Produced by Fundación MAPFRE and curated by Peter Galassi, chief curator of the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York from 1991 to 2011, the exhibition we present below is the first retrospective of the famous Hungarian photographer organized since the year 2000 (Pompidou Center), and the first of its kind to take place in Spain since 1993.
TEXT: FUNDACIÓN MAPFRE CULTURE AREA
It benefits from an exceptional loan from the Brassaï Estate (Paris) and other loans from some of the leading institutions and private collections of North America and Europe: Art Institute of Chicago, Museum of Fine Arts (Houston), Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), Museum of Modern Art (New York), National Museum of Modern Art – Pompidou Center (Paris), Philadelphia Museum of Art, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, David Dechman and Michel Mercure, ISelf Collection (London), and Nicholas and Susan Pritzker. Following its run at the Casa Garriga Nogués Hall in Barcelona, from February 20 to May 13, the exhibition will be moving on to the Fundación MAPFRE Recoletos Hall in Madrid, from May 31 to September 2, 2018, before a stay at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) from November 17, 2018 to February 17, 2019.
Brassaï (the pseudonym of Gyula Halász) was born in 1899 in Brassó, Transylvania. After studying art, firstly in Budapest and later in Berlin, he moved to Paris in 1924 to dedicate himself to painting. But he quickly discovered a stable source of income from the sale of articles, caricatures and photographs to newspapers and other illustrated publications. He therefore left drawing and painting to one side, although he continued feeling great devotion for these disciplines and would return to them throughout his life. He immediately gained great recognition for this work and, with the idea of preserving his real name for his paintings, he started signing his caricatures and photographs as “Brassaï”, that is to say “from Brassó”. That was how he began taking photographs in 1929; at first, with a camera borrowed from a friend, but he soon acquired his own, a Voigtländer Bergheil using 6.5 x 9 cm glass plate negatives. He maintained an intense work schedule throughout the 1930s. He also met and befriended people who were to prove extremely important in his life, such as Henri Michaux, Pablo Picasso, Eugène Atget, André Kertész, Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes, Maurice Raynal or Tériade.
The city of Paris became the central theme of his work: its physical structures, its everyday life and especially the way it looked and its vitality by night. His extraordinary treatment of light and the subtlety of the details captured in his images made him famous; with these techniques, Brassaï achieved snapshots of such evocative power and capacity that they would become true cultural icons, symbols of an era, and testimonies of his irresistible fascination with the French capital. His work swiftly achieved unquestionable recognition in artistic photography circles, but also within the tourist industry and the commercial photography world; for example, from 1934 until 1937, he worked intensely photographing exhibitions and hairdressing salons, mainly on behalf of magazines.
On June 12, 1940, just two days before the German army entered Paris, Brassaï fled the city. But he returned in October and stayed there for the remainder of the occupation. Having refused to collaborate with the Germans, he found it impossible to work openly. As a result, when Picasso commissioned him to photograph his sculptures at his studio on Rue Grands-Augustins, this became his sole source of income. Moreover, following a hiatus that had lasted twenty years, Brassaï returned to drawing and sculpting, and started exploring his remarkable talent as a writer. From then on, photography would no longer be his sole activity and his work ceased to be driven by his fascination with the nightlife of Paris.
In April 1945 he met Gilberte- Mercédès Boyer, twenty years his younger. They married three years later. It was also at this time that he reorganized his archive: he defined forty-two thematic categories, such as Nuit [Night], Plaisirs [Pleasures] and Étranger [Foreign Land], on the basis of which he assigned a number and a one or two-letter prefix to each negative. In addition, due to numerous assignments from the American magazine Harper’s Bazaar, he once again devoted part of his time to photography and to traveling regularly (Edinburgh, Spain, Morocco, Italy, Greece and Turkey are just some of the places he visited during these years).
The city of Paris became the central theme of his work: its physical structures, its everyday life and especially the way it looked and its vitality by night
By the early 1950s he was already a renowned photographer. In 1955, the Art Institute of Chicago hosted the first of his solo exhibitions at an American museum, which later traveled on to other American cities. A year later, the Museum of Modern Art in New York put on Language of the Wall. Parisian Graffiti Photographed by Brassaï. The Bibliothèque nationale de París organized a retrospective of his work in 1963, simply entitled Brassaï.
