August 29, 2013 A provocative juxtaposition of images this morning in Paris: strolling toward Bercy from the scientific part of the 5e, I headed through the Jardin des Plantes. It is a world of wonders. I decided I could not afford the zoo, but at the northeastern corner of the park, I spotted bones, massive quantities and sizes, through the windows of an ancient building whose exterior embellishments are currently held in place by netting. It is of course part of the Museum national d’histoire naturelle: the paleontology and comparative anatomy galleries. I could afford that one, especially with the promise of all those huge bones.
The glory of this display — three floors of bones and stones and expository posters on the walls — is that it is a museum of a museum. These exhibits are old — over a century (though in Europe, what’s that?) — and they celebrate the history of paleontology and comparative anatomy, with tributes to these sciences’ creators and greatest French contributors. This part of the museum was the brainchild of Albert Gaudry, French promoter of the theory of evolution and passionate about teaching the wonders of the anatomical universe. The lovely building, with its luminous main chamber lit by sunlight through immense windows, was constructed and its contents organized in 1898 in preparation for the Universal Exposition of 1900. This is not a modern museum. This is a museum for historians of science and kids who love bones — particularly dinosaur bones. The specimens are fairly well preserved, but from the elaborate wrap-around balconies one could spot dust on the largest and most inaccessible dinosaurs’ heads.
There are not just dinosaur bones. There are bird bones, fish bones, snake bones, whale bones, mammal bones, gorilla and chimp bones, and human bones. There is a glass case of a chimp that was dissected to examine its guts. I’m writing this, even though I suspect this was vivisection, and I did not have the energy to be fully horrified this morning — I hurried on. I did think a bit about the nature, really the changing nature, of scientific curiosity and the scientist’s mission (I do, after all, have the honor of sharing an academic department with several of the world’s foremost historians of this sort of thing).
The dinosaurs are radiant and imposing, on a second level lit through the glass ceiling.
On to Bercy, where I had been promised a photographic exhibition that I was not at all sure I would find. Et voila! I found both Bercy Village, a miracle of a modern shopping center, and the photos, splayed out along the passageways (passages) of the Village.
Italian photographers Alessandro Albert and Paolo Verzone, who have worked as a team for several decades, created large scale portraits of European bathers in 1994.. They worked in black and white with a 4×5 view camera, visiting beaches in England, Sweden, Italy, Romania, France, Latvia, and Spain. They waited until they saw an interesting individual or group, then approached them and negotiated the shot. The resulting photographs rested for some years, until a publisher offered to put out a book in 2002.
The photographs on display at Bercy Village are poster sized. A handful is hung in each of the passages. Each cluster is beautifully arranged. The funniest and most provocative pairing is of two children from Brighton, England, each with face painted and clutching a stuffed animal, at one end of a wall anchored by a pair of Romanian lads holding, believe it or not, live leopard kittens.
The photographers’ agency, Agence VU’, is unusually protective of its clients’ intellectual property, and I had a heck of a time finding the image I’ve reproduced above. Fortunately, that photo as reproduced is fairly high quality, and can stand in for the collection in terms of its impact. A few more photos are available in a revolving slide show on the lengthy Bercy Village explanation of the exhibit, here: http://www.bercyvillage.com/Exposition-de-photographies.html. If that doesn’t pop up for you, try searching the photographers’ names. This exhibit was easy to find in life but has been much harder to trace online.
To put the exhibit in its environment, here is a snapshot of one of the photos, and the exhibit panel, behind a group of children.
It seems to me that more than usual with skin shots, whether these photos are erotically charged is very much in the viewer’s mind. Bathing wear and bathing conventions over the last few centuries have in many ways been walled off from western societies’ usual rules and prohibitions concerning body display, and this applies also I think to individuals’ conditioned responses to people in bathing suits. I find this odd and endlessly interesting. The photographers’ subjects are above all beautiful — oh, I know, what kind of word is that for a critic to use? I mean that they are sublime even in their near-naked vulnerability. I don’t think this is just because they are huge in this incarnation. One effect of using black and white is to fade out blemishes and cosmetic imperfections (you see that one can’t even tell what’s on that funny little boy’s face, above — one assumes that it is not blood). Another decision that glorifies the subjects is using expressions that are serious, provocative, defiant, attentive:: that in short allow the subjects their dignity and authenticity. Their dignity extends in this exhibit to their bodies, offered up for the world to see, and very much attached to and integrated with the souls that shine through the faces.
The exhibit reminded me of one that I stumbled upon last September, on my first visit to the Maison Europeenne de la Photographie, here in Paris. That was an extensive and multipart exhibit of Claude Nori’s work, both as a founder of Contrejour, a photography journal (that in photographic terms translates to Backlight in English), and as a photographer in his own right. For me the most exciting part of the exhibit was his photos of family and friends in Biarritz and other southern locales, getting sunburned and sandy, drinking, eating, relaxing, kissing,wearing little and mugging for the camera.He calls these photos his “photobiography of happiness.”
The same hunger for knowledge of each other and other creatures — same and different — sparks our fascination with bones (the mysterious inside) and our rapt contemplation of skin (the riveting, exciting, provocative outside). It’s also possible to argue that looking at each other’s unclothed outsides is rather different from looking at each other playing, walking, eating, and talking on the street, as Alecio de Andrade did with the residents of the Marais (see my previous blog entry). More soon!