Koudelka in the heart of stones

As if withdrawn from contingencies, it happens, at the twilight of their career, that great photographers want to get away from the hectic pace of everyday life. This is how Don McCullin, an illustrious war reporter absorbed by the rustic landscapes of Somerset, where he lives, or Joel Meyerowitz, tasting the sweetness of Tuscany or scrutinizing objects that belonged to Cézanne.

Arid witnesses

Another octogenarian, the eternal walker Josef Koudelka, has chosen as his favorite theme the (very) old stones. Exit the jolts of the Prague spring or the daily life of the gypsies. The former member of the Union of Czechoslovak Artists, naturalized French in 1987, certainly continued to see the country but, expunged of all human presence, his gaze was only interested in archaeological sites in the Mediterranean basin. From Albania to Turkey, via Bulgaria, Syria, Libya and, of course, Greece, Italy and France, the review thus comprises more than two hundred stages, spread over twenty-six years and hardly fewer countries.

Almost three decades had passed without Paris devoting the slightest exhibition to this historic figure of the Magnum agency, but the anomaly was repaired in 2017, when the Pompidou center paid tribute to “Exils”. And today, it is the BNF which rolls out the carpet at the imposing “Ruins”, a quest about which the co-commissioner Bernard Latarjet assures that he had “Never seen a self-produced campaign of such magnitude, in time and space”. In fact, the foundations appeared in 1996 (“Periplanissis”) and the project was still called “Vestiges” when it was presented, in 2013, at the Musée de la Vieille Charité within the framework of Marseille-Provence, European capital of culture, then at the Pont du Gard (2015) and the Abbey of Jumièges (2017). But the artist, insatiable, has continued to enrich him since. As shown in a short film in the exhibition where we see the compendious old man, walking alone, with his Leica, these sleeping places, arid witnesses of a majesty as antediluvian as it is imprescriptible.

Optimizing chiaroscuro, the hanging encompasses 110 prints in contrasting black and white in panoramic format, espoused by Josef Koudelka in the mid-1980s to freeze the otherwise laborious reality of French industrial sites in Lorraine and the North. Thought like “A game of reinvention and rediscovery” through a “Mise en abyme de la exploration”, the scenography alternates large formats suspended in a large central space and smaller ones in low windows. So that at the time of the sanitary signage, we wander freely in this airy maze and devoid of any indication, except for an inviting number, to geolocate the sites photographed, to consult a booklet or to refer to a large map mural retracing the route.


Columns, aqueducts, temples, theaters, statues, cisterns, villas, tetrapyles, etc. form a dense inventory, conducive, depending on the state of conservation, to a contemplative reading, sometimes literal, when the geometry has not been too upset, sometimes abstract (cf. the mosaic of a spa room), even surreal, like the fingers of a colossal statue seeming to come out of the earth to grab the rockery.

As sensitive to overall views as to fragments, Koudelka sings a song in this way (from Ruins) elegiac, illustrating Petrarch’s excipit: “Little by little the ruins themselves will become nothing more than the eloquent memorial of the greatness of the ancients.”

Gilles Renault

Ruins of Josef Koudelka at the BNF (75013) until December 16. Rens. : Bnf.fr