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The Bold Innovations of a French Exhibition

Un Siècle de Vision Nouvelle at the Bibliothèque Nationale, 1955
Dominique de Font-Réaulx
Traduction de James Gussen
Cet article est une traduction de :
Les audaces d'une position française.

Résumé

It was not until 1977, when the Musée National d’Art Moderne moved to the Centre Pompidou, and 1978, when the Musée d’Orsay was created, that photo­graphy was fully accepted as a form of artistic expression at French museums and that collections of photographs came to be regarded as worthy of institutional acquisition and display. This article deals with the first exhibition in France to combine painting and photography on the gallery walls of a major cultural institution, the Bibliothèque Nationale: Un Siècle de Vision Nouvelle, which took place in spring 1955 at Galerie Mansart. In conceiving it, its curator, Jean Adhémar – a curator at the Cabinet des Estampes (the library’s prints and photographs division) and later its director – highlighted the institution’s special role in art-historical research, which had been based since the nineteenth century on the study of engraving and its links with other artistic disciplines. A study of the catalogue and the exhibited works reveals the originality of this French attitude to photography, especially in comparison to the line that had been followed by the Museum of Modern Art in New York since the 1930s. Unlike Alfred Barr and Beaumont Newhall, whose approach was based on the machine aesthetic, Adhémar chose to pursue an analysis linked to the major currents in painting from 1839 to 1950. In doing so, he paved the way for the future creation of the great French museum collections.

Texte intégral

For Laure Beaumont-Maillet, former chief curator of the Département des Estampes et de la Photographie. The author thanks Sylvie Aubenas, chief curator of the Department et de la Photographie, and Barthélémy Jobert, professor, Université Paris IV-Sorbonne.

  • 1 For more information on the photography collections of the BNF’s Département des Estampes et de la (...)

1The links between photography and painting in nineteenth-century artistic production have long been passed over in silence by art historians. Published in London in 1969, Aaron Scharf’s extremely detailed study, Art and Photography, is justly regarded more than forty years later as a pioneering work and a standard reference in its field; it has yet to be translated into French. Still, in 1955, Jean Adhémar (1908–1987) – a curator in the Cabinet des Estampes (the prints and photographs division of the Bibliothèque Nationale) from the early 1930s and its director beginning in 1961 – took this subject as the basis for an exhibition. It was, for its time, highly original. Organized in connection with the first Biennale de la Photographie et du Cinéma, held at the Grand Palais, the exhibition Un siècle de vision nouvelle took place at the Galerie Mansart, Bibliothèque Nationale (BN), from May 4 to June 1, 1955. Photography did not yet have a place in the collections of French fine arts museums, making Adhémar’s exhibition, presented at one of the country’s most prestigious institutions, all the more daring. A prominent art historian, Adhémar was an expert on the history of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century painting. In combining the two disciplines of painting and photography for the first time on the gallery walls of the BN, he signaled the library’s special role in art-historical research that, since the nineteenth century, had been based on the study of engraving and its relationship to other artistic disciplines, namely painting, sculpture, and architecture.1 Championing photography’s status as an art form also allowed the BN to distinguish itself from art museums and at that time also from museums of sciences, which only considered Niépce and Daguerre’s invention in the context of technology.

  • 2 Jean Vallery-Radot, ‘Introduction,’ Un siècle de vision nouvelle, exhibition catalogue, Bibliothèqu (...)
  • 3 Ibid., 7 [The translator].

2Divided into ten sections (as well as a ‘supplement’ as shown at the end of the catalogue) that formed a thematic and chronological itinerary, the exhibition presented 226 works, including photographs, paintings, drawings, engravings, and books. Adhémar’s objective was not to underscore a mutual influence between art and photography, much less to point to copies or pastiches of one medium by the other, but rather to show that ‘in addition to the vision of the painter,’ there was also ‘a vision specific to the photographer, and that a comparison between the two could not fail to raise interesting questions.’2 Adhémar invited his exhibition’s visitors to consider the two practices side by side, not to search for a tendency toward mimicry, which would have done them both a disservice: ‘Let there be no misunderstanding … All we are seeking to do here, with the help of some examples, is compare the painter’s vision with the photographer’s throughout a one hundred year period.’3 The curator’s aim was to defend the originality of the photographer’s vision, which though influenced by the painting of its time, also brought new opportunities: photography could follow in painting’s footsteps without becoming, to use Baudelaire’s famous phrase, its ‘humble servant.’

The Project

  • 4 Julien Cain, ‘Avant-propos,’ in Un siècle de vision nouvelle (note 2), 3 and 4.
  • 5 Jean Vallery-Radot, ‘Introduction,’ (note 2), 5. The photographs referred to by Vallery-Radot are t (...)
  • 6 Thanks to Adhémar’s efforts, Un siècle de vision nouvelle was in fact followed at the BN by a numbe (...)

3Julien Cain, then general director of the BN, pointed out in his ‘Avant-propos’ to the catalogue, that the exhibition ‘was prepared by Mr. Jean Adhémar with rare skill and a thorough knowledge of the art of the second half of the nineteenth century … This is the first time that photographs selected on the basis of specific criteria have been exhibited in the same gallery with paintings of quality.’4 For his part, Jean Vallery-Radot, chief curator of the Cabinet des Estampes, explained in his introduction the larger historical context of the event, emphasizing the BN’s long-standing role in promoting and preserving photography, a role dating back to 1852: ‘For the Biennale, the Cabinet des Estampes, which recorded the first addition of a photograph to its collections through legal deposit more than a century ago, has chosen to demonstrate its interest in photography by presenting, at the Galerie Mansart, the exhibition Un siècle de vision [sic], which seeks to highlight the relationship between painters and photographers during the period in question: 1839–1939.’5 It is in fact thanks to the institution of legal deposit, a practice photographers engaged in before it was made a legal requirement, that the BN was able to assemble one of the most significant photography collections of the nineteenth century. Shortly before the outbreak of World War II and especially after 1945, the growing interest in photography on the part of the curators of the Cabinet des Estampes, in particular Adhémar, allowed for the collection to be studied as well as expanded through active acquisitions for the first time. Thanks to these first purchases – including that of the Sirot collection, which I will discuss later – as well as to a string of exhibitions (with Un siècle de vision nouvelle being one of the richest and most successful), the BN played a crucial, indeed indispensable, part in helping bring about the recognition of photography as an artistic discipline.6

  • 7 In 1955, the nineteenth century’s own bibliography on these subjects had yet to be rediscovered and (...)
  • 8 For more on Newhall’s 1937 exhibition at MoMA, see Sophie Hackett, ‘Beaumont Newhall and a Machine: (...)

