Cartier Bresson: A Question of Colour

Cartier Bresson: A Question of Colour
Henri Cartier-Bresson, Harlem, New York, 1947
Henri Cartier-Bresson, Harlem, New York, 1947

This strangely mis-titled show at Somerset House includes only a handful of photographs by the great French photographer and, in a sense, isn’t really about colour either.  The connection with Cartier-Bresson is this: firstly, that he once wrote somewhat disparagingly about colour photography; and, second, that he coined the term ‘the decisive moment’.

When Cartier-Bresson made his remarks about colour photography it was 1952 and the medium was still in its early years of development, and his thoughts about the use of colour were based on the technical problems associated with shooting in colour (the film was too slow and usually required needed artificial light, so goodbye to decisive moments) and the aesthetic limitations of colour reproduction at the time.  In the same essay he did admit that colour photography was in its infancy, and there was no knowing how it might develop.

No truer word was spoken.  These days, in anyone’s hands, digital cameras and smartphones can seize something that happens and capture it in the very moment that it takes place.  And everything in high-definition colour.

What Cartier Bresson: A Question of Colour aims to do is show how photographers in the last thirty years or so have adopted and adapted the Cartier-Bresson’s adage of the ‘decisive moment’ to working in colour. This large exhibition, which I saw when in London a couple of weeks ago, includes more than 75 works by 14 international acclaimed photographers, regarded by the curator as having demonstrated the ability to capture that brief moment, as Cartier-Bresson put it, when meaning crystallizes in a situation, revealing the order underlying apparent chaos – and to do it in colour.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Brooklyn, New York, 1947
Henri Cartier-Bresson, Brooklyn, New York, 1947

‘Black and white are the colours of photography’, Robert Frank once remarked.  But, as the technology of colour photography and printing began to improve, photographers began to sense that black and white were not the colours of reality, that black and white presented too large a gap between real life and image.

The resistance to colour lasted until the late 1970s, then, in 1976, the legendary John Szarkowski filled MoMA with the colour photography of William Eggleston, and the world of photography was revolutionized.  At least in respect to colour.  Like much of the work of American photographers at the time, Eggleston’s images were about ‘the aesthetic potential of the commonplace’ (Gerry Badger).  But they would not have worked in black and white.

Cartier-Bresson is hailed as having laid the foundations for the development of documentary and street photography – which is the genre to which most of the photographs in this exhibition belong. The Cartier-Bresson photos exhibited here all date, with one exception, from the late 1940s. They were taken in America and have never been exhibited in the UK, though they have been published. They represent a turning point, when the photographer moved from a highly personal ‘surreal’ approach down the path of professional reportage.

Saul Leiter, Snow, 1960
Saul Leiter, Snow, 1960

One of the earliest photographs here is the wonderful, painterly Snow, taken by Saul Leiter in 1960.  Leiter’s early work in the 1940s and 1950s was an important contribution to what came to be known as The New York School.  He began taking colour photographs as early as 1948, and MoMA’s 1957 conference ‘Experimental Photography in Colour’ featured 20 colour photographs by Leiter. His abstracted forms and radically innovative compositions have a painterly quality that stands out among the work of his New York School contemporaries, perhaps because Leiter has continued to work as both a photographer and painter.

But Leiter’s personal colour photography was, for the most part, not shared with the public (he was better known as a successful fashion photographer in the 1950s and 1960s).  But throughout those years Leiter continued to walk the streets (mostly New York and Paris), making photographs for his own pleasure. He printed some of his black-and-white street photos, but kept most of his colour slides tucked away in boxes. It was only in the 1990s that he began to look back at his colour work and start to make prints.

Fred Herzog, Crossing Powell, 1984
Fred Herzog, Crossing Powell, 1984

Fred Herzog’s story is similar.  Born in Germany, but living most of his life in Canada, Herzog’s work was centred primarily on the lives of working class people in Vancouver.  Because he worked primarily with Kodachrome slide film, he was marginalised as an artist in the 1950s and 1960s. It is only in the last decade that his work – such as 1984’s Crossing Powell here – has received significant critical attention.

