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Saturday, October 29, 2011

Henri Cartier-Bresson

Behind the Gare at St. Lazare,
1932, Henri Cartier-Bresson
As working artists of the 21st century, we are all acutely aware of the link between art and the camera. Photographers have long deemed their best work to be art, and many painters have long embraced the product of their own cameras, or those of others, as an integral step in their seeing and producing their own form of pigmented art on canvas. One of the most interesting artists with a camera lived in a small apartment overlooking the Tuileries in Paris. He was 95 years old when he died in 2004 though the last 25 years of his life, he seldom took pictures. Instead, he sat at the window of his apartment and drew the scene below--the Paris street, the Louvre, and the Musee d'Orsay. The scene was not new. Over a century ago, Monet and Pissaro shared the apartment below his and both painted their impression of it. As he grew older, Henri Cartier-Bresson became an artist with a pencil, his eye, his camera, his lively, yet disciplined hand recording the image on his ever-present sketch pad.

A view out the window, typical of a
Cartier-Bresson drawing.
Cartier-Bresson came from a wealthy textile family so financially conservative that once, while on a big-game safari in Africa, when he got sick, his father ordered him to come back to Paris immediately lest they have to pay the exorbitant cost of shipping his body home. He claims to have been cured by the friendly, local witch doctor. The man was an interesting bundle of contrasts. His most famous work, a book of his photos entitled The Decisive Moment, catalogs a hectic life traveling all over Europe and Asia covering news stories, yet his work has such an artistic edge the event itself is quickly forgotten. Describing himself as a turbulent Buddhist, he loves all things Chinese yet has visited the country only once. His photos have a surrealist quality yet he was at best only a peripheral figure in the 1930s movement. An intimate friend of the French painter, Pierre Bonnard, he also was close to Picasso, who detested Bonnard.

Cartier-Bresson working on a self-portrait
at his window on the world.
As a convert from the film image to that of the pencil, Henri Cartier-Bresson was acutely aware of masses and shapes, but in his drawings, he seems to have preferred the line as his favorite mode of expression. He claimed to be an impostor, his drawings only of interest to collectors because he was once a famous photographer. Yet there is much of Bonnard in his work, also the influence of poets, like D'Annunzio, James Joyce, and Rimbaud, from whom he developed a wanderlust, which served him well as a photojournalist. His most noticeable influence, however, seems to have been Matisse, despite the fact he rarely worked in color. But it was the artists from the 19th century he loved most, Chardin, Ingres, Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Renoir. It is from them, he says, that he learned his craft.

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