The McMullen Museum of Boston College reopened this past Saturday with its new exhibit Paris Night & Day: Photography Between the Wars.
The exhibit is a large selection of original photographs taken within Paris between the first and second World Wars, roughly encompassing a period from 1918 to 1939. It features artists such as Louis-Jean Delton, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ilse Bing, Eugene Atget, Man Ray, Doraa Maar, and others, with a sweeping selection of nearly 100 photographs.
Oddly enough, the show does not focus on the turmoil caused by the wars themselves, outside of a small mention of the effects that they had on Parisian art and wider artistic movements like Surrealism. This must be due largely to the fact that Paris was left relatively undamaged by either war (in WWI, a faux Paris was actually built to trick German bombers, similar to some of London’s tricks in WWII), but it also speaks to the goals of this exhibit and the visions of the artists during the interwar period. These artists were focused on the changing life of the city, new artistic forms and movements, and the rapidly changing technology and art of photography.
On Aug. 19, 1839, the French government announced the invention of photography in Paris by a man named Louis Daguerre. Daguerre created the daguerreotype-an image produced on a highly polished piece of copper, which was accordingly named after him. Although the creation of photography is a matter for debate-the definition of photography depends on conceptions of utility, technology, and science-this exhibit nonetheless tracks the progress of photography and camera technology at the hands of scientists and artists alike. There are numerous photographs on the bottom floor that were made with innovative techniques, such as “rayographing,” a technique coined by Man Ray that utilizes leather exposed to light-sensitive chemicals; solarizing; and cliche verre, a process wherein lines scratched onto a piece of glass are imprinted onto an existing photograph.
The exhibit follows not only the progress of technology and innovative photographic techniques but also the changing movements of art reflected in photography and the changing subjects of Parisian photographers. Eugene Atget, a French flaneur and documentary photographer whose work began in the late 1880s, was worried about the modernization of the city and the changes of the new century, and he made it his goal to document “Old Paris” before it fell out of existence. His “Windmill, Abbeville,” ca. 1900, has an archaic windmill, looking obsolescent, in the foreground of a plain with a newer windmill behind it over a rustic’s shoulder-a juxtaposition of old and new.
Andre Kertesz, on the other hand, a Hungarian who immigrated to Paris in 1925, adopted Modernist and avant-garde principles, and his work appears often throughout the exhibit. When another artist asked him what he preferred his subjects to be, he reportedly responded, “something which is not in the Louve, but which is there,” pointing to a barge on the Seine. His photographs have less conventional subjects than Atget’s and often feature Modern aesthetic principles like predominately geometric forms, blocks of grayscale tones, and flat planes. One photo, “Mondrian’s Glasses and Pipe,” 1926, depicts two pairs of glasses, a bowl, and a pipe on a white table. The glasses invite the reader to see the principles at work: the flatness of the table contrasting to the round bowl and pipe, the quotidian objects made important and intriguing by their dark lines and contrast to the table, and the mystery of the owner of the materials. A particularly interesting work of his within the exhibit, “Distortion #29,” features a naked woman in front of a funhouse mirror. Such unusual but provoking techniques mark his oeuvre.
Nakedness is a prominent feature of the exhibit. The bottom floor of the museum, dedicated to night photography, features pictures of prostitutes and their customers, sensual models, and suggestive glances. These pictures tell a story of the Parisian underground, one that is real, unabashed, and modern. Brassai dominates this part of the show, and his photographs possess a strange voyeurism combined with an intimacy of the city. His “Nude,” ca. 1933, is especially beautiful, catching a young woman in an arching pose on the bed.
From surrealism to fading images of iconic monuments like Notre-Dame, the Arc de Triomphe, and, of course, the Eiffel Tower, from the sensuality and warm darkness of the night to the bright contrasts and exposure of the day, this show tracks one of the most fertile, broad, and dazzling periods of art through the photographs of interwar Paris.
Featured image via The McMullen Museum