Henri Cartier-Bresson, ‘Cuba’, 1934, Phillips

From the Catalogue:
Henri Cartier-Bresson visited Cuba only briefly in 1934 while spending the year in Mexico, having signed up as a photographer for a failed expedition to map out a Pan-American highway. The year prior to his visit marked the beginning of decades of social and political upheaval in Cuba. In 1933 the populist Provisional Revolutionary Government, which had overthrown the President, had, among other things, brought about women’s suffrage and desperately needed labor reforms. However, in early 1934, not long before Cartier-Bresson would have arrived in Cuba, the Provisional Government was overthrown by a coalition of right-wing insurgents supported by the military. Yet in the present lot, Cuba, 1934, the photographer evades a direct political engagement with the nation’s momentous upheaval, instead, employing a surrealism that speaks volumes about what had been lost.

Nearly absent of any human presence, the derelict carousel, crumbling walls, and littered field are simultaneous signs of a socially conscious ethos and Surrealist eye. “Surrealism has had a profound effect on me,” Cartier-Bresson stated, “and all my life I have done my utmost never to betray it." That this particular image survived the photographer’s stringent editing just prior to the Second World War, when he disposed of a good number of negatives, is significant. The image stands as a striking combination of both Cartier-Bresson’s larger body of work during the 1930s that focused on the public lives of the poor in Europe and Latin America, as well as his personal interest in Surrealism.

The present lot belonged to critic, historian and author Ben Maddow, a gift from the photographer, whom he met in New York in 1935 through a leftist filmmaking group, Nykino that was led, in part, by Paul Strand. Maddow reviewed Cartier-Bresson’s seminal 1947 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art for The Photo League Bulletin, writing of his work that “time is dissected here by the shutter of his Leica as if by the sectioning knife in a biological laboratory. It is the freezing, the preservation of the second that otherwise decays so easily. But in this process, the slice through time becomes enlarged, becomes gigantic in its human implications.”

Some sixty years following, this print was sent to Cartier-Bresson for his signature. When returned, it featured more than a simple signature, but rather an extensive inscription on the verso, which, among other things, noted that Cartier-Bresson had given other prints of the image to the cultural luminaries Beaumont Newhall, Julien Levy and Lincoln Kirsten. He further remarked on the print’s rarity: “A real ‘vintage’, one of the few I printed myself at the time.”
Courtesy of Phillips

Signature: Signed, titled, dated and annotated "a real 'vintage' / one of the few I printed myself at the time. The others were given to Lincoln Kirstein, Julian [sic]Levy, Beaumont Newhall and few others (Ben Maddow) / (a part of the) I have a thick book of all these prints hidden in my possesion [sic] / all the other so called 'vintage' are press pictures etc... never looked at. Henri Cartier-Bresson 15.11.1994" in pencil on the verso.

Galassi, Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Early Work, p. 122

From the artist to Ben Maddow
Private Collection, California
Phillips de Pury & Company, New York, 18 October 2006, lot 9
Private Collection, London

About Henri Cartier-Bresson

Upon picking up a Leica camera in the early 1930s, Henri Cartier-Bresson fell in love with the spontaneity of photography and went on to pioneer photojournalism. MoMA credits his “uncanny ability to capture life on the run” with helping to define the creative potential of modern photography and lauds him as “the keenest observer of the global theater of human affairs.” Taking pride in capturing “the decisive moment,“ Cartier-Bresson intimately captured portraits and scenes, both mundane and historic, around the world. In 1947, he formed Magnum Photos, a photography cooperative, with Robert Capa and others. Over the ensuing three decades, assignments took him from Ghandi’s funeral in India, to the chaotic streets of Shanghai during China’s Communist revolution, to Queen Charlotte’s elegant ball in London. “To take a photograph is to align the head, the eye and the heart. It's a way of life,” he said.

French, 1908-2004, Chanteloup, France