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Friday, November 28, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 23.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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20th-century art stars are the subjects and creators of the Chazen Museum portrait exhibition A Passion for Photography
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A Passion for Photography: The exhibition features several shots by Henri Cartier-Bresson.
Credit:Chazen Museum of Art

Artists, like writers, often work in solitude. Sure, there are larger-than-life, highly public personalities (think Andy Warhol), but there are also plenty who are happy to hunker down in the solace of their studios and let their work do the talking. That's why it's all the more fascinating to see famous artists in their studios or living spaces, a subject that occupies much of the newest Chazen Museum exhibition, A Passion for Photography: The John W. and Carol L.H. Green Collection (through Aug. 17).

This collection of black-and-white photography captures some of the most important figures in 20th-century art as subject matter. Duchamp, Matisse, Chagall, Calder, Pollock: The list goes on and on. It's an absorbing, easy-to-like show.

I found a bit of sly humor in Arnold Newman's 1942 portrait of Piet Mondrian, the Dutch painter known for colorful, geometric compositions. Standing near some of his work in New York City, Mondrian looks almost comically angular, in keeping with the rigid lines of his paintings. His arm, its length visually extended by a slender cigarette between his fingers, is crooked so that his forearm is perfectly perpendicular to the floor. The man and his work seem equally precise.

We also see the confluence of artist and art in Robert Doisneau's shot of Fernand Léger, the French artist. With his large-scale paintings both behind and in front of him, Léger is swallowed by his own work, as if he's actually living in the stylized world he's created, populated by monumental, blocky bodies.

While Mondrian and Léger pose with completed work, we also see a number of artists in the act of making, like folk-art legend Grandma Moses painting quietly in a lace-curtained room. With her spectacles and her hair neatly pinned, she seems as homespun as her paintings in W. Eugene Smith's 1948 photo.

A Passion for Photography is divided between two rooms. The first revolves around these portraits of creative people, almost all of them visual artists. The second room still has some famous faces—including a sweet, boozy tête–à–tête between poet Carl Sandburg and Marilyn Monroe—but also landscapes and city scenes from around the world.

The second room loses some focus as it strays from the central theme; some of the pieces, while interesting in their own right, don't truly demand to be part of this show. There are a number by Henri Cartier-Bresson, one of the masters of documentary photography. They're good, of course, but I was more taken by the portrait of Cartier-Bresson back in the first room, taken by Beaumont Newhall.

Captured in 1946, when Cartier-Bresson was in his late 30s, the photograph presents a handsome, clean-cut face, yet one that doesn't reveal much emotionally. His gaze is somehow direct but also slightly unfocused. And this impenetrable quality, in some way, touches upon the essence of this show. Because the artists depicted are normally the ones who define what we see, this inversion -- artist as subject -- is a rich one.

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