Where to start? One week in Paris; 6 galleries/museums; 9 exhibitions; oh, also, beautiful spring weather, good food, accompanied by the love of my life; and the chance to spend some good quality time with a great bunch of fellow students who had come to Paris from various corners of the world! It was a special week.
My blogging will concentrate on the art, of course, and it looks as though it will come out in three ‘episodes’ – or maybe there will be a fourth. There is no particular order to it, but I’m going to start with an interesting comparison between two very different photographers, who produced – unsurprisingly – two very different exhibitions.
I first spotted that there was to be a major touring exhibition of Robert Adams’ work a couple of years ago, when it opened in the USA; and also noted, at the time, that it was not coming to the UK. So, it was a privilege to have the chance to view it at the Jeu de Paume last week. Entitled The Place We Live, it encompasses more than 200 prints of his work, from the 1960s to the present day. I have never found myself especially attracted to his work and so have never looked at the many books he has produced. This exhibition confirmed the importance of seeing his work in series and in sequence. It still left me feeling somewhat ‘cool’ about it – but with immense respect at the same time.
I find Adams’ photographs very serious and intense. He combines his obvious humanity and ‘goodness’ with a high level of tenacity, application, and commitment. His series are highly intelligent – intellectual even – produced to a very high standard, and communicate with a notable consistency of voice. At the same time, they tend to underwhelm me – even when brought together in the way they are in this exhibition. The images seem, to me, caught up amongst the modernists and traditionalists – speaking with a calm and thoughtful voice that perhaps isn’t loud enough or brash enough for today’s world. I realise that some would say ‘all the better for that’, and I can understand that point of view; but I seem to find myself looking for a bit more anger, more vibrancy, more obvious passion. That wouldn’t be Robert Adams, I realise, since he seeks ‘balance’ and ”… a tension so exact that it is peace”. So, I reiterate my respect for him and his work, and my privilege at seeing this collection.
In complete contrast, at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie, was Martin Parr’s Paris – which we viewed later the same day. The gallery’s note says that it “… lui a donné carte blanche” and the result is around sixty large scale prints, in vivid colour, and pointing the Parr ‘finger’, good-heartedly, I’d say, at various aspects of Paris life. This is new work, produced over a two year period, and also in book form (arranged as though it were some form of Paris map book, with plasticised’ cover). The exhibition is (no surprise) brash, vibrant, highly colourful, and highly enjoyable. The photographer’s eye for absurdity, his love of kitsch, and his sense of humour, are all in full action. Does it have something serious to say – possibly not – though it didn’t feel unlike the Paris we’d been walking around for a few days before. I did find the arrangement of the images – the sequencing – interesting.
On this wall, a garish image of ‘escargots’, their shells covered with smooth hair-like patterns and their insides stuffed with bright green garlic butter, are juxtaposed with a woman’s head of flowing hair and a wispy green ‘hair-like’ plant. At first, the image of two hard-boiled eggs below seem out of place, until we see the ears of the man in the next picture – who appears to have just had his hair shaved, judging by the little pieces lying on his collar and scarf. Then we return to the long, flowing locks, and so on … It isn’t especially sophisticated, but it works (for me). It occurs to me that Parr’s aesthetic is that of the advertising poster or the magazine. That makes it familiar and easily accessible – populist, I guess. It is certainly different from Adams’.
That’s why I found these two exhibitions such a fascinating contrast on the same day. It’s a bit like an exam question – compare and contrast – which do you like best and why. I’m prepared to admit that the Martin Parr had more appeal for me. Adams, great as he is, feels as though he is speaking from a different time – all balance and reason, form and composition, restrained black and white. Parr is today – attention-grabbing, noisy, assertive, full of colour and energy, often superficial, always on the move. I wonder what each would make of the other’s exhibition? As successful professionals, they would have mutual respect, of course – but something makes me feel that Parr’s respect for Adams would be greater than that returned the other way! Who knows.