At the Vancouver Art Gallery until June 2
Patrick Faigenbaum’s camera lens is enquiring and eclectic. The acclaimed Parisian photographer takes on a variety of genres, from portraiture to still life and from rural landscapes to urban street scenes. His images range across ancient Roman statuary, contemporary Florentine aristocracy, German school children, Czech storefronts, French dairy farms, Sardinian religious processions, and table-top arrangements of fruits and vegetables. His subjects, some stiffly posed, others seemingly grabbed (but actually carefully chosen) from the passing parade of contemporary life, are realized in both colour and black-and-white.
Curated by Vancouver photo-artist Jeff Wall and Vancouver Art Gallery director Kathleen Bartels, the exhibition surveys some 75 of Faigenbaum’s works produced over the past 30 years. The show is meant to introduce us to an artist who has achieved considerable acclaim in Europe, but who has not been exhibited here before. Wall has written a catalogue essay that places Faigenbaum’s work within the late 20th-century assertion of photography as a high art form, on an equal footing with painting.
Indeed, as many critics and curators have remarked, the scale, framing, composition, and use of light and shadow in Faigenbaum’s photos reveal his early training as a painter. That training is most obvious in works like Jean-Pierre Rathonie, Tulle, a panorama-format colour image of the dark interior of a barn, with the farmer named in the title standing at the centre of the composition. Although this is clearly a portrait, the visual focus is not on the man but on the sunlit rumps of his cows, at the far right of the frame. Faigenbaum’s use of chiaroscuro—strongly contrasting passages of light and dark—places him in a line of “old masters”, from Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio to Georges de La Tour to Rembrandt van Rijn. Historically, this effect has been used to create drama, articulate three-dimensional form, or suggest the presence of a divine being. In Faigenbaum’s photo, chiaroscuro creates a reverential mood: the suggestion here is of holiness, even of divine calling, in the farmer’s daily life and in his connection to his livestock.
The portrait subjects here encompass family, friends, and strangers. Images include intimate shots of the artist’s aging mother in her bedroom, looking helpless and distressed (and incidentally anticipating and validating Emmanuelle Riva’s astonishing performance in the Oscar-winning film Amour). They also include formal depictions of some of Italy’s aristocratic families in their homes, appearing stiff and haughty—and occasionally vulnerable.
The history of portraiture, especially as it was used to assert the power and authority of royalty, stands behind these studies of people whose lavish settings—palazzi filled with antique paintings, tapestries, and furniture—symbolize generations of inherited privilege, but whose expressions and gestures reveal disquietude at shifting social realities. In Riario Sforza di Santo Paolo Family, Naples, taken in 1990, the distinguished-looking woman in the foreground, wearing a velvet and satin cocktail dress, holds one hand over her chest, touching her pearl necklace and suggesting a nervous uncertainty about what the camera has to say about the relationship between who she is and what she possesses.
Faigenbaum has made extended photographic studies of a number of European cities and towns, including Prague and Barcelona. In his street photographs—crowds of people streaming out of a subway, a woman holding a bunch of peonies, children playing on a suburban sidewalk—he wordlessly encapsulates Europe’s changing demographics. This is also noticeable in two related portraits of schoolgirls in Bremen, Germany, taken in 1997: one girl is blond-haired and blue-eyed with fair skin and the other is black-haired and brown-eyed with brown skin. Knowingly or not, they—and Faigenbaum’s other subjects—have collaborated with him in his depiction of the telling moment, dropped like a leaf in the stream of time.