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A delightful display of classic black and white images, highlighting the significance of Paris in 20th century Photography.
Containing collectable prints by André Kertész, Robert Doisneau, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Willy Ronis and Elliott Erwitt, this exhibition reminds us of the beauty of the French capital, and reinforces its importance in bolstering French National identity after the Second World War.
‘Paris in the Springtime’ currently on show at the Beetles + Huxley Gallery is an exhibition of photography that celebrates two of the medium’s most powerful features – its ability to capture the delights of real-life, and its ability to present a very believable fiction.
In part, the exhibition shows how photographers have simply responded to the famous charms of the French capital and its people. Many of the greatest photographers of the 20th century spent time in Paris, as it was the centre of the artistic universe for several decades. It was only natural that they would document the picturesque architecture and appealing culture that they experienced when there.
On a more sophisticated level, however, the exhibition is also an examination of the French cliché that has contributed to an international reputation for romance, culture and fine living. The ‘look’ of France was born in Paris and perpetuated by many of the photographers that worked there – the Eiffel Tower, café society, couples walking hand-in-hand, misty mornings on the Seine, elegant restaurants, and so on. ‘Paris in the Springtime’ includes a wide array of this sort of imagery, the most striking of which must be Robert Doisneau’s world-famous picture of two lovers kissing on a busy Parisian street. Anybody who has visited the centre of old Paris knows that this appealing environment does exist and, while the images in the show do not reveal the grimier side of life, they are not a total fiction – the cliché was and still is a part of Parisian daily life, the photographers just amplified it.
At its core the exhibition reveals how this amplification in turn led to the dissemination of this ‘look’ of France around the world. Firstly because photographers such as Kertész and Cartier-Bresson became famous, and their pictures were celebrated internationally, but secondly because of a concerted effort in the aftermath of the Second World War. Robert Doisneau and Willy Ronis joined 13 other photographers to form Group XV in 1946, a society that set out to preserve and promote French photographic tradition. They were also passionate advocates of humanist photography, a movement that swept the world after the war. Humanist photographers sought to reveal the poetry and beauty in life, searching for universal truths that would have relevance anywhere in the world. Using Paris as their hunting ground, Doisneau, Ronis and their friends sought such moments among the hustle and bustle of Parisian daily life, thus contributing a new layer of poetic fantasy to the French cliché – particularly as the reality was far grimmer in post-occupation France. As Doisneau famously said, ‘I don’t photograph life as it is, but life as I would like it to be.’ Their aim was to celebrate France, and to focus on the more pleasant things in life – they were successful in part because Paris was such a poetic stage for their project. Published in magazines such as Life, the images that they made were hugely popular both at home and abroad, and helped boost French National pride at a time when it was crippled both spiritually and financially after the War. Their work also helped to crystalise the French cliché in the mind of any viewer that ever felt drawn to the French capital, further enhancing the desirability of Paris the world over.
Information and imagery Courtesy: Beetles + Huxley Gallery