Cruel and tender: Martin Parr’s photography ...

Cruel and tender: Martin Parr’s photography arrives at Mudec in Milan

Observing the shots of the English photographer Martin Parr means witnessing a simultaneously cruel and tender spectacle of contemporary consumerism. At the center of his poetics there is almost always the human being, caught in the gesture of consuming something: an element of nature, a material good, a public service.

Martin Parr, “Todmorden Mayor’s Inaugural Banquet, England, West Yorkshire, Todmorden”, 1977. From “The Non-Conformists” © Martin Parr/Magnum Photos, courtesy MUDEC di Milano

“Short & Sweet” is no exception, the retrospective in life dedicated to him by the MUDEC exhibition space in Milan and curated by the photographer himself. Nine sections for fifty years of shots dedicated almost entirely to the native world, that of the British with their obsessions and their behavior in the contemporary and globalized world, which Parr captures and declines in a tragic and discreet narrative that is domestic and absolutely anti-exotic. The first section of the exhibition itinerary contains some black and white shots from the “The non-Conformists” project. We are inside Methodist-style religious places where faithful of all social classes are able to eat (even by stuffing themselves), under the severe and immortal gaze of Christ at the sacred last supper.

Martin Parr, “England, New Brighton”, 1983-85. From “The Last Resort. Photographs of New Brighton” © Martin Parr/Magnum Photos, courtesy MUDEC, Milano

The second thematic series of the exhibition is also in black and white: it immortalizes the British reaction to the national obsession with the weather. “Bad Weather” is the title of this part which shows the daily attitude of a British citizen dealing with the constant (and proverbial) rainy fury of those places. These two projects already show in a nutshell some elements of Martin Parr’s photographic poetics: consumption and the human reaction to external phenomena. Elements that begin to explode in the third section (in color, like all those that follow it), “The Last Resort”. Here, the element of tragic decay begins to rise as Parr portrays lower-middle class family holidays in declining seaside resorts. You sunbathe on concrete ‘beaches’ (the promenades of the marinas), you dip your feet in a drain, you eat a frugal meal a few centimeters from still overflowing waste bins. The color explodes but also Parr’s cruel and never distant gaze explodes.

Martin Parr, “Common Sense”, 1995-1999 © Martin Parr/Magnum Photos, courtesy MUDEC, Milano

“Small World” is a thematic project that describes how mass tourism, certainly facilitated by low-cost travel and digital technology, ultimately makes everyone more similar, in a homogeneous mix of tastes (often kitsch), trends (often superficial without desire to learn more), geographical coordinates (trendy and overcrowded places). “Common Sense” (1999) is a polyphonic photographic fresco: two enormous mosaic panels each composed of 117 colorful A3 photographs. It is the focal point of the exhibition and it is the project for which Parr has definitively established himself. The title already magnificently summarizes many of the elements of his poetics, that common and daily sense of the life of all of us, made up of obsession with enormous gel nails, gigantic burgers, infinite plastic bottles, cigarette butts everywhere, baroque sunglasses and many other trappings of the human being that make up a kitsch puzzle of incredible visual and emotional impact.

Martin Parr, “Cigarette”, from “Common Sense”, 1995-1999 © Martin Parr/Magnum Photos, courtesy MUDEC, Milano

Everyday life overlooking the sea coast returns with “Life’s a Beach”, a set of portraits initially set on the beaches of the United Kingdom, where there is no inland location more than 120 km away from a beach. The artist himself states it: for him the beach is a place of excellence in which to observe, as a photographic anthropologist, individual behavior in full public space. The final three sections of the exhibition are, in my opinion, the least interesting: “Everybody dance now” (series of shots motivated by another innate human aptitude – according to Parr – that of dancing), “Establishment” (in which the photographer changes direction of his gaze by turning it to the upper and even noble classes of the Kingdom) and finally “Fashion” (not compelling to the observer but also stamped by that showy sense of kitsch that accompanies Parr’s poetics).

Martin Parr, “The leaning tower, Italy, Pisa”, 1990. From “Small World” © Martin Parr/Magnum Photos, courtesy MUDEC, Milano

Roberta Valtorta says it well, in the beautiful video interview which, together with a catalog produced by 24Ore Cultura, accompanies the exhibition: «Martin Parr’s photos with those vivid colors are rich in cruelty and irony, in one word, bittersweet».


Martin Parr: Short & Sweet
10/02 – 30/06/2024
MUDEC – Museo delle Culture di Milano


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