A few of his most loyal friends might insist that they add up to a substantial artistic achievement, but for the rest of us it is as clear as the daylight in one of Cartier-Bresson’s sunlit photos of Madrid in the 1930s that these glum views of Paris and the miserably spread-legged nudes are repetitive, overworked, uninspired and dull. Cartier-Bresson was an exceptional achiever in one medium, and distinctly unexceptional in the other. So why did he drop the first and take up the second?
Nobody will ever be sure exactly why the great lensman abandoned photography in 1975 and devoted the rest of his life to art – to drawing and painting – but I think his main motivation was fear. Fear of failure. Fear of the next photograph. Fear of the vacuum. His fame as a photographer had grown so huge by 1975 that it had become an impossible burden for a creaky 67-year-old to lug around with him. So he abandoned it. Just like that. Like a pensioner dropping a coal sack.
To understand his motivation you need to remember how famous he was by then. His 50-year career as a photographer coincided with some of the most tumultuous global events that humans have had to survive. By general consensus he was the creator of photojournalism, and in a century that threw up as much extravagant and photogenic news as the 20th, that was a really big deal. His pics of the liberation of Paris, or his scarily timely presence in India at the death of Gandhi, those views of China at the moment of the Maoist victory, impacted not just on the history of photography but on history, full stop. Cartier-Bresson, with that famous portable Leica, was a chief witness to the making of the century.
But if that were all he was, his burden may never have grown intolerable. Nobody would have expected this frail Parisian pensioner to continue yomping around the world’s faraway hot spots in his seventies and eighties, seeking those famously decisive international moments of his. He could have stayed in Paris and found plenty around him to record and enjoy. His predicament was, however, that by 1975 he had become something even more debilitating than the father of photojournalism. He was, in so many people’s eyes, the greatest photographer there ever was.
It’s often said of great sportsmen that they seem to have more time on their hands than anyone else. It was certainly true of Cartier-Bresson. His best photographs may have been taken briskly, on the run (“an agitated dragonfly” was how Truman Capote described him in action), but they never looked as if they were. They had poise. They were perfectly composed. They seemed always to have time to notice the amusing or charming detail. Others went to the same places he went to, but they could not return with images that seemed to encapsulate the moment as precisely as his did. Cartier-Bresson was to photography what Muhammad Ali was to boxing or Pelé was to football. Many considered him unimprovable-on.
I’m dwelling on this burden of his to explain why his drawings are as feeble as they are. When he gave up photography and took up art, he seemed to shift his creativity into reverse and send it chugging ponderously into the opposite direction to the one it had been following for 50 years. Everything he was good at as a photographer, he was bad at as an artist. It was as if, once he hit the pension age, all his strengths metamorphosed into weaknesses.
In his photographic prime he was notorious for walking the streets of whatever city he was in for hour after hour, corner after corner, 10, 15, 20 kilometres a day, every day, restlessly searching for that split second of revelation. This extraordinary restlessness also took him to city after city, country after country, making him the most inveterate of the travelling photojournalists. Mexico. India. China. Africa. Cartier-Bresson noticed wonderful things in all of them. But when he gave up photography his fascination with the rest of the world seemed abruptly to disappear.
He had originally trained as a painter in Paris in the 1920s, and would later claim that art, not photography, had always been his first love. For his last 30 years he lived in a flat on the Rue de Rivoli, just opposite the Louvre, and he liked to draw the city from his window: the unmistakable outline of the Louvre; the Gare d’Orsay (which is now the Musée d’Orsay) on the other side of the Seine; the Tuileries gardens with that hot, dusty geometry of theirs. This is Paris at its most stereotypical. It’s like someone coming over to London and drawing nothing but Big Ben and Buckingham Palace. Cartier-Bresson hasn’t so much taken up a viewpoint before it as cemented himself in front of it in an immovable position.
Just as unfathomable as his refusal to shift his position is the fuzziness of these drawings, that sense they have of 10 lines being used where only one is needed. As a photographer, Cartier-Bresson was notorious for his precision. Working only in black and white, his pictures had a crispness and clarity to them. A sense of being exactly right. He refused to allow a single image to be cropped or altered. It was perfect as it was. In his drawings, however, the pencil goes round and round, backwards and forwards, scrub, scrub, scrub, as if it didn’t have a clue where to go next. Paul Klee once described drawing as “taking a line for a walk”. Cartier-Bresson is like a man with a large pack of beagles, all pulling in different directions.
His most famous collection of photographs was published in 1952 and called The Decisive Moment, because that is what it seemed to present us with: scores of decisive moments in which a scene was exactly right. This newly unveiled collection of his drawings may, on the other hand, be called The Indecisive Moment.