His work was recognized as a cornerstone of the birth and evolution of a new trend in photographic practice that emerged between the two world wars. The leaders of this new movement had discovered the potential of everyday scenes, recovering the concept of photography as a creative medium by producing extremely visually and poetically evocative images that went far beyond their merely documentary nature.
Far removed from the emulation of the traditional arts inherent in turn-of-thecentury photography, these photographers highlighted the artistic potential of this discipline. And when this tradition started gaining traction in the 1970s, Brassaï was recognized as one of its major exponents, thus becoming a key figure in the history of 20th century photography. He was named Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres de la Légion d’Honneur in 1973, and guest of honor at the Rencontres Internationales de la Photographie d’Arles, together with Ansel Adams and Bill Brandt, in 1974.
He died in Beaulieu-sur-Mer (France) in 1984, without ever having returned to his native country. He is buried in the Montparnasse cemetery.
This exhibition traces his whole career by way of over two hundred works (period photographs, several drawings, a sculpture and documentary material) grouped into twelve thematic sections, with 1930s Paris by night being the chief protagonist.
Paris by night
1932 saw the publication of Paris de nuit, a book illustrated with photographs of Parisian nightlife taken by a youthful, still unknown Brassaï. It was a great success, despite not including some of the artist’s best nocturnal scenes (many of which would be published later). His rich photogravures and marginless prints afford great modernity to his design. There is an example from this period in the exhibition, together with some thirty photographs that illustrate the dynamic, vibrant pulse of the Parisian night and clearly demonstrate the direct, frank style the artist was to maintain the rest of his life.
When Brassaï organized his archive after the Second World War, he used the title Plaisirs to group together themes related to the Paris underworld: gangsters, prostitutes, nightclubs… far removed from the characteristic conventions of the bourgeoisie. He compiled a huge collection of images of entertainment venues, ranging from bars to popular fairs, and the people who frequented them. But these images depict both the reality and legend of Parisian nightlife: “I was eager to penetrate the other world, this fringe world, the secret, sinister world of mobsters, outcasts, toughs, pimps, whores, addicts, inverts. Rightly or wrongly I felt at the time that this underground world represented Paris at its least cosmopolitan, at its most alive, its most authentic, that in these colorful faces of its underworld there had been preserved, from age to age, almost without alteration, the folklore of its most remote past” (Brassaï, 1976).
Paris by day
Brassaï was peerless when it came to photographing Paris by night, but he also turned his attention to reflecting everyday life in the city in daylight. Monuments, picturesque corners and details of everyday life are the protagonists of a large number of these scenes. Some of his photographs from the 1930s also reflect his interest in geometric styles or sharply clipped images, which he often encountered in architecture and the urban environment.
The appreciation of graffiti as a powerful art form began to emerge in the 20th century. Like tribal objects from Africa, the art of children or of psychiatric patients, graffiti was felt to be more expressive and dynamic than other refined forms of traditional Western art.
In fact, Brassaï was one of the first to embrace this topic. An inveterate hoarder, throughout his life he collected all kinds of objects abandoned on the streets. As soon as he started taking photographs, his eyes were drawn to the graffiti he came across on the walls of Paris. He eventually ended up taking hundreds of them, a small sample of which are on display here.
He had a preference for those graffiti which had been etched or scratched – rather than drawn or painted – in which the irregularities of the wall itself played an important role in aesthetic terms.
His work was recognized as a cornerstone of the birth and evolution of a new trend in photographic practice that emerged between the two world wars
Between his arrival in Paris in early 1924 and its first steps in photography six years later, Brassaï built up a wide circle of friends among the international community of artists and writers in Montparnasse. Among them were Les Deux Aveugles (the two blind men), as the art critics Maurice Raynal and the Greek E. Teriade called themselves.
