From February 18th to July 3rd, 2022, an exciting and thought-provoking exhibition entitled “Henri Cartier Bresson. China 1948-49 | 1958” is open in Italy for the first time in the spaces of MUDEC, the Milan Cultural Museum.
An exceptional body of photographs and archival documents by the French photojournalist will be put on display to the general public. It will feature over 100 original prints along with publications from period magazines, documents. There will also be letters from the collection of the HCB Foundation, a Parisian art gallery.
The itinerary, curated by Michel Frizot and Ying-Lung Su, recounts two key moments in the history of China. The first is the fall of the Kuomintang and the establishment of the Communist regime which took place between 1948-1949, and the second is Mao Zedong’s “Great Leap Forward” which occurred in 1958.
Unique authentic works by Cartier Bresson
Cartier Bresson’s works are characterized by realism and immediacy. They represent a search for harmony in a spontaneous and unrepeatable moment by the continuous observation of the human being who relates to their surroundings.
The purpose of the photographs is not only to tell a story, but to also capture a moment and make it eternal. It truly is an extension of the photographer’s eye, showing how they see the world.
For added versatility in the shooting process, Leica cameras are Bresson’s favorites in this collection, as they allowed him to shoot as he liked – quickly and inconspicuously, capturing the subject in all its natural mobility.
A strenuous opponent of staged photos, he always prefers closeness, in search of what he loved to call ‘the decisive moment’. The monotone nature of the images also veers in this direction, adding an emotional element of abstraction from reality, capable of highlighting form and substance.
This is an important moment in the history of world photojournalism, experienced through the personal approach of Cartier Bresson. He was the first to highlight through the eye of his lens important themes of change in contemporary Chinese history.
He succeeded in presenting the Western world with unforeseen aspects as well, hidden from the regime’s propaganda, such as the exploitation of human resources and the omnipresence of militias.
A Life-Changing Commission
On November 25th, 1948, Life magazine commissioned Henri Cartier Bresson to report on the last days of Beijing before the arrival of Mao’s troops. The planned two-week stay actually lasted for ten months, mainly in the Shanghai area, where Cartier Bresson took hundreds of photographs.
He documented the fall of Nanjing which was ruled by the Kuomintang, but he then found himself forced to stay for many months in Shanghai, controlled by the Communist Party. He finally left the country a few days before the proclamation of the People’s Republic of China which occurred on 1st October, 1949.
Over the following months, his account of the traditional Chinese lifestyle and of the establishment of a new regime was met with great success on the pages of Life Magazine and other major international magazines, including the newly founded Paris Match.
Cartier Bresson’s long stay in China marks a turning point in the history of photojournalism. The Magnum Photos agency had been founded, with the participation of Cartier-Bresson himself, 18 months earlier in New York.
The Chinese coverage proposed a new style which was less linked to events but more poetic and detached. Many of these images are still among the most famous in the history of world photography.
Starting from the 1950s, following the ‘China 1948-49’ photo collection, Cartier Bresson became one of the leading names in photojournalism and played a key role in the renewal of photography. The volumes ‘The Decisive Moment’ (Verve, 1952) and ‘D’une Chine à l’autre’ (Delpire, 1954), with a preface by Jean-Paul Sartre, confirm this.
A display of the humanist photography of China, in Milan
In 1958, around the tenth anniversary of that first report, Cartier Bresson set off again for four months, accompanied by a guide. He traveled thousands of kilometers in China to visit selected places such as steel complexes, large dams under construction, oil wells, rural model villages on the trail of the Great Leap Forward.
Here he documented the results of the Revolution and the forced industrialization of rural regions. He managed to capture the less positive aspects including the exploitation of human labor, military control, the omnipresence of propaganda.
Once again, the collection of images contained in ‘China 1958’ enjoyed great editorial success, with publications scheduled on an international scale during the first week of January 1959. It was supported by the reputation of the author and the expertise of Magnum, marking the image of the Mao’s China up to the 1970s.
Cartier Bresson was one of the most important exponents of the so-called humanist photography.