Art Markets: Cartier-Bresson captures eternity

When Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) switched his focus from paintbrush to camera, the essence of photography was still the subject of fierce debate. Should photographers aspire to art or remain as mere documenters of reality? Cartier-Bresson, who earned the reputation as one of the greatest photographers of the 20th century, seemed to appreciate both perspectives. “A photograph,” he said, “could fix eternity in an instant.”

Cartier-Bresson was born to a prosperous family in textile manufacturing and was encouraged to follow in the family business. But the lure of artistic expression proved too strong to ignore. In 1927 Cartier-Bresson studied painting under the Paris artist Andre Lhote, who sought to link the modern perspective of Cubism with classic French painting as represented by Jacques-Louis David. His tutor’s admiration for the old as well as the new rubbed off on Cartier-Bresson. His photos employed classic rules of composition while seeking the surreal moments amid the tragedy of his times. Cartier-Bresson was one of the most important photojournalists of the 1930s through the 1960s and among the few working newsmen whose work was ready to be hung on the white walls of art museums.

A current retrospective of his work, “Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century,” is on exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago (July 25 through October 3). Organized by the Museum of Modern Art which premiered the exhibition earlier this year, the show features more than 300 images assembled in cooperation with the Foundation Henri Cartier-Bresson in Paris. Arranged in a series of distinct sections chronicling his career, the show includes his portraiture and street scenes as well as his editorial and postwar work in India and Indonesia, China during the revolution and the Soviet Union after Stalin’s death.

His adventures began in 1932 when he discovered the Leica, the lifelong counterpart to his creative genius. Traveling through France, Spain and Italy, he photographed rural life and the urban underclass, images that were revolutionary for their candor. A crippled boy on crutches playing with friends among the ruins in Seville was his first memorable image shown around the world. That unrehearsed and spontaneous glimpse of the otherwise unremarkable became his signature style. The following year, his first exhibition of photographs was held at New York’s Julien Levy Gallery.

By 1935 Cartier-Bresson was living in New York, painting the town in black and white, and exhibiting again at the Levy Gallery, this time with photographer Walker Evans. Trying his hand in the cinematic arts with fellow photographer Paul Strand carried over into serving as an assistant to French film director Jean Renoir when he returned to France in 1936.

With world events unfolding around him, Cartier-Bresson’s talent with his Leica brought him to where history was being made. A film commission documenting Loyalist fighters wounded in the Spanish Civil War, photographing the coronation of England’s King George VI and finally enlistment in the French army in its film and photo unit allowed Cartier-Bresson to record the extraordinary with his intuitive eye. Captured on the same day that his government signed the armistice treaty with Nazi Germany, Cartier-Bresson spent the next three years in a prisoner-of-war camp in Germany. Escaping after his third attempt, he became active in the French underground movement, organizing secret photography units that documented the German occupation in France.

After the war, with fellow photographers Robert Capa, George Rodger, David Seymour and William Vandivert, Cartier-Bresson founded Magnum Photos, a cooperative photo agency owned and operated by the members themselves. Cartier-Bresson published his first book, “The Decisive Moment,” in 1952 with the proceeds shared by all members of the agency. Considered one of the most important photobooks of the 20th century, “The Decisive Moment” showcases 126 photos spanning Cartier-Bresson’s previous 20 years photographing the map including India, Burma, Sumatra, Bali and the U.S. and France. Also included are his portraits of Sartre, Capote, Faulkner, Matisse and others.

As the first western photojournalist allowed into the Soviet Union and China during the height of the cold war, Cartier-Bresson published “The People of Moscow” (1955) and “China In Transition” (1956). With his keen eye for capturing a narrative in an instant, “The People of Moscow” provided “a first peek behind the “Iron Curtain.” As the Soviet Union’s borders were sealed, any view from the inside was rare. Cartier-Bresson and his wife were accompanied by an interpreter and claimed no interference with his work. During his 11 months in China (1948-49), Cartier-Bresson documented the fall of the Nationalist regime and caught the last plane out before Mao’s troops entered Beijing.

In 1972, Cartier-Bresson retired his Leica and took up painting again. An exhibit of his drawings was shown in New York in 1975. Also that year, he was awarded an honorary degree from Oxford University.

Recent auction sales for Cartier-Bresson are strong. Christie’s London sale in May featured nine of his photographs. Among the highlights from his travels was “Selling Theatre Tickets, Moscow” (1954), a 13-by-19-inch Bromoil gelatin silver print on board which sold for $5,023 (hammer), “Independence Day, Cape Cod, Massachusetts” (1947), an 8-by-19-inch gelatin silver print also on board, bought for $12,200 (hammer) and “Funeral Pyre of Gandhi” (1948), a 12-by-19-inch gelatin silver print on board, recording the events in Delhi during the slain leader’s funeral, fetched $4,019 (hammer).

The following day at Christie’s London Photobooks sale, “The Decisive Moment,” (Paris: Verve, 1952) with cover art design by Matisse, sold for $19,733 (including buyer’s premium). This first edition was inscribed by Cartier-Bresson to Philippe Erlanger, the noted art critic and historian who conceived the Cannes Film Festival.

Interest in Cartier-Bresson’s work as a pioneer and innovator endures. The master of the camera was on hand to record the decisive moments that became history. ?

Mary Manion is associate director of Landmarks Gallery and Restoration Studio in Milwaukee, Wis. A columnist for Antique Trader since 2006, Manion is a member of the New England Appraisers Association.

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