By Kate Palfrey
This Paris exhibition of Willy Ronis’ ‘stills from life’, on the other hand, was much more fun. A celebration of what would have been the photographer’s centenary, curated by the Jeu de Paume contemporary art museum in the Tuileries, ‘Une poétique de l’engagement’ proudly displayed a well-selected collection of works in a fond homage to this one-man French artistic institution.
A founder of the golden age of French humanist photography (along with Cartier-Bresson and Robert Doisneau), Ronis’ sympathetic socialism shines out from every one of 150 spectacularly elegant black-and-white prints on display. The photographer’s respect and reverence for his subjects – even his nudes are staggeringly delicate – his mastery of the visual plane, and exquisite understanding of monochrome colour, are evident in each one of these paragons of the art.
An unexpected bonus, a well-edited, well-shot video of an introduction to his own work by the artist revealed the artisanal code by which he worked. The simple pride in the face of this hard-working immigrant boy whose socialist heart enabled shots that glorify – with a humility bordering on the un-French – the everyday and its everyman was a pleasure to behold.
But the really wonderful thing about this exhibition was the patronage. Parisians and provincial families getting some culture ahead of the rentrée – there really were hardly any tourists – queued daily around the courtyards of the Monnaie de Paris to see these stills from their shared heritage. Crammed into the darkened corridors of the building, eager faces sampled one delight after another, guided by a gentle, not too dictatorial succession of five themes: the street, the world of work, journeys and holidays, the body, and finally a selection of photographs taken in the intimacy of Ronis’ own family setting and social milieu. A beautiful celebration of French post-war life, this exhibition was a potent insight into the power of a sympathetic eye and a prodigious artistic skill.