High's Cartier-Bresson exhibit is a sumptuous banquet
The Modern Century like gazing upon civilization in its idealistic, carefree youth
In his intimate, humanistic snapshots, peripatetic father of modern photojournalism Henri Cartier-Bresson catches people splayed out raw and tender on city streets: whores in Mexican brothels, Roman schoolchildren playing in apartment stairwells, an entire family in the Netherlands furiously scrubbing the sidewalk outside its home. The guts of people's realities are all out there for the rapacious gazing in the sumptuous banquet Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century at the High Museum through May 29.
The photographer documents profound emotions played out in public, as in "New York City," which shows a mother and son reunited after the war. They embrace, lost within each other in the midst of a vast human tumult — they represent every union damaged or destroyed in war. The work reminds one of the theatrical dimension of city life; the enormous gravity and impact of intimate gestures played out in public spaces. It's impossible not to compare how private and sequestered our lives are today. Throughout the exhibit, you can see that process of greater isolation gradually fall, like a widow's veil, over the world. In the exhibition's final room, titled "Modern Times," Cartier-Bresson shows people shopping for sofas or gazing longingly into shop windows — beginning the process of nesting and consuming, ad infinitum. The four walls of civilization begin to bear down on the images, the fresh air and sunlight and sense of joyous community Cartier-Bresson captures early on leeching away with the advent of showrooms and heavy industry and wall-to-wall advertising.
Wall text acknowledges the "romantic nostalgia" in Cartier-Bresson's work. Blue-collar workers picnicking by the Marne River in "Juvisy, France" or a young French couple posed for a photograph on the sidewalk amid a wreath of posies in "Rue De Turenne, Paris" show the sense of life-loving, nearly aristocratic pleasure in daily existence. Before television made the exotic ubiquitous, Cartier-Bresson's images captured the enchantment, the thrill of distant lands, when the Other was enticing, not scary, as reflected in the banned burkas and reviled immigrants of modern France and America. The Modern Century leaves a lump in your throat that may be nostalgia but feels closer to heartsickness — like gazing upon civilization in its idealistic, innocent, carefree youth before cynicism and regret sunk into its old bones.
The work seems as primal as cave painting and Genesis, a series of origin myths documenting events that have since passed into near-legend, such as Gandhi's funeral, world war, the Chinese revolution, segregation. The work feels like home movie footage of the birth of civilization, the photographic record of what defines us today. Like God, Cartier-Bresson seemed to be everywhere.
There is a sense of bookended, nearly novelistic completeness in many of the series on display here, such as Cartier-Bresson's images of the Soviet Union beginning in the 1950s. In early images there are vignettes of burly factory workers putting their backs into glorifying mother Russia and triumphant, flag-waving marches. Checking back in, circa 1973, the images have begun to take on a distinctly dreary cast: old women wash their clothes in the hole in a frozen river; stout, skeptical shoppers scrutinize a delicate white handbag in a department store like a newborn panda: cute but impractical. The dream of egalitarianism and a blissful life for all has mutated into a bleak reality of ceaseless labor and hardship. There are no informative subtitles or explanations: It's all there in the picture frame. The world has grown tired. If you don't walk out of The Modern Century feeling a little burned-out, wistful, depleted by the highs and the lows, you may want to take another ride on Cartier-Bresson's Twentieth Century Express.