Posts Tagged ‘Paris de nuit

22
Aug
21

Exhibition: ‘Bill Brandt’ at the Fundación Mapfre, Madrid

Exhibition dates: 3rd June – 29th August 2021

Curator: Ramón Esparza (University of the Basque Country)

 

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983) 'St. Paul's Cathedral in the moonlight' 1942

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983)
St. Paul’s Cathedral in the moonlight
1942
25.72 x 20.32cm
Private collection
Courtesy Bill Brandt Archive and Edwynn Houk Gallery
© Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive Ltd.

 

 

Bill Brandt: master of photography, master of reinvention

“I’m 70% sure this was a reality not a dream”

In 12 years of writing this archive, this is the first chance I have had to assemble a posting and really think about the work of Bill Brandt, one of the most significant and inventive photographer of the 20th century. Brandt exhibitions are few and far between.

Son of a British father and German mother, Bill Brandt was born in Hamburg in 1904. As an adolescent he contracted tuberculosis and spent much of his youth in a sanatorium in Davos, Switzerland. In 1927 he travelled to Vienna, “to see a lung specialist and then decided to stay and find work in a photography studio. There, in 1928, he met and made a successful portrait of the poet Ezra Pound, who subsequently introduced Brandt to the American-born, Paris-based photographer Man Ray. Brandt arrived in Paris to begin three months of study as an apprentice at the Man Ray Studio in 1929 … his work from this time shows the influence of André Kertész and Eugène Atget, as well as Man Ray and the Surrealists.”1

“For any young photographer at that time, Paris was the centre of the world. Those were the exciting early days when the French poets and surrealists recognised the possibilities of photography.” ~ Bill Brandt

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Having visited London in 1928, upon his return to London, in 1931, Brandt was well versed in the language of photographic modernism. In 1933 Brandt settled permanently in North London with his wife. With the rise of Nazism in Germany, Brandt Anglicised his name and disowned his German background and would claim he was born in South London. “He adopted Britain as his home and it became the subject of his greatest photographs.” Here is his first reinvention: the obfuscation of his German heritage, but he could not hide that heritage in his photographs.

As a photojournalist working for magazines such as News Chronicle, Weekly Illustrated, Lilliput, Harper’s Bazaar and Picture Post, Brandt documented all levels of British society. In his first book, The English at Home (1936), “comprising sixty-three photographs, Brandt traversed the country to make a pictorial survey of sorts, moving across the social classes, and between rural life and the urban city.”2 In the book Brandt pairs upper and lower class photographs across double page spreads, mixing joy (girl dancing in the street) with sobriety (the parlourmaids). As David Campany observes in his excellent writing on the artist, “There is nothing overtly angry or revolutionary in the generally restrained tone of Brandt’s book. However it was unusual in bringing different classes into one volume, leaving the viewer to reconcile the social contradictions and inequities.”3

“The extreme social contrast, during those years before the war, was, visually, very inspiring for me. I started by photographing in London, the West End, the suburbs, the slums.” ~ Bill Brandt

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The book was not a success. Much like Robert Frank’s The Americans (published in France in 1958), another book by an émigré photographing as an outsider a foreign country, the British did not understand the book and probably did not like the mirror that was being held up to their society – much as the Americans hated Frank’s book for the pointed insights its probing images revealed of their fractured society, which had never been shown to them before. Campany notes, “In the 1930s Brandt was drawn to the rituals and customs of daily life, with what he saw as the deeply unconscious ways people inhabit their social roles and class positions. For him, to photograph these minutiae was not simply to document but to estrange through a heightened sense of atmosphere, theatrical artifice and a dreamlike sensibility. As an outsider he seemed to see English behaviour as bordering on passive automatism.”4

In the midst of the Great Depression of the 1930s, the photographs would have made the English feel very uncomfortable. Through their social commentary and poetic resonance, through their direct, modernist gaze and Surrealist dances (the women washing the blackened coal miner, a man sheltering in a coffin), Brandt squeezes (conflates?) documentary and art together, seeing the familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. Through reinvention he recasts the very nature of his characters, finding out what else is essential in the photographs, challenging the viewer to understand the complexities of the image as it moves across time and from documentary to art. Often this left the viewer perplexed and grasping at the mystery, the unknown.

Other bodies of work and books followed. In 1937, Brandt visited the North of England for the first time, photographing the desperate plight of the poor scavenging for coal on the slag-heaps. In 1938 Brandt published A Night in London which was based on Paris de Nuit (1936) by Brassaï, photographing pubs, common lodging houses at night, theatres, Turkish baths, prisons and people in their bedrooms. By 1939, he was back in London, photographing the blackout and people sheltering from the Blitz in the London Underground.

“In 1939, at the beginning of the war, I was back in London photographing the blackout. The darkened town, lit only by moonlight, looked more beautiful than before or since.”~ Bill Brandt

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And so it went, on through Literary Britain (1951) which combined brooding, atmospheric landscapes and photographs of William Wordsworth’s room at Dove Cottage, Shaw’s Corner, Glamis Castle from Macbeth, and the scene of Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment at Reading Gaol opposite British poetry and prose; from the 1940s onwards, portraits of the notable and creative, made during the 1960s using a wide-angle lens; and perspectives on nudes made from 1944 onwards using a 1931 Kodak mahogany and brass camera with a wide-angle lens used by the police for crime scene records, which allowed him to see, he said, ‘like a mouse, a fish or a fly’.

“The nudes reveal Brandt’s intimate knowledge of the École de Paris – particularly Man Ray, Picasso, Matisse and Arp – together with his admiration for Henry Moore. He published Perspective of Nudes in 1961. It featured nudes in domestic interiors and studios, and on the beaches of East Sussex and northern and southern France. He used a Superwide Hasselblad for the beach photographs. In 1977-8 Brandt added further nudes, published in Nudes, 1945-80.”5

Through all of this there is the reinvention… reinvention of the portrait where the sitter is now part of the whole scenario (the surroundings), reinvention of the landscape where the landscape emerges from chthonic darkness, and reinvention of the nude where Brandt transplants Brassai’s Distortions into domestic interiors and exterior beaches – where the Surrealist, distorted, enigmatic fragment, like an ear or a big toe, comes to stand for the whole embedded in an alien landscape. Finally, there was the big reinvention in the 1960s, where Brandt began to reprint his earlier photojournalist images with a much harsher contrast (see various comparison images in this posting) in order to enhance their (Surrealist) art credentials and keep them relevant in an Abstract Expressionist, Pop Art world.

As David Campany states, “In the 1960s there were two major changes in his work and its reception. Both were related to his emerging position in art photography. He began to print his negatives much more harshly, sacrificing the mid-tones for more modish graphic blocks of black and white. The rich descriptive information in his negatives would be subsumed, even obliterated in his new aesthetic… While his latest photography was pursued more openly as art, notably his nudes (published as a book in 1960), his expressionism was released anew upon his earlier work. His books from the 1960s are printed with graphic extremes of black and white.”6

These are the images that are now famous, these graphic reinventions of the work and the Self. The reinvention of the old into the new. Through rethinking, recalculating and reimagining his old photographs and how they looked (“the way in which the artist interpreted a single negative had changed over time”), Brandt opened up his way of seeing and opened up new matter… ‘in rerum natura‘: in the nature of things; in the realm of actuality; in existence. Perhaps never before in the history of photography had the negative just been a step in the production of an ever changing image.

It was in the totality of this new work that his eloquent eye emerged. To me Brandt is like a Zen master. Whether it be socio-documentary, portrait, landscape or nude, it was his ability to focus on a particular subject at any one time – to concentrate on seeing subjects and ideas clearly – that became a hallmark of his later artistic creation. Through bodies of work that mix reality and dream the artist challenges straight photographic seeing in order for us to understand that enigmatic fragments can stand alone from each other while at the same time combining to make the whole. While A snicket in Halifax (1937, below) may not be present in Unemployed miner returning home from Jarrow (1937, below), it is when they combine that the circle is closed. It is in the entirety of his imaged (imagined) world, in the entirety of his vision, when all fragments combine, that Brandt emphasises that the whole of anything is greater than its parts.

Dr Marcus Bunyan

 

Footnotes

  1. “Bill Brandt.” Introduction by Mitra Abbaspour, Associate Curator, Department of Photography, 2014 on the MoMA website Nd [Online] Cited 22/08/2021
  2. David Campany. “The Career of a Photographer, the Career of a Photograph – Bill Brandt’s Art of the Document,” on the David Company website [Online] Cited 10/06/2021. First published in the Tate Liverpool exhibition catalogue ‘Making History: Art and documentary in Britain from 1929-Now’, 2006
  3. Ibid.,
  4. Ibid.,
  5. Anonymous. “Bill Brandt Biography,” archived from the original on the V&A website Nd [Online] Cited 22/08/2021
  6. Campany, op cit.,

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Many thankx to Fundación Mapfre for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

 

Fundación MAPFRE is presenting the first retrospective in Spain on Bill Brandt (1904-1983), considered one of the most influential British artists of the 20th century. The exhibition brings together 186 photographs developed by Brandt himself who, over the course of five decades, made use of almost all the photographic genres: social documentary, portraiture, the nude and landscape.

 

 

“Each of Brandt’s well-known images aims for a tight formal organisation, its content given dramatic charge and dense psychological resonance. As documents they aim unapologetically to exceed visual description. In this sense what served him ill as a photojournalist was just what predisposed his images toward posterity via art. …

In the 1950s he continued to work professionally but concentrated on the more established genres of portraiture and landscape. In the 1960s there were two major changes in his work and its reception. Both were related to his emerging position in art photography. He began to print his negatives much more harshly, sacrificing the mid-tones for more modish graphic blocks of black and white. The rich descriptive information in his negatives would be subsumed, even obliterated in his new aesthetic. It was a technique that looked backward through German expressionist cinema to art photography’s Pictorialist preference for deep shadows and chiaroscuro, but it also connected with the emerging Pop sensibility.

While his latest photography was pursued more openly as art, notably his nudes (published as a book in 1960), his expressionism was released anew upon his earlier work. His books from the 1960s are printed with graphic extremes of black and white. …

The reprinting of Parlourmaid and under-parlourmaid ready to serve dinner was never too harsh. Brandt knew well that the force of this photograph resided in its details as much as its bold graphic organisation. Shadow of Light even improved on its past reproductions allowing new layers of meaning to emerge. …

While some meanings of Brandt’s photograph have been buried as the image has moved across time and from documentary to art, new meanings have come to the surface, meanings entirely dependent on art’s demand for superior qualities of reproduction.

As with many photographers who were discovered by a wider audience later in life, Brandt found himself regarded as a ‘figure from the past’ and as a contemporary artist at the same time. Layered on top of this was what looked like a shift from documentarist to artist. The reality, as always, was more complicated. At his best Brandt was a ‘documentary artist’ with all the paradoxes and interpretative difficulties that entails. There could never be any simple distinction between his artistry and his documentary description. The two are inextricable and give us no clear answers. And in the end these tensions are at the heart of his work and its success.”

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David Campany. Extract from “The Career of a Photographer, the Career of a Photograph – Bill Brandt’s Art of the Document,” on the David Company website [Online] Cited 10/06/2021. First published in the Tate Liverpool exhibition catalogue ‘Making History: Art and documentary in Britain from 1929-Now’, 2006

 

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983) 'Death and the industrialist, Barcelona' 1932

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983)
Death and the industrialist, Barcelona
1932
25.40 x 20.32cm
Private collection
Courtesy Bill Brandt Archive and Edwynn Houk Gallery
© Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive Ltd.

 

 

An apprentice in the studio of Man Ray and influenced in his origins by artists such as Brassaï, André Kertész or Eugène Atget, Bill Brandt (Hamburg, 1904 – London, 1983), one of the founders of modern photography, conceives the photographic language as a powerful means of contemplation and understanding of reality, but always from a primacy of aesthetic considerations over documentaries. Published in the press or in books, some of his photographs quickly became iconic pieces, indispensable to understanding mid-century English society.

His work also expresses a permanent attraction for the strange , for that which causes as much attraction as it is strange and causes unease. His aesthetics are thus close to the concept of “the sinister”, understood as something opposite to the idea of ​​the familiar, of the usual. This element will act as a plot line for a professional and artistic production that, at first, seems erratic and dispersed.

His late work shows a more experimental facet, a search for innovation through cropping and framing, present above all in nude images.

The exhibition brings together 186 photographs made by Bill Brandt himself, who throughout the almost five decades of his career did not stop addressing any of the great genres of the photographic discipline: social reporting, portraiture, nude and landscape .

The tour, divided into six sections (“First photographs”, “Up and down”, “Portraits”, “Described landscapes”, “Nudes” and “In Praise of imperfection”), tries to show how all these aspects – in the that identity and the concept of “the sinister” become protagonists – they come together in the work of this eclectic artist who was considered, above all, a flâneur, a “stroller” in terms similar to those of his admired Eugene Atget, whom he always considered one of his teachers. One hundred and eighty-six photographs that are complemented by writings, some of his cameras and various documentation (among which the interview he gave to the BBC shortly before his death stands out), as well as illustrated publications of the time. All thanks to the courtesy of the Bill Brandt Archive in London and the Edwynn Houk Gallery in New York.

 

Four keys

Surrealist beginnings

After starting his foray into photography in Vienna, where he made the famous portrait of the poet Ezra Pound in 1928, Bill Brandt went to Paris to enter as an assistant, for a short period of time, in the studio of Man Ray, which prompted him to blend in with the surrealist atmosphere of the French capital, which will permeate all of his work from then on. This influence, together with that of his admiration for Eugène Atget, the photographer who documented “old Paris” and for whom Fundación MAPFRE also organised an exhibition in 2011, led to images where the disturbing was already making an appearance: street scenes and Parisian nights are some of the most frequent motifs in the artist’s images during this period.

