I never imagined the night I attended the opening of Les Parisiens sous l'Occupation that there would be such a brouhaha about the exhibit. (Oh, pardon me. It is now called "Des Parisiens Sous l'Occupation." Some of the Parisians, not just Parisians. )
It was abundantly clear to me, an average American, that the backdrop of the photos was Occupied France. That's the title, no? I had long wondered what daily life was like for the non-heros who survived four years of Nazi-controlled Paris.
Critics and detractors try to claim that it gives a glamorous view of a decidedly non-glamorous time in this city.
Yes, it does. That is precisely the poetic, chilling impact of the exhibit. I'm not a historian. But if you have an iota of historic background about the Occupation, you understand immediately -- and the signage accompanying the exhibit attests to it -- that these were photos taken for a Nazi propaganda magazine. (And it was crowded on opening night, so I actually viewed the exhibit in reverse, a neat trick I learned from the couple ahead of me in line. I still got the impact of the series of propaganda photos.)
The public (pardon me -- some of the public ) has apparently gotten its knickers in a twist because each photo doesn't have a caption underneath explicitly telling the horrors of the millions of people you don't see in the photo.
That's the point. The literature and signage accompanying the exhibit state that of course since Zucca worked for Signal, the Nazi propaganda magazine, there are no people wearing Yellow Stars, no images of deportees and work camps. That is precisely the haunting effect of the exhibit. I was so profoundly moved by it that the next day I went to the Musée Jean Moulin, the Museum of the Liberation of Paris.
The Mayor of Paris has taken steps to calm the tempest. An upcoming series of debates and symposia have been organized, such as "What is a photograph?" "Is the photograph a good witness to history?" "How to exhibit photography."
In my opinion the only fair criticism to launch at the curators of this exhibit, in light of all this ado: they aimed too high in assuming the intelligence of the viewers. They neglected to place warning signs at the entrance saying "Caution: do not view this exhibit if you're going to believe what you see." Or perhaps bold labels under each photo: "P-R-O-P-A-G-A-N-D-A. " Or how about, "Do not view if you have left your brain at home."
And that is more or less what has been done. New explanatory entrance signs, simplified introductory text. The good news is that the information has been translated into English, German, Italian, and Spanish, in light of the increased attention to the exhibit.
There, is that better?
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