Joel Meyerowitz, Madison Avenue New York, 1975
Joel Meyerowitz, Red Coat, Fifth Avenue New York, 1975
Joel Meyerowitz, Camel Coats, Fifth Avenue, New York, 1975

Joel Meyerowitz is a renowned street photographer who began photographing in colour in 1962 and was an early advocate of the use of colour at a time when there was significant resistance to the idea of colour photography as serious art.  Meyerowitz is a key figure in street photography, and has been instrumental in changing the attitudes toward the use of colour photography, so it is appropriate that he represented here by two of his classic images.

Alex Webb, Tehuantepec, Mexico, 1985

Alex Webb is another key figure in street photography. In 1976 he became an associate member of Magnum and went on  to document small-town life in the American South. He also did some work in the Caribbean and Mexico, which led him, in 1978, to begin working in colour, as represented in this exhibition by his image from Tehuantepec in Mexico.

I only know how to approach a place by walking. For what does a street photographer do but walk and watch and wait and talk, and then watch and wait some more, trying to remain confident that the unexpected, the unknown, or the secret heart of the known awaits just around the corner.

Harry Gruyaert, Morocco, town of Duarzazte. 1986
Harry Gruyaert, Morocco, town of Duarzazte, 1986

The Belgian, Harry Gruyaert is another Magnum photographer renowned for his colour reportage.  He is represented here by an image from a 1986 Magnum portfolio compiled in Morocco.

Jeff Mermelstein, Untitled (10 bill in mouth) New York City,1992
Jeff Mermelstein, Untitled (10 bill in mouth) New York City,1992

New Yorker Jeff Mermelstein regards his photography as a cross between photojournalism and voyeuristic street photography. Mermelstein, who studied biology, makes photographic series that document and classify his subjects. For example, Twirl (2001-09) presents images of women Mermelstein encountered twirling their hair, while Run (1995-2009) is a collection featuring individuals as they dash between destinations. Mermelstein explains: ‘I generally do not have a theme when in the act of photographing. Themes emerge after the photographs begin to accumulate.’

Melanie Einzig, Untitled
Melanie Einzig, Untitled

Melanie Einzig is another New York street photographer who sums up her approach in these words:

My process is linked to everyday life. Only on rare occasions do I go out specifically to ‘shoot’. My best photographs were taken going to or from work, or some other destination. Sometimes a picture appears that helps me sum up a strange mood or thought that I’ve struggled with for weeks. Other times my work is more documentary in nature.

Photographing in public keeps me awake and aware, always looking around, in awe at what we humans are up to. In a time when staged narratives and rendered images are popular, I am excited by the fact that life itself offers situations far more strange and beautiful than anything I could set up.

Trent Parke, Man Vomiting, 2006
Trent Parke, Man Vomiting, 2006

Trente Parke is an Australian photojournalist who joined Magnum Photos in 2002.  His series Welcome to Nowhere, from which Man Vomiting is taken, focused on Australian small towns, capturing arresting images with strong colours and a formal composition, that convey a sense of stillness that is almost surreal. The humour of Man Vomiting seems to testify to Parke’s ability to capture unforeseen moments and juxtapositions.

Karl Baden, from the series In and out of the car
Karl Baden, from the series In and Out of the Car

Karl Baden photographs like a drive-by shooter, through the side window of his car. Among several of these images included in the exhibition is this one, captured when a van with a huge bagel painted on its side, drew up alongside.  Baden employs supersaturated colour that grabs your attention.

Boris Savelev, Dog Moscow, 2007

Boris Savelev, Cafe Ion, Moscow, 1988

Boris Savelev is a Russian photographer born in Ukraine in 1948. He started out as an aerospace engineer, but has made his name in photography since 1976. Savelev uses colour very differently to the previous two photographers. In his images, colour is unsaturated and seeps and spreads through light itself.

Andy Freeberg, from Art Fare, 2011
Andy Freeberg, from Art Fare, 2011
Andy Freeberg, ‘Spinello, New York Pulse’, 2010
Andy Freeberg, ‘Spinello, New York Pulse’, 2010
Andy Freeberg, Sean Kelly Art Basel Miami, 2010
Andy Freeberg, Sean Kelly Art Basel Miami, 2010
Andy Freeberg, Art Miami, 2012
Andy Freeberg, Art Miami, 2012

Perhaps the most immediately eye-catching images in the exhibition were those by Andy Freeberg.  They are taken from his series Art Fare, and, in a bizarre and hilarious mix of two dimensional art on the wall and three dimensional people, document the  world of collectors’ art fairs.