 

Concealment of German heritage

Together with his partner and future wife, Eva Boros, he also made numerous trips to the Hungarian steppe, to his native Hamburg and to Spain, where they visited Madrid and Barcelona, ​​before moving to London in 1934. It was in this city when Brandt got rid of his German roots, eliminating all reference to them, a concealment due to the growing animosity towards Germany that followed the rise of Nazism. Brandt invented a British birth, creating an artistic corpus in which the United Kingdom that is at the core of his identity.

 

The portrait

After having made several portraits in the early days of his career, starting in the 1940s – a period in which he worked for magazines such as Picture Post, Liliput and Harper’s Bazaar – Bill Brandt approached this genre in a professional way. Some of the portraits represented a break with tradition, such as those that appeared in the aforementioned Lilliput in 1941, illustrating the article “Young Poets of Democracy”, which included some of the most representative faces of the writers and poets of the Auden Generation.

 

In Praise of Imperfection

In his introduction to Camera in London, the book on the British capital published in 1948, Bill Brandt noted: ‘I consider it essential that the photographer make his own copies and enlargements. The final effect of the image depends to a large extent on these operations, and only the photographer knows what he intends. For the artist, work in the laboratory was essential and, at the beginning of his career, he learned a whole range of artisan techniques: from magnification to enlargement, the use of brushes, scrapers or other tools.’ This manual retouching sometimes gave his photographs that somewhat crude aspect that can be associated with the aforementioned Freudian concept of the “unheimlich”: the sinister.

Text from the Fundación Mapfre website translated from the Spanish by Google Translate

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983) 'Bond Street hatter's show-case' 1934

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983)
Bond Street hatter’s show-case
1934
30.48 x 23.50 cm
Private collection
Courtesy Bill Brandt Archive and Edwynn Houk Gallery
© Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive Ltd.

 

 

Born Hermann Wilhelm Brandt in Hamburg in 1904 to a wealthy family of Russian origin, after a period living in Vienna and Paris Brandt decided to settle in London in 1934. Within the context of growing hostility to all things German due to the rise of Nazism, he attempted to erase all traces of his origins to the point of stating that he was British by nationality. This concealment and the creation of a new personality enveloped Brandt’s life in an aura of mystery and conflict that is directly reflected in his works.

This aspect combines with the photographer’s interest in psychoanalysis, which he underwent during his youth in Vienna. A few years earlier, in 1919, Sigmund Freud had published the essay Das Unheimliche in which he analysed this term, which is generally translated as “the uncanny” in the sense of something that produces unease. Almost all Brandt’s photographs, both the pre-war social documentary type and those from his subsequent more “artistic” phase, possess a powerful poetic charge as well as that very typical aura of strangeness and mystery in which, as in his own life, reality and fiction are always mixed.

The structure of the exhibition, which is divided into six sections, reveals how all these qualities – in which identity and the concept of “the uncanny” become the principal ones – blend together in the work of this eclectic artist. Above all Brandt was considered a flâneur or stroller in a way comparable to his admired Eugène Atget, whom he always considered one of his masters. The exhibition also reveals the relationship between Brandt’s images and Dada and Surrealism. This interest is reflected in clear references to psychoanalytical issues, expressed through increasingly sombre tones and an obsession with collecting found objects.

The exhibition is completed with a range of documentation, a number of Brandt’s cameras and examples of the illustrated press of the period that published some of his most iconic images. All this has been made possible courtesy of the Bill Brandt Archive in London and the Edwynn Houk Gallery in New York.

Press release from the Fundación Mapfre website

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983) 'East Durham coal-searchers' 1937

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983)
East Durham coal-searchers
1937
25.24 x 20.16cm
Private collection
Courtesy Bill Brandt Archive and Edwynn Houk Gallery
© Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive Ltd.

 

East Durham coal-searchers near Henworth, 1937. Coal searchers on slag heap searching for bits of coal 1940s.

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983) 'Coal-Miner's Bath, Chester-le-Street, Durham' 1937

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983)
Coal-Miner’s Bath, Chester-le-Street, Durham
1937
© Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive Ltd.

 

 

Bill Brandt

Considered one of the most influential British photographers of the 20th century and one of the artists who, together with Brassaï, Henri Cartier-Bresson and others, laid the foundations of modern photography, Bill Brandt’s oeuvre can be considered an eclectic one, reflecting a career of nearly five decades during which he encompassed almost all the photographic genres: social documentary, portraiture, the nude and landscape.

Born Hermann Wilhelm Brandt in Hamburg in 1904 to a wealthy family of Russian origin, after a period living in Vienna and Paris Brandt decided to settle in London in 1934. Within the context of growing hostility to all things German due to the rise of Nazism, he attempted to erase all traces of his origins to the point of stating that he was British by nationality. This concealment and the creation of a new personality enveloped Brandt’s life in an aura of mystery and conflict that was directly reflected in his work. His images aim to construct a vision of the country that he embraced as his own, although not of the real country but rather of the idea that he had created of it during his childhood through reading and from stories told by relatives.

Brandt had tuberculosis as a child and it was seemingly in the Swiss sanatoriums at Agra and Davos where his family sent him to convalesce that he first became interested in photography. After some years in Switzerland he moved to Vienna to undergo an innovative treatment for tuberculosis based on psychoanalysis. Imbued with a post-Romantic air, Brandt’s photography always seems to be located on the edge, provoking simultaneous attraction and rejection. It can be related to the concept of unheimlich, a term first used by Sigmund Freud in 1919. The adjective unheimlich – generally translated as “the uncanny”, “the sinister” or “the disturbing”, and which according to Eugenio Trías “constitutes the condition and limit of the beautiful” – is one of the characteristic traits that remains present throughout Brandt’s career. Psychoanalytical theories were among the fundamental pillars of Surrealism and their influence extended to the entire Parisian cultural scene in the 1930s. Brandt and his first partner, Eva Boros, moved to the French capital in 1930 where he worked as an assistant in Man Ray’s studio. It was at this point that he assimilated the ideas circulating in a city filled with young artists, many of them immigrants looking to make their way in the professional art world. His images of this initial period suggest a catalogue of psychoanalytical “themes”, clearly reflecting the influence of Surrealism on him even though he never actively participated in any of the historic avant-garde groups.

Almost all Brandt’s images, both the pre-war social documentary type and those from his subsequent more “artistic” phase, possess a powerful poetic charge as well as that very typical aura of strangeness and mystery in which, as in his own life, reality and fiction are always combined.

Bill Brandt died in London in 1983.

Ramón Esparza, curator

 

Early photographs

Following his apprenticeship as a photographer in Vienna, Brandt left for Paris in order to work for a brief period as an assistant in Man Ray’s studio, an activity that allowed him to move in the city’s Surrealist circles. Nonetheless, his photographs of this period are closer to those of his admired Eugène Atget. Brandt followed Atget, becoming a stroller or flâneur whose images of Parisian nightlife and street scenes anticipate his subsequent work and possess an already palpable sense of unease.

Brandt and his partner Eva Boros travelled on numerous occasions to the Hungarian steppes, to his native Hamburg and to Spain, where they visited Madrid and Barcelona among other cities and with the plan of spending their holidays in Majorca before moving to London in 1934. It was in London that Brandt shed his German origins and created a body of work in which the United Kingdom – a country marked by significant social inequality at that time – established itself as the core of his identity.

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983) 'Dressmaker's dummy, Paris' 1929

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983)
Dressmaker’s dummy, Paris
1929
© Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive Ltd

 

 

During his years in Paris Brandt established connections with the Surrealist circle and with groups of photographers who aimed to make the camera both a means of expression and of earning a living. He never followed the principal trends and focused his attention on the daily life of the suburbs rather than on events of the day. Brandt’s photographs of this period reveal how he increasingly assimilated Surrealist concepts into his way of seeing. This dressmaker’s dummy found on the street is a metaphor for the idea of the double. Other images from these years, such as the hot air balloon flying over the skies of Paris, allow his early work to be seen as a type of catalogue of the principal themes of Surrealism.

 

Upstairs downstairs

The growing antipathy on the part of the British towards Nazi Germany meant that many immigrants who had arrived from the latter country changed their name. Brandt went even further than this as he completely concealed his origins and for more than twenty-five years passed himself off as a British citizen.

The 1930s was the decade of the great social protest movements and of strikes over working conditions following the 1929 financial crash. It was within this context that in 1936 Brandt published his first book, The English at Home, produced in a wide, album format. He employed a design particularly favoured by Central European graphic publications based on the combination of opposites in order to achieve a significant contrast between each pair of photographs. With these double-page spreads Brandt aimed to juxtapose two opposing social social classes, thus generating two parallel narrative discourses without mixing them together.

Following the outbreak of World War II Brandt started to work for the Ministry of Information. It was at this point that he produced two of his most famous series of images: his photographs of Londoners sleeping in Underground stations converted into improvised shelters; and his images of the city at ground level, showing a ghostly London lit only by the moon as protection against the air raids. Brandt abandoned the class differences that he had previously portrayed in favour of other types of scenes which denounced the effects of the war on the civilian population.

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983) 'Couple in Peckham' 1936

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983)
Couple in Peckham
1936
© Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive Ltd

 

 

Following in the wake of Brassaï and the success of his book Paris de nuit (1932), Brandt began to elaborate his own version of London at night. To do this he made regular use of friends and relatives who posed for him to create the scene he wished to photograph. In this case the “accosted” woman is his sister-in-law Ester Brandt and the man in the hat is his brother Rolf. The image allows for different interpretations but the reference to the genre of crime thrillers or simply to prostitution is clear.

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983) 'Unemployed miner returning home from Jarrow' 1937

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983)
Unemployed miner returning home from Jarrow
1937
© Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive Ltd

 

 

The 1930s were economically harsh and politically turbulent years in Europe. The 1929 financial crash led the United Kingdom to close its mines and steelworks, resulting in unemployment rising to more than 2.5 million people. Activities such as collecting pieces of coal from mining waste on the beach became a way of life for many families. Brandt’s photograph shows one of these former miners, exhausted after an unproductive day’s labour and pushing his bicycle loaded with a sack of coal, the result of his efforts.

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983) 'Parlourmaid and Under-parlourmaid ready to serve dinner' 1936

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983)
Parlourmaid and Under-parlourmaid ready to serve dinner
1933 printed later
23.81 x 20.32cm
Private collection
Courtesy Bill Brandt Archive and Edwynn Houk Gallery
© Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive Ltd.

 

 

This photograph was taken for a reportage published in Picture Post on 29 July 1939 with the title “The Perfect Parlourmaid” [but it never appeared in the Picture Post photo story of that name in July 1939]. Following his habitual practice, Brandt turned to his own family, in this case making use of his uncle Henry’s house. Pratt the parlourmaid waits in the dining room for the family members and their guests to be seated for dinner before starting to serve the food and attend the diners. This could be a classic image of social documentary photography except for the fact that Brandt very probably sat down at the table with the rest of the family after taking his shot. The image, however, reveals far more. The faces and poses of the two maids convey the difference between the gaze of the senior parlourmaid, which suggests both experience and assimilation of her social role, and that of her assistant, which seems to wander vaguely around the room.

 

“In his marvellous photograph the two house parlourmaids, prepared to wait at table, have eyes loaded like blunderbusses. Their starched caps and cuffs, their poker backs, mirror the terrible rectitude of learned attitudes. They have the same irritated loathing in defence of caste that shows in portraits of Evelyn Waugh.”

Mark Haworth-Booth cites Henderson in his introduction to the second edition of Brandt’s book Shadow of Light, Gordon Fraser, London 1977, p. 17.

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983) 'Parlourmaid and Under-parlourmaid ready to serve dinner' 1933

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983)
Parlourmaid and Under-parlourmaid ready to serve dinner
1933
© Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive Ltd.

 

 

“… Brandt’s parlourmaids image is unusual in that something of those social contrasts is at play within its frame and so the image doesn’t lend itself to juxtaposition in the same way.

We see a dressed dinner table of a well-to-do household and the attendant women. The head parlourmaid seems at first glance to express a stern resentment mixed with weariness and professional discipline, but there is a kind of blankness about her too. Her junior has the vacant expression of an adolescent, not yet able to grasp the social forces that will shape her, perhaps. A reading of the image made by the photographer Nigel Henderson is similar but more pointed:

“In his marvellous photograph the two house parlourmaids, prepared to wait at table, have eyes loaded like blunderbusses. Their starched caps and cuffs, their poker backs, mirror the terrible rectitude of learned attitudes. They have the same irritated loathing in defence of caste that shows in portraits of Evelyn Waugh.”

Rhetorically, this is an image of doubles and differences. Its economy of form and content forces us to see in opposites, tapping into and reinforcing a general understanding of the social structures of class and service. It is as barbed as The English at Home gets. There is nothing overtly angry or revolutionary in the generally restrained tone of Brandt’s book. However it was unusual in bringing different classes into one volume, leaving the viewer to reconcile the social contradictions and inequities.”

