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Organized in partnership with the Bibliothèque Nationale de France and Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson and on display at Palazzo Grassi in Venice until March 20, 2021, the exhibition “Henri Cartier-Bresson. Le Grand Jeu” is, indeed, precisely a “Great Game”. A unique project conceived and coordinated by a photography expert: five different curators were invited to select fifty works of Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908 – 2004) by his “Master Collection”, a selection of 385 images that the artist himself chose in the early 1970s as the most significant of his work. An attractive and successful attempt to renew and enrich our view on Henri Cartier-Bresson’s work. 

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Matthieu Humery, chief curator of the exhibition, and the new Living Archives Program for Luma Arles (Les Recontres de la Photographie) asked to five important curatorial figures to “play a game”: Annie Leibovitz – photographer-, Wim Wenders - film director -, Javier Cercasm - writer -, Sylvie Aubenas- General Conservator and Director of the Prints and Photography Department of the Bibliothèque nationale de France – and François Pinault – collector – had toexamine Cartier-Bresson’s “Master Collection” and to share their visions on this major artist’s photography and work. Five different looks on Bresson’s work, the candid “Eye of the Century”. 

 

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Sur les Bords de la Marne, 1938, Gelatin silver print, printed 1970s. 24 x 36 cm (30 x 40 cm), Private collection, Paris, © 2020 Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos

 

Born in Chanteloup-en-Brie, Seine-et-Marne,France, Henri Cartier-Bresson developed a strong fascination with Surrealisms, which he explored by socializing with its exponents at the Café Cyrano during the Parisian 20s. He approached street photography via the subconscious, with a voracious appetite for the usual and unusual. When capturing a decisive moment, ordinary photographs hold unpredictable meanings. 

Having in mind Cartier-Bresson’s influences, Mathieu Humery stated that “Le Grand Jeu” as well is a reminiscence of chance and unintended trajectories, a theme dear to the Surrealists.

In 1929, Henriwas introduced to his first camera by the bon vivantand publisher Harry Crosby, but, only, two years later, he acquired his iconic small Leica with 50 mm lens that would have accompanied him for many years. Cartier-Bresson's first published photojournalist photos came in 1937 when he covered the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elisabeth. In those shots, he captured the world at its actual state, focusing on the new monarch's adoring subjects lining the London streets, instead of the king. After a few years, he covered the Occupation and then the Liberation of France in 1943, after having joined the French Army as a Corporal in the Film and Photo unit. In 1947, together with other great photographer he founded Magnum Photos, a cooperative picture agency which felt the pulse of the times. Whereas in the 70s, he turned to his initial passion: drawing and sketching. 

His legendary “Master Collection”, or “the great game”, of 1979 - which became part of the John and Dominique de Menil Collection- is a testament and an attempt to take stock of his extensive photographic production. A crucial,indispensable, “decisive” tool for understanding his work. 

Because photography is not like painting. Cartier-Bresson’s had always been able to catch the instant, thanks to his ability to capture the “The Decisive Moment” - the creative fraction of a second when a photographer knows, with intuition, that it is the right time to click the camera.  A photograph like Rue Mouffertard (Paris, 1954) is a classic and precise example: the joy and pride of a child - so ephemeral and volatile - carrying two flasks of wine under his arms, scrutinized by the cheerful gaze of his companions. An ode to superb life! - as all Cartier-Bresson’s photographs are, notably those from the Master Collection. “To take a photograph is to align the head, the eye and the heart”, he said once.  

 

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Rue Mouffetard, Paris, 1954, Gelatin silver print, printed 1968, 35 3/16 × 23 3/16" (89.4 × 58.9 cm), Gift of the artist, © 2020 Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos, courtesy Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paris.

 

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Lock at Bougival, France, 1956, ferrotyped gelatin silver print, printed later, 10 x 6 3/4 in. (25.5 x 17.2 cm.), © 2020 Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos, courtesy Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paris.

 

As Wim Wenders asked himself “do I know more about Cartier-Bresson now?”, can we actually learn something from his special gaze? According to François Pinault, Cartier-Bresson is an insatiable storyteller, traveler, libertarian; this elusive character who said a lot with a minimum of means. His black and white photographs tell something different each time we look at them. 

After being displayed in Venice, “Henri Cartier-Bresson. Le Grand Jeu” will be presented at the Bibliothèque nationale de France, in Paris, from 13 April to 22 August 2021. 

 

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Alberto Giacometti at Galerie Maeght, Paris, 1961, 35,6 x 23,9 cm, © 2020 Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos, courtesy Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paris.

 

Cover image: Henri Cartier-Bresson, French painter Henri Matisse at his home, villa "Le Rêve". Vence. Alpes-Maritimes. France. February 1944. © 2020 Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos, courtesy Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paris.

Written by Petra Chiodi 

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