Carolyn Drake, Birthday Party in Olympia, Florida, 2005
Carolyn Drake, Birthday Party in Olympia, Florida, 2005
Carolyn Drake, Breeze, Zhetisay Kazakhstan, 2009
Carolyn Drake, Breeze, Zhetisay Kazakhstan, 2009
Carolyn Drake, Border town, Kyrgystan, 2008
Carolyn Drake, Border town, Kyrgystan, 2008

Carolyn Drake is an American-born photographer currently living in Istanbul.  She is represented in this exhibition by the Martin Parr-like Birthday Party in Olympia, Florida, and by the photo above – part of an ongoing project photographing in the former Soviet republics of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. Drake is concerned to document the relationship of the people to the land and water and to explore how these countries are coping with economic and ecological crisis, and political uncertainty.  David Dwyer, writing on his On Photography blog, considered this to be one of the best colour photographs in the exhibition:

It is quite reminiscent of Cartier-Bresson in content, but also by virtue of its exquisite composition. While in colour, colour is neither what “makes” it nor something that “gets in the way” of the photograph, it simply adds to it. It comes alive the way that great photos do, with the viewer’s gaze contently bringing various parts to the forefront, supported by perfect harmony with that which recedes. It is one of the most immersive to look at in the entire exhibition.

Melanie Einzig, New York, 11 September 2001
Melanie Einzig, New York, 11 September 2001

Finally, I’m return to Melanie Einzig, for an image that, it seems to me, captures a decisive moment in more ways than one: on that fateful day in Sepember 2001, a courier pursues his daily round as, behind him, the world changes decisively.

‘Colour is for painters’, Cartier-Bresson once said. You might say that this exhibition disproves that statement.

See also

Cezanne’s Card Players

The Card Players, 1890–92 Paul Cézanne (MoMA)

In the case of art exhibitions, small can be beautiful.  After viewing the extensive Gauguin exhibition at Tate Modern (which was unmissable and revelatory) we headed back over the river to the Courtauld Gallery in Somerset House for an exhibition on a totally different scale:  Cezanne’s Card Players.

Paul Cézanne’s sequence of paintings of peasant card players have long been considered to be among his most iconic and powerful works. The Courtauld’s landmark exhibition is the first to bring together the majority of these remarkable paintings alongside a magnificent group of closely related portraits of Provençal peasants and rarely seen preparatory oil sketches, watercolours and drawings.  The Courtauld Gallery’s two masterpieces from this series, The Card Players and Man with a Pipe, are joined by exceptional loans from international collections, including versions of  The Card Players from Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, and related works from the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.

Cezanne worked repeatedly on this scene of peasants playing cards in the early 1890s. He enlisted local farm hands to serve as models, possibly men whom worked on his father’s property in Jas de Bouffan, on the outskirts of Aix. Certainly the man smoking the pipe has been identified as Père Alexandre, the gardener there. Cezanne may have drawn inspiration for his Provençal genre scene from a painting of the same theme by the Le Nain brothers that was in the museum in Aix.

There are five paintings in the series, three of which are on display at the Courtauld.  One is in a private collection and has not been exhibited in 50 years.  The exact chronology is disputed – for most of the last century it has been believed he painted them from the biggest downwards, honing and distilling along the way as he tried to make it more intense. But new x-ray research suggests he was doing it the other way round, more conventionally going from small to big. ‘He worked his way up trying to make something that was more heroic’, says the exhibition’s co-curator Barnaby Wright.

The conventional view up to now has been that the canvas owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art (top) was the first to be painted. It features four figures, three of which are seated, hunched over their game, with one figure standing, hovering over them in unresolved space (is he standing right next to the players, or leaning against the rear wall?). The use of colour is striking:  the powdery blue of the backdrop, the tawny gold of a rumpled curtain, the deep blue of a smock and a set of overalls, the latter offset by the fierce red of a scarf.

The largest and most complex of Cézanne’s Card Players is the version owned by the Barnes Foundation in Pennsylvania (above – not included in the current exhibition). In this version, the cards in the players’ hands are not so clearly visible, and there are cards and a pipe on the table.  And there is an additional figure – that of the little girl, between the central figure (who has no hat here) and the man on the right.

Compare this to the Metropolitan’s picture:  Cézanne has tightened the composition, reduced the size by half and left out one figure. He continued to pare away extraneous details in each successive rendition.

