Henri Cartier-Bresson
Curator:  Pascale Falek Alhadeff
Jewish Museum, Brussels
Until Aug. 24.

WEST GERMANY. 1962. West Berlin. The Berlin wall.
WEST GERMANY. 1962. West Berlin. The Berlin wall.

In May 2014, a gunman believed to have links with radical Islamists opened fire at the Jewish Museum in the Sablon area of central Brussels , killing three people instantly. A fourth died in hospital.

A year on, armed soldiers stand guard at the museum of Jewish culture and its history in Belgium and visitor numbers are still low.

That ought to change after the museum’s old-fashioned display is revamped in a two-year refurbishment beginning after the summer.

Until then, those who make it past the security checks are rewarded with a pleasantly crowd-free exhibition of the extraordinary output of France’s Henri Cartier-Bresson, hailed as the founder of photojournalism and “the eye of the century”. That is true in the fullest sense of the words, given his exceptional ability to see the telling detail, or, in his own words, to seize the fact related to “the deep reality”.

The Jewish Museum said it decided to hold the exhibition as the natural sequel to exhibitions on Robert Capa and Chim Seymour, Cartier-Bresson’s colleagues at the agency Magnum Photo, founded in the aftermath of World War II.

Whether he has lighted on a stray dog, an orphaned child or a great artist, Cartier-Bresson can make us feel we have entered their worlds and shared their significance.

The selection of 133 crystal-clear, black and white photographs conveys the massive range of Cartier-Bresson’s subject-matter over five decades — from Mexico to Madrid, from the poverty-stricken to luminaries, such as Sartre and Matisse, and from harrowing moments of history to child-like humour.

Presentation that is simple in the extreme lets the photographs speak for themselves. The only commentary consists of a few biographical notes and quotations, in keeping with Cartier-Bresson’s own unadorned approach: he used a small Leica, never a flash and insisted his pictures were not cropped. On some of them, you can see the edge of the film poking above the picture frame.

Himself from a bourgeois family, whose wealth allowed him to attend art school and gave him the freedom not to work in a bank, as he put it, Cartier-Bresson’s prime subject is the reality of the ordinary man. To make himself as invisible as possible, like a hunter stalking his prey, he often wrapped black tape around the camera’s chrome body to make it less conspicuous.

His approach to covering the Coronation of George VI in 1937 was to turn his back on the monarch and focus on the subjects watching from London’s Trafalgar Square. One who is particularly the worse for wear sleeps off his excesses on a bed of abandoned newspapers, ignored by the rest of the public, which gazes on with varying degrees of deadened indifference.

Cartier-Bresson’s unerring, compassionate eye manages to capture inherent ridiculousness and dignity; when mocking, he is also warm. However messy his subjects, his sense of composition – again best summed up by borrowing from his eloquent words, as a “marvellous mixture of emotion and geometry” – gives them elegance while avoiding romanticism.

The non-chic bulkiness of the protagonists in his 1938 study Sunday on the banks of the Seine is as much an homage as a parody of the impressionist painters’ idealised versions of similar scenes.

The indulgence of Cartier-Bresson’s rather sweaty picnickers is summed up as the click of his camera catches a man in braces and a bowler hat pouring out wine into a glass.

Equally, he captures with precision the electrifying horror as a former Gestapo informer is indentified in 1945. The woman handing over the informer has the air of a savage animal baring its teeth. The woman informer is a cross between surly and guilty-looking as she stands before an official, who is stern to the roots of his razor-sharp hair parting, while the crowd has the air of being ready to surge.

Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moments” make everyone an actor, regardless of how small their role.

He conveys the overwhelming significance of the 1948 cremation of Gandhi by showing the scale of the crowd: a sea of people, like extras in a film, above which a few rise by clambering into a tree to get a view.

And then there are his portraits of those who actively shape their world.

The photographs on show at the Jewish Museum include the famous 1944 portrait of Matisse in Vence, southern France, absorbed in the task of depicting his beloved doves.

There is also Sartre in 1946 Paris, smoking his pipe and staring out, one eye wilder than the other, and Giocametti  crossing a Paris street in 1961. His coat is pulled up over his head as the great sculptor retreats from the rain just like an ordinary citizen – or is it in fact the ordinary citizens that behave like the great through Cartier-Bresson’s lens?


Barbara Lewis.

FRANCE. Paris. Maeght gallery. Swiss painter and sculptor Alberto GIACOMETTI. 1961.
FRANCE. Paris. Maeght gallery. Swiss painter and sculptor Alberto GIACOMETTI. 1961.