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When Photography Came of Age in Paris

Works displayed at the McMullen Museum’s “Paris Night & Day” exhibition – like “Lovers, Bal Musette des Quatre Saisons, rue de Lappe” – show the groundbreaking photography of post-World War I Paris.

By Rosanne Pellegrini | Chronicle Staff

Published: January 30, 2014

An upcoming exclusive exhibition at the McMullen Museum of Art will present photographic masterpieces of post-World War I Paris, defining a moment when photography came into its own.

“Paris Night & Day: Photography between the Wars,” on display from Feb. 15 through June 8, focuses on the period between 1918 and 1939, when Paris drew an extensive international community of artists and writers who fueled each other’s creativity to produce one of the richest cultural moments of the 20th century. In a city where social and artistic hierarchies were unsettled by the war, photographers played a central role in recording and defining a new vision of modern life.

A free opening reception for Boston College community members and the public will take place Feb. 17 from 7-9:30 p.m. in Devlin 101.

Comprising some 100 works, the images in “Paris Night & Day” show how groundbreaking photographers – including Man Ray, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Jacques-Henri Lartigue, Ilse Bing, André Kertész, Bill Brandt, Lisette Model, Dora Maar and Brassaï – represented modern subjects in sometimes startling new ways and captured Paris at its most romantic and most sinister.

Originally organized by art2art Circulating Exhibitions, the McMullen display of “Paris Night & Day” is curated by Fine Arts faculty member Ash Anderson, who organized this exhibition in conjunction with his Art History course, Photography in Paris 1900–1945. Anderson used the exhibition photographs in the class as a starting point for in-depth exploration of the ideas and innovations they represent, and his students contributed label texts for “Paris Night & Day.”

“The McMullen is pleased to present the research undertaken by Ash Anderson and his students on the superb photographs from the collection of Michael Mattis and Judith Hochberg,” says McMullen Museum Director and Professor of Art History Nancy Netzer. “The collection includes several master prints: the best examples of well-known and celebrated 20th-century photographs.”

With new equipment capable of capturing images on the fly, many post-World War I photographers recorded the theater of Parisian streets with unprecedented freedom and spontaneity. To distance themselves from painting, and to define uniquely photographic compositions, they introduced unexpected angles and perspectives into their work.

Others photographed the city at night, in the bars, dancehalls, and theaters that were the province of the city’s demimonde — those who lived a flagrant lifestyle. Still others abandoned the street to remain in the studio and darkroom, where they used new photographic techniques to produce imagery that bordered on the abstract and distanced their photographic practice from the medium’s traditional association with the documentary.

In the process they created masterpieces of 20th-century photography, many of which are represented in the exhibition. The display also includes a group of earlier photographs of Paris by Eugène Atget, Edouard Baldus and others, as well as selections from the museum’s permanent collection and local private collections.

“‘Paris Night & Day’ offers the rare opportunity to consider both canonical and rarely seen photographs from this unusually rich period in the history of photography,” says Anderson. “These pictures illustrate a complex evolution in the ways photographers defined themselves in relation to art. We see them simultaneously looking to photography’s past for inspiration and playfully testing the limits of their medium. We are delighted to feature some exceptionally beautiful examples of these photographs.”

This period, he adds, “is one in which photographers took real risks in their effort to produce modern images. In the wake of World War I they had an opportunity to break away from tradition and redefine photography’s relationship to art, and they did so with a combination of enthusiasm and endless experimentation.”

The exhibition is underwritten by Boston College, the Patrons of the McMullen Museum, and the Newton College Class of 1964. Free docent-led tours will be available every Sunday at 2 p.m. starting Feb. 24; tours also can arranged upon request by calling (617)552-8587. For more information on the exhibition or the museum, see