4The variety of works exhibited – paintings, photographs, drawings, engravings, and books – underscored the diversity of Adhémar’s interests. His desire, in the mid-1950s, to present a new kind of vision, the invention of a gaze, led him to choose artifacts that were extremely varied not only in kind but also in terms of premise. The work of Beaumont Newhall, librarian at New York’s Museum of Modern Art from 1935, and its curator of photography from 1940, made up most of the available bibliography at the time.7 There is no doubt that Adhémar consulted the catalogue of MoMA’s 1937 exhibition Photography, 1839–1937, which served as the basis for Newhall’s famous book, The History of Photography, first published in 1947. The structure of Adhémar’s project, which combined historical and technical sections – ‘Daguerréotype et Portrait’ (The Daguerreotype and the Portrait), ‘Instantané’ (Snapshot) − with thematic sections freely organized by the curator on the basis of his own tastes and interests − ‘Le Temps de Courbet, Manet et Nadar’ (The Era of Courbet, Manet, and Nadar); ‘Portraits d’Apparat, Scènes Composées’ (Official Portraits, Compositions); and even ‘Rêve, Surréalisme’ (Dream, Surrealism) − was in part a reflection of the structure of the American curator’s earlier exhibition, but it was also more specific. Despite the enormous size of the MoMA show, Newhall had divided it into just three chronological sections, whose structure seemed to be rooted in a purely technical view of photography: ‘Primitive Photography’ (1839–1851), ‘Early Photography’ (1851–1914), and ‘Contemporary Photography’ (after 1914).8

  • 9 Marta Braun, ‘Beaumont Newhall et l’historiographie de la photographie anglophone,’ Études photogra (...)
  • 10 Georges Potonniée, ‘Rétrospective de la photographie, 1839–1900,’ in Exposition internationale de l (...)

5As Marta Braun has brilliantly demonstrated, one of the models for Newhall’s exhibition was the catalogue of the Exposition internationale de la photographie contemporaine, section rétrospective, 1839–1900, which took place at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in 1936 in Paris and with which the organizer of Un siècle de vision nouvelle was also well acquainted.9 The premise of the 1936 exhibition, as expressed by Georges Potonniée (then president of the Société Française de Photographie and the exhibition’s curator) in the catalogue’s preface, was instrumental in shaping Adhémar’s point of view: ‘Because they haven’t thought about it explicitly, few people realize the full extent of the role that photography plays in our civilization … It is omnipresent in the modern world … It is not this vast and magnificent panorama that the organizers of this exhibition have attempted to present. Rather, they have only attempted to show the place – the humble place – of photography alongside drawing in the production of black-and-white images.’10

  • 11 This parallel adds a new dimension to our understanding of the links between French and American in (...)

6In addition to objects owned by the department itself, Georges Sirot, whose collection supplied a large number of the works in Adhémar’s exhibition, was one of the organizers of the huge 1936 exhibition in Paris. In a recent essay, Sophie Hackett points out that when Newhall came to Paris in 1936 to prepare the MoMA exhibition on the history of photography, one which MoMA director Alfred Barr had specifically asked him to organize, he met with the great private collectors, including Sirot. These meetings were facilitated by Charles Peignot, managing editor of the journal Arts et métiers graphiques whose offices were situated near the BN’s Cabinet des Estampes.11

  • 12 Bernard Marbot, ‘Georges Sirot, une collection de photographies anciennes,’ Photogénies, 1983, no. (...)

7Like Newhall’s exhibition, Adhémar’s 1955 show undoubtedly owed much to the curator’s links to and discussions with Sirot, whose collection at the time contained more than one hundred thousand photographs of very differing kinds. It is especially worth noting in this regard that Adhémar, like Newhall before him, and perhaps here too as a result of Sirot’s influence, combined signed works by recognized photographers with those of amateur photographers. As Bernard Marbot wrote in 1983, ‘while the Sirot collection may not be the coherent whole that signals the great collector, a visit to it holds many surprises in store. For the period 1850–1920, it contains photography in all its forms, with all its subjects, in a wide variety of formats and conditions, in individual images and albums. In it, the bizarre and the unusual rub shoulders with the routine: artist’s proofs, second-rate photographs, press photography, and showpieces.’12 In particular, Un siècle de vision nouvelle presented two distinguished works from Sirot’s collection: Waterfall at Dimbola Lodge by the English photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, dedicated by her to Gustave Doré (and shown in the exhibition under the title Radunlewa Falls, Dimbola) and Onésipe Aguado’s La Cour impériale à Compiègne, both of which are owned today by the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (BNF). The BN purchased sixty thousand photographs from Sirot’s collection in 1955, and fifteen thousand more were donated the following year, thereby greatly expanding the collection of photographs that the library had amassed through legal deposit since 1851. Adhémar was an experienced art historian, and it was certainly not from Sirot that he derived his interest in painting and his desire to exhibit the aesthetics of painting and photography side by side. But the acquisition of Sirot’s collection – which followed that in 1945 of a portion of Gabriel Cromer’s collection, the bulk of which is owned by the George Eastman House in Rochester − represented one of the first photographic purchases on the part of the Cabinet des Estampes. As such, it constituted a recognition of the value of the collection assembled by that enterprising and inquisitive collector and, by extension, of the value of photographic artifacts.

