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Bacon and Cartier-Bresson
side by side at the Hayward Gallery


By Eitaroh Arakawa

LONDON, 12 March 1998 - Henri Cartier-Bresson, founder of the seminal Magnum photographic agency, captured some of the most extraordinary images of the 20th century. The Hayward Gallery is now exhibiting 50 years of the photographer's European work alongside paintings by his friend, Francis Bacon (until 5 April). Bacon's work here focuses on the human body, and although wildly different in its approach from Cartier-Bresson, both have the supreme ability to understand and depict the drama of the human condition.

Bacon breaks down the customary barriers in his paintings of the human body: stylised almost unrecognisable biomorphic figures in tense poses amid a backdrop of bright oranges and mauves, giving them an almost cartoon-like feel. In a triptych about the death of his friend George Dyer, an everyday experience such as defecating becomes an arduous, painful and dark moment. Cartier-Bresson, on the other hand, understands humanity. His pictures are simplistic in nature, but somehow manage to convey the full range of human emotion, from simple pride and bemusement to the complex notion of patriotism: people just are. It is invariably the triumph of the "decisive moment" - a moment where light, form, composition and subject come together in an almost zen-like unity.

Henri Cartier Bresson

There is a blur to Bacon's work, almost a sense of flux between the subject and the background (sometimes black, where the viewer is not invited), which can be interpreted either as a sense of movement or some hyper-real plane where mutually exclusive events simultaneously take place. Cartier-Bresson's moments are still, but nonetheless have an incredible sense of dynamic visual balance: whether geometric - through neat, imaginary diagonals and horizontals underpinning the visual structure - or emotional - the contrasts in the human condition, for example, a person sleeping in the street while a woman passes with a strong expression of disgust. It is just such a juxtaposition, caught in an instant, that is part of the genius of Cartier-Bresson.

Henri Cartier Bresson

Bacon once said, "I've got an obssession with doing the one perfect image." He may even have done so by the time he died in 1992, as befits his status as one of the greatest British painters of the 20th century. It is fitting that his work be shown alongside that of Cartier-Bresson who began his training as an artist; although he gave up photography in 1970 to concentrate on drawing, his work is testament to his ability to capture a fleeting image.

Cartier-Bresson celebrates his 90th birthday this year, with two more exhibitions scheduled in London. Looking at his work, we wonder whether it is the historical persepctive that makes us more receptive to and perceptive about older photographs, or simply that great photographs, taken with deep empathy and understanding of the subject matter, will always be classic.

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