Certificates of Presence

June 5, 2024By Heidi EllisonDaytrips From Paris, Exhibitions
"64 T-29 Philadelphia" (1964), by Ray K. Metzker. Estate of Sondra Gilman. © Estate of Ray K. Metzker,Courtesy Les Douches la Galerie, Paris
“64 T-29 Philadelphia” (1964), by Ray K. Metzker. Estate of Sondra Gilman. © Estate of Ray K. Metzker, Courtesy Les Douches la Galerie, Paris

We have already sung the praises of the Maison Caillebotte, the family home of Impressionist painter Gustav Caillebotte, on Paris Update, and now we have a new reason to return to one of our favorite bucolic escapes from the jungle urbaine of Paris: the estate’s summer program of exhibitions, notably “Presences,” a selection of 140 photographs from the collection of an American couple, the late patron of the arts Sondra Gilman (1926-2021) and her husband, a retired lawyer, Celso Gonzalez-Falla, both of them photo enthusiasts who together built an impressive collection of nearly 1,500 images. The exhibition’s title refers to a quote from Roland Barthes – “Every photograph is a certificate of presence” – an excellent choice for this selection of powerful and poetic images.

Most of the shutterbugs’ names will be intimately familiar to anyone with a strong interest in photography, but what makes this show worth seeing is that many of the images are not well known. The very first picture the couple bought together in 1987, by Robert Mapplethorpe, for example, was not one of his notorious nudes, but a striking portrait of dancer Bill T. Jones in a Nijinsky-like pose. Mapplethorpe’s portrait of a serious Gilman with a bouffant hairdo, which she was not particularly fond of, according to her husband, is also on display, as are Andy Warhol’s pictures of a livelier Gilman with a big smile.

"Sir John Herschel" (1867), by Julia Margaret Cameron. Estate of Sondra Gilman
“Sir John Herschel” (1867), by Julia Margaret Cameron. Estate of Sondra Gilman

The show, arranged by theme, includes a multitude of gems of mostly 20th- and 21st-century photography, with the occasional outlier, such as Julia Margaret Cameron’s moving 1867 portrait of a craggy-faced Sir John Herschel. Art Kane’s 1958 portrait of Louis Armstrong in Death Valley surprises by showing its usually ebullient, grinning subject in profile, quietly contemplating the desert from a lawn chair.

Weegee (Arthur Fellig), best known for his raw black-and-white photos of murder victims in the streets of 1930s and ’40s New York City, is represented instead by two images of crowd scenes, one of joyous revelers at nightclub Sammy’s c. 1950 and another of an uncountable horde, all facing his camera, on the beach at Coney Island in 1949.

The collection’s photos, at least the ones shown in this selection, share a strong feeling of compassion for their subjects. In Roman Vishniac’s “The Only Flowers of Her Youth, Warsaw” (c. 1939), a big-eyed, thin-faced little girl stares at the camera from amid rumpled bedding in front of a wall painted with flowers by her artist father, who confined her to bed in winter because she didn’t have any shoes to wear. It wasn’t long before all the residents of the Warsaw Ghetto were imprisoned there and eventually sent to extermination camps by the Gestapo.

Humor is not missing from the collection, however. One example is Robert Doisneau’s famous “Sidelong Glance, Romi’s Shop Window, Paris” (1948), in which Madame admires a painting in a shop window while her husband’s eyes stray to the right to admire instead the buttocks of a nude woman in another painting.

One photographer’s vision of America: "C.J.S. 15" (2016), by Laurent Elie Badessi. Celso Gonzalez-Falla Collection © Laurent Elie Badessi
One photographer’s vision of America: “C.J.S. 15” (2016), by Laurent Elie Badessi. Celso Gonzalez-Falla Collection © Laurent Elie Badessi

Finally, the haunting loveliness of the portrait on the exhibition’s poster, Luis González-Palma’s “Between Roots and Air” (1996-97) is alone worth the prices of admission.

The exhibition “Presences” is an excellent reason to go to the Caillebotte estate and should not be missed, but there are plenty of other attractions for a day out. A show of photos, “A Luminous World,” by Béatrice Helg is on display until June 23 in the Orangerie and will be followed by “Encres: Tisseur d’Ombres” (June 29-October 6), an exhibition of works by Ofer Josef.

Ducks napping on a sculpture in the Maison Caillebotte’s park.
Ducks napping on a sculpture in the Maison Caillebotte’s park.

Meanwhile, all the features of the beautiful park are there to enjoy: among them the restored and redecorated Caillebotte family home, where a small exhibition called “150 Years of Impressionism” is currently on show. Rowboats are available to rent for excursions on the river, and the impressive potager (kitchen garden) should be visited if open. Not the least of the attractions is the restaurant/tea room Café Gustave, whose current chef, Emely Rincon, is outdoing herself with topnotch bistronomic dishes.

Click here for more information about the estate. 


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