8The connections between these projects – Beaumont Newhall’s in New York and Adhémar’s in Paris – reflect visions of photography that are both similar and quite different. On either side of the Atlantic, each man played a central role in helping to bring about the recognition of photography on the part of his country’s cultural institutions. Both sought to mount exhibitions that would be retrospective, comprehensive, and vast, and both sought to highlight the singularity of the photographic aesthetic. But they differed in their perspectives. Although a librarian at an art museum, Newhall saw art through the filter of technology and technique, an approach that was fundamental to modernity according to Alfred Barr, and one that held great sway at MoMA in the 1930s. Adhémar, while a curator in a library, also thought as an art historian, yet his aesthetic approach to photography was based not only on his knowledge of painting but also on his understanding of engraving, in terms of both its methods and its underlying premises.

  • 13 édouard Manet, Lettres illustrées, with an introduction by Jean Guiffrey (Paris: Maurice Le Garrec, (...)
  • 14 Eugène Delacroix, Journal, 1822–1860, 2 vols., with a preface by André Joubin (Paris: Plon, 1931–2) (...)
  • 15 Paris, BNF, Département des Estampes et de la Photographie, Yb3-1739-(8) 4.

9Adhémar also based his selection on material derived directly from artists and their circles – the Lettres illustrées of Édouard Manet, published in 192913 and Eugène Delacroix’s Le Journal, first published in 193114 – and drew items from the department’s own collection, including the set of manuscripts by Gustave Courbet donated to the library by Bernard Prost in 1890, containing the artist’s correspondence with Francis Wey, a set of letters to Alfred Bruyas, and a series of missives from the painter to his family.15 The particular works chosen by Adhémar contained the seeds of much of his own later work: on Daguerre and the first daguerreotypists; on Man Ray, Edgar Degas, and Édouard Manet; and, of course, on Honoré Daumier. Conversely, he ignored subjects in which he was not passionately interested: there is not one word about Jean-Léon Gérôme’s links with photography – despite the fact that, since 1904, the Cabinet des Estampes had owned a sizeable collection of photographs donated to it by Madame Gérôme − nor about those between Ernest Meissonnier and the photography of his day, even though Sirot owned an album and a set of prints that had belonged to the painter. Nor, finally, is there any attention given to the study of movement, which is surprising considering Adhémar’s interest in Degas, Eadweard Muybridge, and étienne-Jules Marey; their work, with its connection to painting, had been presented in depth at the Exposition des Arts Décoratifs of 1936.

A Vast and Wide-Ranging Itinerary: The Exhibition’s Content

  • 16 ‘The Artist Photographer’ is the title of the first section of the catalogue and exhibition Un sièc (...)

10The exhibition brought together a wide variety of works: two of Claude Monet’s Cathédrales (Le portail, soleil du matin and Le portail, temps gris); Auguste Renoir’s Portrait de Madame Georges Hartmann ; a portrait by Edgar Degas; two etchings by Édouard Manet; and early books on photography including François Arago’s 1839 report on the daguerreotype and Louis Figuier’s book on the photographs shown at the 1859 Salon. In addition to a number of anonymous photographs, which unfortunately cannot be easily identified today, signed photographic prints, which commanded attention from the moment they were exhibited, were included: two seascapes and a self-portrait by Gustave Le Gray, whom Adhémar regarded as the very model of the ‘artist photographer’ ;16 and Nadar’s portraits of Eugène Delacroix and Charles Baudelaire. Thus, Adhémar covered all the various aspects of photographic production and showed just how important a phenomenon the extensive circulation of signed and anonymous prints was for artists, especially after 1875.

  • 17 There is no doubt that Ravaisson’s efforts were inspired by L’Album de l’Artiste et de l’Amateur (T (...)

11His interest also extended to the photographic reproduction of artworks, and reproductions of paintings were included throughout the exhibition: Étienne Carjat’s reproduction of the painting by Gustave Courbet known as La Dame de Munich ; Robert Jefferson Bingham’s reproduction of Ingres’s portrait of Baroness Rothschild; and the same photographer’s reproduction of La Lettre by Camille Corot, a print that had belonged to Paul Gauguin. As a historian of engraving, Adhémar was well aware of the central role that reproductions of artworks played in the history of taste in the visual arts. Note 93 of the catalogue referred to a set of reproductions by Bingham and emphasized their importance for artists, who began to collect them in the 1860s. Also mentioned were the efforts of Félix Ravaisson (the inspector general of fine arts) in 1853 to promote photography alongside drawing and engraving as an aid to the teaching of art: ‘Photography can also assist the pencil and the engraving tool, whether by duplicating the drawings of good artists or by supplying instantaneous reproductions of the masterpieces of painting.’17 Despite the formation of a commission that included a number of famous artists (among them Delacroix, Hippolyte Flandrin, Alexandre Brongniart – then director of the Manufacture de Sèvres – and the sculptor Pierre-Charles Simart), the plan did not reach fruition. A century later, in 1955, few art historians were aware that the commission had ever existed.

12Although it had no illustrations (not uncommon at the time), the catalogue for Un siècle de vision nouvelle is rich and detailed by the standards of its day. It contained a technical note for every exhibited work, often with additional historical or scientific remarks. Unfortunately, there is no indication of individual call numbers for photographs from the department’s own collection, which at the time were simply categorized by subject: it was not until the 1960s that a system of call numbers for individual photographs was developed by Jean-Claude Lemagny and Bernard Marbot under Adhémar’s direction and at his instigation.

