François Jonquet, writer and art critic, on Christophe Berhault’s 25000paintings.com
GB Tell me why you chose this website.
FJ Because it gives a sense of the course of life. 25000 photos found in Berlin flea markets by a French artist, Christophe Berhault, have been digitalised, edited, put online. Like a long loop that runs infinitely somewhere out in the web-space. This piece assembles so many instants, lost moments – of joy, epiphanies and dramas. It has saved them, brought them back to life. It seems to me like a heart that beats. The rhythm of its pulse is a beat every ten seconds, the time that the photos are visible. You never know what to expect when you connect. One is immediately plunged into the intimacy of strangers, the very heart of existence, its very being. Ten seconds; it’s nothing, an impression, but it’s enough for me to sketch the start of a story: what do these eyes, this face, this body tell me about this person, the situations in which I find him or her? Sometimes Christophe Berhault does a close-up on a portion of the photo, underlines a characteristic that might have escaped me: I discover a woman and a man who, in a group, discreetly exchange a tender glance, a scared cat, a well-worn pair of shoes, a gloved hand, an ambiguous gesture…It is always tender. The landscapes, in the way in which they are framed, casual, traditional or artistic, reveal something of he or she who is behind the lens. It’s unbelievable, really, all that one can think of in ten seconds. And then it is a piece that is universally accessible, everyone can relate to it. It is fundamentally an “Art for all”, to use the slogan of Gilbert & George.
GB What drew you to the particular image you chose to represent it?
FJ On the back of the photo is written, in a clumsy, trembling hand, perhaps of someone who is crying – the ink of the last word is diluted in a liquid – “Last photo with Else February 1941” and “Damaged by bombs”. Else is the young woman with the beautiful sad gaze. This photo was found by Christophe Berhault in a box in which the history of Else and her family had been tossed, along with others. In isolating this family from the others, he noticed that she was the person who is missing from the post-war. Why did the hand, which, I imagine, is that of her mother, to Else’s left, feel the need to add: “Damaged by bombs”? Perhaps because the young woman was too, at the same time as the photo. This final image is a relic. I chose for it’s terrible beauty, its tragic beauty. Alfred N. Whitehead wrote: “ The Adventure of the Universe starts with a dream and reaps tragic beauty” (Adventures of Ideas, 1933). There is tragic beauty in the emergence of a new life from the death of the old. It is that of Mozart’s Requiem. Of crucifixions. Of the opening shots of Rossellini’s Germany, Year Zero, with its panoramas of Berlin in ruins. That of The Diary of Anne Frank. Or again of Missing House, a work by Christian Boltanski from 1990. In 1945 in the heart of Berlin, in Mitte, at 15, Grosse Hamburger Strasse, a pretty building was sliced in two by an Allied bomb. The left and right-hand sections remain and there is a void in the centre. Boltanski went looking for the people who had lived there, from 1930 to 1945. On the walls that surround the void, on the floors where the families lived, he placed plaques with the names of the Jewish inhabitants deported and exterminated, then of those who occupied their requisitioned apartments hidden under the bombs.
GB There is so much sadness here – as well as guilt and shame from people who gave away their whole family histories in pictures from the Nazi era. Does this make the project less beautiful?
FJ One finds, in the Berlin flea-markets, sometimes even in dustbins, at antique-dealers, a vast quantity of family photos. Contrary to Naples, for example, where it is ill-considered to ask an antique-dealer if he has any albums. Here when the new generations inherit of their heavy past – the Nazi era, the Wall which encumbers them, they get rid of it. The 25000paintings cover about a century of photos, from 1895 to 1995. Their subject-matter, travel shots set aside, is Berlin. Germany and its great question mark. With another country, the piece would have been less interesting. Because looking at these people having fun, embracing, looking after their children, reading, working – and how can one not identify with them? – one cannot help but ask the inevitable question: what megalomaniac madness caught hold of these people? How did they become so fascinated with evil, sealed into a Faustian pact, inevitably suicidal? Post war, another history begins: on the ruins a wall is built. It’s astonishing to see one people go in two different directions, even to different ways of dressing, doing their hair and make-up. By his editing, Christophe Berhault affirms his artist’s eye: he shows without avoidance or judgement. This is what makes the work so open, so moving, and beautiful.
GB Do you believe that everyone is an artist? Do you think that any picture can be art?
