La Belle Provence
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La Belle Provence

Left to right: Jacqueline, Pablo, and Paloma Picasso in the stands at a bullfight in Arles, France.

In September, we were so enchanted by Toni Harting‘s Thirty in Twenty photography exhibit that we jumped at the chance to see his newest show, Provence People, which opened last night at The Department. The collection is a visual feast of black-and-white photos, all taken by Harting in Provence during the ’50s and early ’60s. At the time, he was studying engineering in Holland, but during his summer breaks he would migrate south to France and earn his tuition by singing and playing guitar alongside his good friend John Cogh. Between the two of them, they were able to sing songs in as many as fifteen languages, which opened the door to meeting lots of people, several of whom now grace these gallery walls as part of this amazing display.


Young Toni Harting posing with his guitar.

The majority of Harting’s Provence photos are subtly compelling shots of everyday people going about their lives in this lush, sunny part of the world. However, one cannot help but notice the ultimate celebrity sighting: Pablo Picasso along with his wife and muse Jacqueline, and then seventeen-year-old daughter Paloma in the stands at a bullfight. Harting was a friend of Picasso’s son, Paulo, and attended this event as a guest of the family. And what a beautiful picture it is, with the patriarch sharply focused in the centre, Jacqueline’s famous profile slightly blurred in the foreground, and young Paloma’s eyes peeking over her father’s shoulder.
Despite our best intentions, we couldn’t resist asking what it was like to meet Picasso (could you?!). It turns out, the meeting was quite low key. “We chatted, mostly about bullfighting,” Harting told us. “He was crazy about bullfighting. But, I’m not affected by fame. He’s the biggest name in the world, but he was just one example of many interesting people I met.”

Boy watching the “People’s Bullfight.”

Another striking image in the collection is a crisp portrait of a little boy, perched on a wire fence watching the “People’s Bullfight.” Unlike the regular bullfight where seasoned matadors tease and eventually kill a full-grown bull, the “People’s Bullfight” gave amateurs a chance to participate under tamer conditions. The “bull” was a much younger animal and its horns were capped to prevent serious injury. No spears were employed; all the contestant had to do to win six bottles of pastis was to pluck a rosette that was resting in between the beast’s ears (kind of like the flag football of bullfighting). Not only did Harting win the pastis (which consisted of, to his dismay, mini bottles), but he seized the opportunity to take photos of the crowd from inside the ring, a rarely seen perspective.
When asked, Harting is hard-pressed to pick a favourite image, but he has much affection for a delightful shot of his friend Denise and her baby enjoying a splash in the ocean. He and his bandmate Cogh met Denise in Provence several years before this photo was taken. Cogh and Denise ended up marrying and the couple remains friends with Harting to this day. Denise is now a grandmother in her seventies and the baby in the photo has three children of her own. Harting told us that the Cogh family very modestly “doesn’t understand why people in Canada want to see this stuff [photos of them].”

Photographer Toni Harting.

The subject of this exhibit is different from “Thirty in Twenty,” but the underlying sentiment is the same. Both shows express Harting’s irrepressible sense of adventure. During the “Thirty in Twenty” show, Harting said quite a few young people approached him to tell him how he inspired them not only to travel, but to live the life they wanted. “At a certain point, you have to overcome some problems and go,” Harting told us. “And that’s what some of them are doing now. And that’s good!”
The “Provence People” exhibit is on from now until December 23 at The Department at 1389 Dundas Street West. Regular gallery hours are Tuesday to Saturday from 12–4 p.m. and admission is free.
All black-and-white photos by Toni Harting. All colour photos by Ayngelina Brogan/Torontoist.