David Campany. Extract from “The Career of a Photographer, the Career of a Photograph – Bill Brandt’s Art of the Document,” on the David Company website [Online] Cited 10/06/2021. First published in the Tate Liverpool exhibition catalogue Making History: Art and documentary in Britain from 1929-Now, 2006

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983) 'Sheltering in a Spitalfields crypt' 1940

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983)
Sheltering in a Spitalfields crypt
1940
© Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive Ltd

 

 

Isidore Ducasse, who used the grandiloquent nom de plume of “the Comte de Lautréamont” for his poetic output, wrote one of the most frequently quoted definitions of Surrealist beauty: “As beautiful as the chance meeting, on a dissecting table, of a sewing machine and an umbrella.” Locating incongruence and transforming it into a work of art was one of Surrealism’s key strategies. By adding a dash of well-developed humour to this formula Brandt brought off the recipe with aplomb. At the height of the war, with German bombing raids nightly assailing a London whose inhabitants took shelter in the Underground and in basements, Bill Brandt photographed this man. Poor and working-class, to judge from his appearance, he is seen peacefully asleep in an open tomb in a crypt in clear defiance of death itself and of the terror it supposedly arouses.

 

Portraits

As a portraitist, a genre to which he devoted himself professionally from 1943, Bill Brandt considered that the photographer’s aim should be that of capturing a “suspended” moment rather than just the appearance: “I think a good portrait ought to tell something about a subject’s past and suggest something about their future”; in other words, achieving an image that asks questions and raises issues about both the sitter and the viewer. Some of Brandt’s portraits mark a break from tradition, such as the ones published in the magazine Lilliput in 1941 to accompany the article “Young Poets of Democracy”, which includes images of some of the leading names of the Auden generation.

Brandt subsequently began to distort the space in his portraits, for example Francis Bacon on Primrose Hill, London (1963). He also produced a new series of portraits of eyes of clearly Surrealist inspiration. The eyes of Henry Moore, Georges Braque and Antoni Tàpies are among the examples of gazes that transformed the way of seeing and representing the world.

 

“I always take portraits in my sitter’s own surroundings. I concentrate very much on the picture as a whole and leave the sitter rather to himself. I hardly talk and barely look at him.” ~ Bill Brandt

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983) 'Francis Bacon on Primrose Hill, London' 1963

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983)
Francis Bacon on Primrose Hill, London
1963
25.40 x 20.32cm
Private collection
Courtesy Bill Brandt Archive and Edwynn Houk Gallery
© Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive Ltd.

 

 

Brandt’s portraits evolved over time. Some mark a break with tradition, such as the images published in Lilliput in 1941 to accompany the article “Young Poets of Democracy”, which included some of the most famous faces of the writers and poets of the Auden generation. He subsequently began to distort the space in his images, as evident in Francis Bacon on Primrose Hill, London (1963), and also produced a new series of portraits of eyes of clearly Surrealist inspiration. The eyes of Henry Moore, Georges Braque and Antoni Tàpies are among the examples of gazes that transformed the way of seeing and representing the world.

One of several portraits of Francis Bacon by Brandt, here the photographer used the camera he had bought for his nudes on the beach. The notably wide angle lens, which produces a sense of space distorted in depth, and the chosen moment, just after sunset with the last light of day blending with the artificial light, give the scene a strange “atmosphere” (a term Brandt considered fundamental in his images). The familiar setting of an English park becomes disturbing with the dark sky, the curiously small and bent street light and Bacon, either indifferent or engaged, who turns his back on it all.

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983) 'Henry Moore in his studio at Much Hadham, Hertfordshire' 1946

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983)
Henry Moore in his studio at Much Hadham, Hertfordshire
1946
© Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive Ltd

 

 

The friendship and professional relations between Bill Brandt and the sculptors Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth was a lifelong one and they frequently collaborated. Moore accompanied Brandt on his visits to the night shelters in the London Underground and drew while his friend took photographs. Their work is being exhibited at The Hepworth Wakefield in 2020. The mutual influence between the two artists is evident in this portrait of Moore alongside one of his sculptures. The biomorphic forms that Moore has created from the wood recall those of Brandt’s nudes.

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983) 'Graham Greene in his flat, St James's Street, London' 1948

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983)
Graham Greene in his flat, St James’s Street, London
1948
© Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive Ltd

 

 

The writer Graham Greene appears in this photograph next to a window which gives onto the interior courtyard of his London flat. Brandt, however, transformed a view of a simple courtyard into a type of labyrinth of lines in which it is difficult to discern what belongs to the window, what to the triangular shape located immediately next to Greene and what to the construction in the background. This confusion, the repetition of triangles and the mixture of lines can be seen as mimicking the author’s complex plots in his novels, while the harsh light that illuminates his face, falling from the upper right downwards, imbues his figure with a theatrical aura of mystery.

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983) 'Georges Braque' 1960

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983)
Georges Braque
1960
© Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive Ltd

 

 

The eye of…

In the early 1960s Brandt embarked on a photographic series in which he reduced the sitter’s face to a foreground shot of one of the eyes. The subjects photographed in this manner were some of the leading visual artists of the day: Ernst, Braque, Vasarely, Moore, Tàpies, Arp, Dubuffet and Giacometti. The series aims to make the viewer reflect on the role of the gaze in art. Once the imperative of resemblance is rejected, what makes a painting powerful and interesting is the artist’s gaze, the way he or she has to look at and represent reality, or simply to produce a visible reality that does not refer to any other, as in the case of Victor Vasarely and Jean Arp. The camera, that glass eye which reflected the world in the 20th century, is used here to depict the instrument through which artists have seen and interpreted that world. To be exact, however, it should be acknowledged that both the camera and the eye are mere tools and that the essence of the process takes place “further back”, in the mind.

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983) 'Jean Dubuffet' 1960

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983)
Jean Dubuffet
1960
© Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive Ltd

 

 

This closely cropped eye belongs to the artist Jean Dubuffet. Brandt made ten photographs of notable visual artists; a few seem to have been taken at the same session as a published portrait, although none appear to be enlargements from other known works. They are striking departures from Brandt’s typical practice, mysterious despite their clarity of description, and they underscore the photographer’s experimental impulse, even late in his career. There is no record of their ever being published in a magazine.

MoMA gallery label from Bill Brandt: Shadow and Light, March 6 – August 12, 2013.

 

Landscapes described

Following his engagement with portraiture Brandt introduced landscape into his repertoire, thus encompassing all the categories traditionally considered to constitute the classic artistic genres. In his landscapes he aimed to introduce an atmosphere that connects with the viewer in order to provoke an emotional response from contemplation of the work. In this sense it would seem that Brandt did not merely aim to represent a place but to capture its very essence in a single image, as in Halifax; “Hail Hell & Halifax” (1937) and Cuckmere River (1963). When these landscapes started to include stone constructions such as tombs and crosses Brandt considered that he had achieved his aim: “Thus it was I found atmosphere to be the spell that charged the commonplace with beauty. … I only know it is a combination of elements … which reveals the subject as familiar and yet strange.”

It should be remembered that for Brandt the concept of landscape was deeply rooted in painting and the photographic tradition but also in literature. Literary Britain, which was published in 1951, makes this relationship clear. Brandt used images already published in other weekly magazines as well as photographs specially taken for this book, accompanying them with extracts from works by British authors.

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983) Halifax; 'Hail, Hell and Halifax' 1937

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983)
Halifax; ‘Hail, Hell and Halifax’
1937
23.50 x 20.32cm
Bill Brandt Archive
© Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive Ltd.

 

 

In the social portrait that Brandt created of England in the 1930s the northern industrial cities made an inevitable appearance. Coal mining and steel production, both affected by a major crisis during this period, gave cities like Halifax and Newcastle a dark, sombre appearance which Brandt masterfully conveyed in his images. The photograph’s title refers to a verse from a popular 17th century poem by John Taylor: “From Hell, Hull and Halifax, Good Lord, deliver us!”, referring to the harshness of justice in those two cities.

 

The reputation of the great British documentary photographer Bill Brandt rests in large part on his capacity to manage the tension between black and white in a photograph. For Brandt, strong tonal contrast came to represent the social and cultural experience of Britain between the wars – a place of vast contrasts between rich and poor, worker and elite, urban and rural. But strong tonal contrast, and blackness in particular, carried other, more metaphysical associations. For Brandt, blackness represented the forces and mysteries at work in the world, a place of power and tragedy. Blackness in a photograph also introduced ‘a new beauty’ to the subject, one that intensified the visual and emotional experience of it.

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983) 'Gull's nest, midsummer evening, Skye' 1947

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983)
Gull’s nest, midsummer evening, Skye
1947
© Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive Ltd

 

 

Brandt saw this gull’s nest on a sunny afternoon during his trip to photograph northern Scotland. The light was too flat so he decided to return later. This was close to the time of year of the midnight sun. As Brandt wrote: “When I approached the nest on an isolated outpost of rocks, an enormously large gull which had been sitting on the eggs flew off and circled low around my head, barking like a dog. It was windstill, the mountains of the Scottish mainland were reflected in the sea – the light was now just right for the picture.”

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983) 'Nude, London' 1952

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983)
Nude, London
1952
22.86 x 19.37cm
Private collection
Courtesy Bill Brandt Archive and Edwynn Houk Gallery
© Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive Ltd.

 

 

Nudes

In 1944 Brandt returned to the theme of the nude. For the artist, documentary photography had become a widely extended fashion while the old Great Britain with its marked class divisions was now something of the past. It should also be remembered that the nude is one of the traditional themes of painting and as such signals Brandt’s evolution from documentary photography to the social status of “artist”.

In the 1950s he visited the French Channel Coast beaches in order to make a series of portraits of the painter Georges Braque. Seeing those pebble beaches led to a change of direction and he started to photograph stones and parts of the female body as if they were stones themselves. He combined flesh and rock, heat and cold, hardness and softness in a single formal discourse.

The distortions are often so pronounced that the parts of the body have lost any reference point but they nonetheless produce sensations that are more poetic or profound. It may be that for Brandt these “fragments” of the human body in comparison or communion with natural forms represented primordial forms of some type through which we can perceive “the totality of the world”, as with the Urformen of the Gestalt School and its theory of perception.

Brandt’s nudes of the late 1970s bear no relation to his earlier ones. They transmit a certain sense of violence which reveals the alienation of an artist who no longer felt himself part of the world in which he lived.

 

“Instead of photographing what I saw, I photographed what the camera was seeing. I interfered very little, and the lens produced anatomical images and shapes which my eyes had never observed.” ~ Bill Brandt

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983) 'Nude, Campden Hill, London' 1947

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983)
Nude, Campden Hill, London
1947
© Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive Ltd

 

 

The Kodak camera that Brandt found in a second-hand shop near Covent Garden was designed to produce a clear image of an interior space without any major technical complications. It offered an unusual vision of the motif, creating a space that evokes a dreamlike mood. Most of Brandt’s photographs of nudes in interiors were taken with this old wooden camera which imbues the scene with a sensation of both beauty and disquiet. The repetition of specific visual elements such as windows, which are always in the background of the scene, half-open doors and different pieces of furniture, including the two chairs in this image, suggests issues such as absence, the desire to escape or a complex representation of desire stripped of the object (equivalent to reducing it to its most primary sense).

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983) 'Nude, East Sussex coast' 1959

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983)
Nude, East Sussex coast
1959
© Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive Ltd

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983) 'Nude, East Sussex coast' 1977

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983)
Nude, East Sussex coast
1977
© Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive Ltd

 

 

While walking on the Channel Coast beaches, Brandt’s attention was caught by the rounded forms of the rocks on the beach and their resemblance to some forms of the human body. This idea gave rise to his series of nudes photographed outdoors. For this project he abandoned his old Kodak plate camera in favour of a Hasselblad with a wide angle lens and his much used Rolleiflex. The formal interplay that he began to develop in this photograph is closely related to the constructivist nature of what the theoreticians of the Gestalt school (the German psychology movement which began to analyse the bases of human perception in the early 20th century) called Urformen or primordial forms. The combination of both elements, rock and flesh, hard and soft, produces a series of relationships that can be associated with Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth’s sculpture.

 

In Praise of Imperfection

In the introduction to Camera in London, his book on that city published in 1948, Brandt wrote: “I consider it essential that the photographer should do his own printing and enlarging. The final effect of the finished print depends so much on these operations. And only the photographer himself knows the effect he wants.”

For the artist, hands-on work in the photographic lab was essential for ensuring control over the final image, which in most cases was the stage prior to the publishing process when the image appeared in a book or magazine. At the outset of his career Brandt had learned a wide range of traditional techniques, including blow-up, enlarging and the use of brushes, scrapers and other tools.

These manual retouchings sometimes gave his photographs that rather crude look which can be associated with the above-mentioned Freudian concept of unheimlich or “sinister”. Many of them clearly show brushstrokes of black wash on the surface, for example At Charlie Brown’s, Limehouse (1946), displayed in this section of the exhibition.

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983) 'At Charlie Brown's, Limehouse' 1945/1946

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983)
At Charlie Brown’s, Limehouse
1945/1946
© Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive Ltd

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983) 'At Charlie Brown's, Limehouse' 1945/1946

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983)
At Charlie Brown’s, Limehouse
1945/1946
© Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive Ltd

 

 

In the background of this image, taken in one of London’s East End pubs, is another one: a poster issued by the military Red Cross and referring to that organisation’s work on the battlefields during World War I. It is not known why, in the second version of the image, Brandt partly obscured the poster with black wash, the medium he most commonly used to retouch his photographs.

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983) 'A snicket in Halifax' 1937

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983)
A snicket in Halifax
1937
25.40 x 20.50cm
Private collection
Courtesy Bill Brandt Archive and Edwynn Houk Gallery
© Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive Ltd.

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983) 'A snicket in Halifax' 1937

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983)
A snicket in Halifax
1937, printed later
25.40 x 20.50cm
Private collection
Courtesy Bill Brandt Archive and Edwynn Houk Gallery
© Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive Ltd.

