In association, The University Museum and Art Gallery and Le French May are honoured to present the major exhibition UTOPIA of photographer René Burri’s most significant photos of international architects and their iconic buildings, demonstrating his keen interest in architecture within social and cultural contexts. Burri’s work is often referred to as «constructive photography», and his portfolio of images are considered one of the greatest collections of 20th century iconography. UTOPIA features many of these fascinating images, as well as portraits of influential and award-winning architects Oscar Niemeyer (1907–2012) and Le Corbusier (1887–1965).
Born in 1933, René Burri studied composition, colour and design at the School of Applied Arts in Zurich, Switzerland, from 1949 to 1953, where he worked under such famous photographers as Hans Finsler (1891–1972) and Alfred Willimann (1900–1957) and expressionist painter Johannes Itten (1888–1967). Upon graduation and while he was doing his military service, Burri experimented with documentary film-making and subsequently worked for Walt Disney Film production in Switzerland in 1954 and 1955). He became an associate of Magnum Photos (est. 1947) in 1955, and received international attention for one of his first reportages, on deaf-mute children, 'Touch of Music for the Deaf', published in Life magazine that same year.
From 1956 to 1959, he travelled extensively throughout Europe, the Middle East, and Latin America, to countries including Turkey, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Italy, France, Spain, Greece, Brazil, as well as Japan, and published his photographs in Life, The New York Times, Stern, Paris-Match, Look and Epoca, as well as a photographic essay "El Gaucho" which appeared in Du Magazine in 1959. It was also for this Swiss periodical that he photographed artists such as Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) and Alberto Giacometti (1901–1966).
René Burri became a full member of Magnum in 1959, where he met the cooperative’s founding members and leading photographers Robert Capa (1913–1954), Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908–2004), George Rodger (1908–1995) and David Seymour (1911–1956). He built his reputation as a travelling photojournalist known for his photos of major political, historical and cultural events and key figures of the second half of 20th-century politics and culture. Burri published his first book, Die Deutschen, in Switzerland in 1962, and held his first solo exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1963. That same year, while working in Cuba, he photographed Cuban communist revolutionary Fidel Castro (born 1926) and the Argentine Marxist leader Ernesto 'Che' Guevara (1928–1967) whose famous portrait smoking a cigar appeared around the world.
Burri opened the Magnum Gallery in Paris in 1962, while he continued to work as a photographer and made collages and drawings. He participated in the creation of Magnum Films in 1965, and afterwards spent half a year in China, where he made the documentary The Two Faces of China produced by the BBC in 1968. For this film, Burri travelled throughout China to study how Communism has impacted traditional family lives and values. Coincidentally, toward the end of his filming, China entered Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution.
Burri is a photographer of vision, an artist who tests out the revolutionary implications of the imagination. This approach explains his early interest in China, an ancient civilisation which, in the middle of the 20th century, was searching for new concepts to overcome social unrest, famine, illiteracy, migration and changing demographics. Burri witnessed and documented many major events of the last five decades, such as, for example in South America, the creation of the futuristic city Brasilia, the Brazilian federal capital that plays host to stunning architectural treasures created by Brazilian modernist architect Oscar Niemeyer. Although a witness to politics and history, Burri is no ordinary photojournalist but a well-established artist able to find telling metaphors for the condition of our world. This outstanding quality, together with a deep sense of humanity, gives his photography a cultural and artistic value.
Burri received the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1991, he won the Dr. Erich Salomon Prize from the German Association of Photography in 1998 in recognition of his accomplishment as photojournalist, and he was presented the Swiss Press Photo Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011. A big retrospective of his work was held in 2004–2005 at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris which subsequently toured numerous other European museums. René Burri lives and works in Zurich and Paris.
The exhibition “René Burri – UTOPIA” was conceptualised and set up with the help of the artist, the writer Hans-Michaël Koetzle, and the collaboration of the Consulate General of France in Hong Kong and Macau, Le French May arts festival and with the support of Magnum Photos. It has been organized thanks to the exclusive sponsorship of The Hong Kong Jockey Club. We thank René Burri for his international vision, his unique photographic oeuvre and this opportunity to share this fine selection of some of his most celebrated photographs with the public.
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