Exposition internationale de la photographie contemporaine at Musée des Arts Décoratifs

  • Title page from the catalogue for the Exposition internationale de la photographie contemporaine. 1936. Pavillon de Marsan, Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris. The Museum of Modern Art Library, New York

    In 1936 more than fifteen hundred photographs were displayed under the patronage of the Ministry of Fine Arts in the Pavillon de Marsan of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, a wing of the Louvre museum. The Exposition internationale de la photographie contemporaine (International exhibition of contemporary photography) was intended to be the apotheosis of the medium in France and a celebration of its modernity. Although the Germans had embraced the New Photography, the French had invented it (along with the British), and they wanted their share of the limelight. The exhibition was important not only for French pride, but also because the photographers it gathered were a pool from which Beaumont Newhall selected many names to consider for inclusion in The Museum of Modern Art’s major exhibition the following year, Photography 1839–1937.

    The exhibition included something to satisfy the tastes of each of the members of the jury, all of whom had stakes in the outcome. Charles Peignot was the chief curator; his firm, Deberny & Peignot, publisher of the journal Arts et métiers graphiques and the annual Photographie, not only used photographs but also worked closely with Maurice Tabard, Roger Parry, and other photographers in the advertising branch of the company. Peignot was seconded by Emmanuel Sougez, a photographer and art editor for the newspaper L’Illustration. There were other journalists on the committee as well as collectors (not of modern photographs but of the early history of photography, the history of Paris, and celebrity portraits), and finally there were many officials, few of whom were experts in photography, representing the interests of state institutions and associations, such as the Académie Française, the Louvre, and the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. The Archives Photographiques d’Histoire et d’Art and the Société Française de la Photographie, highly conservative institutions that served as guardians of French photographic patrimony, were also well represented.

    The exhibition opened with more than five hundred prints tracing the history of photography, from its invention in 1839 to 1900. In the vast modern section, the selection was heteroclite. Following the pattern of recent German exhibitions, scientific photographs from various French faculties and expeditions were included. The international constituents were patchy: there was a smattering of images from Great Britain, Switzerland, and the United States; star billing went to Edward Steichen, well-known in France because of his flamboyant presence in Vogue magazine, and Man Ray, who, because he had earned his fame in Paris over the past fifteen years, was often thought to be French. Eastern and Central Europe and Russia were all but absent due to the difficult political situations in those regions. A handful of scattered talents from the glory days of the New Vision movement represented Germany: Marianne Breslauer, Hein Gorny, and Edmund Kesting. However, Max Burchartz, El Lissitzky, Lucia Moholy, László Moholy-Nagy, Aleksandr Rodchenko, and so many others who had advanced the art so strikingly in Germany and Russia in the 1920s were nowhere to be found. Because of the interests of the members of the jury and the overwhelmingly conservative tone of French culture at that time, which ascribed to a “return to order,” rural and pastoral themes and traditional subjects dominated. Amid the lackluster illustrations, sentimental genre scenes, and regional landscapes, the formally and psychologically edgy works of the progressive talents, notable among them Florence Henri, André Kertész, Eli Lotar, Jean Painlevé, Roger Parry, and Maurice Tabard, stood out.

    —Maria Morris Hambourg

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