Just How It was

Anne Hollander

  • Tête à Tête: Portraits by Henri Cartier-Bresson edited by E.H. Gombrich
    Thames and Hudson, 144 pp, £32.00, February 1998, ISBN 0 05 005421 X
  • Henri Cartier-Bresson: Europeans edited by Jean Clair
    Thames and Hudson, 231 pp, £29.95, January 1998, ISBN 0 500 28052 5

Like Titian’s, Cartier-Bresson’s work began as the mirror of one epoch and is ending as that of another, simply because he invented the best mirror and kept polishing it Cartier-Bresson’s influence has been immense since his beginnings, not just on photography but on cinema and photojournalism, so that he has been largely responsible for 20th-century notions of what a superior realistic camera image should look like. Which is to say, for our sense of how modern life looks.

It is therefore most instructive to see how deeply his photographs draw for their verisimilitude on traditions of Western representation that prevailed long before the camera. In the full tide of current events, with no posing of subjects or manipulation of backgrounds and no cropping afterwards, Cartier-Bresson manages to suggest Goya and Guercino, Metsu and Phidias, Daumier and Rossetti, Mantegna and Degas and many others. He evokes such ghostly optical presences all the more strongly by avoiding the direct references often made to them by painters or by ‘pictorial’ photographers. An eye with Cartier-Bresson’s deep artistic sympathy can register and store the traces of past representations so effectively that he is able to transmit them straight into the receptive lens as if without knowing it. They are conjured into the midst of life to tell a modern truth by purely modern means.

This is what a great artist has always known how to do, although usually not in such a wholly distinctive medium. Cartier-Bresson’s was photo-reportage, later to shift into portrait-photo-reportage, documentary film and photojournalism, all of this a long way from Mantegna. It is evident from the pictures in both these books that the artistic past absorbed by Cartier-Bresson also comprised such giants of photography as Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen – and look! here’s Stieglitz himself, whose portrait Cartier-Bresson took in 1946, the lastyear of the great forerunner’s life. Stieglitz’s face has a weary look not unlike that of Robert Flaherty, father of the documentary film, another great forerunner whose portrait Cartier-Bresson took in the same year.

A similar weariness infuses the faces of Georges Rouault and Pierre Bonnard in their 1944 portraits; but the relationship between these aged artists and the portrait camera is quite a different one. Both elderly painters are closely buttoned up, Rouault formally with waistcoat, wing-collar, cravat and Homburg, his tired eyes not quite meeting the lens. Bonnard is informally but more totally packaged, with a thick wrapped scarf, a droop-brimmed cotton hat, a moustache and spectacles all obscuring the physical Pierre, who gazes far away into the light. Both men are thinking of something other than this moment and this camera, which they only stoically permit. Picasso (never an old master, though finally an old man in his 1967 portrait) was also photographed in 1944, apparently in the act of undressing to recline for the camera, his hands fumbling at his belt and fly, his torso already naked, prune-like eyes staring and an undraped bed right next to him.

In 1946 the old masters of the camera, on the other hand, were wearing wrinkled shirt-sleeves without neckwear, the skinny Stieglitz lolling and polishing his glasses, a white lock falling over his brow, his glittering gaze fixed beyond us; the plump Flaherty with his hands on spread knees and two fingers delicately supporting a cigarette, the white wisps rising a little, his look reflective. These two fatigued pioneers are comfortably welcoming a young master and colleague. The Flaherty portrait recalls Ingres’s M. Bertin (the drawing, not the painting), the bluff man with his hands on his knees in defiance of all portrait convention.

The glorious black-and-whiteness of all these portraits and scenes keeps them firmly in the chiaroscuro tradition which depends for its basic verity, even in painting, on the interplay of light and shade. They can therefore suggest the paintings of Guercino, whose drawings are so telling, but not those of Piero; they can suggest Mantegna, because of his great engravings as well as his paintings, and Degas because of his paintings and monotypes; they suggest paintings by Daumier the lithographer and by Rossetti the book-illustrator, paintings by the Goya of the ‘Caprichos’, and by Metsu among the other Dutch painters who could invite the light with such vital magic. Colour has the same brilliant irrelevance to Cartier-Bresson’s works as it has to Picasso’s Guernica: all impassioned tints and hues are distilled into black and white and their varying combinations and relations. Cartier-Bresson has lately given up fulltime photography to concentrate on drawing, saying that he is going back to where he began, which was as a student of painting. We can certainly tell.

In this book of portraits entitled Tête à Tête, the photographer has included a selection of fairly recent drawings, exclusively heads – pencil and chalk investigations of the formal terrain of the face, closely observed but without depth or tone. They are very different from the photographs, where the artist floods the frame with associative material – hands, bodies, clothes and whole bouquets of interior and exterior detail – and lets the face brim with momentary meaning. Cartier-Bresson is famous for composing in the viewfinder. We know he did it all directly, not only waiting for the right moment but shooting from the right place, so that the final framed arrangement might put the person near the edge and leave the centre to a collection of books, a wheel, a dog. Here is Lucian Freud (1997) looking earnestly off-stage, sitting just inside the lower right corner of a photograph dominated by the rear view of the big canvas behind him. This invisible painting is set on an easel that seems to frame and crown the painter’s head; and we see an artist conversing politely while inwardly seized by a looming work in progress.

Sometimes the arrangement is very tight. Here is Paul Valéry (wrongly labelled 1946; he died in 1945) leaning on a mantelpiece. He looks at us full face from the left side of the picture, where his pinstriped shoulder partly hides a vase of flowers, and a flowered dish sits near him. Nearer us, a small marble bust of the poet stares leftwards into space in three-quarter view, guarding a framed picture in the centre of the mantelpiece, and of the composition. This is a photograph of Mallarmé and Renoir together, taken by Degas in 1895 when Valéry knew them all; and here’s Valéry a third time, gazing out of the frame to the right above his bust, his profile reflected in the mirror against which the photograph leans. The portrait, with its overlapping left-to-right waves of poetic, historic and pictorial intensity, is nevertheless delicate, pungent and luminous as a Degas or a Whistler.

Or here’s a little girl, seated in a tiltback wicker armchair embracing a fluffy white cat (Mélanie Cartier-Bresson, 1978). Two strands of her hair fall symmetrically on either side of her face, and below it two clusters of the cat’s ruff spread symmetrically over the two sections of her bent arm; at its angle, a spray of dark folds makes a chance beard for the cat’s chin. Her hands lie quitley against the cat’s flank; its paws rest soberly against her thigh. One above the other, the cat’s face and hers turn at the same angle, their expressions still. The big chair’s flat wicker weave is undulantly answered in the plaid pattern of the girl’s skirt; the chair’s rectangular armrests make a trio with the section of tabletop at the upper left corner. Under it, a system of curving supports balances a similar design in the chair at lower right. Concordant angles suggesting far wall-panelling and near floor-tiling fill up the rest of the space. Light falls brightly on the two calm heads, emphasising cat fur, catching some distant magazines and one near tile. This casual domestic image has an extraordinary peace and strength, in large part summoned by its structural authority.

In 1946 Cartier-Bresson photographed a black cat in the arms of a diabolically smiling Stravinsky, and a tabby startled by the regard of a reclining Saul Steinberg. Other props are more common and more affecting, chief among them the subject’s hands. One hand alone may clutch the brow (Martin Luther King, 1961), support the whole skull (Cecil Beaton, 1951), point its index finger into the upper lip (Colette, 1952) or into the lower lip (Tony Hancock, 1962), or feel the forelock (Francis Bacon, 1981); two hands may flatten against both cheeks (Lily Brik-Mayakovsky, 1954), interlock over the belly (Harold Macmillan, 1967), rise above the head to twist the hair (Svetlana Beriosova, 1961), chop the air in tandem for emphasis (Louis Kahn, 1960) or touch fingertips together in front of the mouth (John Huston, 1946). They may clasp one another in a range of expressive moves that the face may sustain or deny – see ancient Ezra Pound (1971), grim Irène and Frédéric Joliot-Curie (1944), coy Leonor Fini (1933), and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor sitting close together, their heads flirtatious, each using one hand to imprison the other (1951).

Detachable props give hands even more scope. What would Cartier-Bresson have done without the cup, the pencil, the book, the cigarette – especially the latter, the modern emblem of private reflection, the sign that the subject is most himself? Or herself: here are Susan Sontag (1972) and Carson McCullers (1946), each raising a dark gaze to us under a brow tense with thought each reaching to poise a cigarette over an ashtray. Giacometti (1961) stares nose-to-nose into the face of a bust he has made, his big foreground hand intimately cupping its shoulder while holding a tilted cigarette between two knuckles. This image was taken the same day as another of Giacometti clutching newspapers and squinting outdoors, his hand invisible inside his coat, a crumbling wall and door behind him, a different man altogether. Here is Carl Gustav Jung before a dark void (1959), a great seal ring on the creased hand that holds the pipe between his lips, a beam of light striking the mystic smoke and wrinkled brow together. Jean Genet’s ringless hand is pudgy and partially bandaged as it waits to take the cigar from his lips, Parisian streets humming behind his leatherclad bulk (1963). Balthus in 1990 holds a porcelain coffee-cup near his quizzical face as he regards us with his back to the light, the shape of his head inviting comparison with the tallboy behind it.

There seems to be a preponderance of old and ageing people in the selection Cartier-Bresson has made for this book, and they naturally bear the most resonant names, even though quite a few are unfamous. The famous in their youth include Truman Capote in 1947, T-shirted and sultry among huge leaves and white wrought iron, and sweet Marilyn Monroe in 1960, her bound-up golden hair crested with a black-spotted veil, her patient gaze turned aside as she waits in what looks like a television studio, full of mysterious heads and equipment. These two pictures, like so many in this book, are masterpieces of complex balance between figure and ground, illumination and obscurity, precision and blur. The look of the face may plumply harmonise with the look of the nearby sofa-cushions (Jean Renoir, 1967), or it may harshly contend with the serene dome in the distance (Jean-Paul Sartre, 1946).

The volume entitled Europeans is full of children and adolescents, with just enough ancients to spice the vast mixture. Everybody here is nameless, but everybody has a nationality and a date. The panorama shows its subjects carefully fixed inside the careless sweep of its title, so we are encouraged to savour the quality both of a region and of a moment from each shot. This Europe is not a single entity, but Cartier-Bresson does have singleness of mind, and the consistency of his vision holds all these disparate characters together. A few of them are trees or towers, nonhuman denizens of just here, just now. In 1956, a grey fortress squats in far-off snow behind a near screen of bare black poplars outside Bingen in the Rhineland; in 1964, three pollarded trees seem to keep watch over a windswept Hungarian plain; a year earlier, the interlocked descent of many terraced fields drapes a hillside in Aragon. Local human presence is conjured by the photographer’s sense of how it was to live among these sights.

In most of the pictures he shows us just how it was. Many shots of ravishing village streets or glowing rural streams have a single figure hurrying out of the frame on urgent private business, or perhaps three or 13 figures hastening away in different directions. Cartier-Bresson waits for the best moment (sometimes he waits for a running child or a bent gaffer to reach the centre of a patch of sunlight) to point out that life is always personal, much of it is hidden, and surroundings are habits like others. In Upper Austria, Near Linz, 1953, we see the small rear-view silhouette of a man facing a huge breathtaking vista of mountains, mist and sun, a version of Caspar David Friedrich’s Traveller above the Sea of Clouds. A closer look tells us that this man is engaged in painting the railing in front of him, and just now standing back to survey his handiwork. In several different countries, Cartier-Bresson will show two or three people who grin or stare straight at the lens for a moment, seeming to acknowledge the man behind it and his purpose, before turning away, perhaps, and moving off to eat, or work, or find a fourth. This photographer, he wants us to know, is no intruder.

Cartier-Bresson is nevertheless famous for noting the transhistorical visual rhymes in what he sees, never mind current movements in the national soul. In Barcelona, he sees a sleeping man’s open mouth and profile unwittingly match those in the chalk drawing on the wall over his head. He freezes two black-clad, white-haired old women walking along an Athens street just as they pass a house where, high up out of their sight, two half-draped young caryatids support a second-storey balustrade. In Zurich, he watches a couple of people floating side by side on their backs in a still lake, oblivious to the couple of ducks floating side by side a little beyond their feet. Sometimes such detached visions shift into sympathetic scenes: in Moscow (1954), two handsome, uniformed soldiers walk briskly toward us. Only one has yet seen the two pretty girls standing ahead of them, near us; the girls are bored, they look aimlessly our way and don’t see either of them. They have curly hair, one wears a loose polka-dot blouse, the other one’s slip shows through her thin dress. Behind all these people is a double trolleycar about to stop. What will happen? Will anything happen? This is yet another shot of many showing pairs of pairs or a triple pair, in which not all the couples are human.

Then there are the groups. Heavily draped in black capes, elders gossip in the Abruzzi (1951), youths in caps lean on staves at the livestock market in Pamplona (1952), scruffy children scamper and caper in Paris, Rome, Epirus, Dublin, Berlin, Seville. Whores in tight bras lounge on coloured tiles in Alicante (1933), tall booted men stand up to manage crowds of logs floating on a Swedish river (1956). Housewives do laundry. In Greece, they stand thinly clad and knee deep in a sunny, leaf-shaded pool, beating clothes against a stone coping (1961). In Siberia, they crouch down in heavy coats and kerchiefs on a dock built over a frozen pond and wear gloves to dip the washing through a hole in the ice (1972). In Portugal, two women smile as their spread arms stretch the sheets out for bleaching on the tall grass (1955).

And we find many kinds of throng. Ranks of stiff military, sometimes matched with ranks of arches or shrubs; seas of listening churchgoers, of milling fairgoers, of hustling demonstrators; neat rows of ballet dancers, loose rows of racing spectators, bored rows waiting for the procession to pass or for a glance at Lenin’s tomb, prone rows of lace-clad new priests, veiled rows of girlish first communicants, shepherded rows of neatly coated schoolboys. One or two amid these crowds often look for an instant into the camera’s eye, to give the moment its confirming nod.

Three images are in both books. These are neither portraits of any usual kind nor common groupings in the life of modern Europe, but photographic monuments by which Cartier-Bresson must wish to be known. The first, entitled Córdoba, Spain, 1933, shows a round middle-aged woman in a plain black dress with one smooth white hand on her bosom, smiling slightly and squinting at the camera. She stands before a sleekly painted poster from about 1913, which portrays a curvaceous young woman, her body moulded by a stylised corset sporting embroidery and a bow, and her smooth white hands holding up a corset-lace. Like the middle-aged woman in front of her, the girl in the poster is squinting, because an advertising sticker has been rudely plastered above her nose, but she is still slightly smiling below it. Their hair looks similarly waved and arranged, the outline of their pale faces is just the same, so are their eyebrows and noses. We cannot fail to see that the girl in the poster, painted some twenty years earlier for display outside a corset shop, and the middle-aged woman are the same person, both a little the worse for wear now, the hand on the bosom saying yes, it was me. Corsets like that are ancient history now, and so is her slim figure, but the little smile and the waved hair, the graceful hand and the white skin patently remain. So, in fact, do the agreeable curves, when recast by Carrier-Bresson’s magisterial camera to form a poetic unity with the faded old sign.

The Peloponnese, Greece, 1953 offers the same theme in different terms. Here an eloquent old man in a wrinkled suit and collarless shirt points at a wall on which hangs a photograph of himself as a young man. His photo is one among several rows of young men’s commemorative portraits taken at the same time, some uniformed and some not, all framed alike and labelled with small brass plaques. Those who are not in uniform wear neat dark suits with stiff collars and ties below their smooth black hair and moustaches; the photographs have been retouched to emphasise the smoothness, neatness and blackness. The unkempt, grey-haired man in aged, rumpled garments who now gestures toward them has great pride in his past, the speaking face and eager arm show how alive it is. With respect for that vitality, Cartier-Bresson has enlivened every little sag and random furrow in his fragile dress and person.

The third to make it into both books is called Warsaw, Poland, 1931 in Europeans, but in Tête à Tête it is called Warsaw Ghetto 1931, so that there be no mistake about what we are looking at. This shows a blind Jewish beggar, standing full-length in isolation like a Velázquez, one hand supporting a cloth sack against his body, the other cupped and held out toward us. Framing him is a jumble of wood and metal rubbish that forms a sort of shelter, and we can see its black innards behind him. A fall of muted light drops straight down on this beggar like a judgment, striking the peak of his cap and the tips of his nose and ears, spilling over his shoulders, modelling the folds of his sack and pouring abundantly into his open hand. The light ignores the long thick beard, the lower folds of the coat, the columnar trousers and shoes, picking and choosing instead among the tangled bits of trash so as to honour his upright body with a pale, draped garland of streaks and flecks. Right at the centre of this discriminating fall of light, surrounded by the pearly gleams on his cap, ears and nose, by the silvery sheen on upturned brow and cheeks, are his blind eyes. Here is a subject unable to look into the lens and acknowledge the masterly mirror of his time. This one is seeking something else.