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‘Love on the Left Bank’ and other scenes

Rebecca Loxton

Contemporary Parisian Photography
Henri Cartier-Bresson
Willy Ronis
Ed van der Elsken
Sebastião Salgado
Erwin Blumenfeld

There seems to be a new exhibition, museum, or festival opening every day in Paris: the last few weeks have already seen the flourishing of the Festival d’automne, the exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite and Burne-Jones works at the Musée Jacquemart-André, and the Musée d’Orsay’s much-mentioned exhibition devoted to the portrayal of the naked man in fine art from 1800 to the present day—to select a mere sample.

It is not only high art which graces the exhibition spaces of this eternally cultivated city. One of the threads running through this rich cultural tapestry is the presence of several photography exhibitions proudly featured by Paris as the leaves burn golden and the first hints of winter bite the air. Black-and-white snaps, full-colour prints, photomontages, and collages grace the walls of galleries and even decorate the open air spaces of the French capital’s Left Bank.

This city, linked with the invention of the motion picture and the bourgeoning of this ‘seventh art’ also produced masters of the still shot; Henri Cartier-Bresson and Willy Ronis, for example, captured now iconic images of post-war Paris in their photojournalism documenting the working-class life of the city in memorable monochrome. The image of the boy with the baguette and the clinched couple outside the Hôtel de Ville have been stamped on the minds of those seduced by the nostalgic glamour of twentieth-century Paris.

A similar, less well-known photographer is currently exhibiting his work at the little-known Galerie Vu, a pastel-coloured building encasing a stark white exhibition space nestled near the Gare St-Lazare. Dutch photographer Ed van der Elsken’s series of images entitled ‘Love on the Left Bank’ hangs on the walls of this boutique gallery. The shots are predictable representations of post-war Parisian youth, but no less beguiling for this predictability: dreamy bohemianism is enveloped in the fug of smoke curling from the tips of the ubiquitous Gauloises in the cafes and bars of St-Germain; insouciant lovers lazily intertwined against the backdrop of the Seine; 1950s Paris shrugs off the shadow of the wartime years as the decades of the ‘Trente Glorieuses’ stutter into life around the photographs’ protagonists and van der Elsken captures Paris’ magic in monochrome.

Allowing a striking look into the world beyond the beautiful bubble of Paris, the Maison Européenne de la Photographie stages the dramatic work of Sebastião Salgado, show-casing 250 snaps from nearly a decade’s work and over 30 trips across the globe. The Brazilian photographer’s work is an impressive testimony to the sublime aspects of the natural world and the beasts which inhabit landscapes as yet untouched by man.

This work is complemented by the open-air display of photographs by forty, non-European artists exhibited in the grounds of the Musée du Quai Branly, a couple of minutes’ walk from the Eiffel Tower. The images also share the theme of the ‘the human figure’ and these photographs from across the world are free to all, beckoning Parisian and tourist alike.

Meanwhile, Erwin Blumenfeld allays fashion and photography, exhibiting images, drawings, photomontages and collages at the Jeu de Paume, a former real tennis court in the Jardin des Tuileries in the 8th arrondissement. Concentrating on what he sees as the enigma of the female body, the artist’s displayed works cover the early years of his career at the beginning of the 1920s, monochrome shots unfurling into a burst of colour in photographs taken in Paris, the Netherlands, and New York.

Blumenfeld’s insistence on feminine mysteries highlights the unwavering appetite in both high and popular art for the depiction of the female body; the patriarchal gaze transforms the female subject, through the camera lens or otherwise, into an object. Blumenfeld’s work is yet another example of this artistic trend. Refreshingly, the aforementioned Musée d’Orsay exhibition, which explores the male as painter’s muse, attempts to redress this timeless imbalance.

Rebecca Loxton read for an MPhil in French at Keble College, Oxford.