Lartigue Beach Home
Most artists seek immortality through their work. Perhaps no photographer was more aware of the fleeting nature of life and its pleasures—and the difficulties of capturing its memorable qualities for posterity—than the ‘amateur’ shutterbug, Jacques Henri Lartigue (1894-1986). Although Lartigue was acknowledged by the Museum of Modern Art in New York with a 1963 retrospective, he remained unrecognised by his French compatriots until an exhibition at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in 1975, while this is the first Spanish show of his work.
During his affluent youth, Lartigue embraced the exciting technological advances of the early 20th century, from racecars to biplanes. He was afforded intimate looks at skaters in Chamonix, skiers in St. Moritz and swimmers in Biarritz and Nice. But his world is not one of staid dilettantes. Instead his subjects levitate down a stairway in Paris; they pirouette in the air over breaking waves; and they appear as ghostly multiple images of themselves.
“Since my youth,” Lartigue wrote, “I have been plagued by a kind of illness. All of the things that fascinate me disappear without my being able to hold onto them sufficiently in my memory.” Blurred figures of people and dogs sail through the air, most effectively presented as 3D stereopticons. Crisp stop-action shots freeze a racing athlete during the split-second thrill of the moment. His palette is a resolute black and white, although he did experiment with colour for a few years.
Lartigue was a compulsive record-keeper who wrote tidy daily notes about his life and work throughout his long career. The archivists of Lartigue’s work are thus given the gift of being able to pinpoint the date and location of an image as abstract as two seagulls gliding against a grey sky.
Several decades of work appear to be missing from the exhibition, after the viewer has examined hundreds of photos that represent Lartigue’s most fervent creativity in the Twenties and Thirties. But a poignant epilogue to the life of the man who tried to grasp the ephemeral appears on the last wall of the exhibition, where two 1980 self-portraits from his old age hang quietly. In each, a silhouetted form appears on the ground where the shape of the photographer’s own body has blocked the sun. He titled them, While I still have a shadow.
Will gave this show four out of five stars.