The Familiar and the Exotic, Last Chance to See, Diane Arbus, Jeu de Paume, Paris

The Familiar and the Exotic, Last Chance to See, Diane Arbus, Jeu de Paume, Paris

Text by Matt Swain

Diane Arbus (1923-1971)revolutionised the art she practised. Her bold subject matter and photographic approach produced a body of work that is often shocking in its purity, in its steadfast celebration of things as they are. Her gift for rendering strong those things we consider most familiar, and for uncovering the familiar within the exotic, enlarges our understanding of ourselves. In this first major retrospective in France, a selection of 200 photographs allows the viewer the opportunity to explore the origins, scope and aspirations of a wholly originally force in photography. It includes all of the artist’s iconic photographs as well as many that have not been publicly exhibited.

The photographs are not arranged chronologically or thematically. Rather, they are presented singularly, accompanied only by the artist’s own titles, giving the spectator an individual experience of each image. There is richness and abundance of work here that serves to demonstrate the wealth of source material Arbus surrounded herself with, both geographically and culturally, particularly in New York. Arbus focused on deviant and marginal figures, turning them into extraordinary people through her distinctive black and white photographs; a hidden world unmasked.

Arbus’ work represents things as they are with striking boldness and purity; couples, children, carnival performers, nudists, transvestites, eccentrics and celebrities are all shown within the prism of their own world, demonstrating Arbus’ unique sensibility with regard to posture and light. A family one evening in a nudist camp, Pa., 1965 shows two females and a male seemingly oblivious to anything other than their own experience. Boy with a straw hat waiting to march in a pro-war parade, N.Y.C, 1967 is one of Arbus’ more iconic works and is immediately recognisable in its simplicity. With an American flag at his side, the boy wears a bow tie and button badges with war-slogans, eliciting both sympathy and understanding.

In other works, there is a darker, underlying mystique. Female impersonator putting on lipstick, N.Y.C, 1959 possesses a sparse, morose serenity in direct contrast to the implied faux glamour one is led to imagine would follow and in viewing A Puerto Rican housewife, N.Y.C, 1963; you are left with the distinct impression that there is something beyond the surface we know nothing about. Similarly, A young man in curlers on West 20th Street, N.Y.C, 1966 continues the female impersonator series. Again, it is the implied suggestion that there is another world beyond the veneer that gives this such an integral sense of connectivity.

Location is a significant component of a number of works. Rocks on wheels, Disneyland, CA, 1962, shows industry amidst the Californian landscape, whilst Couple on a pier, N.Y.C, 1963, reveals the tenderness of lovers, listening to a radio, unfettered by the outside world. A very thin man in central park, N.Y.C, 1961, needs little explanation yet possesses a powerful, other-worldly presence.

There are moments of humour, such as in Santas at the Santa Claus School, Albion, NY, 1964, and the Christmas theme is repeated in Xmas tree in a living room in Levittown, LI, 1963, a delightful picture of domestic festivity. Arbus focused on celebrities too and both Susan Sontag and Norman Mailer are represented here. There is also a self-portrait, Self portrait, pregnant, 1945, which shows Arbus in a bedroom. However, it is the unknown figures, those on the fringes of society and with their own very personal story to tell that occupy the most emotive moments in Arbus’ work. Whether that is because we are aware of her friendships with so many of these people, or because we cannot avert our gaze, acknowledging that we are voyeurs looking in at something personal remains open to debate.

Almost without exception, all of the works feel like a personal encounter where you are engaging directly with the subject. This is the beauty and the mystery Arbus gives to us. A secret intimacy that the whole world is able to see, but with a parallel sense of never quite knowing the absolute truth. As Arbus herself once stated; “A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells the less you know.”

Diane Arbus, 18/10/2011 – 05/02/2012, Jeu de Paume, 1 Place de la Concorde, 75008 Paris.


Aesthetica in Print
If you only read Aesthetica online, you’re missing out. The February/March issue of Aesthetica is out now and offers a diverse range of features from an examination of the diversity and complexity of art produced during the tumultuous decade of the 1980s in Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s, opening 11 February at MCA Chiacgo, a photographic presentation of the Irish Museum of Modern Art‘s latest opening, Conversations: Photography from the Bank of America Collection. Plus, we recount the story of British design in relation to a comprehensive exhibition opening this spring at the V&A.

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All images © The Estate of Diane Arbus LLC, New York