FJ Out of the 25000, some are magnificent. Sometimes I see ones that could be the work of great photographers: August Sander, Diane Arbus, Nan Goldin, Martin Parr. Certain group scenes remind me of Frans Hals, his family portrait in a landscape, the group of children, his officers’ banquets. Many have that pictorial dimension that gave the work its name. This is even more true when the 25000 paintings are projected. These tiny prints, apparently banal, enlarged, and shot through with light, take on a new dimension: it’s a revelation.
That said, I don’t adhere to Beuys’ notion that ‘Everyone is an artist’. Even if I love his utopian project in which education would allow everyone to discover the part of creativity that sleeps within. An artist is he who manages to transfigure mental images, ideas or sensations, and make of them an oeuvre. And that is valid for art brut, and for those such as Eugène Atget, Cartier Bresson, or Serge Gainsbourg, who do not know themselves, or consider themselves, as artists, for various reasons.
GB The photographs here are rephotographed by Christophe Berhault, so that two separate moments in time are preserved, the original picture and the moment when Christophe photographed the picture, sometimes with his reflection in it. Is this part of the appeal or would a scan of the picture be as good?
FJ This is also one of the reasons the piece is entitled 25000paintings. He considers that the act of rephotographing a photo is that of a painter. In the desire to do a close-up, to get closer to a shot, to isolate a detail, we sense him, in movement, attracted, intrigued, moved. Getting closer: it’s what we all do with a painting in a museum. We can sometimes make out Christophe’s reflection or that of his camera on the image. And then also, when he rephotographs all day long, let’s say 600 photos, the morning light isn’t the same as that in the evening. The moment of the shot adds to the moment when the photograph was taken. It gives the whole its texture, density, depth. More life still. All of that would not exist with a scanner. The result would be cold.
GB Is this variety important to you in terms of looking for beauty? We’re seeing the pictures digitally and the speed and choice is dictated to us. Is this preferable to being able to leaf through them on paper, going backwards and forwards at will?
FJ The flux in the 25000paintings reminds me of Heraclitus’ “No man ever steps in the same river twice”. It’s always the same thing and never the same thing. And its the opposite of zapping, because the whole order of these 25000 images has been thought out. It is a whole. The sense of the fleetingness of time is also born from the fact that the flux is continuous, that it escapes, that we are powerless to stop it. We feel the work to be alive when we watch it at length. It was projected in its entirety in the window of a shop in a busy street in Berlin, the Torstrasse. The window, repainted in a transparent white, became a screen where the passers-by saw the photos file past. It started on a Friday, ran night and day until the following Monday at about midday when the last of the 25000paintings appeared. And what also makes it hypnotic, addictive, is also the very idea of abundance. Such a mass of states, attitudes, situations give the illusion that we have almost gone through the whole of life. Soon, the piece will be renamed 125000paintings, the artist having felt the need to go even further. Because all this mass is vertiginous and makes sense at the same time. There is, in Christophe Berhault’s obsessive project – one can only imagine the human experience of these three years, of work in which he was traversed by so many gazes, lives, stories – the necessity to make his own the people and the city he moved to six years ago now.
GB Do you prefer the colour or the black and white images? Berhault makes an interesting point about people not paying so much attention to the composition of colour images.
FJ What I like particularly, is the passage from black and white to colour, from colour to black and white: these shortcuts project me into another sense of time. So, yes, overall the photos in black and white have globally more strength than those in colour. Perhaps also because the colour arrives with the post-war, and that the history broken by fascism and the war has an impact on the way of self-representing. “Finally, with colour, he writes, we realise more clearly that what the photos restitutes is not real, that we’re in two dimensions, flat. There are depths with black and white, an illusion of perspective, that don’t survive with colour”.
GB Do you think that beauty was one of the intentions of the artist here?
FJ Yes, most certainly. The desire to enlarge small photos, to magnify them, clearly shows a desire for beauty. Whether the photo is a good one or not is unimportant. The evocation of the mysterious past of strangers, unknown moments, unknown places: devoting all this time to the search for unknown and lost times, is to be on a quest for beauty.
GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?
FJ It’s a question I often ask myself. What, in the final instance, links the desire that is stirred by human beauty and the jubilation sparked by a masterpiece? Or by contemplating the beauty of the world? There are so many forms of beauty, which each give rise to a whole range of thought and emotion, that I am totally incapable of saying in what way they are related. If not by my own subjectivity. And the pleasure they immediately provoke.
Beauty is something, I hope, that is found in my books.