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The images that shaped Europe

Man at the centre of the world?

Portraits and busts, visual blockbusters of the illustrated press in the first half of the 20th century

Which images were most reproduced in Europe before 1945 in the European periodicals surveyed by our machines? Photographic portraits and photographs of busts. Heads, busts, faces, eyes, skulls and beards - and lots of moustaches. Man is at the centre of the European world of images, especially before the Second World War. Does the man - that is, the male – have the only leadership, or does the woman also have a place in this world? And why did the photographic representation of busts almost stop after the Second World War?

Photographic portraits: Fathers of Europe

The portraits that appear in the periodicals of the first half of the 20th century represent the people who made the news at the time: politicians, businessmen, writers, journalists, artists, academics... The Europe of images speaks first of those who directed, thought, oriented and animated it. They were mainly men. Seen from afar, these portraits are rarely recognisable. They are the ghosts of a past of which we know only a few names and faces. We see serious, hard-working faces, not much smiling, a focus on the head predominantly - lower parts of the body are not represented. The Europe of portraits is a Europe of thinking heads. A vision of the world where the man (the male) is in charge, with his rational intelligence.

Mothers of Europe?

What about women? Faced with the many 'Fathers of visual Europe', the 'Mothers of Europe' are less numerous. Or even absent, when it comes to photographic portraits. Photographs of women more often involve the whole body; they are mainly used in advertising and entertainment columns: the female body is mainly represented to arouse desire.

The fashion for busts made women central

Photographs of busts, which are very common in our corpus, suggest a different point of view. Busts of women are more represented than those of men, and busts of children also appear. Rather than indicating a male-dominated representation of the world, this frequency suggests modes of self-representation specific to an international European elite in which women played their part - patrons, salon women, muses, family mothers perhaps. There may also be something of a family story there. What were busts made for in the past? Not only to display the heads of important people but for family use – to remember the tender head of your child, or to respect the legacy of your grandparents.

The end of the ancient model?

These stagings and forms were modelled on an ancient aesthetic considered superior, inherited from Greece and Rome. The Europe of images of the 20th century looked to and mimicked this past. But the publication of photographs of busts in the press stopped quite abruptly in the early 1940s. A change in taste was at play, as well as the manifestation of a new political and geopolitical order. Modernity imposed itself on visual practices after 1945, as fascism had reclaimed too much of the heritage of ancient empires for its own benefit. There was perhaps also a different relationship to the world coming to light, in which the idea of an individual as master and lord of the universe was no longer really relevant.


Learn more about it in Jeu de Paume exhibition.