18 April 2012

Documents Pour Artistes

"Cour de Rouen" Eugène Atget (1915). See the cats?

A few days after I got home from my vacation, I revisited Paris by seeing the Eugène Atget exhibit, "Documents Pour Artistes," at MoMA.

Atget was a great documentarian of Paris. Day after day, he would set up his view camera on a tripod and capture the city's buildings, streets, and people; no detail was overlooked from a stairwell to a statue in an abandoned garden. Largely ignored during his lifetime, Atget once said about his work, "I have done little justice to the Great City of Paris." Yet his more than 10,000 photographs remain one of the greatest documents of a city, giving us an incredible insiders view of Paris at the turn of the century.

"Rue de la Montagne-Sainte-Geneviève" Eugène Atget (1925)

Lucky for us, some other photographers did recognize his gift. Admired by the Surrealists, Man Ray bought 42 images from Atget before his death (they were neighbours). Berenice Abbott published the first overview on Atget— Atget, Photographe de Paris—in 1930 and with the help of Julien Levy, bought more than 8,500 of his photographs, which were later donated to MoMA.

The title of the exhibit, “Documents Pour Artistes,” comes from a sign that hung outside Atget's studio; he hoped his photographs could serve as source material for other artists. In the exhibit, more than 100 of these photographs were broken into six sections—People of Paris, Courtyards, Parc du Sceaux, Jardin de Luxembourg, Fifth Arrondissement, and Surrogates and the Surreal—a representation of Atget’s areas of interest.

"Romanichels, groupe
" Eugène Atget (1912)

In the exhibit, there were no images of the Eiffel Tower or other standard Parisian symbols. Instead there were Romanies outside their caravan, starring at the camera except for one barefoot young man who probably got bored, which I found mesmerising. Photos of courtyards reminded you of the surprises that can be found inside (look, there's a cat over in the corner) while images of the Fifth Arrondissement like "Balcon, 17 rue du Petit-Pont" with its ropes of shoes show how common items can become works of art. The Jardin de Luxembourg is my favourite Parisian park and so naturally I loved the photos of its hollyhocks and other flowers. And the shop windows filled with bizarre mannequins explain why the Surrealists embraced Atget early on.

"Parc de Sceaux, mars, 8 h. matin
" Eugène Atget (1925)

Yet perhaps the images of Parc du Sceaux were the most moving. A deserted park on the outskirts of Paris, Atget rushed to capture its decrepit beauty between March and June 1925 before its scheduled clean-up and reopening as a public park. He made 66 photographs, both haunting and beautiful, which ilustrate what Atget worked so hard to capture—the pure essence of a place, including all its cracks and imperfections. 

The exhibit is over but MoMA has published a lovely book that can be purchased here. As for visiting MoMA, a word of advice. There never seems to be a good time to visit. It's almost always packed to the gills, overheated, and everyone forgets their manners, especially on the weekends. I That said, it has some amazing works of art on permanent display so maybe going first thing in the morning during the week is best. Anyone else have some good tips on how to avoid the madness?

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