13Adhémar’s close associations with French museums and collectors allowed him to secure the exhibition’s loans of major works. In examining its contents and the catalogue, one can see the basis for many research projects yet to come. The ambitious nature of the exhibition’s undertaking and the wide variety of subjects it sought to broach were well served by Adhémar’s extensive knowledge of art history and the soundness of his intuition.

Statements and Stances – Reception

  • 18 Un siècle d’art français 1850–1950, exhibition catalogue, Petit Palais, Paris, May 20, 1953–May 16, (...)

14While the Biennale de la Photographie et du Cinéma provided the administrative context for Adhémar’s project, the latter was also, in part, a response to recent events in the French museum world. In 1953, in order to present its collection, the Petit Palais, Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris, organized an exhibition of paintings Un siècle d’art français, 1850–1950. The exhibition ignored the invention of photography entirely, except for a highly critical reference at the opening of the section ‘Le Symbolisme’: ‘in a reaction against realism, which threatened to push painting toward photographic conceptions, a number of artists developed their work as a direct expression of their poetic inspiration and daydreams.’18 Adhémar’s desire to juxtapose photography and painting was no doubt partially motivated by this condemnation. As Cain and Vallery-Radot pointed out in the catalogue for Un siècle de vision nouvelle, Adhémar was one of the great connoisseurs of nineteenth-century art. In 1942, he continued the task, originally begun by Jean Laran, of compiling an Inventaire du fonds français après 1800, volumes three to fourteen of which were published afterwards under his direction. By 1955 he had already published on Daumier and Toulouse-Lautrec, but also on Balzac and Hugo. While he did not include a section on symbolism in his exhibition, Adhémar did assemble a collection of works from 1860 to 1938 under the broad title ‘Rêve, Surréalisme’ whose aim, judging by the brief notes in the catalogue, was to demonstrate photography’s ability to break free from the material reproduction of reality and evoke a dreamlike vision.

  • 19 ‘Préface,’ in Un siècle de vision nouvelle (note 2), 8.
  • 20 Pierre Borel, Le roman de Gustave Courbet, d’après une correspondance originale (Paris: R. Chiberre (...)
  • 21 Théophile Thoré, Salons de W. Bürger, 1861–1868 (Paris : Ve J. Renouard, 1870), 2: 168.
  • 22 Un siècle de vision nouvelle (note 2), 30.
  • 23 Gustave Courbet, Letters of Gustave Courbet, trans. and ed. Petra ten-Doesschate Chu (Chicago: Univ (...)

15In 1954, the twenty-seventh Venice Biennale presented a large-scale retrospective on the work of Gustave Courbet. It was one of the first major exhibitions in western Europe devoted to the painter since that conceived of by Jules Castagnary at the école des beaux-arts in 1882. Its organizers were Germain Bazin and Hélène Adhémar, a curator in the Département des Peintures of the Musée du Louvre, and Jean Adhémar’s spouse. In this context, Un siècle de vision nouvelle accorded an important place to the art of the Second Empire; Jean Adhémar emphasized that ‘almost all of the earliest photographers are painters, especially under Napoleon III.’19 The section ‘Temps de Courbet, Manet, Nadar’ was one of the richest both in terms of the number of works presented (approximately forty) and in terms of the scope of its thesis: the curator of the exhibition chose Courbet as the focal point for his juxtaposition of the realist visions of painters and photographers. Adhémar was the first art historian to attempt the identification of the model in a photograph of a nude woman that Courbet requested from Bruyas, first referred to by Pierre Borel in 1951.20 He sought to associate one of Jacques Moulin’s nudes with the model for L’Atelier du Peintre by pointing out their resemblance to one another. In the same section, he also exhibited two photographs by Vallou de Villeneuve in which the model’s pose is close to that of Courbet’s Baigneuse, who is seen from behind. While subsequent scholarship has shown that Courbet’s model was probably that of Vallou, not that of Moulin, Adhémar’s comparison of the paintings of Courbet to the work of these two photographers is still relevant today. Beyond the similarity between the poses and the models, the scattered clothing of the naked women in these photographs characterized them not as nymphs or goddesses, but rather as ‘undressed women,’ as Théophile Thoré wrote of Courbet’s nudes.21 One of the painter’s very first nudes La Bacchante which belonged to the Van Nierop collection, served to illustrate this point within the exhibition itself. Despite the fact that they were shown in the section entitled ‘Impressionnisme,’ it was also Courbet whom Adhémar had in mind when he chose to include two seascapes by Le Gray from the collection of Yvan Christ. ‘Le Gray’s famous snapshots were first exhibited in 1861. This great photographer seems to correspond perfectly to Courbet’s comment on the paintings of Boudin: ‘It is not a study of the sea; it is a time of day.’22 Here, the notion of an ‘instantané,’ or ‘snapshot,’ did not so much refer to the utopian attempt to capture movement, as to the brilliance with which Le Gray, by combining two negatives, had succeeded in creating an image of the sea and sky that came quite close to reproducing not just their real appearance, but an image that viewers expected to see, ‘the spectacle of [the] sea,’ as Courbet wrote to Hugo in 1864.23

  • 24 The album was donated to the BN by Maurice Tourneux in 1899 from the estate of Philippe Burty. For (...)
  • 25 S. Aubenas, ed., L’Art du nu au xixe siècle. Le photographe et son modèle (Paris: BNF/Hazan, 1997), (...)
  • 26 Beaumont Newhall, ‘Delacroix and Photography,’ Magazine of Art, no. 45 (November 1952): 300−302

16The exhibition also displayed, probably for the first time, the album of models photographed for Delacroix,24 with this note: ‘Philippe Burty, who purchased this volume at the sale of Delacroix’s estate, affirms that “the master used it frequently, and his folders contained a substantial number of pencil sketches after these photographs, some of which were produced expressly for him by one of his friends, with the models posed by the artist himself.”’25 Adhémar was surely inspired by Beaumont Newhall’s 1952 article ‘Delacroix and Photography’ on Eugène Durieu’s album of photographs in the collection of the George Eastman House in Rochester.26

  • 27 See especially Germain Bazin, L’époque impressionniste (Paris: P. Tisné, 1947). Hélène, who was mar (...)

