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Henri Cartier-Bresson and the Art and Photography of Paris at the Art Institute of Chicago


September 13, 2008
by Canadian Architect

The Art Institute of Chicago presents the first exhibition to compare the images of legendary photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson to the modern drawings, etchings, and paintings of his contemporaries in Paris. Henri Cartier-Bresson and the Art and Photography of Paris on view in the museum’s Photography Gallery 1 from September 20, 2008 through January 4, 2009 provides a rare glimpse into the rich artistic context of Cartier-Bresson’s early career. Works by Cartier-Bresson from the renowned Julien Levy Collection at the Art Institute will be featured here alongside contemporaneous creations by modern masters such as Giorgio de Chirico, Pablo Picasso, and Henri Matisse, among others.

From a young age, Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) was fully immersed in the active cultural life of Paris. Originally trained as a painter by his uncle and then apprenticed with the artist Andr Lhote, he was also an avid reader who found his way into the back rooms of the Dame Blanche and other cafs where the poet Andr Breton and his fellow Surrealists held forth. When he was 24, Cartier-Bresson discovered the Leica a light, handheld 35mm camera that served as the sketchbook for the private observations he made while discovering himself, ideas, and the world around him. He would later become a master of candid “street” photography who influenced generations of photographers that followed.

Cartier-Bresson honed his skills as a photographer in the 1930s, a particularly fertile time in Paris. During this decade and the one that preceded it, avant-garde artists working in many different media had direct contact with one another and with the burgeoning Parisian popular culture. Their creative collaborations could be found in many different fields, from commercial design, fashion, and stagecraft to cinema and photography. The amateur photographer Andr Kertsz, for example, was profoundly affected by visiting Piet Mondrian’s Paris studio in 1926. Similarly, another Hungarian, Brassa, first employed a journalist’s notebook and then a camera when encountering writers, artists, and their work in the studios and cafs of Paris.

Whether artistic and literary influences were direct or oblique, photographers absorbing these new ideas in the artistic milieu of Paris were at the same time perfecting their own distinct contributions. One of the salient attributes of photography at this time originated from the translation of the title of Cartier-Bresson’s first book L’image la sauvette (1952). This phrase was not the literal translation, “the image taken on the run,” but rather a freer and nonliteral English version, “the decisive moment.” Although Cartier-Bresson’s emphasis was on a picture captured in time, his early compositions and those of many of his fellow photographers were informed and shaped by the efforts toward spontaneous gestures and fleeting moments made by painters and writers in this fruitful era of innovation.

The Cartier-Bresson images featured in Henri Cartier-Bresson and the Art and Photography of Paris are drawn from the Julian Levy Collection a gift to the Art Institute from Levy, the distinguished gallery director who assembled the first showing of the artist’s photographs in the United States. As seen in this exhibition, work by Cartier-Bresson’s painting instructor Andr Lhote parallels the photographer’s early images, as does that of Giorgio de Chirico and Salvador Dal. Also included is work by Henri Matisse, Piet Mondrian, and Pablo Picasso that relates to photographs by Brassa, Andr Kertsz, and other photographers active in Paris during this time. More than 50 pieces, selected from the Art Institute’s exemplary permanent collection, are included in this exhibition.

Henri Cartier-Bresson and the Art and Photography of Paris not only celebrates the centenary of the birth of the masterful photographer, but it also aims to capture the creative energy and excitement of Paris between the wars.

The exhibition is curated by David Travis, who recently retired as the Chair of the Department of Photography at the Art Institute of Chicago.

For more information, please visit www.artic.edu.



Canadian Architect

Canadian Architect

Canadian Architect is a magazine for architects and related professionals practicing in Canada. Canada's only monthly design publication, Canadian Architect has been in continuous publication since 1955.
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