The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) is pleased to present Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century, on view from October 30, 2010, to January 30, 2011. The first large-scale retrospective of the artist’s work to be presented in the U.S. in more than three decades, The Modern Century features some 300 prints from Cartier-Bresson’s professional career from 1929 to 1989, with an emphasis on the years 1932 to 1973. The exhibition explores a fresh understanding of the artist, with a full fifth of the works on view never before presented to the public. The exhibition is organized by Peter Galassi, chief curator of the department of photography at The Museum of Modern Art in New York. The San Francisco presentation is organized by Corey Keller, SFMOMA’s associate curator of photography.
Cartier-Bresson (1908–2004) is celebrated as one of the most accomplished and original figures in the history of photography. His inventive work of the 1930s helped define the creative potential of modern photography. With an extraordinary ability to capture images of life on the run, his work became synonymous with “the decisive moment”—also the title of his first major book.
The exhibition is organized in 12 distinct, thematic sections; the first two sections are chronological surveys focusing on the artist’s independent work of the early 1930s, and his work immediately following World War II. In 1947 Cartier-Bresson joined Robert Capa and others in founding the Magnum photo agency, which enabled photojournalists to retain control over their work while reaching a broad audience through magazines such as Life.
The next three sections focus on Cartier-Bresson’s work centered on the ancient patterns of life in three parts of the globe: the East, the West, and France. The first of these sections explores his major bodies of work in India and Indonesia at the time of their independence, as well as his iconic pictures of Mahatma Gandhi’s last days and the aftermath of his death.
Images of the Soviet Union are the focus of the following sections, when Cartier-Bresson was the first Western photographer to gain access to the country after Stalin’s death in 1953. This section also includes photographs of the U.S. during the postwar boom, with the majority of these works previously unknown to the public, and his four-month stint in China in 1958 documenting that country’s “Great Leap Forward.”
The four sections concluding the exhibition focus on varied themes including the subject of beauty, Cartier-Bresson’s observations of gatherings in streets around the world, the transformation of Europe as old cultures are confronted by modern realities, and portrait work. There are 34 portraits that reveal the artist’s skill as an observer of the human world and as one of the great portraitists of the 20th century.
The exhibition is accompanied by the catalogue Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century, the first major publication to make full use of the extensive holdings of the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation in Paris, including thousands of prints and a vast resource of documents relating to the photographer’s life and work. The catalogue will be available at the SFMOMA MuseumStore.
Following SFMOMA’s presentation, the exhibition will travel to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta (February 16, to May 15, 2011).