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Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Henri Cartier Bresson's Soviet Photographs Exhibition in Genoa's Palazzo Ducale

Staying in Liguria usually means a weekly visit to Genova (or Genoa as it is written in English). I love the description given of the city by one of Chekhov's characters in the last act of The Seagull who when asked (as someone who has travelled everywhere in the world) which city is the best city in the world to live in replies Genoa because it is only there that one feels the presence of a world soul. Chekhov only very briefly visited Genoa so I am not sure if this was his genuine feeling about the city. My own love for the city grows each time I visit.

This visit was rewarded with a very special treat. Genoa has a splendid record of Russian themed exhibitions - significant ones have been a large exhibition in 2001 on major Russian artists who have lived & painted in Liguria, another one on Soviet avant-garde arists and this time an exhibition of Henri Cartier Bresson's photographs of the Soviet Union during two trips there in 1954 and 1972/3. The exhibition included photographs from Moscow, Irkutsk, Georgia, Kyryzstan and Baku. For me the real revelation was those photographs he took in 1954.

My favourite was of a street scene near a tram stop (it is the photo rather badly reproduced here). In the right-hand background there is a tram and some passengers alighting, in the left background a seller of kvas. In the foreground are two 'milliotsionery' smiling and glancing in different directions - one appears to be looking at the two young women at the very front of the photograph. One of these women has her back to the camera but her head is turned so that her expression is clearly visible, the other woman is looking elsewhere. There is a sense that they are pausing for thought. The woman whose front is towards the camera is holding a small case and they are both wearing sandals. Cartier Bresson has managed to capture something special in this photograph and in many others of Moscow and elsewehere in the Soviet Union. A moment of life, something which it is nearly impossible to discover in Soviet cinema of 1954. For me the best scenes of street life can only be found in Khutsiev's 1967 movie 'July Rain' at the very end when he is filming a veterans meeting on Vitory Day (May 9th) or perhaps some of Romm's closing street scenes at the end of his documentary 'Ordinary Fascism' even though to me they don't generate the charm that Cartier Bresson or Khutsiev captures.

In the exhibition were some other splendid photographs. A wonderful street scene in Baku with children, a scene near Kazansky Train Station with a line of taxis, flower sellers and an elegantly dressed womansurprised by the camera. Cartier Bresson manages to capture some wonderful facial expressions. Other splendid photos are of the Metropol Hotel canteen for workers with its 'doska pochyota' portraits of Lenin and Stalin(this was 1954) and the various workers; another photograph that was amongst the best was of a shop assistant demonstrating a single bag to six or seven female customers- the eyes of these customers all fixed on this single handbag. A fascinating portrait of the human face.

All in all a real documentary of the Soviet Union of 1954 (and also of the early seventies) rarely fixed in Soviet film of that time. Genoa's excellent exhibitions of Russian and Soviet culture has made it an excellent showcase as to what can be done to promote real cultural ties with Russia.

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