Museum  November 16, 2020  Caterina Bellinetti

A Contemporary Perspective on Henri Cartier-Bresson's Greatest Works

© Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Lourdes, France, 1958. Gelatin silver print, 1973.

Palazzo Grassi, the contemporary art museum of the Pinault Collection in Venice, is hosting the exhibition Henri Cartier-Bresson: Le Grand Jeu, co-organized with the Bibliothèque National de France and the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson. For this exhibition, five guest curators—François Pinault, Annie Leibovitz, Javier Cercas, Wim Wenders, and Sylvie Aubenas—were asked to select around fifty photographs from the Master Collection, a catalogue of 385 images created by Cartier-Bresson in 1973.

© Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos

Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Coronation of King George VI, Trafalgar Square, London, England, 12 May 1937. Gelatin silver print, 1973.

The Master Collection was born out of the request from the art collectors Dominique and John de Menil who asked Cartier-Bresson to choose the best images from his contact sheets. The Collection was then was developed by Georges Fèvre at the Pictorial photo lab in Paris and presented for the first time in 1974 at the Rice Museum in Houston. Only six sets of the Master Collection were printed and are now hosted at the University of Fine Art in Osaka, the Biliothèque National de France, the Menil Collection in Houston, the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, the Pinault Collection, and at the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson.  

For Le Grand Jeu (The Great Game), Pinault, Leibovitz, Cercas, Wenders, and Aubenas chose fifty photographs without consulting each other and were given the freedom to create their own personal exhibition. The result is a unique retrospective of the works of Henri Cartier-Bresson from five different perspectives. Matthieu Humery, the general curator of the exhibition, remarked how “As the curators were all free to choose, we had absolutely no idea which direction they would take. Brilliantly, this Grand Jeu reveals five personal and critical accounts, each with its own clearly recognizable signature.”

© Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Mexico, 1934. Gelatin silver print, 1973.

“Truth, simplicity, humility: that is what characterizes the work of Cartier-Bresson in my eyes,” said Pinault. For the French collector, the power of Cartier-Bresson is found in the ability to observe the essence of humanity through the lens: the fleeting moments of pure happiness, the small joys of daily life, the world in all its differences and similarities.

With a more professional structure, Sylvie Aubenas, the General Conservator and Director of the Prints and Photography Department of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, organized her selection through the recurring themes and subjects present in the Master Collection. Her approach wanted to highlight Cartier-Bresson’s vision of the world and present the viewers with the keys “to better understand his works.”

© Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Alberto Giacometti, Rue d'Alésia, Paris, France, 1961. Gelatin silver print, 1973.

Annie Leibovitz, instead, revealed that this exhibition was an opportunity to reflect on her own journey as a photographer and the impact that Cartier-Bresson had on her profession. “Seeing Cartier-Bresson’s work made me want to become a photographer,” she noted. “The idea that a photographer could travel with a camera to different places, see how other people lived, make looking a mission—that that could be your life was an amazing, thrilling idea.”

For the German filmmaker Wim Wenders, the photographs of Cartier-Bresson are characterized by “a directness and immediacy” that allows the viewer to establish a personal, instant connection with the subjects inside the frame. Time is not important. “There is something in these portraits [...] that entirely defies the period they were taken in,” stressed Wenders.

The Spanish writer Javier Cercas was a casualty of this directness and immediacy as he chose the fifty photographs because of the emotional impact they had on him. According to Cercas, Cartier-Bresson embodied the true mission of any artist: “to discover an order and a signification, or an illusion of signification in the ‘inform’ magma of reality.”

© Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Lac Sevan, Armenia, USSR, 1972. Gelatin silver print, 1973.

Le Grand Jeu is therefore not only a celebration of the talents of Cartier-Bresson and the perspectives of the five exceptional guest curators, but a representation of the great game we call life, its challenges, and its joys, through photographs. 

About the Author

Caterina Bellinetti

Dr. Caterina Bellinetti is an art historian specialised in photography and Chinese visual propaganda and culture.

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