Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2015/4 posted by hidden europe on

Clervaux has to endure being forever confused with the French town of Clairvaux. No surprise, perhaps, as the town in Luxembourg has a monastery just like its near-namesake in France. Yet the big draw in Clervaux is photography. And while Clairvaux marks the 900th anniversary of the foundation of its monastery, Clervaux also has an anniversary to celebrate in 2015.

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Dear fellow travellers

Clervaux is one of those places which take the traveller by surprise. It is tucked away in a valley amid the wooden hills of northern Luxembourg. Clervaux is a happy tumble of houses which cluster around a castle on the bank of the River Clerve.

Clervaux has to endure being forever confused with the French town of Clairvaux. No surprise, perhaps, as the town in Luxembourg has a monastery just like its near-namesake in France. Clairvaux in France is noted for its Cistercian link. The abbey there was founded in 1115 by Saint Bernard. The monks at Clervaux are Benedictines and it's a much younger foundation. It's good we now have that matter sorted, as the nice people in Clervaux do tire of visitors arriving and asking where Saint Bernard lived.

Photography is the big draw in Clervaux. And while Clairvaux marks the 900th anniversary of the foundation of its monastery, Clervaux also has an anniversary to celebrate in 2015. The town is home to a world-class exhibition of photography known as The Family of Man. And that exhibition was first unveiled sixty years ago in early 1955 - not at its present setting at Clervaux Castle, but at New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).

The exhibition at MoMA was conceived and curated by photographer Edward Steichen, who was born in Luxembourg in 1879. During the 1950s, Steichen worked as Director of Photography at MoMA, and that 1955 exhibition was one of his most remarkable achievements. Steichen brought together over 500 images from over 200 photographers based in 68 countries around the world. The photographs mirror a world view of the period, reflecting (as Steichen put it) "the essential oneness of mankind throughout the world."

The Family of Man was on display at MoMA for four months and then toured galleries throughout the world. The collection gives a generally rosy view of the world while also acknowledging the poverty and suffering which many people endure. It is also certainly the most-viewed photography exhibition of all time. After some decades touring the planet, The Family of Man moved in 1994 to its permanent home at Clervaux in Luxembourg.

The world has moved on since Steichen assembled his ambitious collection of images for the 1955 show at MoMA. The Family of Man is rooted in a peculiarly American perception of humanity. Steichen's family had emigrated from Luxembourg to the US when he was just a babe in arms. Steichen soon swapped his Luxembourg passport for an American one.

The Family of Man is an appeal to internationalism, but that appeal is rooted in American notions of benevolent global leadership with the family as the fundamental building block of society. The home-and-hearth message surely struck a chord with America's Cold War allies.

Few other countries in Europe are such cultural hybrids as Luxembourg. The Grand Duchy has done a wonderful job in assimilating the extraordinary photographic collection at Clervaux. Over the last couple of years, much work has gone into restoration of the original images. The exhibition reopens for the 2015 season on 1 March. Go take a look and decide for yourself whether The Family of Man is a passionate appeal to humanism or an artful piece of imperialist propaganda. Whatever you conclude, you'll surely be impressed by some quite remarkable photography.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

Posted in Places
This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.