November 12, 2011

Breitner: Pioneer of Street Photography, Institut Néerlandais, Paris

Breitner: Pioneer of Street Photography
Institut Néerlandais, Paris
Through 22 January 2012

For the first time in France, the Rijksmuseum (Amsterdam), in collaboration with the Institut Néerlandais (Paris), has mounted a large retrospective exhibition of photographs taken around 1900 by the Dutch artist GEORGE HENDRIK BREITNER (1857-1923). Breitner is known mainly as a painter of cityscapes, nudes and genre studies. In the present exhibition, however, he emerges as one of the most intriguing photographers of his day, who recorded life in Amsterdam and other large cities such as Paris and Berlin in an eminently modern and personal style.


Het Kolkje and the Oudezijds Achterburgwal in Amsterdam, 1894-1898 
Rijksmuseum’s collection. Courtesy of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Precisely a century ago, it became clear that G. H. Breitner was not only a major painter but also an excellent photographer. Since then Holland has staged numerous exhibitions of his photos, but in France he is less well-known as a photographer. His photographic work has been compared to that of such well-known French contemporaries as Pierre Bonnard, Maurice Denis, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, and Eduard Vuillard. Like them, he had a penchant for city streets as well as the intimate family circle. Breitner's earliest photos probably date from 1889, a year or two after he settled in Amsterdam.

He was one of the first to explore the possibilities of the new hand-held cameras, which were easy to carry and inconspicuous. He photographed life on the streets of that dynamic city. In the approximately 30 surviving photographs taken during his various stays in Paris, we see a great many horses, which at the time dominated the street scene. In the photos featured in this exhibition, we see how Breitner 'experimented' with various photographic techniques. By photographing against the light, for example, he created powerful silhouettes. And by adopting a very  high or very low standpoint, he lent his photos an unusual perspective. Not only was he successful in evoking the vitality of a large city and the liveliness of its passers-by, he also knew how to create an alienating effect by photographing individuals  at very close quarters. Breitner was a voracious photographer, unflinching and impulsive. These qualities lend his photos an intensity that is lacking in the work of the professional photographers active in his day, who as a rule produced images that were  more static and perfunctory. Breitner broke with all the traditional rules and regulations.

BREITNER: PIONEER OF STREET PHOTOGRAPHY consists of a broad selection of photos taken by George Hendrik Breitner, mainly cityscapes and images of street life in Amsterdam. The Rijksmuseum has contributed 33 original enlargements, as well as one painting, one watercolour, two sketchbooks, and a well-worn, paint-spattered camera that belonged to Breitner. The Musée d'Orsay owns two paintings by G. H. Breitner. One of them, the early Clair de lune, is on display at the Institut Néerlandais. The exposition also features several dozen original small-format prints, as well as modern enlargements of Breitner's negatives, all on loan from the Netherlands Institute for Art History in The Hague.

121, rue de Lille -  75007 Paris, France

Since 3 November 2011 the Netherlands Institute for Art History (The Hague) has published a digital overview of the photographs of George Hendrik Breitner. For the first time, no fewer than 2,300 original photos from the Institute's own collection are now accessible to an international audience.

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