In December 1932 — the same month that Paris de nuit appeared — Teriade invited Brassaï to photograph Picasso and his studios to illustrate the first issue of Minotaure, the lavish art magazine founded by the Swiss publisher Albert Skira which first appeared in June 1933. Several copies are on show here. This collaboration marked the starting point of his friendship with Picasso, one of the most important in his whole life.
Over the next few years, the photographer was to enjoy a prominent place in this publication. The first issue included a series of nudes and the fledgling graffiti series, while number seven devoted several pages to his nocturnal images. These creations are a fine reflection of the artist’s modernity and his relationship with the most important circles of the Parisian avant-garde.
In 1949, in the foreword to Camera in Paris, a monograph dedicated to contemporary photographers, Brassaï himself – paraphrasing Baudelaire in the “Painter of Modern Life” – sought to establish a line of continuity between the art of photographers and some of the best artists of the past such as Rembrandt, Goya and Toulouse-Lautrec. In this sense he explained how, like the latter, photography is capable of raising the motifs portrayed to the same level as painting, given that, through a set or series of snapshots, a photographer can reflect motifs of a universal nature and not simply individual ones. From a worker in the Les Halles market to a transvestite or a member of a brotherhood in Seville, all the characters portrayed in this section reflect that idea: as their dignity is promoted, they are no longer just individuals, but go on to represent the whole group of their peers.
Places and things
One of Brassaï’s early projects that finally never came to fruition was a book of photographs of cacti. Much later, in 1957, he would make a short film about animals. But, generally speaking, Brassaï’s interests with regard to objects and places focused on human creations, reflecting his unwavering curiosity about the people that created, used or lived in them.
During his travels he took many photographs and we can see some examples of them here: a perspective of Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia from an elevated position; a painted wall in the Sacromonte district of Granada; or a store window in New Orleans.
This section brings together a score of photographs mostly taken at high society events and soirées – banquets, dances and receptions held in the 1930s. Brassaï enjoyed a good social and professional reputation. During the Nazi occupation, he spent a lot of time in bars and cafés, where he began jotting down fragments of conversations he heard. He made no modifications later and, as was the case with his photographs, he allowed the characters to emerge, as he put it, “in their own light”.
Body of a woman
Most of the drawings that have been preserved from Brassaï’s time as an art student in Berlin in 1921-1922, as well as most of those he did in the 1940s, are female nudes. The same is true of many of the sculptures he started producing after the war using stones weathered and eroded by water.
Typically, for this kind of photos, Brassaï went to the home or studio of the character in question, even though those surroundings went virtually unnoticed in the end result. The model and photographer face each other with total honesty and, in the case of the nudes, with a stark carnal presence that harks back to the volumetric forms of sculpture.
Portraits: artists, writers, friends
“Forcing the model to behave as though the photographer was not there is truly asking them to enact a comedy. What is natural is not to conceal that presence. What is natural in this situation is that the model should pose honestly” (Brassaï, undated note).
Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí, Henry Miller (who coined the expression “The eye of Paris”, referring to Brassaï), Pierre Reverdy, Jacques Prévert, Henri Matisse, Leon-Paul Fargue… these are just some of the protagonists of the portraits we can see in this section. Most of the portraits Brassaï did were of people he knew and the result, perhaps because of that closeness, is of great serenity. But even when he portrayed models he did not know, and the aim was not so much to do a portrait as to depict a certain social type, the artist confers on them a dignity that converts the motif depicted into a distinctive character.
Spontaneity was not an aspect that really interested Brassaï and, to demonstrate this, between 1932 and 1937 he took these pictures of people sleeping in public places. Snapshots in which the artist was undoubtedly able to enjoy taking his time in order to capture the scene. Pictures of everyday life in which Brassaï continues working on particular viewpoints and his taste for clipped images, as reflected in Montmartre (1930-1931) or the strange Marseille (1935-1937).
Brassaï’s work for Harper’s Bazaar led him to travel around France and to many other places, from Spain to Sweden, the United States and Brazil. Thus, although his talent had its roots in Paris, he amassed a huge collection of photographs taken in places that were fairly unfamiliar to him. This section shows several of these images, three of them taken in Spain.