realm of the surrealist avant-garde by the Pompidou’s curators. On one of the blurbs, his position is described as being at the ‘end of the table’ during the first meetings of the Surrealist movement led by Andre Breton and his theories of ‘convulsive beauty’ from 1926. But, in reality, his appreciation for the subconscious, the subversive spirit, the simple pleasure of capturing scenes on the streets did align him with their values. His portrait of Andre Pieyre de Mandiargues, Italy 1933 draws a striking resemblance to works by Salvador Dali. Its charm lies in his juxtaposition of the poster to three old hags gazing down upon him like angels or an oppressive conscience.



Despite the scenes of crowds and violent protest, there is an untainted silence in his works. Especially during his more political phases like when he captures Ghandi’s funeral following his assassination. This is particularly poignant for Cartier Bresson, given that his wife was Indian. The sight of his despairing supporters climbing trees to watch his cremation has a humbling effect on the viewer.



There is also an underlying sense of sensuality in his work, which often contains erotic references. In his portrait of Charles Henry Ford in New York, he fumbles with his trouser zip with an expression blurred between ecstasy and frustration. The photographer’s compositional skill is evident in the crude juxtaposition of an advertisement depicting an outstretched tongue. We’re then drawn to the famous image of his Cartier Bresson’s wife Martine Franck’s long, sensual legs across a couch. His nude portrait of Leonor Fini, 1933 also illustrates his appreciation of the female form, but with a simplicity not seen in his other work.



I really think that this exhibition is worth the Eurostar ticket. Never again will such an in depth retrospective of his work be gathered for public view. It is one of the most captivating ways to comprehend the rich tapestry of history woven throughout the 20th century in many different countries and contexts. Reward yourself with a little foodie adventure afterwards.



If you need refuelling after a morning on your feet, Paris does in fact offer exceptional brunches, although not at New York prices. The Americans may have a reputation for fabulous breakfasts, but the new hotspot Paperboy, 137 Rue Amelot 11e, sure does give the average roadside American diner a run for its money. It’s a funky, open plan restaurant hidden on an unassuming street behind Republique square. From the vintage American candy lining the walls to the monochrome uniforms, their attention to detail is impressive. 



As with the majority of Parisian Hipster haunts, the bourgeois-bohemes were the majority and the queue of famished fetards willing to drop €25 on breakfast twirled around the corner. The fresh juices were exquisite, I went for carrot, ginger and apple, but the lemon and ginger was also to die for. As for the food; my companions were happily sunk by ‘Le Fatty’, which was a cholesterol raising combination of egg & bacon sandwich, baked beans, pancakes with whipped cream and berries. I lent towards the ‘Le healthy’ brunch of eggs, homemade granola, yogurt and berries. Totally delicious and unforgettably indulgent.


Written by Flora Alexandra Ogilvy, founder of Arteviste.com