 

 

In 1951 Brandt started to develop his photographs using a high contrast paper in order to obtain very dark and light zones in the same image. This led him to develop some of his best known images again, including A snicket in Halifax. In contrast to the earlier prints of that photograph, in which the details of the façade of the building on the left are perfectly visible, he now reinterpreted the image with the façade totally blackened and thus strongly contrasting with the glint on the ramp’s cobblestones while adding a plume of black smoke in the sky.

As early as 1997 Nigel Warburton, an art historian who has undertaken some of the best work on Brandt, questioned the concept of authenticity in this photograph in one of his texts, reflecting on the changes that Brandt had introduced in the prints of his images. Warburton asked which is the most “authentic”, emphasising the fact that the way in which the artist interpreted a single negative had changed over time and rejecting the idea that the simple distinction between what are known as “vintage” prints and later reprints resolves this issue.

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983) 'Nude, Vasterival, Normandy' 1954

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983)
Nude, Vasterival, Normandy
1954
© Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive Ltd

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983) 'Nude, Vasterival, Normandy' 1954

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983)
Nude, Vasterival, Normandy
1954
© Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive Ltd.

 

 

In contrast to photographic purists such as Edward Weston, Brandt had no objection to retouching his images, cropping them or reversing the negative in accordance with his preferences or to meet the requirements of its layout on the printed page. Here we see two versions of the same image with the negative flipped in the enlarger. This is not a unique case and there are other examples in the exhibition: Policeman in a dockland alley, Bermondsey was published in two versions, while Behind the restaurant is a photograph that was always printed in reverse, as evident from the lettering on the boxes.

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983) 'Policeman in a Dockland Alley, Bermondsey' 1934

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983)
Policeman in a Dockland Alley, Bermondsey
1934
© Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive Ltd.

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983) 'Top Withens, West Riding, Yorkshire' 1944-1945

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983)
Top Withens, West Riding, Yorkshire
1944-1945
© Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive Ltd

 

 

This photograph was included in Brandt’s book Literary Britain (1951) and he recalled how he visited the place various times in order to take it, considering it one of the settings that best conveyed the world of Emily Brontë’s works. The farm, now a ruin, is supposedly the place that inspired her novel Wuthering Heights.

For the painter David Hockney, a great admirer of Brandt, this was one of his favourite photographs but he was extremely disappointed to discover that it is in fact a composite image and that the storm filled clouds, which descend almost to the ground, were taken from another negative and added in the photography lab. The other photograph, taken from higher up on the hill, provides the reverse shot on a foggy winter day.

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983) 'Top Withens, West Riding, Yorkshire' 1944-1945

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983)
Top Withens, West Riding, Yorkshire
1944-1945
© Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive Ltd

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983) 'Barmaid at the Crooked Billet, Tower Hill' March 1939

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983)
Barmaid at the Crooked Billet, Tower Hill
March 1939
© Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive Ltd

 

 

Bill Brandt employed a wide range of retouching techniques on his prints, which was common practice in analogue photography, in which tiny scratches on the negative or specks of dust that cannot be completely removed leave marks on the photographic paper. In addition, Brandt often attempted to conceal imperfections in the individuals or objects photographed. The most widely used materials for this were watercolour, Conté crayon and even lead pencil. Brandt, however, also frequently used a scraper and Indian ink.

In this photograph the outline of the barmaid’s face, her eye and eyebrows have been reinforced with a metal point to define the lines, while the use of watercolour and Conté crayon allows various imperfections in the area of the left arm to be concealed.

 

Bill Brandt

Born Hermann Wilhelm Brandt in Hamburg in 1904 to a wealthy family of Russian origin, after a period living in Vienna and Paris in 1934 Brandt decided to settle in London. Within the context of growing hostility to all things German due to the rise of Nazism, he attempted to erase all traces of his origins to the point of stating that he was British by nationality. This concealment and the creation of a new personality enveloped Brandt’s life in an aura of mystery and conflict that was directly reflected in his work. His images aim to construct a vision of the country that he embraced as his own, although not of the real country but rather of the idea that he had created of it during his childhood through reading and from stories told by relatives.

Brandt had tuberculosis as a child and it was seemingly in the Swiss sanatoriums at Agra and Davos where his family sent him to convalesce that he first became interested in photography and where he made many of his literary discoveries: Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Gustave Flaubert, Franz Kafka, Guy de Maupassant, Ernest Hemingway and Charles Dickens. After some years in Switzerland he moved to Vienna to undergo an innovative treatment for tuberculosis based on psychoanalysis. Imbued with a post-Romantic air, Brandt’s photographs always seems to be located on the edge, provoking simultaneous attraction and rejection.

As the exhibition’s curator Ramón Esparza has noted, they can be related to the concept of unheimlich, a term first used by Sigmund Freud in 1919. The adjective unheimlich – generally translated as “the uncanny”, “the sinister” or “the disturbing”, and which according to Eugenio Trías “constitutes the condition and limit of the beautiful” – is one of the characteristic traits that remains present throughout Brandt’s career. Psychoanalytical theories were one of the fundamental pillars of Surrealism and their influence extended to the entire Parisian cultural scene in the 1930s. Brandt and his first partner, Eva Boros, moved to the French capital in 1930 where he worked as an assistant in Man Ray’s studio. Without ever actively participating in any of the historic avant-garde movements, he undoubtedly assimilated the ideas that circulated in a city filled with young artists, many of them immigrants looking to make their way in the professional art world. Brandt’s images of this period suggest a catalogue of psychoanalytical “themes”, clearly reflecting the influence of Surrealism on him.

Almost all Brandt’s images, both the pre-war social documentary type and those from his subsequent more “artistic” phase, possess a powerful poetic charge as well as that very typical aura of strangeness and mystery in which, as in his own life, reality and fiction are always mixed.

 

The exhibition

Fundación MAPFRE is delighted to be presenting the first retrospective in Spain on Bill Brandt (Hamburg 1904 – London, 1983), considered one of the most influential British photographers of the 20th century. The exhibition, together with Paul Strand. Fundación MAPFRE Collections, inaugurates the KBr Fundación MAPFRE, our new Photography Centre in Barcelona.

The exhibition presents 186 photographs developed by Brandt himself who, over the course of nearly five decades of professional activity, encompassed almost all the principal photographic genres: reportage, portraiture, the nude and landscape, as noted by his biographer Paul Delany in Bill Brandt. A Life, 2004.

The structure of the exhibition, which is divided into six sections, reveals how all these qualities – in which identity and the concept of “the uncanny” become the principal ones – blend together in the work of this eclectic artist. Above all Brandt was considered a flâneur or stroller in a way comparable to his admired Eugène Atget, whom he always considered one of his masters.

 

The early photographs

After initiating his activities as a photographer in Vienna, where he produced the famous and widely praised portrait of the poet Ezra Pound in 1928, Bill Brandt left for Paris in order to work for a short period as an assistant in Man Ray’s studio. In the French capital Brandt encountered Surrealism, which would influence his work from that point onwards. Some of his images, such as Balloon flying over the northern suburbs of Paris (1929), can be related to the psychoanalytical theories of Freud, who considered a hot air balloon in a dream to be a symbol of the masculine. Brandt’s photographs of this period are also closely related to the earlier work of his admired Eugène Atget; like him, Brandt photographed street scenes and Parisian nightlife (images that precede his subsequent, better known work) in which the above-mentioned notion of the disturbing makes its appearance.

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983) 'Evening in Kew Gardens' 1932

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983)
Evening in Kew Gardens
1932
25.24 x 20.48cm
Private collection
Courtesy Bill Brandt Archive and Edwynn Houk Gallery
© Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive Ltd.

 

 

Brandt and his partner Eva Boros (another of Man Ray’s students who had previously studied with André Kertész) travelled on numerous occasions to the Hungarian steppes, to his native Hamburg and to Spain, where they visited Madrid and Barcelona among other cities and with the plan of spending their holidays in Majorca before moving to London in 1934. It was at this point that Brandt shed his German origins, even to the point of inventing British nationality for himself and creating a body of work in which the United Kingdom – a country marked by significant social inequality at that time – established itself as the core of his identity.

 

Upstairs, downstairs

“Bill Brandt was a man who loved secrets, and needed them. The face he presented to the world was that of an English-born gentleman, someone who could easily blend in with the racegoers at Ascot whom he liked to photograph. [A] façade which he would defend with outright lies if he had to […]. Today, many people are eager to discover their roots and make an identity from them. Brandt did the exact opposite: he buried his true origins and presented himself as a completely different person from the one he had been, in reality, for the first twenty-five years of his life.”

Paul Delany starts his biography of Bill Brandt with these lines. According to that author, Brandt not only wanted to live in England but to become English, which was understandable in the context of the growing British antipathy to Nazi Germany and to the events that followed Hitler’s rise to power and the outbreak of World War II. In the London art world it was habitual practice for emigrants arriving from Germany to change their name. Among those who had done so were Stefan Lorant, a Hungarian who had been the editor-in-chief of the Münchner Illustrierte Presse, and two of his photographers, Hans Baumann and Kurt Hübschmann, who anglicised their names to Felix Man and Kurt Hutton, just as Brandt changed his first name to Bill.

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983) 'East End girl dancing the 'Lambeth Walk'' March 1939

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983)
East End girl dancing the ‘Lambeth Walk’
March 1939
22.86 x 19.68cm
Private collection
Courtesy Bill Brandt Archive and Edwynn Houk Gallery
© Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive Ltd.

 

 

In February 1936, two years after his arrival in London, Brandt published his first book, The English at Home. Despite their natural, spontaneous appearance, the scenes reproduced in the book were carefully prepared in advance. For this first book Brandt opted for a wide, album format and made use of one of the design formats most commonly employed in Central European graphic publications: the combination of opposites in order to create a significant contrast between each pair of photographs. Brandt aimed to juxtapose and counterbalance two different social classes on each double-page spread, developing two parallel narrative discourses but without mixing them together. We thus see family scenes of the upper classes out strolling or dining, followed by the same activities undertaken by working-class and mining families. Two years after the publication of The English at Home Brandt published A Night in London, which represents a type of replica of a work by Brassaï, one of the photographers he most admired, whose book Paris de nuit had appeared in France six years earlier. A Night in London can be seen as Brandt’s contribution to the photographic and cinematographic genre that some art historians have termed “the symphony of the metropolis.”

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983) 'Elephant & Castle Underground' 1940

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983)
Elephant & Castle Underground
1940
25.72 x 20.32cm
Private collection
Courtesy Bill Brandt Archive and Edwynn Houk Gallery
© Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive Ltd.

 

 

Elephant and Castle underground station during WWII. 1942. Deep underground at Elephant and Castle Underground station, Bill Brandt photographed many hundreds sleeping as they sought shelter from the Blitz overhead.

Following the outbreak of World War II, Brandt started to work for the Ministry of Information, producing two of his most celebrated series. The first comprises photographs of hundreds of Londoners sleeping in Underground stations converted into improvised shelters, while the second portrays the city on the surface; a ghostly London lit only by moonlight as a safety precaution due to the air raids. The United Kingdom had become a single country united against the enemy. Brandt abandoned the class differences that he had previously portrayed in favour of other types of scenes which denounced the effects of the war on the civilian population.

 

Portraits

While Brandt produced photographs on an independent basis that he would subsequently group together for his different books, much of his output appeared in publications and magazines such as Picture Post, as well as in Lilliput and in the American edition of Harper’s Bazaar, for which he started to work in 1943. It was at this point that he turned to portraiture as a professional activity. His first reference to his portraits, of which more than 400 are known, was published in Lilliput in 1948. In Brandt’s words: “André Breton once said that a portrait should not only be an image but an oracle one questions, and that the photographer’s aim should be a profound likeness, which physically and morally predicts the subject’s entire future. […] The photographer has to wait until something between dreaming and action occurs in the expression of a face.”

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983) 'Francis Bacon' c. 1951

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983)
Francis Bacon
c. 1951
© Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive Ltd.

 

 

Brandt’s portraits evolved over time. Some mark a break with tradition, such as the images published in Lilliput in 1941 to accompany the article “Young Poets of Democracy”, which included some of the most famous faces of the writers and poets of the Auden generation. He subsequently began to distort the space in his images, as evident in Francis Bacon on Primrose Hill, London (1963), and also produced a new series of portraits of eyes of clearly Surrealist inspiration. The eyes of Henry Moore, Georges Braque and Antoni Tàpies are among the examples of gazes that transformed the way of seeing and representing the world.

 

Landscape described

Following his focus on portraiture, Brandt introduced landscape into his repertoire, thus encompassing all the categories traditionally considered to constitute the classic artistic genres. In his landscapes he aimed to introduce an atmosphere – a term that for Brandt seems to involve an entire series of aesthetic references associated with both the pictorial and the literary traditions – which connects with the viewer in order to provoke an emotional response from contemplation of the image. In this sense it would seem that Brandt did not aim to merely represent a place but to capture its very essence in a single image, as in Halifax; “Hail Hell & Halifax” (1937) and Cuckmere River (1963). When these landscapes started to include stone constructions such as tombs and crosses Brandt considered that he had achieved his aim of capturing the atmosphere.

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983) 'Cuckmere River' (Río Cuckmere) 1963

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983)
Cuckmere River (Río Cuckmere)
1963
20 x 24.13cm
Private collection
Courtesy Bill Brandt Archive and Edwynn Houk Gallery
© Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive Ltd.