In the versions held by the Courtauld and the Musee d’Orsay (below), a bottle, with the light playing on it, forms the central axis of the composition. It separates the space into two symmetrical areas, accentuating the opposition of the players.

The Card Players, 1890–92 Paul Cézanne (Musee d

Tonality largely replaces colour and two figures are omitted, so that there remain just two figures, hunched over the table, each lost in contemplation of their cards. What these paintings lose in colour, they appear to gain in uncluttered architectural monumentality, and to gain further that sense of the timeless that Cézanne strove to achieve.

The Card Players, 1890–92 Paul Cézanne (Courtauld)

In The Guardian, Mark Brown wrote:

As well as being stunning to look at, the paintings ask bigger philosophical questions. It was highly unconventional to pose peasants in this way, normally they would have been posed in the field looking heroic or in an inn looking drunk and disorderly. In The Card Players series they are from drunk or rowdy. They are intense and unmoving, rooted in concentration. Cézanne was painting the human equivalent of the mountain – solid men who carried on the traditions of their forebears. ‘It is a search for stillness and almost sculptural monumentality’, said exhibition curator Barnaby Wright.

Wright said: “One thing that’s been extraordinary about bringing these loans together is that each one has come with a curator, as they always do, and each curator has said ‘this is one of our star pictures which we don’t loan that often.’ We feel very privileged to have them here.  We’ve made a really compelling case we think, it really is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. As a room in London it’s hard to beat.”

Personally I found these, and the related paintings in the exhibition, moving for the deep humanity with which they portray their subjects. Though he draws on a rural genre painting tradition, Cézanne’s does not depict his card players as rowdy drinkers and gamblers in the way that peasants had been portrayed for centuries. Rather, they are stoical and completely absorbed in their card play. The English critic Roger Fry wrote in 1927:

It is hard to think of any design since those of the great Italian Primitives… which gives us so extraordinary a sense of monumental gravity and resistance – of something that has found its centre and can never be moved.

Although Cezanne, a banker’s son, was socially far-removed from the peasants he portrayed in the card player series,  he often spoke of his sympathy or affection for those who worked on the land – in his words ‘people who have grown old without breaking with old customs’.  This is indicative that sympathy for peasants among men of Cezanne’s social class did not imply attachment to progressive politics. Rather, it reflected respect for country-folk in an ordered and hierarchical society in which each had his or her role. As Nancy Ireson and Barnaby Wright state in the exhibition catalogue:

This painter was a landowner with a private income and the men he painted were his employees.  Though he depicted these sitters with the same care and consideration he brought to all his subjects, there is no indication that he had any kind of personal connection with them.

Nothing in Cezanne’s letters or recorded conversation suggest any concern with questions concerning the circumstances or character of the peasantry in his time.  The image he portrays is not Emile Zola’s vision of the hardships and brutality of peasant life in La Terre, published a few years before Cezanne began work on the series.  Nor are there any similarities with French genre paintings of rural workers wearied but ennobled by their labours, seen, for example, in Leon Lhermitte’s The Harvest of 1883 (below).

As Nancy Ireson and Barnaby Wright note in the exhibition catalogue, Cezanne’s paintings are not naturalistic depictions of their subjects in actual spaces:

None of the canvases give any sign of activity; there is no interchange between the figures, no communicative facial expression, no hint of any gesture that might lay a card on the table – the figures are posing, not playing. […]

Consistently, the Card Players paintings and the single peasant figures reject the conventions of contemporary peasant painting, which sought to present the figures as an integral part of and inseperable from their surroundings, inviting the viewer to see the peasant world as a seamless whole in which figures knew their place and belonged unquestioningly in that place, as part of a ‘natural order’.

In a further essay in the exhibition catalogue, Richard Shiff observes:

The subject of Cezanne’s …painting was Cezanne – his sensation, his seeing, his way of moving and emoting with elements of form.  He painted.

Cezanne told of how he loved ‘above all else the appearance of people who have grown old without breaking with old customs’.  So, in a sense, the Card Players and peasant paintings are the human equivalents of his repeated impressions of Montaigne Sainte-Victoire.  They are steadfast in the face of change, exuding monumentality and stillness; in Roger Fry’s words, ‘something that has found its centre and can never be moved’.

The Card Players in the order they were painted?

