Live and Life Will Give You Pictures: Masterworks of French Photography, 1890-1950, at the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia

Eugène Atet, Boulevard de Strasbourg, Paris, 1912. Courtesy Barnes Foundation

Eugène Atget, Boulevard de Strasbourg, Paris, 1912. Courtesy Barnes Foundation

A bit of context at the outset:  The Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia contains the premier, privately held collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist art in the world.  In 2012, after decades of wrangling among foundation board members, the collection moved from its original suburban home in the Barnes mansion to a new building just down the street from the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  It is one of most beautiful and rewarding museums you are ever likely to visit, and this despite the eccentric principles of the collection’s display stipulated by Barnes’s will. The presence of the first photographic exhibition in these truly hallowed precincts, Live and Life Will Give you Pictures: Masterworks of French Photography 1890-1950, promised a wonderful opportunity for a dialogue among disciplines about the birth of modern art. But that dialogue never quite happened.

In the first place, the paintings aren’t allowed to move to the temporary exhibition galleries, and the photos could not invade their space, so wall labels had to forge distant and somewhat abstract connections. Second, the photographs themselves came from the collection of Michael Mattis and Judy Hochberg.  It’s a fine collection of modern European works, but with a few exceptions, it felt like a display of greatest hits, rather than an exhibition fully free to help us see differently.  There was nothing from the first 50 years of French photography, the period in which the most radical insights of French painting were being pursued.

Laure Albin-Guillot, Jean Cocteau. Courtesy Barnes Foundation

Laure Albin-Guillot, Jean Cocteau. Courtesy Barnes Foundation

But maybe the problem was photography itself. Anti-formalist approaches to French art have long been the academic norm, favoring social history over style, and photography falls all too easily in line. Their wealth of circumstantial information makes photographs the perfect illustrative foil to show what Paris looked like when the real artists (painters and sculptors) were at work.  I am exaggerating, but only slightly.  In its labels and section headings, the exhibition staged photography primarily as social document, and yet the Mattis-Hochberg collection demonstrated in so many wonderful examples that photography is not simply a machine operated by the forces of history. The fog and diffused light of Brassai’s Rue de l’Observatoire, Kertesz’s homage to Mondrian’s pipe and glasses, Dora Maar’s surreal footprints – these epiphanies are why they made the photographs and why we look at them still, again and again, and painting be damned!