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Académie des Beaux Arts : Bruno Barbey’s Tribute to Italy


At the Pavillon Comtesse de Caen in Paris, the Académie des Beaux-Arts is exhibiting the first photographic series of Franco-Swiss reporter Bruno Barbey, The Italians. It’s a tribute to this pillar of the Magnum photos agency who died in 2020. He is one of the few photographers to have been elected to the Institut de France, where a section dedicated to the eighth art was created in 2006.

Bruno Barbey was just 21 when he decided to photograph Italy. He had in mind the images of neo-realist cinema, which fascinated him. But it was 1962. Italy, in the midst of its miracolo economico, had entered the modern era and its social life was in upheaval. An era of prosperity reigned over the country, superbly immortalised by Fellini in his Dolce Vita and which the photojournalist was one of the first to capture.

Over the course of four years, Bruno Barbey travelled the country in search of “characters who could show the reality of the times, rather like characters in a modern Commedia dell’arte”. Some sixty prints from this journey, personally chosen by the photographer, are on show in the exhibition. We discover that the master of colour was just as adept at using black and white, while his street photographs, for the most part, already reveal the elegant presence of his humanist eye.

The strength of this series lies partly in the look in those ebony eyes that Bruno Barbey captured with the greatest finesse. His lens focuses on all classes of society, bringing together in his images beggars and aristocrats, prostitutes and nuns, street boys and nuns. All animated by an art of living of which only Italy has the secret, and whose pleasures many are rediscovering after difficult decades.

The reporter took a tender but lucid look at the post-war transitions, showing in particular the social inequalities that resisted the economic boom: “what was striking was not the economic development but the great poverty that could still be seen, especially in the south”. At Milan station, a Sicilian immigrant is seen with his cardboard suitcases held together with pieces of string.

The two curators of this exhibition, Caroline Thiénot-Barbey and Jean-Luc Monterosso, have opted for a non-chronological layout, to embody what Bruno Barbey described as “an emotional journey, in the image of a country whose fantasy defies methodology”. The result is a powerful collective portrait, in which each character is an archetype of this incandescent country, and each snapshot becomes an icon.


Practical information

Bruno Barbey – The Italians
From 11/05/2023to 02/07/2023
Curators: Caroline Thiénot-Barbey and Jean-Luc Monterosso
Academy of Fine Arts
Pavillon Comtesse de Caen
27 quai de Conti – Paris 6
Free admission, Tuesday to Sunday, 11am – 6pm
Further information on the website.

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