So – five canvases, completed in the early 1890s, though the actual sequence subject to debate.  The Courtauld exhibition catalogue suggests, based on the latest evidence from technical research that this may be the order:

1. The Moma version

2. The Barnes version

3. The Musee d’Orsay version

4. The Courtauld version

5. The Embiricos version

The final painting in the series is in a private collection: it belongs to the Greek shipping magnate George Embiricos, who rarely lends works.

This is Andrew Graham-Dixon’s verdict on the series:

Nancy Ireson and Barnaby Wright, who have written the introduction to the show’s catalogue, argue that these works are so inscrutable that their mysteries may never be fathomed; and the pictures themselves do have an intractable quality seemingly designed to repel overly exact interpretations. The playing of cards was an old Dutch subject, representing the dissolute life, but there is no trace of disapproving moralism in Cezanne’s pictures. Men with stovepipe hats and clay smoking pipes clamped between their teeth sit across from one another at tables on which playing cards are strewn like falling leaves. They seem as calm as philosophers. They wear dun-coloured clothes in dun-coloured interiors.

Something Cezanne himself said near the end of his life contains, perhaps, a clue to the pictures’ meaning. Lamenting the rapid industrialisation of the South of France, he told Jules Borely that “Today everything changes in reality, but not for me, I live in the town of my childhood … I love above all else the appearance of people who have grown old without breaking with old customs.”    It is on that same tension, the central tension in Cezanne’s art – between the confusing world of modern life and the old, comforting certainties – that the pictures of card-players seem themselves to play. The eye is drawn to the world the men inhabit: a deeply unstable place, with its tip-tilted tables, its thick, vibrating, molecularly dense air. Then the figures assert themselves, slow and solid. The only still points in this shifting universe, they resemble monuments, and yet the painter cannot quite connect with them. In certain studies the men look out to face him, but their eyes are sightless and their faces expressionless masks.

Alongside the paintings from the Card Players series the Courtauld exhibition displays related preparatory paintings of peasants, smokers and men with pipes.  There is ‘Man With a Pipe’ from the Courtauld collection:

And ‘Man With A Pipe’ from the Marion and Henry Bloch Collection:

There is ‘The Smoker’, from the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg:

And ‘Man smoking a pipe’, from the Pushkin Museum of Fine Art, Moscow:

There is ‘Man in a Blue Smock, from Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth:

And perhaps my favourite, ‘Peasant’ from a private collection.  This portrait of an unidentified figure deep in concentration has been judged by some commentators to be a portrait of an ideal peasant type, but, for me, it radiates too much individuality for that:

Leaving the exhibition, outside in the courtyard of Somerset House the annual Christmas ice rink was busy with skaters:


A visit to the Courtauld gallery

Cezanne: Route tournante

On our London trip, the visit to the Courtauld Gallery at Somerset House was very rewarding. It’s famous for its outstanding Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings, such as Pissarro (below), and has an outstanding display of paintings by the Fauves, including important works by Matisse, Derain and Dufy. The painting I enjoyed most on this visit was Cezanne’s Route tournante (above).

Camille Pissarro: Lordship Lane Station, Dulwich

The gallery houses paintings by leading artists of the Bloomsbury Group, Vanessa Bell (sister of Virginia Woolf, below), Duncan Grant and Roger Fry, together with avant-garde decorative arts produced by them at their Omega Workshops.

Conversation: Vanessa Bell, 1913-1916

Paths to Fame: Turner Watercolours

At the moment there is a special exhibition of Turner watercolours. On view are works from across the artist’s career, ranging from an ambitious early view of Avon Gorge made when Turner was just sixteen years old to the monumental highly finished watercolours of his maturity and examples of the celebrated expressive late works.

Among the examples of pure watercolours on display is The Crook of Lune, looking towards Hornby Castle.

There’s a brilliant gouache, Heaped thundercloud over sea and land

The final section of the exhibition consists of five watercolours, all from the same period (from around 1835 to 1841) and having the same theme, the beach and the sea at Margate. John Ruskin especially praised Dawn after the Wreck (below): no shipwreck, debris or drowned corpses are visible yet Ruskin wrote, ‘some little vessel – a collier probably – has gone down in the night, all hands lost: a single dog has come ashore. Utterly exhausted, its limbs failing under it, and sinking into the sand, it stands howling and shivering.’ Ruskin’s passion for Turner’s late watercolours and his sentimental interpretation of their subject matter helped to perpetuate Turner’s fame as England’s greatest painter in watercolours.

Turner: Dawn After The Wreck