EUGENE ATGET on view at the Art Gallery of Ontario (317 Dundas West) until May 27. 416-979-0414. Rating: NNN
eugene atget's historical stature owes an enormous debt to the efforts of Berenice Abbott (see next review), the American great who met (and photographed) Atget while working as Man Ray's studio assistant in 1925. She so admired Atget's imagery that, when he died two years later, Abbott bought 1,300 of his glass plate negatives and 7,800 prints from his estate. Atget worked on spec, taking lyrically lit photographs of architecture and the architectural details of old Paris as an historical record. He sold many of them to the Musée Carnavalet, which organized this touring show, and to the Bibliothèque Nationale, as well as to builders, artists and craftsmen.
His 1925 Magasin, Avenue Des Gobelins, one of his best-known images, incorporates a reflected self-portrait in a window display of men's suits, and indicates Atget's interest in the avant-garde, as does the formalized detail of an art nouveau interior banister is the Art Gallery of Ontario's poster image for Paris Itineraries, the touring Atget show currently hosted by the gallery.
Clearly, Abbott recognized in Atget's art an inclination toward the Modernism that informed her own subsequent urban landscapes. But overall the 180-odd sepia-toned vintage prints of exquisite structures (and some crumbling slums, which are among the most interesting images on view) at the AGO reveal Atget as having been far more interested in the romance of historical Paris than in avant-garde practice.
Late 19th- and early 20th-century Paris was, after all, the place where abstract art was invented. In that context, Atget's imagery takes on a positively retro feel.