Le Grand Tour

Notwithstanding the aristocratic associations of “Le Grand Tour,” this version of the post-Renaissance voyage of discovery might best be described as a postmodern, postcolonial road movie. Produced and directed by François Cheval, curator of the Musée Niépce, it featured three French artist-photographers (in order of appearance: Ange Leccia, Jean-Luc Moulène, and Patrick Tosani) who set out on the trail of their nineteenth-century predecessors in Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine with the idea of doing things differently this time around.

Establishing shot: The latter-day “tours” of Leccia, Moulène, and Tosani consisted of residencies (in Damascus, Saida, and a Palestinian refugee camp outside of Damascus, respectively) to be followed by on-site presentations of the resulting works. But the ambitious project was also to involve the “repatriation” of a portion, at least, of Middle Eastern photographic heritage via digital copies of the museum’s collection, as well as training in conservation and archiving for partner institutions in the Middle East.

Flashback: Developing since 1997, “Le Grand Tour” formally got under way four years ago with the idea of creating an exchange between the venerable museum of photography (which traces its origins back to 1861) and the societies of the Middle East that have long served as “subjects” of Western photographers.

Interior (tracking shot): Rather than attempting to reproduce the events organized in Damascus and Saida (where the large-format contemporary photos were shown in highly visible public spaces and the digital copies of vintage images were distributed among surrounding shops), the exhibit at the Musée Niépce was conceived as a kind of walk-through travel album juxtaposing the experiences of the three artists with judiciously chosen photos and drawings from the past. In an introductory sequence, “views” and portraits by Félix Bonfils, Henri Béchard, Zangaki, and other nineteenth-century photographers alternated with initial impressions recorded by the contemporary artists on exploratory visits to the region: Moulène’s glimpses of Alexandria (1997); Leccia’s montages combining multiple video stills of young women’s faces or strolling couples, also in Alexandria (1997); Tosani’s visual “notes” from his preliminary trip to the West Bank and Jerusalem (2000). In the main exhibition space, these episodic images gave way to a selection of the pieces resulting from each artist’s residency: Azé, 2003, a monumental video triptych by Leccia incorporating street scenes (and sounds) from Damascus and Alexandria; large-format landscapes, cityscapes, and portraits of Saida inhabitants by Moulène; still lifes and portraits of Palestinian children by Tosani.

If nothing was overtly political, all the scars of recent history were present in landscapes, faces, and objects alike. At the same time, the energy of the images and the palpable intensity of the artist-subject relationships marked the key contrast with the monochrome stillness of the historic works. But the most ingenious aspect of the project was Cheval’s deliberate “miscasting” of his artist sidekicks—Leccia, connoisseur of Corsica and Japan, transplanted to Syria; Moulène, artisan of the everyday, confronted with the demand for epic history “paintings”; and most audaciously of all, Tosani, the perfectionist of the studio, catapulted into a war zone—leading in every case, as Cheval points out, to a “veritable osmosis” between their habitual work and the situation at hand.

The End? One hopes not. Tosani’s photos, which were to be postered in cities and towns throughout the areas under the control of the Palestinian Authority, remain, like their subjects, hostages of the larger politico-military situation. And in the spirit of any road movie worthy of the name, the organizers of the “Grand Tour” are already thinking about new episodes elsewhere in the region.

Miriam Rosen