by JS

At the end of the sixth century AD Pope Gregory the Great boldly proclaimed, “painting can do for the illiterate what writing does for those who can read”. In retaliation to fears of idolatry creating a link with more ‘primitive’ beliefs of art embodying those it represents, as well as a disliking of painting as a process, the Pope spoke brazenly with a proclamation of art’s necessity in education, as a key to understanding and an essential to believing. But perhaps it is possible to go one step further; art can be a key to life, not only as a resource for education, activity and enjoyment, but as a force that can breathe life into us.


Published in 1956, Ed van der Elsken’s photography book ‘Love on The Left Bank’ details scenes of emergent youth culture in Paris and is widely considered to be a catalyst of its medium, pushing the conventions of documentary photography further forward than they had previously stood. The photographs were taken around the St-Germain-des-Prés area on the left bank of Paris, which, at the time, was an epicentre for Existentialism and Bohemia, frequented by Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Accompanying the images is a fictional narrative written by van der Elsken, which is concerned with Ann and her Mexican lover. The words pale into insignificance against the truth emanating from the photographs and, if anything, hinder their potential as indistinct, intimate, unattached glimpses into the lives of other’s.


Taken individually (separate to the narrative), each image is alive; presenting life in all the harsh truth

and glaring light of Caravaggio’s heart. ‘The girl with the orange hair who danced like a negress’ is of astounding beauty. Darkness swallows the dancers’ surroundings, and eats into their shadows, framing their curves and angles, frozen in an urgent movement of ecstatic vivacity. The two dancers are such glorious, bright pillars of pure youth and bold energy as they mirror each other, arching their spines as if bending back to worship some spiritual divinity

flowing through the fierce beat of the music which rules their limbs. The image undulates between space, textures and details. From the man’s head to his shirt reads beautifully, as his muscles ache to support his ever-stretching flesh, revealing lines, sharp inclines and severe gradations of light in contrast to the smooth curves of the woman’s. The woman’s hair tumbles back in an unrestrained shimmer of light and dark, whilst the shadows which cloak the blurred backs of her hands emphasise the excitement in surrendering to something else; something powerful and free.


Away from all the energy, sitting between the two figures of animated verve, is the embodiment of the reader; a misted, lifeless figure lost in thought within a picture of energy and feeling.  Beside him stands a man absorbed by the two rhythmic bodies. The addition of figures in the background brings to the dancers a further sense of life as they become three-dimensional beings; people to move around, watch, ignore and contemplate.


Flicking through the photographs in ‘Love on the Left Bank’ is as though intruding into the most seductive, captivating intimate scenes. Each image, despite motionless is so affective and stirring. Through looking at these photographs one feels imbued with a true pulse of life, taunting one to dare to hear the music, smell the coffee, and connect with emotions. Enthusing and motivating in the atmosphere they purvey they almost seem more alive than the world beyond the window-pane. Art can bring our souls to life.