17As both a painter and a photographer, Edgar Degas occupied an important position within the exhibition. The section ‘Degas, Lautrec’ was organized around his painting La Princesse Metternich and the photographs by Eugène Disdéri that inspired it. Two of the painter’s own photographs were also shown: a family portrait mistakenly dated 1870 (it may have been one of the portraits of the Halévy family, the negatives of which are currently at the Musée d’Orsay, PHO 1987 5) and the painter’s self-portrait with his housekeeper, Zoé Closier, from 1895, taken either at Degas’s home at 23, rue Ballu or at his studio at 37, rue Victor Massé. The print exhibited by Adhémar appears to have been provided by the Nepveu-Degas family, despite the fact that since 1920 the BN had owned a print donated by the painter’s brother, René De Gas. This was the first time these images had been exhibited and, by including them, Adhémar furthered the work of Germain Bazin, who had emphasized Degas’s links with photography.27

  • 28 File of the exhibition at the Département des Estampes et de la Photographie, cote Ye 214, boîte ex (...)

18Adhémar also alluded, if only briefly, to possible connections between the pointillism of Georges Seurat and Paul Signac and contemporaneous experiments in color photography based on the three-color process. A print that is close to the experiments of Louis Ducos du Hauron and Charles Cros was shown alongside two paintings by Signac from the Cachin-Signac collection. The exhibition’s files contain a letter from Madame Cachin-Signac in which she expresses her approval of the project: ‘Your aims are extremely ambitious, and we are delighted to be a part of them.’28

  • 29 Edward Steichen, ‘Four French Photographers,’ U.S. Camera, 1953: 9, cited in Kristen Gresh, ‘Regard (...)

19Finally, the exhibition devotes very limited space to contemporary photography. A final section ambiguously entitled ‘Recherche d’une Certaine Réalité’ presented a set of anonymous photographs as well as Henri Cartier-Bresson’s 1938 image of Cardinal Pacelli (the future Pope Pius XII) in Montmartre. The inclusion of Cartier-Bresson reflected his importance in the French photography world; it is well known that the photographer played an important role in the selection made by Edward Steichen for his Family of Man exhibition. MoMA had also mounted an exhibition of his work in 1947. In 1951, Steichen chose Cartier-Bresson along with Brassaï, Robert Doisneau, Izis, and Willy Ronis as the focus for an exhibition entitled Five French Photographers, which celebrated contemporary French photography. The American curator regarded France as ‘another island of strength in the realm of modern photography.’29 Adhémar’s exhibition paid glowing tribute to French photography and photography in France, both of which, not surprisingly, were well represented in the BN’s collection.

  • 30 ‘[A]t the Bibliothèque Nationale, an exhibition is planned on the theme “La Photographie, Art Moder (...)
  • 31 L’Officiel de la photographie et du cinéma, no. 21 (January 1955): 26. In addition to the BN and th (...)
  • 32 This information is noted in the exhibition’s file at the Département des Estampes et de la Photogr (...)
  • 33 Le Bulletin des Amis de Gustave Courbet, Paris-Ornans, no. 16 (1955): 9.

20At the beginning of 1955, Un siècle de vision nouvelle was announced in L’Officiel de la Photographie et du Cinéma, published in connection with the Biennale de la Photographie et du Cinéma.30 The Biennale enjoyed the patronage of the president of the Republic, underscoring the government’s interest in these two creative fields. This Parisian event constituted ‘the first great festival of photography and film. The exhibitions were held at various museums and arts and scientific centers and sought to show the whole range of ways in which photography is currently being used in the realm of art and culture as well as in that of science and industry.’31 Of all the events at the Biennale, the BN’s exhibition was the only one to turn its attention to earlier photography; it was also the one with the most ambitious artistic and scientific program, since it dealt with the entire first century following Niépce and Daguerre’s invention. During the four weeks of its run, 1,258 paying customers visited the exhibition, and 249 catalogues were sold.32 Despite these eminently respectable figures, it was not widely reviewed. It went unmentioned in Connaissance des arts and the Gazette des Beaux-Arts (especially surprising since Adhémar became the editor in chief of that journal the following year), as well as in Apollo and Burlington Magazine, and even in La Revue des Arts, the bulletin of the Musées de France before La Revue du Louvre. It was mentioned by the Annual Review of the National Gallery of Art in connection with the loan of the portrait of the Princess de Metternich. Only Le Bulletin des Amis de Gustave Courbet gave it an enthusiastic review: ‘Under the title “Un siècle de vision nouvelle,” the Bibliothèque Nationale brought together a selection of photographs and paintings that permitted visitors to compare the inspiration of the nineteenth century’s artists with the research of its photographers. This fascinating collection included a Bacchante by Courbet, painted around 1853–55 [sic].’33

  • 34 His only mention of it comes in connection with the sources for his chapter on édouard Manet; Aaron (...)
  • 35 ‘La photographie en France, l’opinion et l’état depuis 1930,’ Gazette des Beaux-Arts 88 (September (...)

21Despite the fact that they fueled a great deal of subsequent scholarship – particularly in the writings of Aaron Scharf, who mentioned it too briefly considering the number of examples he took from it34 – the exhibition and its catalogue are largely missing from the bibliographies of books on the relationship between painting and photography. In an article from 1976, Jean Adhémar himself refers to this omission: ‘One exhibition had a particularly powerful impact – Un siècle de vision nouvelle (1955), whose catalogue proved so useful for such a long time.’35 The catalogue, rediscovered and studied during preparations for the exhibition Le photographe et son modèle, l’art du nu au xixe siècle (under the direction of Sylvie Aubenas), revealed just how sound and how relevant Adhémar’s insights still remained.