 

 

It should be remembered that for Brandt the concept of landscape was deeply rooted in painting and the photographic tradition but also in literature. Literary Britain, which was published in 1951, makes this relationship clear. Using images already published in other weekly magazines as well as photographs specially taken for this book, Brandt accompanied his photographs with extracts from works by British authors. It is here that an explanation of his somewhat imprecise concept of “atmosphere” can be found: the moment when the different elements that make up the landscape (nature, light, viewpoint, weather conditions) converge in an aesthetic canon rooted in a cultural tradition.

 

Nudes

When Brandt focused again on the theme of the nude in 1944 he seemed to feel the need to return to a more poetic type of image. For the artist, documentary photography had become a widely extended fashion while the old Great Britain with its marked class divisions was now something of the past. It should also be remembered that the nude is one of the traditional themes of painting and as such signals Brandt’s evolution from documentary photography to the social status of “artist”. For this transition he made use of an old plate camera with a lens that produced an effect of broad spatiality and depth, transforming the everyday space of a room into a dreamlike setting.

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983) 'Nude, Baie des Anges, France' 1959

 

Bill Brandt (British, born Germany 1904-1983)
Nude, Baie des Anges, France (Desnudo, Baie de Anges, Francia)
1959
25.24 x 20.32cm
Private collection
Courtesy Bill Brandt Archive and Edwynn Houk Gallery
© Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive Ltd.

 

 

In the 1950s Brandt visited the beaches of Normandy in order to make a series of portraits of the painter Georges Braque. Seeing those pebble beaches led to a change of direction and he started to photograph stones and parts of the female body as if they were stones themselves. He combined flesh and rock, heat and cold, hardness and softness in a single formal discourse. The distortions are often so pronounced that the parts of the body have lost any reference point but they nonetheless produce sensations that are more poetic or profound. It may be that for Brandt these “fragments” of the human body in comparison or communion with natural forms represented primordial forms of some type through which we can perceive “the totality of the world”, as with the Urformen of the Gestalt School and its theory of perception.

In the late 1970s Brandt again returned to the theme of the nude but these images bear no relation to his earlier ones. They transmit a certain sense of violence which reveals the alienation of an artist who no longer felt himself part of the world in which he lived.

 

In Praise of Imperfection

In the introduction to Camera in London, his book on that city published in 1948, Brandt wrote: “I consider it essential that the photographer should do his own printing and enlarging. The final effect of the finished print depends so much on these operations. And only the photographer himself knows the effect he wants.” Brandt was far more concerned than many other photographs with the actual developing of his analogue photographs. He considered working in the photographic lab to be essential and he could spend hours there in order to ensure complete control over the final image, which in most cases was the stage prior to the publishing process when the image appeared in a book or magazine. At the outset of his career he had learned a wide range of traditional techniques, including blow-up, enlarging and the use of brushes, scrapers and other tools, as can be seen in the works displayed in the case in this room, which include various prints of the same image retouched in different ways. These manual retouchings sometimes gave his photographs that rather crude look which can be seen in the context of the above-mentioned Freudian concept of unheimlich or “the uncanny”. A large number of these images clearly show brushstrokes of black wash on the surface. Another example is Top Withens, West Riding, Yorkshire of 1945, an image taken for Brandt’s book Literary Britain. It includes clear signs that the stormy sky which gives the landscape a more threatening appearance was added later in the lab.

 

The catalogue

The catalogue that accompanies the exhibition includes reproductions of all the works on display, in addition to a principal essay by the project’s curator, Ramón Esparza, doctor of Communication Sciences and professor of Audiovisual Communication at the Universidad del País Vasco, and another by Maud de la Forterie, doctor in Art History at the Sorbonne, whose doctoral thesis was devoted to the work of Bill Brandt. The catalogue also features an essay by Nigel Warburton on the artist, originally published in 1993 and revised for the present edition, and Bill Brandt’s text “A Statement” which was published in the magazine Album in March 1970.

 

 

FUNDACIÓN MAPFRE – Instituto de Cultura
Paseo de Recoletos, 23
28004 Madrid, Spain
Phone: +34 915 81 61 00

Opening hours:
Monday (except holidays) from 2.00pm – 8.00pm
Tuesday to Saturday from 11.00am – 8.00pm
Sundays and holidays from 11.00am – 7.00pm

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31
Jul
20

European photographic research tour exhibition: ‘Brassaï’ at Foam, Amsterdam

Exhibition dates: 13th September – 4th December 2019
Visited September 2019 posted July 2020

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Brassaï' at Foam, Amsterdam

 

Installation view of the exhibition Brassaï at Foam, Amsterdam
Photo: Marcus Bunyan

 

 

These are my thoughts at the time of my seeing the exhibition.

.
I have been blessed this trip by seeing an amazing selection of master photographers… Brassaï being no exception.

Every print in this exhibition is a vintage print. They were made by Brassaï before 1968. If larger than 30 x 40cm they were made after 1945 when he started printing with an enlarger.

As usual, the iPhone camera makes all the images too light and adds too much contrast. Think darker, less contrast in these vintage prints.

Brassaï’s prints are – just like those of Josef Sudek and August Sander that I have seen on this trip – much softer and with a more limited tonal range than I imagined. They are all the more atmospheric and magical because of it.

To walk around the exhibition and then arrive at an alcove (see walk through below)… to stand in front of Le Môme Bijou, the old lady with the jewellery and Billiard Player, is such a privilege. I am surrounded by the presence of these famous images. I peer intently at each of them, observing the details, feeling their eyes stare back at me. No deflection of intent, just these human beings and their spirit presented in a photograph. Brassaï captured their essence before they drifted away, just in that moment.

In the latter print the dark billiard ball was almost indistinguishable from the baize; in the former, the circular light in the woman’s eyes means that Brassaï must have set up a light, or that there was a light source, above and behind the camera. Specular highlights twinkle off jewellery and pearls. Even as she is draped in her bourgeois, bohemian ornamentation this dame of the night possesses a resilient, composed, determined air.

Personally, I think Brassaï’s Graffiti series are far stronger than Lee Friedlander’s series of the same name.

The juxtaposition of the photographs in Paris at Night is something I will always remember.

Dr Marcus Bunyan

.
Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image. All iPhone installation photographs © Marcus Bunyan

 

 

The more scrupulously [the photographer] has respected the independence and autonomy of his subject, and the closer he has gone toward it instead of bringing it nearer to himself, the more completely his own personality has become incorporated into his pictures.

.
Brassaï

 

 

Foam is proud to present the first retrospective of Brassaï in the Netherlands. The French photographer of Hungarian descent is considered a key figure of 20th-century photography.

Brassaï (1899-1984) created countless iconic images of 1930s Parisian life. He was famous for capturing the grittier aspects of the city, but also documented high society, including the ballet, opera, and intellectuals – among them his friends and contemporaries like Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí and Henri Matisse. The exhibition at Foam traces his career with over 170 vintage prints, plus a selection of drawings, a sculpture and documentary material.

Brassaï gathers many of the artistic facets of the photographer, from photos to drawings of female nudes. It is organised in twelve thematic sections: Paris by Day, and by Night, Minotaure, Graffiti, Society, Places and Things, Personages, Sleep, Pleasures, Body of a Woman, Portraits – Artists, Writers, Friends and The Street. Each is very different from the next – reflecting the diversity of Brassaï’s photographic work.

 

 

 

Digital walk through of the exhibition Brassaï at Foam, Amsterdam in September 2019

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Brassaï' at Foam, Amsterdam

Installation view of the exhibition 'Brassaï' at Foam, Amsterdam

Installation view of the exhibition 'Brassaï' at Foam, Amsterdam

 

Installation views of the exhibition Brassaï at Foam, Amsterdam showing at second right Brassaï’s Paris 1937, and at right Paris c. 1932
Photo: Marcus Bunyan

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984) 'Paris' c. 1932 (installation view)

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984)
Paris (installation view)
c. 1932
Gelatin silver print
Photo: Marcus Bunyan

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984) 'Paris' 1937 (installation view)

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984)
Paris (installation view)
1937
Gelatin silver print
Photo: Marcus Bunyan

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984) 'Paris' 1937 (installation view)

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984)
Paris (installation view)
1937
Gelatin silver print
Photo: Marcus Bunyan

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Brassaï' at Foam, Amsterdam

Installation view of the exhibition 'Brassaï' at Foam, Amsterdam

 

Installation views of the exhibition Brassaï at Foam, Amsterdam
Photos: Marcus Bunyan

 

 

Foam is proud to announce the first retrospective of Brassaï in the Netherlands. This French photographer of Hungarian descent is considered as one of the key figures of 20th-century photography. Brassaï (1899-1984) created countless iconic images of 1930s Parisian life. He was famous for capturing the grittier aspects of the city, but also documented high society, including the ballet, opera, and intellectuals – among them his friends and contemporaries like Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí and Henri Matisse. The exhibition at Foam traces his career with over 170 vintage prints, plus a selection of drawings, a sculpture and documentary material.

Gyula Halász, Brassaï’s original name, was born in 1899 in Brassó, Transylvania (then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, nowadays Brasov, Romania). He studied at the University of Arts in Berlin before finally settling in Paris in 1924, a city that was to become the main subject of his work. He started as a painter but soon discovered that his strongest and most original talent lay in photography. To keep his real name for his paintings, he signed journalistic work, caricatures and photographs with ‘Brassaï’ (from Brassó). His photos would make this pseudonym more famous than his real name. Brassaï’s work of the 1930s would become a cornerstone of a new tradition as photography was discovered as a medium with aesthetic potential. A generation earlier photographers had merely emulated the established arts. Now photography became an art in itself and the perfect medium to capture modern life.

The nocturnal scenes collected in his book Paris by Night (1933) are complemented by his work that reveals the everyday life of the city by day. The monuments, picturesque spots, scenes from daily life and architectural details are present in his work as a reflection of the irresistible fascination the artist felt for the French capital. In his quest to cover all of the facets of Paris, he also immersed himself in the city’s darker side. For Brassaï the gang members, outcasts, prostitutes and drug addicts all represented the least cosmopolitan aspect of Paris, an aspect that was more alive and more authentic. He compiled a huge collection of images of entertainment venues, ranging from night clubs to popular festivals and featuring the people who frequented them. Brassaï was deeply immersed in a wide circle of friends among the writers and artists of Montparnasse, who also became the subjects for some of his portraits. Most of the portraits taken by Brassaï were of well-known people, putting him into a very comfortable position. He collaborated with the luxury art magazine Minotaure right from its very first issue and enjoyed a prominent role for the publication over the years. After the war, he also travelled regularly on commissioned shoots for the American magazine Harper’s Bazaar.

The exhibition at Foam gathers many of the artistic facets of the photographer, from photos to drawings of female nudes. It is organised in twelve thematic sections: Paris by Day, and by Night, Minotaure, Graffiti, Society, Places and Things, Personages, Sleep, Pleasures, Body of a Woman, Portraits – Artists, Writers, Friends and The Street. Each is very different from the next – reflecting the diversity of Brassaï’s photographic work.

Press release from the Foam gallery website

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984) 'Staircase, Montmartre' 1937 (installation view)

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984)
Staircase, Montmartre (installation view)
1937
Gelatin silver print
Photo: Marcus Bunyan

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984) 'Les Escaliers de Montmartre, Paris' 1936

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984)
Les Escaliers de Montmartre, Paris
1936
Gelatin silver print

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984) 'La rue Quincampoix' c. 1932 (installation view)

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984)
La rue Quincampoix (installation view)
c. 1932
Gelatin silver print
Photo: Marcus Bunyan

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984) 'La rue Quincampoix' c. 1932 (installation view)

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984)
La rue Quincampoix (installation view)
c. 1932
Gelatin silver print
Photo: Marcus Bunyan

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984) 'Pillar of the Elevated, Metro Glacière' 1932 (installation view)

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984)
Pillar of the Elevated, Metro Glacière (installation view)
1932
Gelatin silver print
Photo: Marcus Bunyan

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984) 'Near the rue Mouffetard' c. 1945 (installation view)

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984)
Near the rue Mouffetard (installation view)
c. 1945
Gelatin silver print
Photo: Marcus Bunyan

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Brassaï' at Foam, Amsterdam

Installation view of the exhibition 'Brassaï' at Foam, Amsterdamz

 

Installation views of the exhibition Brassaï at Foam, Amsterdam with at bottom centre, Brassaï’s Concierge’s Lodge, Paris, 1933
Photos: Marcus Bunyan

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984) 'Concierge's Lodge, Paris' 1933 (installation view)

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984)
Concierge’s Lodge, Paris (installation view)
1933
Gelatin silver print
Photo: Marcus Bunyan

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984) 'Concierge's Lodge, Paris' 1933 (installation view)

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984)
Concierge’s Lodge, Paris (installation view)
1933
Gelatin silver print
Photo: Marcus Bunyan

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984) 'Concierge's Lodge, Paris' 1933

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984)
Concierge’s Lodge, Paris
1933
Gelatin silver print
Photo: Marcus Bunyan

 

99-1984) 'Lovers at the gare Saint Lazare' c. 1937 (installation view)

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984)
Lovers at the gare Saint Lazare (installation view)
c. 1937
Gelatin silver print
Photo: Marcus Bunyan

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984) 'Sunday Painter, avenue du Général Leclerc' 1946 (installation view)

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984)
Sunday Painter, avenue du Général Leclerc (installation view)
1946
Gelatin silver print
Photo: Marcus Bunyan

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984) 'Sunday Painter, avenue du Général Leclerc' 1946 (installation view)

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984)
Sunday Painter, avenue du Général Leclerc (installation view)
1946
Gelatin silver print
Photo: Marcus Bunyan

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984) 'Annecy' 1936 (installation view)

