Lenin at Versailles

When, in 1968, the photographs of his report in East Germany were hung for the first time in Montreuil (Seine-Saint-Denis), the reception of critics and French cultural institutions was mixed, to put it mildly. fresh. His subject wanders through the communist and socialist cities of France, but when the exhibition is refused at the BnF, Willy Ronis quickly understands that this work will never be shown in Paris as he so wanted. For Nathalie Neumann, co-curator of the exhibition, “It is also a form of rehabilitation of this work, which has slept too long in the drawers”.

We have to go back to the political context of the time. Europe is cut in two: the communist bloc on one side and the capitalist West on the other. The Cold War is in full swing, antagonisms are intensifying and two visions of the world openly clash. Germany suffers the throes of the separation between FRG and GDR. Willy Ronis, who has never hidden his proximity to the French Communist Party, goes in 1967, at the invitation of the EFA, a Franco-German exchange association itself under the influence of the Party, to Germany from the ‘Is to make a six-week report on everyday life.

Beyond complacency with regard to the regime, he wants, as he always has done, to place the human being at the center of the photograph. And if he is accompanied during his trip by a driver and an interpreter, who can easily be imagined supervised by the Stasi, State Security, he will sway like a tightrope walker of the image between the interdicts – not to photograph the Berlin Wall or the uniforms – and the imposed figures – it was important not to spoil the socialist ideal – to make visible the diversity of the population on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Not easy. But thanks to his talent, Ronis manages to impose his gaze and shift the subject. Sometimes all it takes is an annotation on this image of a young man listening to the radio: “A radio transistor knows no borders. ” More subtle, on this other photograph (below), a little girl already regrets the uniformity of her outfit when her gaze, so little collectivist, crosses the same summer dress on another child.

The stage is set. Documents, posters, epistolary exchanges, vintage prints, up to the detailed plan of the hanging laid out by Ronis himself, immerse us in the bath of this story. After this prelude, we leave the propaganda and large-format color photography, where the giant figure of Lenin oversees a folk scene during the 50e anniversary of the October Revolution, to get to the heart of the matter. The pivot of the whole, which is undoubtedly its success, is held in the second circular room of the chapel, where are associated photographs of his journey and other emblematic images of his production. The agreement is perfect: the drinkers of the rue des Cascades answer the sailors of Rostock and the visitors of the museums pose in front of the works in Dresden as in Paris. Through the play of correspondences and compositions, an intelligent staging invites to reweave his work in the GDR in the framework of his work and energizes the entire exhibition.

Throughout the rooms, the story fades and the photographer’s gaze settles, to our greatest happiness. Willy Ronis excels in capturing details of the lives of people of all generations, in their work, their hobbies and their free time, in the city, in the country; it captures human beings who reveal themselves, under the curious eye of the photographer, strangely similar to those of the West. It is also the great merit of this exhibition to put this work in the spotlight, at the heart of what Ronis called “The fabric of (his) life”.


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