  • 36 Gazette des Beaux-Arts 91 (January 1978): 1.
  • 37 Jean Vallery-Radot, ‘Introduction,’ (note 2), 9.

22In 1955, it would doubtless have been difficult for Adhémar’s position to find immediate acceptance among art historians. The curator himself has perfectly defined what was at stake. In 1978, one year after the opening of the Musée National d’Art Moderne at the Centre Pompidou and with the Musée d’Orsay just barely out of the planning stages, he wrote, in a long article for the Gazette des Beaux-Arts entitled ‘Un point sur la ferveur actuelle de la photographie dans le monde des musées’: ‘What is the future of photography, and what are its prospects for success in its relations with museums, libraries, and print departments? The first thing that has to happen is for it to be recognized as an art form in its own right.’36 In 1955, his approach was not yet that which is prevalent today at the BNF and in French museums. Concerned with showing works in perfect condition, Adhémar did not present the original prints of the photographs owned by the Cabinet des Estampes but rather enlargements, modern prints produced by the BN’s photography department; he did so ‘in the interest of greater uniformity and in order to avoid showing prints that were faded, worn, or stained.’37

23Despite the work he had done more than twenty years earlier, Adhémar knew in 1978 that the institutional recognition of photography was still a long way off and that the road there was fraught with difficulties. By including libraries as well as museums in his remarks, he paid homage to the work done by Jean-Claude Lemagny and Bernard Marbot beginning in the 1960s. It was a library – albeit the most prestigious one in France – that mounted the exhibition Un siècle de vision nouvelle in 1955, not an art museum. At that time, no museum in France could possibly have hosted such an exhibition. The implications of François Arago’s original presentation of the daguerreotype to the Académie des Sciences, which framed the invention in purely technical terms, were still being felt. Neither the Musée d’Art Moderne, which was then at the Palais de Tokyo, nor the Musée du Jeu de Paume, which since 1947 had housed the works of the impressionist painters, much less the Louvre, could possibly have hosted Adhémar’s exhibition in their halls. As a feat of technical prowess, photography was at that time only presented at museums of science and technology, which of course would never have embraced an aesthetic approach to the medium. Meanwhile, at the art museums, the Baudelaireian anathema continued indirectly to limit photography to the subordinate role of ‘painting’s humble servant’ being, as it was then, the exclusive province of departments that dealt with documentation and archives.

  • 38 Lewis Mumford, ‘The Art Galleries,’ The New Yorker, April 3, 1937, 40.

24However, the work of Adhémar and the BN’s other curators was not without its emulators, and it played an essential role in bringing about the formation of large photography collections at French museums. These collections are indebted to the BN’s curators for establishing the relationship between photography and the other arts that is both the foundation upon which they rest, and the only ground upon which the question of the institutional recognition of photography could possibly have been decided in France. These new collections are also, more subtly, in debt to them for providing a favorable environment in which they could come into existence. Indeed, thanks to Adhémar and the curators who worked with and later succeeded him, collectors and lovers of photography found they now had a forum for study, for viewing, and for discussion. By an irony of fate – or was it rather the just desserts of daring and inventiveness – while the critic for The New Yorker had taken Beaumont Newhall to task for the technical slant of his 1937 exhibition at MoMA,38 it fell to the BN to organize the first historical exhibition on the links between painting and photography. In doing so, it gave rise to the French museum world’s conception of photography.

Description of the Sections of the Exhibition Un siècle de vision nouvelle - Bibliothèque Nationale, Galerie Mansart, May 4–June 1, 1955

‘Le Photographe Artiste’ (The Artist Photographer)

25Twenty-seven items, including Gustave Le Gray’s Autoportrait and his Champ Délicieux); an album of twelve photographs by Man Ray containing a preface by Tristan Tzara and published in 1922; books that have a photographer as their hero – Le Nabab by Alphonse Daudet and Colette’s La Dame du Photographe – as well as the decision of the Cour de Cassation (the French Supreme Court) delivered on November 28, 1862, in the dispute between the photographers Léopold Mayer, Pierre-Louis Pierson, and Bethender which asserted the artistic character of photography.

‘Daguerréotype et Portrait’ (The Daguerreotype and the Portrait)

26Thirty-one items, including many anonymous daguerreotypes from the Gilles and Sirot collections; two paintings, one by Louis Hersent and the other by Ary Scheffer, which underscore the interest in realism at the time; François Arago’s report on the daguerreotype; and Jules Janin’s 1839 article on the new invention in L’Artiste.

‘Le Temps de Courbet, Manet, Nadar’ (The Era of Courbet, Manet, and Nadar)

27Thirty-five items forming one of the principal sections of the exhibition, including several portraits by Nadar; works by Jacques Moulin and Julien Vallou de Villeneuve; etchings by Édouard Manet; and reproductions of artworks by the photographer Robert Jefferson Bingham.

‘Degas, Lautrec’

28Twenty-two items organized around two painters: the section on Degas has already been mentioned; the one on Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was essentially organized around Maurice Guibert’s collection of photographs, which has since been donated to the BNF by Madame Guibert.

‘Portraits d’Apparat, Scènes Composées’ (Official Portraits, Compositions)

29Twenty-six items that make up the most diverse and heterogeneous section of the exhibition; organized around a deliberately broad set of themes, it contains works as varied as Fading Away by Henry Peach Robinson; Auguste Renoir’s painting Portrait de Madame Georges Hartmann; Onésipe Aguado’s photograph of the Imperial Court at Compiègne; photographs by Eugène Disdéri; studies from nature by Gaudenzio Marconi; and Charles Gerschel’s photographic portrait of Robert de Montesquiou.

