Arts: No, he didn't do weddings

EXHIBITIONS: Henri Cartier-Bresson is the enduring genius of photograph y. The streets of Paris, the war zones of Europe, the obscure and the great feature in his art. This year, four exhibitions mark his 90th birthday
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The Independent Culture
HENRI CARTIER-BRESSON's 90th birthday in August is marked by four London exhibitions. "Europeans" is at the Hayward Gallery. "Tete a Tete: Portraits by Henri Cartier-Bresson" has opened at the National Portrait Gallery. From 6 March we will see "Line by Line: the Drawings of Henri Cartier-Bresson" at the Royal College of Art, and we are promised a personal selection of his photographs at the V&A in November. The drawings are not to be overlooked, though one suspects that they give more satisfaction to their creator than to viewers. Still, I think this will be an essential show, if only because we wish to find out the private thoughts of a man who has contributed so much to public photography.

He is a classic, and perhaps the only true classic the art of photography has produced. Cartier-Bresson deserves this status for at least three reasons. Firstly, there is his command over so many photographic genres. He has produced documentary and photo-reportage. There have been collaborations with film-makers. In portraiture, his informal glimpses of people often turn out to be massively iconic. Cartier-Bresson has photographed war and is also the poet of peaceful lives. Great statesmen and beggars are equally his subjects. He takes pictures of major world events, yet he also delights in minor domestic detail. And Cartier-Bresson thinks globally: he seems quite as perceptive about foreign countries as he is about his native France.

Secondly, he is a classic because of that Frenchness. France is the country in which the themes and conventions of classicism are potent and long- lasting in all the visual arts. Cartier-Bresson's photography has the calmness and the ample grandeur that we associate with French painting at its highest level. His stateliness may have something to do with architecture, particularly of the 17th century. People have always compared his On the Banks of the Marne (1938) to Seurat. Walking through the Hayward, one is tempted to draw other pictorial parallels - with Ingres, for example - and we are often reminded of sculpture. Just as classic statuary is aloof, so is Cartier-Bresson. He was born into a wealthy, well-connected family. Their cultivation and social status probably helped him to observe the world as though from a disengaged height.

The third reason why Cartier-Bresson is a classic has simply to do with his dates. He began taking serious photographs around 1930 and was fully occupied with the camera until, for reasons that are not entirely clear, he gave up photography for drawing in the early 1970s. These 40 years of work place him right at the centre of the development of photography. He may even represent its maturity. As we know, the "primitives" of photography, with their cumbersome equipment and technical problems, were not less gifted than the artists of later generations. But the camera, and therefore its use, became so much more useful and flexible after Cartier-Bresson had started. He made great use of this flexibility. It enabled him to cross genres and frontiers while still classicising in a manner that, he believes, derived from his early training as a painter.

After Cartier-Bresson's career - one is tempted to call it his reign - there have been technical developments in photography, but such advances have not made photography any better. Is camerawork more of an art form because we now have colour? Obviously not. I conjecture that Cartier-Bresson may have abandoned the camera because he could not see an aesthetic future for it. In any case, the decision to spend the rest of his life trying to draw was a marvellously anti-technological gesture. Cartier-Bresson thereby acknowledged that wisdom is to be sought in one of the very earliest of thoughtful human activities. I do not think that he believes in progress. Conviction about the future is absent from his work; so much so that he is loath even to represent people in motion, unless they are quietly walking in their own streets, in purposeful activity, or unless they are engaged in banal types of labour.

These contrasts give a special emotional charge to the Hayward's "Europeans" exhibition. Here we are at the very brink of European political progress, yet Cartier-Bresson is at pains to record the ancient separateness of nations. This gives rise to Jean Clair's eloquent and agonised essay in the catalogue. I recommend this book as a reasonable substitute for the exhibition (it might be cheaper, too, once you've added up fares, admission charges, etc, as Thames and Hudson publish it at pounds 29.95).

"Europeans" does not conduct us through Cartier-Bresson's personal history, and we notice no major changes of style. Indeed, very early photographs from 1929-32 show that he was an artist of accomplishment from the beginning. He was also sophisticated without having to work for his sophistication.

In 1929 Cartier-Bresson noticed a drunken clochard lying in the street outside some public lavatories, a woman skirting round him, disgust rather than concern in her face. He saw the scene immediately, snapped it, and the result has a permanent visual rightness. No social comment is made or implied. The merit of the photograph is in its instantaneous grasp of its own composition. It appears that, ever afterwards, Cartier-Bresson could judge the design of his images in a second or less. It was his greatest gift. He never subsequently cropped photographs in the darkroom. In this way, speed of the photographer's reaction combined with an inherent preference for stability.

"Europeans" has sections devoted to France, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, the former Yugoslavia, Greece, Turkey, Romania, Hungary, Austria, West Germany, Belgium, Poland, The Netherlands, Russia, Denmark, Great Britain and Ireland. Jean Clair thinks that Cartier-Bresson might have been an excellent diplomat if he had not taken up photography. His sensitivity towards foreign cultures and manners is a wonderful attribute of these pictures. They are truthful, wry and delicate. The photographs are not concerned with causing trouble or upset. We witness hostilities and divisions. Here are people who have survived a Nazi concentration camp. We witness the liberation of Paris and the building of the Berlin wall. Bresson seems not to take sides in these matters. Perhaps his eye was too acute for his mind to be diverted by the world's politics.

What were or are his beliefs? We cannot tell. This is humanitarian photography of a most generalised nature. The slightest hint of an opinion would destroy its poise. In this way, Cartier-Bresson demonstrates yet again that he is a classic artist, beyond debate and impervious to criticism. Nowadays we quite often hear discontent about his stance. It is true that in the late 1990s we do not feel a need for his kind of photography. We are losing the taste for classicism. Cartier-Bresson is nevertheless a master, as we find in every single one of the prints in "Europeans".

If there were a chink or flaw in his marble control, his critics would find it in the portraits. The NPG exhibition "Tete a Tete" gives us pictures of people, and most importantly their faces, from the late 1940s. Mainly they are of famous people. Cartier-Bresson's portrait practice did not begin until he himself was famous, so there's rather too much celebrity in this collection. Moreover, portraits of men far outnumber those of women, and are almost always more successful.

The disappointing photographs in "Tete a Tete" are those in which we encounter some French litterateur amid domestic clutter. As the Hayward show proves, Cartier-Bresson was an out-of-doors photographer. The shot of Jean-Paul Sartre is a masterpiece. At the other end of the intellectual scale, a picture of Tony Hancock will arouse disturbing memories among those (exclusively Brits, I suppose) who remember his character. If he hadn't yet fallen down those stairs, he would do soon.

NPG, WC2 (0171 839 3321), to 7 Jun; Hayward, SE1 (0171 928 3144), to 5 Apr; RCA, SW7 (0171 590 4444), 6 Mar to 9 Apr.