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984)
Annecy (installation view)
1936
Gelatin silver print
Photo: Marcus Bunyan

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984) 'Hôtel de la Belle Étoile' 1945 (installation view)

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984)
Hôtel de la Belle Étoile (installation view)
1945
Gelatin silver print
Photo: Marcus Bunyan

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984) A Corpse on the Banks on the Seine 1931 (installation view

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984)
A Corpse on the Banks on the Seine (installation view)
1931
Gelatin silver print
Photo: Marcus Bunyan

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984) 'Les Fétes de Paris: La Nuit Féerique de Longhamp' 1937

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984)
Les Fétes de Paris: La Nuit Féerique de Longhamp
1937
In L’illustration, no. 4, 923 (July 10, 1937)
13. Rue Saint-Georges, Paris (9°)
Photo: Marcus Bunyan

 

Regards, no. 155 (December 31, 1936)

 

Regards, no. 155 (December 31, 1936)
Back cover
Photo: Marcus Bunyan

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Brassaï' at Foam, Amsterdam

 

Installation view of the exhibition Brassaï at Foam, Amsterdam showing at at left, Brassaï’s Meat Porters, Les Halles c. 1935 and at second left, Au Cochon Limousin 1935
Photo: Marcus Bunyan

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984) 'Meat Porters, Les Halles' c. 1935 (installation view)

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984)
Meat Porters, Les Halles (installation view)
c. 1935
Gelatin silver print
Photo: Marcus Bunyan

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984) 'Au Cochon Limousin' 1935 (installation view)

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984)
Au Cochon Limousin (installation view)
1935
Gelatin silver print
Photo: Marcus Bunyan

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984) 'Les Halles' 1930-32 (installation view)

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984)
Les Halles (installation view)
1930-32
Gelatin silver print
Photo: Marcus Bunyan

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984) 'Cesspool cleaners' c. 1931 (installation view)

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984)
Cesspool cleaners (installation view)
c. 1931
Gelatin silver print
Photo: Marcus Bunyan

 

 

Paris de nuit / Paris at night

Brassaï had been making photographs for barely two years when luck and ambition brought him a contract for a book on nocturnal Paris. When Paris de nuit (Paris at Night) was published to acclaim in December 1932, “Brassaï” became a familiar name in the world of photography. The book’s rich photogravures, marginalises pages, and bold design made it an icon of modernity. Many of Brassaï’s best night picture were made after Paris de nuit appeared, however, and many of his greatest images of Parisian nightlife were not published until 1976.

In the self-portrait here we see Brassaï’s first camera, a Voigtländer Bergheil that used 6.5 x 9 cm glass plates one at a time. The long exposures of night photography – often five minutes or more – required a tripod, which Brassaï frequently used for other pictures as well. While much of the adventurous European photography of the 1920s and 1930s celebrated mobility and speed, spontaneity was alien to Brassaï’s sensibility. He favoured images that are sharp, deliberate, and stable.

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Brassaï' at Foam, Amsterdam

Installation view of the exhibition 'Brassaï' at Foam, Amsterdam

Installation view of the exhibition 'Brassaï' at Foam, Amsterdam

 

Installation views of the exhibition Brassaï at Foam, Amsterdam
Photos: Marcus Bunyan

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984) Morris Column, avenue de l'Observatoire 1934 (installation view)

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984)
Morris Column, avenue de l’Observatoire (installation view)
1934
Gelatin silver print
Photo: Marcus Bunyan

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984) 'Morris Column, avenue de l'Observatoire' 1934

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984)
Morris Column, avenue de l’Observatoire
1934
Gelatin silver print

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Brassaï' at Foam, Amsterdam

 

Installation view of the exhibition Brassaï at Foam, Amsterdam showing at right, Brassaï’s Self portrait, On the boulevard Saint-Jacques 1930-32
Photo: Marcus Bunyan

 

Brassaï (Gyulá Halász, 1899 - 1984) 'Self-portrait, Boulevard Saint-Jacques, Paris 14ème' c. 1931-1932

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984)
Self portrait, On the boulevard Saint-Jacques
1930-32
Gelatin silver print

 

Voigtländer Bergheil Built in 1932

 

Voigtländer
Bergheil
Built in 1932
6.5 x 9cm negative
Green

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Brassaï' at Foam, Amsterdam

Installation view of the exhibition 'Brassaï' at Foam, Amsterdam

 

Installation view of the exhibition Brassaï at Foam, Amsterdam showing at left, Brassaï’s The Tour Saint-Jacques 1932-33, and at third right View through the pont Royal toward the pont Solférino c. 1933
Photo: Marcus Bunyan

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984) 'The Tour Saint-Jacques' 1932-33 (installation view)

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984)
The Tour Saint-Jacques (installation view)
1932-33
Gelatin silver print
Photo: Marcus Bunyan

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984) 'View through the pont Royal toward the pont Solférino' c. 1933

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984)
View through the pont Royal toward the pont Solférino
c. 1933
Gelatin silver print

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Brassaï' at Foam, Amsterdam

 

Installation view of the exhibition Brassaï at Foam, Amsterdam showing at right, Brassaï’s Avenue de l’Observatoire in the Fog c. 1937
Photo: Marcus Bunyan

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984) 'Avenue de l'Observatoire in the Fog' c. 1937 (installation view)

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984)
Avenue de l’Observatoire in the Fog (installation view)
c. 1937
Gelatin silver print
Photo: Marcus Bunyan

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984) 'Avenue de l'Observatoire in the Fog' c. 1937

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984)
Avenue de l’Observatoire in the Fog
c. 1937
Gelatin silver print

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984) 'Paris de Nuit' (Paris at Night) 1932

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984)
Paris de Nuit (Paris at Night) pp. 9-10
1932
Book

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984) 'Paris de Nuit' (Paris at Night) 1932

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984)
Paris de Nuit (Paris at Night) pp. 13-14
1932
Book

 

 

Digital flick through of Brassaï’s Paris de Nuit (Paris at Night) book 1932
Video: Marcus Bunyan

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984) 'Paris de Nuit' (Paris at Night) 1932 (installation view)

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984)
Paris de Nuit (Paris at Night) pp. 19-20 (installation view)
1932
Book
Photo: Marcus Bunyan

 

Minotaure, no. 7 (June 1935)

 

Minotaure, no. 7 (June 1935)
Pages 24-25: Photographs by Brassaï, “Nuits parisiennes” (Parisian Nights)
Pages 26-29: Photographs by Brassaï
Photo: Marcus Bunyan

 

 

Portraits – artists, writers and friends

In Brassaï’s era, portraits and nudes were bread-and-butter genres for any professional photographer. As a portraitist Brassaï made a speciality of artists and writers, who often were his friends, and in 1982 he collected many of the best pictures in Les artistes de ma vie (The Artists of My Life), for which he also wrote the lively text. He excelled at two distinct types of portraiture: In one, the artist is framed by his environment – the studio. In the other, the subjects confronts the photographer frankly, and the setting hardly matters. In an undated note, Brassaï summed up his approach to the second type: “To oblige the model to behave as if the photographer isn’t there really is to stage a comic performance. What’s natural is precisely not to dodge the photographer’s presence. The natural thing in that situation is for the model to pose honestly.”

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Brassaï' at Foam, Amsterdam

Installation view of the exhibition 'Brassaï' at Foam, Amsterdam

 

Installation views of the exhibition Brassaï at Foam, Amsterdam showing in the top photograph at right, Oskar Kokoschka in his Studio, Paris 1931-32 and in the bottom photograph at third right, Brassaï’s Kiki de Montparnasse and her Friends, Thérèse Treize and Lily c. 1932
Photos: Marcus Bunyan

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984) 'Oskar Kokoschka in his Studio, Paris' 1931-32

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984)
Oskar Kokoschka in his Studio, Paris (installation view)
1931-32
Gelatin silver print
Photo: Marcus Bunyan

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984) 'Kiki de Montparnasse and her Friends, Thérèse Treize and Lily' c. 1932 (installation view)

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984)
Kiki de Montparnasse and her Friends, Thérèse Treize and Lily (installation view)
c. 1932
Gelatin silver print
Photo: Marcus Bunyan

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Brassaï' at Foam, Amsterdam

Installation view of the exhibition 'Brassaï' at Foam, Amsterdam

Installation view of the exhibition 'Brassaï' at Foam, Amsterdam

Installation view of the exhibition 'Brassaï' at Foam, Amsterdam

 

Installation views of the exhibition Brassaï at Foam, Amsterdam showing in the bottom photograph at left, Brassaï’s portrait of Jean Genet 1948
Photos: Marcus Bunyan

 

Brassai. 'Jean Genet' 1948

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984)
Jean Genet
1948
Gelatin silver print

 

 

Graffiti

The appreciation of graffiti as a powerful if anonymous art form began to blossom in the twentieth century. Like African tribal objects and the art of children, graffiti was admired as more expressive and vital than the refined forms of traditional Western art. Brassaï was among the first to embrace it. He was an inveterate magpie who collected all manner of neglected artefacts and natural specimens throughout his life. Virtually as soon as he began making photographs, he used the medium to collect the graffiti that appeared abundantly on the walls of Paris – predominantly images that had been scratched or gouged rather than drawn or painted and, as he pointed out, in which irregularities of the wall itself played a role. He compiled hundreds of these pictures, a small sample of which is presented here.

 

Minotaure

Between arriving in Paris in early 1924 and taking up photography six years later, Brassaï developed 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 E. Tériade called themselves. In December 1932 – the same month Brassaï’s book Paris de unit (Paris at Night) appeared – Tériade invited Brassaï to photograph Pablo Picasso and his studios in and near Paris for the first issue of Minotaure, a lavish art magazine launched in June 1933 by the Swiss published Albert Skira. Thus began one of the key friendships of Brassaï’s life. Over the next few years he played prominent role in Minotaure, notable as a collaborator of Salvador Dalí, as an illustrator of texts by André Breton, and, on a few occasions, as an artist in his own right.

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Brassaï' at Foam, Amsterdam

 

Installation views of the exhibition Brassaï at Foam, Amsterdam showing to the right, photographs from Brassaï’s series Graffiti
Photo: Marcus Bunyan

 

Minotaure, nos. 3-4 (December 1933)

Minotaure, nos. 3-4 (December 1933)

 

Minotaure, nos. 3-4 (December 1933)
Pages 6-7: Photographs and text by Brassaï, “Du mur des cavernes au mur d’usine” (From the Wall of the Caves to the Wall of the Factory).
Photos: Marcus Bunyan

This was the first appearance in print of Brassaï’s series Graffiti.

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984) 'The Sun King' 1945-50 (installation view)

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984)
The Sun King (installation view)
1945-50
From the series Graffiti
Gelatin silver print
Photo: Marcus Bunyan

 

Brassai. 'Untitled' from the series 'Graffiti' 1950

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984)
Untitled (installation view)
1950
From the series Graffiti
Gelatin silver print
Photo: Marcus Bunyan

 

Brassai. 'Untitled' from the series 'Graffiti' 1945-55

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984)
Untitled (installation view)
1945-50
From the series Graffiti
Gelatin silver print

 

Brassai. 'Untitled' from the series 'Graffiti' 1945-55

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984)
Untitled (installation view)
1945-50
From the series Graffiti
Gelatin silver print
Photo: Marcus Bunyan

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Brassaï' at Foam, Amsterdam

 

Installation view of the exhibition Brassaï at Foam, Amsterdam showing photographs from the section Personages including at left La Môme Bijou, Bar de la Lune, Montmartre 1932; and in the centre, Billiard Player, boulevard Rochechouart 1932-33 and Market Porter, Les Halles 1939
Photo: Marcus Bunyan

 

 

Personages

In the introduction to a book of his photographs that was published in 1949, Brassaï linked the modern arts of photography and film to the work of artists of the past who had depicted everyday life, among them Rembrandt van Rijn, Honoré Daumier, Edgar Degas, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. He praised them for the “desire to get beyond the anecdotal and to promote [their] subjects to the dignity of types.” Brassaï himself had a talent for rendering at the same time a generic social role and a particular individual who inhabited it, as if his attentiveness to the person would elevate him or her into a distinctive personage.