‘Instantané’ (Snapshot)

30With twenty items, this is one of the sections in which Adhémar takes the greatest liberties, choosing to address not so much the issues of exposure time and the reproduction of movement – he thus ignores chronophotography, as I have mentioned – but rather the search for a certain aptness of pose by painters as well as photographers. He also takes this occasion to exhibit the Honoré Daumier’s caricatures from the 1840s in which the artist mocks the strained and unnatural poses demanded of sitters by the daguerreotype process.

‘Impressionnisme’ (Impressionism)

31Seventeen items, including the two Cathédrales by Claude Monet, which Adhémar, oddly, does no more than mention in the catalogue – he offers no additional commentary, despite the fact that their presence, of course, lent great prestige to the exhibition; Maternité (Motherhood) by Eugène Carrière (today at the Musée d’Orsay), which is set in relation to the Pictorialist works of Robert Demachy and Edward Steichen; Le Gray’s seascapes; and Robert de la Sizeranne’s article on ‘Les Questions Esthétiques Contemporaines.’ Impressionism seems to be invoked here primarily in connection with its possible photographic sources as well as in connection with photographs influenced by it.

‘Seurat, Signac’

32Six items; the smallest section of the exhibition and one of the most coherent in terms of the links it seeks to establish between the research of Georges Seurat and Paul Signac and the first experiments in color photography.

‘Rêve, Surréalisme’ (Dream, Surrealism)

33Twenty-four items; without a doubt the most original section of the exhibition, in which Adhémar seeks to reveal – well beyond the Surrealist period alone – photography’s ability to generate meaning beyond the confines of reality. The selection of photographs is quite broad, including the meditative pose of an officer in the French army’s corps of engineers in a photograph from 1860; a photograph of a metal bridge taken in 1870, which recalls the Surrealists’ fondness for distorting images of modernity; and two photographs by Man Ray, whom André Breton called ‘the man with a magic lantern for a head.’ In 1962, Adhémar curated the first exhibition in France devoted entirely to Man Ray’s work as a photographer.

‘Recherche d’une Certaine Réalité’ (In Search of a Certain Reality)

34With seven items, this most enigmatic section of the exhibition is made up of anonymous photographs as well as Henri Cartier-Bresson’s image of Cardinal Pacelli in Montmartre. It may be the quality of irony in photography that Adhémar is showing here, ‘midway between “real life” and caricature.’

35The Supplément consists of ten items, no doubt selected by Adhémar after the items for the exhibition proper had already been chosen. It features one of Comte de Vigier’s beautiful photographs of Pyrenean scenes.

Notes

1 For more information on the photography collections of the BNF’s Département des Estampes et de la Photographie (Department of Prints and Photography), see Sylvie Aubenas, ‘Visages d’une collection,’ in Portraits-visages: 1853–2003, exhibition catalogue, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris (Paris: Gallimard, 2003), 25–34.

2 Jean Vallery-Radot, ‘Introduction,’ Un siècle de vision nouvelle, exhibition catalogue, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, 1955, 6 [The translator].

3 Ibid., 7 [The translator].

4 Julien Cain, ‘Avant-propos,’ in Un siècle de vision nouvelle (note 2), 3 and 4.

5 Jean Vallery-Radot, ‘Introduction,’ (note 2), 5. The photographs referred to by Vallery-Radot are two prints by Jacques-Antoine Moulin, which the latter deposited at the Bibliothèque Impériale in September 1852. Labeled ‘études d’après nature’ (Studies from Nature), they were assigned numbers 3465 and 3466; only the second was rediscovered in the collections of the BN. By depositing his work (a practice later emulated by other Parisian photographers), Moulin did something that was not made a legal requirement until the 1930s. He was motivated by his desire to protect his work from additional prints, but also in order to guard against possible criminal proceedings of the kind that had been mounted against him, some years earlier, for the production and distribution of erotic daguerreotypes. By submitting his images to the BNF, he wished to supply clear proof that his photographs were not indecent but nudes intended for artists.

6 Thanks to Adhémar’s efforts, Un siècle de vision nouvelle was in fact followed at the BN by a number of exhibitions that combined photography and painting, including La Vie Parisienne au Temps de Guys, Nadar, Worth (Parisian Life in the Time of Guys, Nadar, and Worth) in 1959 and Daguerre (1787–1851) et les Premiers Daguerréotypistes Français (Daguerre [1787–1851] and the First French Daguerreotypists) in 1961.

7 In 1955, the nineteenth century’s own bibliography on these subjects had yet to be rediscovered and recognized: La Lumière, published by the Société Héliographique (Heliographic Society) beginning in 1851, and of course the Bulletin de la Société Française de Photographie (especially in its first years, 1855 to 1860), many of whose articles were devoted to the aesthetic dimension of photography.

8 For more on Newhall’s 1937 exhibition at MoMA, see Sophie Hackett, ‘Beaumont Newhall and a Machine: Exhibiting Photography at the Museum of Modern Art in 1937,’ Études photographiques, no. 23 (May 2009): 177–91.

9 Marta Braun, ‘Beaumont Newhall et l’historiographie de la photographie anglophone,’ Études photographiques, no. 16 (May 2005): 19–31.

10 Georges Potonniée, ‘Rétrospective de la photographie, 1839–1900,’ in Exposition internationale de la photographie contemporaine, exhibition catalogue Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Pavillon de Marsan, Paris, January 16–March 1, 1936, pp. XIII and XIV. The exhibition, which was quite large, contained 1,682 separate items, including 582 in the retrospective section alone.

11 This parallel adds a new dimension to our understanding of the links between French and American institutions, which were highlighted in issue 21 of études photographiques; many thanks to Thierry Gervais for pointing this out to me after an attentive first reading of my article.

12 Bernard Marbot, ‘Georges Sirot, une collection de photographies anciennes,’ Photogénies, 1983, no. 3 (October): n. p. This article constituted the catalogue for the exhibition of Sirot’s collection that was held at the BN from September 15 to November 10, 1983.

