Henri Cartier-Bresson
French 1908–2004

The 1930s was a period of social, political and economic turmoil in France. From 1931 onwards the country keenly felt the global depression as both unemployment and inflation grew. It was also a time that saw an increase in extremist politics, with both fascists and communists on the ascendancy. Like many young intellectuals and artists in the 1930s, Henri Cartier-Bresson became engaged with left-wing politics. He was introduced to avant-garde art and radical politics through his association with the Surrealist artists André Breton, Louis Aragon and Paul Éluard. The Surrealists advocated both cultural and political revolution, and the young Cartier-Bresson’s political beliefs were profoundly influenced by them. In 1933 he attended meetings of the Association des Écrivains et Artistes Revolutionnaires (the Association of Revolutionary Writers and Artists), and later that year he travelled to Spain, which was in the grip of a civil war that pitted communist and fascist sympathisers against one another. In 1934 Cartier-Bresson went to Mexico. At the time the country was under a revolutionary Marxist government and left-wing intellectuals and artists from around the world were drawn there. Here Cartier-Bresson associated with artists in the circle of Diego Rivera, many of who were outspoken and sometimes radical communists. Twelve months later he was in New York and once again situated himself with left-wing radicals. Cartier-Bresson was openly a communist sympathiser and in New York became a more active radical. His friend and colleague Willard van Dyke described him as ‘not only an intellectual, but a maverick, [who] used to go down to Wall Street so he could find a Rolls Royce or a Cadillac to spit on’.

The photographs made by Cartier-Bresson in the 1930s were profoundly influenced by the role of politics and activism in his life. He returned to France in 1936 and began to work for the Paris-based communist press, producing photo-essays for the magazines Ce soir and Regards. As a photojournalist he had less editorial control over his work; he photographed to the briefs of his editors and the ideology they supported. For Ce Soir he was employed to cover political gatherings in Paris, but for Regards his editors commissioned him to document the social outcomes for working people that were only possible under left-wing governments. In 1938 a coalition of the Communist Party and the Radical Socialist Party, known as the Popular Front, was swept into power in France. Shortly after attaining government they mandated two weeks paid leave for all workers. Cartier-Bresson was commissioned by Regards to photograph an extended series that looked at the social impact of this recent change. Juvisy, France, 1938, is part of that body of work. The work shows a group of people picnicking on the banks of the river Marne at Juvisy, a short train ride south of Paris. It captures a moment of easy camaraderie and captures the joie de vivre of relaxing with friends on a warm afternoon, sharing food and wine, and engaging in conversation. Cartier-Bresson’s subjects in this image are shown wearing working-class clothes and picnicking on an unkempt river bank, indicating their social status. Nonetheless, it is a celebratory image, showing a quintessential aspect of everyday life in France, long Sunday lunches, and at the same time illustrating contemporary social and political events.

Susan van Wyk, Senior Curator of Photography, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2016)