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Brassaï' at Foam, Amsterdam

 

Installation view of the exhibition Brassaï at Foam, Amsterdam showing photographs from the section Personages including at left, Festival in Seville 1951; and at right, La Môme Bijou, Bar de la Lune, Montmartre 1932
Photo: Marcus Bunyan

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Brassaï' at Foam, Amsterdam

 

Installation view of the exhibition Brassaï at Foam, Amsterdam showing photographs from the section Personages including at left, Festival in Seville 1951; at centre, La Môme Bijou, Bar de la Lune, Montmartre 1932; and at right, Billiard Player, boulevard Rochechouart 1932-33
Photo: Marcus Bunyan

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Brassaï' at Foam, Amsterdam

 

Installation view of the exhibition Brassaï at Foam, Amsterdam showing a photograph from the section Personages, La Môme Bijou, Bar de la Lune, Montmartre 1932
Photo: Marcus Bunyan

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984) 'La Môme Bijou, Bar de la Lune, Montmartre' 1932 (installation view)

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984)
La Môme Bijou, Bar de la Lune, Montmartre (installation view)
1932
Gelatin silver print
Photo: Marcus Bunyan

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984) 'La Môme Bijou, Bar de la Lune, Montmartre' 1932

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984)
La Môme Bijou, Bar de la Lune, Montmartre
1932
Gelatin silver print

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Brassaï' at Foam, Amsterdam

 

Installation view of the exhibition Brassaï at Foam, Amsterdam showing photographs from the section Personages including at left La Môme Bijou, Bar de la Lune, Montmartre 1932; and at right, Billiard Player, boulevard Rochechouart 1932-33
Photo: Marcus Bunyan

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984) 'Billiard Player, boulevard Rochechouart' 1932-33 (installation view)

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984)
Billiard Player, boulevard Rochechouart (installation view)
1932-33
Gelatin silver print
Photo: Marcus Bunyan

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984) 'Billiard Player, boulevard Rochechouart' 1932-33

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984)
Billiard Player, boulevard Rochechouart
1932-33
Gelatin silver print

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Brassaï' at Foam, Amsterdam

 

Installation view of the exhibition Brassaï at Foam, Amsterdam showing photographs from the section Personages including at left Billiard Player, boulevard Rochechouart 1932-33; and at right, Market Porter, Les Halles 1939
Photo: Marcus Bunyan

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984) 'Market Porter, Les Halles' 1939 (installation view)

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984)
Market Porter, Les Halles (installation view)
1939
Gelatin silver print
Photo: Marcus Bunyan

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984) 'Bal des Quatre Saisons, rue de Lappe' c. 1932

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984)
Bal des Quatre Saisons, rue de Lappe
c. 1932
Gelatin silver print

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984) 'Chez Suzy' 1931-32

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984)
Chez Suzy
1931-32
Gelatin silver print

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984) 'At the Hôtel des Terrasses' c. 1932 (installation view)

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984)
At the Hôtel des Terrasses (installation view)
c. 1932
Gelatin silver print
Photo: Marcus Bunyan

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Brassaï' at Foam, Amsterdam

 

Installation view of the exhibition Brassaï at Foam, Amsterdam showing photographs from Brassaï’s series Sleep
Photo: Marcus Bunyan

 

 

Sleep

In 1945 Brassaï wrote a brief essay to accompany some of his pictures of sleepers. It reads in part “All things that stand against their inclination – a tree, a column, a tower, a rock – are regarded with a malign eye by gravity … She especially has a grudge against man, that foolhardy being who, in open collusion with the sunlight, alone among his brothers under the spell of gravitation, dares to stand up. For sunlight and gravity fight over living beings, the one turning over what the other has put up. Alas! Sunlight lives a long way away and can never be found when she is needed the most. Thus gravity is suited to have the last word.”

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Brassaï' at Foam, Amsterdam

 

Installation view of the exhibition Brassaï at Foam, Amsterdam showing photographs from Brassaï’s series Sleep with at left, Paris c. 1934; and at centre, Sleeping c. 1935
Photo: Marcus Bunyan

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984) 'Paris' c. 1934 (installation view)

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984)
Paris (installation view)
c. 1934
Gelatin silver print
Photo: Marcus Bunyan

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984) 'Sleeping' c. 1935 (installation view)

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984)
Sleeping (installation view)
c. 1935
Gelatin silver print
Photo: Marcus Bunyan

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984) 'Montmartre' 1930-31

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984)
Montmartre
1930-31
Gelatin silver print

 

 

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20
Apr
18

Exhibition: ‘Brassaï’ at Fundación MAPFRE, Barcelona

Exhibition dates: 20th February – 13th May 2018

Curator: Mr. Peter Galassi

 

 

Brassaï (Gyulá Halász, 1899 - 1984) 'Vista per sota del Pont Royal cap al Pont de Solférino [View through the pont Royal toward the pont Solférino]' c. 1933

 

Brassaï (Gyulá Halász, 1899 – 1984)
Vista per sota del Pont Royal cap al Pont de Solférino
View through the pont Royal toward the pont Solférino

c. 1933
[Nuit / Night 53]
40.1 x 51 cm
© Estate Brassaï Succession, Paris

 

 

For those who know how to look

Not everyone can see. It takes a great eye and a great mind, and the liberation of that mind, to be able to transform the mundane, the everyday, the vernacular – into art. Brassaï’s folklore, his mythology of life, suggests that the life of others (those living on the edge) is as valuable and essential to the formation of culture as any other part of existence.

Brassaï’s work comes alive at night and, as Alejandra Uribe Ríos observes, “The night was undoubtedly the great muse of his work, his inspiration.” While he got some of his friends to stage scenes for his book Paris by night – acting as prostitutes and customers hanging around in back alleys – it matters not one bit. The artist was embedded in this world and represents what he knows, what he has seen in his mind’s eye.

The density of his photographs is incredible – their atmosphere thick and heavy; revealing and beautiful. “In certain photographs, objects take on a particular light, a fascinating presence. Vision has fixed them “as they are in themselves” […]. It confers a density that is entirely foreign to their real existence. They are there, one might say, for the first time, but at the same time for the last.” The first and last, a circular compaction of time and space into the eternal present, objects as they are in themselves and will always be.

That fascinating presence can be felt even today, for that is what the time freeze of photography does: it “look backwards and forwards in the same instance.”

Brassaï saw something clearly, so that we might see it now. Look at the seemingly mundane space portrayed in Concierge’s Lodge, Paris (1933, below) from his book Paris de jour / Paris by Day. The photograph could be taken at night, but it is day! The small amount of sunlight falls on the tied-back curtain in the doorway; the crumpled mat lies outside the door; the two doors compete for our visual attention – one the solid presence that holds up the left hand side of the image, the other the vanishing point in the distance; and the eye is led down to this door by the pavement and the gutter with a band of water emphasising the form. The verticality of the worn and ancient stone work is emphasised by the modern metal box in front of it, leading the eye up to the Concierge sign only, mind you, for numbers 5 & 7. But then the mystery… what is going on above the ancient door at the rear – the sky, a ceiling, another wall lit by the last rays of the sun? Such a dense, complex image that requires an intimate knowledge of the mystery of place, in both the artist and the viewer.

Here we see Brassaï in Self-portrait, Boulevard Saint-Jacques, Paris 14ème, standing in the snow at night, heavy overcoat, hat, cigarette hanging out of his mouth, squinting through his camera to previsualise not just the photograph he is taking, but it’s final, physical embodiment, the print. In our world today of Insta-photos, millions and millions of photographs that mean basically nothing, and where anyone without training can pick up a camera and think of themselves a photographer, there is something to be said for taking the time to train and educate your eye and your mind. Only then might you reveal something about the world and, possibly, yourself as well.

Marcus

@mapfrefcultura #expo_brassai

.
Many thankx to Fundación MAPFRE for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

 

 

“I was eager to penetrate this 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, its most alive, its most authentic, that in these colourful faces of its underworld there had been preserved from age to age, almost without alteration, the folklore of its most remote past.”

.
Brassaï, 1976

 

“In certain photographs, objects take on a particular light, a fascinating presence. Vision has fixed them “as they are in themselves” […]. It confers a density that is entirely foreign to their real existence. They are there, one might say, for the first time, but at the same time for the last.”

.
Brassaï, undated note

 

“To oblige the model to behave as if the photographer isn’t there really is to stage a comic performance. What’s natural is precisely not to dodge the photographer’s presence. The natural thing in that situation is for the model to pose honestly.”

.
Brassaï, undated note

 

“The night suggests, he does not teach. The night finds us and surprises us by its strangeness; it liberates in us the forces that, during the day, are dominated by reason.”

“Night does not show things, it suggests them. It disturbes and surprises us with its strangeness. It liberates forces within us which are dominated by our reason during the daytime.”

.
Brassaï

 

“The night was undoubtedly the great muse of his work, his inspiration. The train tracks, the lovers, the fog, the posters, the ballet and the cabarets. Everything is worthy of portraying for those who know how to look and that is undoubtedly one of Brassai’s merits: embodying the everyday, rescuing the magical, the lyrical, the mystery of common life, and doing it with elegance, converting the seemingly trivial into a artwork.”

.
Alejandra Uribe Ríos

 

 

Brassaï (Gyulá Halász, 1899 - 1984) 'Porteria, París [Concierge's Lodge, Paris]' 1933

 

Brassaï (Gyulá Halász, 1899 – 1984)
Porteria, París
Concierge’s Lodge, Paris

1933
[Paris de jour / Paris by Day 686]
29.3 x 22.2 cm
© Estate Brassaï Succession, Paris

 

Brassaï (Gyulá Halász, 1899 - 1984) 'The Eiffel Tower seen through the Gate of the Trocadéro' 1930-32

 

Brassaï (Gyulá Halász, 1899 – 1984)
La Torre Eiffel vista a través del reixat del Trocadéro
La torre Eiffel vista a través de la reja del Trocadero
The Eiffel Tower seen through the Gate of the Trocadéro

1930-32
[Nuit / Night 1; variant of Paris de nuit / Paris by Night, plate 57]
30 x 23.6 cm
© Estate Brassaï Succession, Paris

 

Brassaï (Gyulá Halász, 1899 - 1984) 'Extinguishing a Streetlight, rue Émile Richard' c. 1932

 

Brassaï (Gyulá Halász, 1899 – 1984)
Apagant un fanal, Rue Émile Richard
Apagando una farola, rue Émile Richard
Extinguishing a Streetlight, rue Émile Richard

c. 1932
[Nuit / Night 267]
22.9 x 28.1 cm
© Estate Brassaï Succession, Paris

 

Brassaï (Gyulá Halász, 1899 - 1984) 'Avenue de l'Observatoire' 1934

 

Brassaï (Gyulá Halász, 1899 – 1984)
Avenue de l’Observatoire
1934
Gelatin silver print
23.4 x 30.1 cm
© Estate Brassaï Succession, Paris

 

Brassaï (Gyulá Halász, 1899 - 1984) 'Streetwalker, near the place d’Italie' 1932

 

Brassaï (Gyulá Halász, 1899 – 1984)
Meuca, a prop de la Place d’Italie
Prostituta, cerca de la Place d’Italie
Streetwalker, near the place d’Italie
1932
[Plaisirs / Pleasure 333]
29.9 x 22.9 cm
© Estate Brassaï Succession, Paris

 

 

Introduction

Fundación MAPFRE is launching its 2018 exhibition programme in Barcelona with the exhibition Brassaï, a comprehensive survey of the career of this celebrated Hungarian-born French photographer whose work helped to define the spirit of Paris in the 1930s. Brassaï was one of the most important of the group of European and American photographers whose work in the inter-war years greatly enriched photography’s potential as a form of artistic expression.

The artist began to take photographs in 1929 or 1930, maintaining an intense level of activity throughout the 1930s. Brassaï’s principal subject was Paris, where he settled in 1924, intending to become a painter. Around the end of World War I the artistic centre of the city had shifted from Montmartre to Montparnasse where most of the artists, constituting a major international community, lived like a large family. Brassï was fascinated by the French capital and later said that he started to take photographs in order to express his passion for the city at night. Soon, however, he also began to take portraits, nudes, still life, images of everyday life and depictions of picturesque corners of the city and moments captured during the day.

Brassaï’s confidence in the power of blunt, straightforward photography to transform what it describes, as well as his talent for extracting from ordinary life iconic images of lasting force, won him an important place among the pioneers of modern photography.

This exhibition offers a survey of the artist’s career through more than 200 works (vintage photographs, a number of drawings, a sculpture and documentary material) grouped into twelve thematic sections, of which the two devoted to Paris in the 1930s are the most important. Produced by Fundación MAPFRE and curated by Peter Galassi, chief curator of the Department of Photography at the MoMA, New York, from 1991 to 2011, this is the first retrospective exhibition on Brassaï to be organised since 2000 (Centre Pompidou) and the first to be held in Spain since 1993.

The exhibition benefits from the exceptional loan of the Estate Brassaï Succession (Paris) and other loans from some of the most important institutions and private collections in Europe and the United States, including: The Art Institute of Chicago, The Museum of Fine Arts (Houston), The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), The Museum of Modern Art (New York), the Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Pompidou (París), The Philadelphia Museum of Art, The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, David Dechman and Michel Mercure, ISelf Collection (London) and Nicholas and Susan Pritzker.

 

The Photographer – Brassaï (Gyulá Halász, 1899 – 1984)

Brassaï (the pseudonym of Gyulá Halász) was born in 1899 in Brassó, Transylvania (present-day Braşov in Rumania), from where he subsequently took his name for signing his photographs (Brassaï means “from Brassó”).

After studying art in Budapest and Berlin, he moved to Paris and very soon began to earn occasional money and establish a reputation by selling articles and caricatures to German and Hungarian magazines. Photographs were rapidly replacing traditional magazine illustrations and Brassaï also functioned as a one-man photo-agency. Eventually he started making photographs himself, abandoning painting and sculpting, disciplines for which he nevertheless retained great interest and to which he returned during his career. Around 1900, an aesthetic movement had justified its claim that photography was as a fine art by imitating the appearance of the traditional arts. It was not until the 1920s and 1930s that a new generation rejected that approach and began exploring the artistic potential of plain, ordinary photographs. When the tradition that they launched began to achieve widespread recognition in the 1970s, Brassaï would be recognised as one of its leading figures.

During the German occupation of Paris, Brassaï was obliged to stop taking photographs and he thus returned to drawing and writing. In 1949 he obtained French nationality. After the war he once again devoted part of his time to photography and traveled regularly to undertake commissions for the American magazine Harper’s Bazaar. He died in Beaulieu-sur-Mer (France) in 1984 without ever returning to his native Brassó.

 

The sections of the exhibition

Paris by Night

Paris by Night was in fact the result of a commission which the publisher Charles Peignot gave to the young and still unknown Brassaï. The book, of which a copy is presented in the exhibition, was published in December 1932 and was extremely successful thanks in part to its modern design, pages without margins and richly toned photogravures. Brassaï continued to explore nocturnal Paris throughout the 1930s, developing a personal vision that is embodied in numerous prints in the exhibition.