13 édouard Manet, Lettres illustrées, with an introduction by Jean Guiffrey (Paris: Maurice Le Garrec, 1929). [There is also an American edition containing high-quality reproductions of the (untranslated) original letters: Édouard Manet, Letters with Aquarelles (New York: Pantheon Books, 1944). – The translator]

14 Eugène Delacroix, Journal, 1822–1860, 2 vols., with a preface by André Joubin (Paris: Plon, 1931–2). [In English as The Journal of Eugène Delacroix, trans. Walter Pach (New York: Covici, Friede, 1937). – The translator]

15 Paris, BNF, Département des Estampes et de la Photographie, Yb3-1739-(8) 4.

16 ‘The Artist Photographer’ is the title of the first section of the catalogue and exhibition Un siècle de vision nouvelle. In the exhibition checklist, no. 2 is designated as ‘Autoportrait, Le Gray’ (Self-Portrait, Le Gray).

17 There is no doubt that Ravaisson’s efforts were inspired by L’Album de l’Artiste et de l’Amateur (The Album of the Artist and the Amateur), published by Louis-Désiré Blanquart-évrard in 1851. Adhémar does not mention the photographs contained in it; this is one of the flaws of his exhibition.

18 Un siècle d’art français 1850–1950, exhibition catalogue, Petit Palais, Paris, May 20, 1953–May 16, 1954 (Paris: Les Presses artistiques, 1953), n. p.

19 ‘Préface,’ in Un siècle de vision nouvelle (note 2), 8.

20 Pierre Borel, Le roman de Gustave Courbet, d’après une correspondance originale (Paris: R. Chiberre, 1922).

21 Théophile Thoré, Salons de W. Bürger, 1861–1868 (Paris : Ve J. Renouard, 1870), 2: 168.

22 Un siècle de vision nouvelle (note 2), 30.

23 Gustave Courbet, Letters of Gustave Courbet, trans. and ed. Petra ten-Doesschate Chu (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), letter of November 28, 1864 to Victor Hugo, no. 64-18: 249.

24 The album was donated to the BN by Maurice Tourneux in 1899 from the estate of Philippe Burty. For more on Delacroix’s links with photography, see S. Aubenas, ‘Les albums de nus d’Eugène Delacroix,’ in Delacroix et la photographie, ed. Christophe Leribault, 22–50 (Paris: Musée du Louvre / le Passage, 2008); as well as, by the same author, ‘Les photographies d’Eugène Delacroix,’ Revue de l’Art, no. 127 (2000–2001): 62–69.

25 S. Aubenas, ed., L’Art du nu au xixe siècle. Le photographe et son modèle (Paris: BNF/Hazan, 1997), 19.

26 Beaumont Newhall, ‘Delacroix and Photography,’ Magazine of Art, no. 45 (November 1952): 300−302

27 See especially Germain Bazin, L’époque impressionniste (Paris: P. Tisné, 1947). Hélène, who was married to Jean, was at that time one of Bazin’s closest collaborators, a circumstance that made possible numerous discussions and interactions between the two men.

28 File of the exhibition at the Département des Estampes et de la Photographie, cote Ye 214, boîte expo 7.

29 Edward Steichen, ‘Four French Photographers,’ U.S. Camera, 1953: 9, cited in Kristen Gresh, ‘Regard sur la France. Edward Steichen entre Paris et New York,’ Études photographiques, no. 21 (December 2007): 70.

30 ‘[A]t the Bibliothèque Nationale, an exhibition is planned on the theme “La Photographie, Art Moderne Par Excellence” (“Photography: The Quintessentially Modern Art”),’ L’Officiel de la photographie et du cinéma, no. 23 (March): n. p.

31 L’Officiel de la photographie et du cinéma, no. 21 (January 1955): 26. In addition to the BN and the Musée de l’Homme (Museum of Man), the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle (National Museum of Natural History) and the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers (Conservatory of Arts and Crafts) also presented exhibitions in the context of the Biennale: the former on photographic reports on the study and protection of nature, the latter on the links between photography and scientific research.

32 This information is noted in the exhibition’s file at the Département des Estampes et de la Photographie, cote Ye 214, boîte expo 7.

33 Le Bulletin des Amis de Gustave Courbet, Paris-Ornans, no. 16 (1955): 9.

34 His only mention of it comes in connection with the sources for his chapter on édouard Manet; Aaron Scharf, Art and Photography (London: Thames and Hudson, 1968), 334. Despite my deep respect for Scharf’s exemplary study, this doesn’t seem to me to reflect the full extent of the links between his own research and that of Adhémar more than ten years earlier.

35 ‘La photographie en France, l’opinion et l’état depuis 1930,’ Gazette des Beaux-Arts 88 (September 1976): 3.

36 Gazette des Beaux-Arts 91 (January 1978): 1.

37 Jean Vallery-Radot, ‘Introduction,’ (note 2), 9.

38 Lewis Mumford, ‘The Art Galleries,’ The New Yorker, April 3, 1937, 40.

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Dominique de Font-Réaulx, « The Bold Innovations of a French Exhibition », Études photographiques, 25 | mai 2010, [En ligne], mis en ligne le 21 mai 2014. URL : http://etudesphotographiques.revues.org/3443. consulté le 24 octobre 2017.

Auteur

Dominique de Font-Réaulx

Dominique de Font-Réaulx is chief curator at the Musée du Louvre and in charge of international scientific coordination for the museum, with special emphasis on the Louvre Abu Dhabi project. She was previously a curator at the Musée d’Orsay, where she oversaw the photography collection. In addition to curating numerous exhibitions, including Le daguerréotype français, un objet photographique, 2003 and L’œuvre d’art et sa reproduction photographique, 2006, she has also written articles and essays for numerous catalogues. She teaches at the école du Louvre and the Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris and has been working for roughly fifteen years on the links between painting and photography.

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