Henri and Me
Taking criticism of the artist a little too personally.
|"Juvisy, France" (1938)
I’ve been trying to write about the Museum of Modern Art’s retrospective of photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson for more than two months, but I’ve failed time and again.
- "Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century" Through June 28. Museum of Modern Art, New York (traveling to the Art Institute of Chicago, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the High Museum of Art, Atlanta).
At first, I thought I’d been swayed by a number of esteemed art critics, most of whom seemed disappointed by the exhibition. The show was deemed “almost unenduringly majestic” by The New Yorker’s Peter Schjeldahl who gave this stern assessment of what he called Cartier-Bresson’s “platitudinous” work: “richly satisfies the eye and the mind, while numbing the heart.” This was seconded by the Times’ Holland Cotter, who claimed that Cartier-Bresson’s “ideas and emotions are diffuse” and that “surprisingly little tension builds” in the exhibition. Both critics also trotted out tired old comparisons to the work of Robert Frank, a detractor of Cartier-Bresson's who once unjustly said of the older photographer: “He traveled all over the world, and you never felt he was moved by something that was happening other than the beauty of it, or just the composition.”
Soon enough, I started to feel angry about the general critical appraisal of the show, especially a certain loaded, snobbish question I’d seen raised numerous times: Should we consider Cartier-Bresson’s photography “art” or it is just (and here I imagine a critic crinkling his nose as if holding a dirty diaper) “journalism”? This stuffy and frankly out-of-touch notion was most clearly expressed by Cotter: “Are we talking about an impassable line that separates photojournalism (Cartier-Bresson) from art (Frank)?” (To Cotter’s credit, he answers “no”.)
But I was still confused, still unable to write about Cartier-Bresson, still unable to articulate why I was so frustrated by this supposed “impassable line” between journalism and art. I returned to MoMA for a second viewing, and then it hit me: I was taking everything about Cartier-Bresson — the articles, even the exhibition itself — way too personally.
It hit me as I approached the mural-sized world maps that greet museum-goers at the show’s entrance, with dotted lines tracing Cartier-Bresson’s famous journeys over several decades. Ringing in my ears was Schjeldahl’s snarky take: “This suggests a novel measurement of artistic worth: mileage. It seems relevant only to the glamour quotient — a cult, practically — of Cartier-Bresson’s persona, pointing up what seems to me most resistible in his work.”
Ouch, I thought. But mainly because I was flashing on my own career as a travel writer, one that began 15 years ago when I gave up writing a novel. I’ve always harbored my own deep fears that I passed, miles ago, over that “impassable” line from art to journalism, never to return.
But that, of course, is about me. And compared to Cartier-Bresson, I am a very tiny talent — a hack really, just like all the critics who write about him, as well as most artists who try to emulate him. Cartier-Bresson is a giant. And clearly he never worried at all about whether he was making art, photojournalism, or something else entirely. And this is why I love him.
I can’t remember a time when Cartier-Bresson’s images did not exist in my mind, suggesting an older, more authentic, more beautiful world. I knew those fishermen mending nets in Nazare, Portugal before I’d ever seen them myself (and snapped my own inferior version of the same photo). I’d met those old men picnicking in Sardinia before I ever traveled to Sardinia myself and tried in vain to similarly capture them in words. The French boar hunters I followed into the forest had already somehow existed, in my imagination, because of Cartier-Bresson. As a teenager growing up in an average American suburb, Cartier-Bresson’s photo provided a particular vision of Old Europe that is permanently etched in my mind, even if it doesn’t exist in the world anymore.
Yes, I know it seems almost quaint these days. “Many of Cartier-Bresson’s pictures could have been made centuries ago, if he and photography had existed then,” reads the gallery text. The curators, seeming to anticipate the critical response, note that “his keen attention to particulars redeems the strain of romantic nostalgia in his work.”
Pico Iyer recently, aptly, described the travel writer as both photographer and philosopher: “A travel writer is, to some degree, Cartier-Bresson roaming around the global or local neighborhood with a book of theology in his hand.” When I was young and beginning my own wanderings, that book of theology was, for me, written by lyrical correspondents like Iyer himself. In his classic essay “Why We Travel,” Iyer lays out a sort of traveler’s catechism: He travels in search of “subtler beauties”; he seeks “innocent eye that can return me to a more innocent self”; he calls all the great travel books “love stories” and says “all good trips are, like love, about being carried out of yourself and deposited in the midst of terror and wonder.” When Iyer writes, “Travel is the best way we have of rescuing the humanity of places, and saving them from abstraction and ideology,” he may as well be describing the work of Cartier-Bresson.
|"Hyères, France" (1932)
With his tendency toward lyricism, Iyer has faced complaints similar to those made against Cartier-Bresson, such as this dismissive judgment from the Times Book Review about his book Sun After Dark: “Iyer too often relies on overblown figures of speech and pretty pastiches in lieu of solid observation or reporting.”
This is no surprise. As soon as artists (or is it journalists?) start talking about things like “the humanity of places” is when critics uncomfortably reach for adjectives like “platitudinous” and “melodramatic.” Likewise, whenever an artist (or is it a journalist?) nakedly sets out to capture beauty in this way, what always comes forth is that nagging question — Frank’s question of Cartier-Bresson — of whether beauty is enough, or whether something other than the beauty of it also needs to be happening.
So I guess this is why I have failed, and will continue to fail, to write about Cartier-Bresson. The couple on the train in Romania. The young boys gathered in a sunny square in Madrid. The family having a picnic on the riverbank. I can’t imagine my life without images such as these. For me, the beauty simply has to be enough. • 21 June 2010
Jason Wilson is editor of The Smart Set. He also edits The Best American Travel Writing series (Houghton Mifflin) and writes the Spirits column for the Washington Post.
Photographs: "Juvisy, France" (1938); Gelatin silver print, printed 1947, 9 1/8 x 13 11/16" (23.3 x 34.8 cm); The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the photographer; © 2010 Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos, courtesy Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresso.
"Hyères, France" (1932); Gelatin silver print, 7 11/16 x 11 7/16" (19.6 x 29.1 cm); The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase; © 2010 Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos, courtesy Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson