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16.10.03

Photographs at the Musée d'Orsay

In my post on August 21 (Eugène Atget Photographs for Sale), I mentioned an exhibit called La photographie au tournant du siècle du Pictorialisme à Eugène Atget [Photography at the Turn of the Century from Pictorialism to Eugène Atget] at the Musée d'Orsay. I finally saw the exhibit on October 12, and although it is fairly modest (three rooms of sparsely arranged photographs) I was really taken in by the concept, involving as it did Eugène Atget, whose photographs I admire. (Anyone in a mood to buy Ionarts a really nice gift, Atget's photograph of the Bibliothèque nationale entrance is for sale: you can see it in my post on August 21.)

The main idea of the exhibit is to show the division in photography that occurred in the time that Atget was working. One theory of photography, behind the style called pictorialism, was to use the medium in ways parallel to other pictorial arts like painting and engraving, in the hope of making photography acceptable as art. This was in some ways the topic of Blake Gopnik's article (Pictures at an Exhibition: Do Vuillard's photographs belong on the walls of the National Gallery?, March 24, in Slate) on the photographs in the Vuillard exhibit at the National Gallery here in Washington. There are a few photographs signed by well-known artists like Édouard Vuillard (photo 1 and photo 2), Pierre Bonnard, Edgar Degas (see his portrait of Hortense Howland), Edward Steichen, and Alfred Stieglitz. There are also works by more obscure names, at least to me, such as Henri Rivière, Alphonse Mucha, François-Rupert Carabin, Emmanuel Bibesco (he and his brother Antoine were friends with Marcel Proust and may be in part the inspiration for the character of Saint-Loup in his novel), Henri Lemoine, Peter Henry Emerson, Adolphe de Meyer, Paul Haviland (see his photo Nude Woman Opening a Door), Robert Demachy, and George Seeley are shown in the exhibit. (For some of these photographers, it's hard to find any images available online.)Clarence Hudson White, Young Girl Lying in Her Bedroom, c. 1900

The images that most interested me included two portraits of Cézanne by Emile Bernard, one showing him in his atelier in Aix-en-Provence seated before one of his paintings of Les Baigneuses, and the other showing him seated in the countryside; some photographs by Paul Geniaux of people throwing confetti on Mardi Gras at the Place de l'Opéra in Paris around 1900; Constant Puyo's photograph showing a statue being moved through the streets of Florence; a shadowy photograph showing a young girl in her bedroom by Clarence Hudson White (shown at left); and a heavily manipulated photograph by Heinrich Kühn of a still life of fruit, made to look like an Impressionist oil painting. The most beautiful images in the rooms dedicated to pictorialism were Zolaesque landscapes of a mine at Saint-Chamond and the pollution it creates, taken by Félix Thiollier.

By comparison, the photographs of Eugène Atget, featured in one half of the third room devoted to this exhibition, are simple, clear, crisp, and documentary in design. I find his photographs of Paris interesting because I am obsessed with that city, but I also admire photography for photography's sake, that is, when a photographer does not appear to be worried about making his photographs look like another form of art. The images presented included views of the Marché des Patriarches and about 16 photographs of the 5th arrondissement, the area around Rue de la Parcheminerie, Rue Saint-Jacques, and the churches of Saint Severin and Saint Julien le Pauvre. (You can browse through images of lots of Atget's photographs here.)

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