They evoke the city’s dynamic, vibrant mood: the close-up image of a gargoyle on Notre Dame Cathedral rather than a conventional view of that building, or the Pont Royal seen from the water rather than from above. These are almost always silent images in which time seems to stand still.

Pleasures

When Brassaï reorganised his archive just after World War II, gathered under the rubric Plaisirs he included his pictures of small-time criminals and prostitutes and other figures of Parisian low life together with images of Parisian entertainments, including cheap dance halls to local street fairs to the annual entertainments designed to flout bourgeois conventions. Brassaï obtained permission to work backstage at the famous Folies Bergère, which allowed him to observe everything that was happening from a high viewpoint. His images of Parisian low life transpose to the vivid new medium of photography a vital mythology that had been elaborated in literature and the traditional visual arts.

No one photographed Paris by night as skilfully as Brassaï but he also built up a considerable collection of images of the city by day. Its famous monuments, picturesque corners and details of everyday life are the subject of many of these photographs. Some of his images of the early 1930s reveal his interest in daring geometrical forms and abrupt truncation, for example his famous images of the city’s cobblestones. But even his boldest graphic experiments reflect his abiding fascination with the continuities of an enduring human civilisation.

Paris by day

Nobody photographed Paris at night as accurately as Brassaï, but also accumulated a considerable collection of images of the city in daylight. Monuments, picturesque corners or details of everyday life play a large part in these scenes.

Some of his photographs from the thirties also reflect his interest in geometric styles or abrupt cuts, as shown by the famous cobblestone images of city streets. But even these bolder graphic experiments reflect, like the rest of his images of the city, his permanent fascination with what for him was presented as a remote and inexhaustible tradition, in constant development.

Graffiti

The notion of graffiti as a powerful art form first emerged in the 20th century. Like African tribal objects, children’s art or that of the mentally ill, graffiti was considered more expressive and vital than the refined forms of traditional western art.

Brassaï was in fact one of the first to focus on this subject matter. He was an inveterate hoarder who throughout his life collected all types of cast-off objects and from almost the moment he began to take photographs he used the medium to record the graffiti he saw on the walls of Paris. He preferred examples of graffiti that had been incised or scratched to drawn or painted ones, as well as those in which the irregularity of the wall itself played an important role in aesthetic terms. He took hundreds of images of this type of which only a small selection is on display here.

Minotaure

Between the time of his arrival in Paris in early 1924 and his first steps in photography taken six years later, Brassaï built up a large circle of friends within the international community of artists and writers in Montparnasse. They included Les deux aveugles [The two blind men], as the art critics Maurice Raynal and the Greek-born E. Tériade referred to themselves. In December 1932, the same month that Paris de nuit was published, Tériade invited Brassaï to photograph Picasso and his studios to illustrate the first issue of Minotaure, the deluxe art magazine that would be published in 1933 by the Swiss publisher Albert Skira. Copies of various different issues are on display in this section. This collaboration marked the starting point of Brassaï’s friendship with Picasso, one of the most important of his entire life. Over the following years Brassaï would play an important role in the life of the magazine, particularly with the projects for which he collaborated with Salvador Dalí and as an illustrator to texts by André Breton, although in some cases as an artist in his own right. The first number of the magazine included a series of nudes by Brassaï and his growing graffiti series, while number 7 devoted several pages to Brassaï’s nocturnal visions. All these evoke the artist’s modernity and his relationship with the most important circles of the Parisian avant-garde.

Personages / Characters

In 1949 in his prologue to Camera in Paris, a monograph on contemporary photographers, Brassaï paraphrased Baudelaire in The Painter of modern Life and established a line of continuity between the art of the photographer and that of some of the great artists of the past such as Rembrandt, Goya and Toulouse-Lautrec. In this sense he explained how, like them, photography could elevate ordinary subjects to the level of the universal. The people depicted in this gallery reflect that idea as not only do we see a worker at Les Halles market, a transvestite or a penitent in Seville, but through the dignity given to them by the image all of them exceed their individuality and come to represent a collective.

Places and things

One of Brassaï’s earliest projects, which was never produced, was a book of photographs of cacti. Many years later, in 1957, he made a short film on animals. Most of his photographs of objects or places, however, focus on human creations, reflecting his boundless curiosity about the people that made them, used them or lived in them.

During his trips Brassaï took numerous photographs of which a small selection are on display here: a view of Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia from a high viewpoint, a painted wall in Sacromonte, Granada, and a shop window in New Orleans. In some of these images, such as Vineyard, Château Mouton-Rothschild (June 1953), the viewpoint jumps sharply from the foreground to the background, splitting the image in half along its horizontal axis – a pictorial device invented by Brassaï.

Society

During the mid-1930s and just after World War II, Brassaï photographed at more than two dozen gatherings of Parisian high society – costume balls, fancy soirées, and other events both at private homes and such elegant venues as the Ritz – as well as the famous Nuit de Longchamp (the race course just outside of Paris) every summer from 1936 to 1939. At these events he had much less opportunity to intervene in the action than in Parisian dance halls and bars, but he nonetheless was able to create lasting images of a distinct social reality. Perhaps the most extraordinary of them is his photograph of the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Art Nouveau interior of the swank restaurant Maxim’s (completed just a few years before the Casa Garriga Nogués). Although that image has been famous since it was made in 1949, Brassaï’s series on Parisian high society is poorly known, and several of the photographs are presented for the first time in this exhibition.

Body of a woman

During the occupation of Paris (1940-1944), Brassaï declined to work for the Germans and so was unable to photograph openly. His only income seems to have come from a clandestine commission from Picasso to photograph the master’s sculptures. Partly at Picasso’s urging, Brassaï returned to drawing. Most of the drawings that he made in 1943-45, like most of the drawings that survive from his time as an art student in Berlin in 1921-22, are female nudes. The same is the case with many of the sculptures that he started to produce after the war, often made from stones worn by the effect of water.

It would be foolish to attempt to disguise the intensity of Brassaï’s male gaze behind the curtain of a purely aesthetic pursuit of “form.” What is distinctive and powerful in his images of the female body is their unembarrassed carnal urgency.

Portraits: artists, writers, friends

Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí, Henry Miller (who gave Brassaï the sobriquet “The eye of Paris”), Pierre Reverdy, Jacques Prévert, Henri Matisse and Léon-Paul Fargue are just a few of the subjects of the portraits on display in this section of the exhibition.

Most of Brassaï’s portraits are of people that he knew and perhaps as a result of that closeness they convey a powerful spirit of frankness, unencumbered by posturing. It is also true; however, that Brassaï regularly achieved that spirit even when he did not know the subject.

Sleep

Broadly speaking, the hallmark of advance European photography in the 1920s and 1930s was a new sense of mobility and spontaneity. But spontaneity was alien to Brassaï’s sensibility, which instead sought clarity and stability. Instead of the popular, hand-held camera, a 35mm Leica, Brassaï chose a camera that used glass plates and often stood on a tripod. As if to declare his independence from the aesthetic of mobility, he chose sleeping in public as a recurrent motif.

The street

Brassaï’s work for Harper’s Bazaar led him to travel in France and in numerous other places, from Spain to Sweden, the United States and Brazil. While the roots of his talent lay in Paris he thus produced an extensive body of photographs taken in places that were unfamiliar to him. The exhibition includes a number of these works, three of them depicting Spain.

Press release from Fundación MAPFRE

 

Brassaï (Gyulá Halász, 1899 - 1984) 'Chez Suzy' 1931-32

 

Brassaï (Gyulá Halász, 1899 – 1984)
Chez Suzy
1931-32
[Plaisirs / Pleasure 352]
30 x 23.8 cm
© Estate Brassaï Succession, Paris

 

Brassaï (Gyulá Halász, 1899 - 1984) 'Nude in the Bathtub' 1938

 

Brassaï (Gyulá Halász, 1899 – 1984)
Nu a la banyera
Desnudo en la bañera
Nude in the Bathtub
1938
[Nu / Naked 199]
23.5 x 17.3 cm
© Estate Brassaï Succession, Paris

 

Brassaï (Gyulá Halász, 1899 - 1984) 'Four Seasons Ball, rue de Lappe' c. 1932

 

Brassaï (Gyulá Halász, 1899 – 1984)
Bal des Quatre Saisons, rue de Lappe
Four Seasons Ball, rue de Lappe
c. 1932
[Plaisirs / Pleasures 2]
49.8 x 40.4 cm
Estate Brassaï Succession, Paris © Estate Brassaï Succession, Paris

 

Brassaï (Gyulá Halász, 1899 - 1984) 'At Magic City' c. 1932

 

Brassaï (Gyulá Halász, 1899 – 1984)
Al Magic City
En Magic City
At Magic City
c. 1932
[Plaisirs / Pleasures 439]
23.2 x 16.6 cm
© Estate Brassaï Succession, Paris

 

Brassaï (Gyulá Halász, 1899 - 1984) 'Lovers at the Gare Saint-Lazare' 1937

 

Brassaï (Gyulá Halász, 1899 – 1984)
Amants a l’estació de Saint-Lazare
Amantes en la Gare Saint-Lazare
Lovers at the Gare Saint-Lazare
c. 1937
[Plaisirs / Pleasures 143]
23.6 x 17.3 cm
© Estate Brassaï Succession, Paris

 

Brassaï (Gyulá Halász, 1899 - 1984) 'Haute Couture Soirée' 1935

 

Brassaï (Gyulá Halász, 1899 – 1984)
Vetllada d’alta costura
Velada de alta costura
Haute Couture Soirée
1935
[Soirées 85 (image reversed)]
17.6 x 21.1 cm
© Estate Brassaï Succession, Paris

 

Brassaï (Gyulá Halász, 1899 - 1984) 'Lobster Seller, Seville' 1951

 

Brassaï (Gyulá Halász, 1899 – 1984)
Venedor de marisc, Sevilla
Vendedor de marisco, Sevilla
Lobster Seller, Seville
1951
[Étranger / Foreign 401]
49.3 x 37 cm
© Estate Brassaï Succession, Paris

 

Brassaï (Gyulá Halász, 1899 - 1984) 'New Orleans' 1957

 

Brassaï (Gyulá Halász, 1899 – 1984)
New Orleans
1957
[Amérique / America 451]
35.9 x 29.4 cm
© Estate Brassaï Succession, Paris

 

Brassaï (Gyulá Halász, 1899 - 1984) 'Montmartre' 1930-31

 

Brassaï (Gyulá Halász, 1899 – 1984)
Montmartre
1930-31
[Paris de jour / Paris by day 472.C]
29.8 x 39.6 cm
© Estate Brassaï Succession, Paris

 

Brassaï (Gyulá Halász, 1899 - 1984) 'Jean Genet, Paris' 1948

 

Brassaï (Gyulá Halász, 1899 – 1984)
Jean Genet, Paris
1948
[Arts 787.E]
39.7 x 30.2 cm
© Estate Brassaï Succession, Paris

 

Brassaï (Gyulá Halász, 1899 - 1984) 'Picasso Holding One Of The Sculptures' 1939

 

Brassaï (Gyulá Halász, 1899 – 1984)
Picasso Tenant Une De Les Sculptures
Picasso Holding One Of The Sculptures

1939
© Estate Brassaï Succession, Paris

 

Brassaï (Gyulá Halász, 1899 - 1984) 'Portrait of Picasso in His Studio at 23 rue de La Boëtie, Paris' 1932

 

Brassaï (Gyulá Halász, 1899 – 1984)
Portrait of Picasso in His Studio at 23 rue de La Boëtie, Paris
1932
© Estate Brassaï Succession, Paris

 

23 rue de La Boëtie, Paris

 

23 rue de La Boëtie, Paris

 

Brassaï (Gyulá Halász, 1899 - 1984) 'Self-portrait, Boulevard Saint-Jacques, Paris 14ème' c. 1931-1932

 

Brassaï (Gyulá Halász, 1899 – 1984)
Self-portrait, Boulevard Saint-Jacques, Paris 14ème
c. 1931-1932
© Estate Brassaï Succession, Paris

 

 

Fundación MAPFRE – Instituto de Cultura
Casa Garriga i Nogués exhibition space
Calle Diputació, 250
Barcelona

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24
Apr
14

Exhibition: ‘Paris as Muse: Photography, 1840s-1930s’ at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Exhibition dates: 28th January – 4th May 2014

 

Eugène Atget (French, Libourne 1857–1927 Paris) 'Quai d'Anjou, 6h du matin' 1924

 

Eugène Atget (French, Libourne 1857-1927 Paris)
Quai d’Anjou, 6h du matin
1924
Albumen silver print from glass negative
17.7 x 22.8cm (6 15/16 x 8 15/16 in.)
Gilman Collection, Purchase, William Talbott Hillman Foundation Gift, 2005

 

 

If there is one city in the world in which I would really like to live, it would be Paris. I have loved her since first going there as a teenager and she has never foresaken that love: always romantic, beautiful, intriguing, Paris is my kind of city. As a flâneur there is much to observe, much to digest and assimilate through periods of reflection.

Where do you start? Steichen, Stieglitz, Fox Talbot, Marville, Brassaï, Jeanloup Sieff, Cartier-Bresson, Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, Nadar, any photographer of note but above all Atget – all acquiescent to her charms. Strange as it may seem, it is not that the photographer takes photos of Paris (as though possessing an object of desire), but that the city allows these revelations to occur as a kind of benediction, a kind of divine blessing. Am I making any sense here? Perhaps I am just too much in love, but having photographed in Pere-Lachaise Cemetery for example, there is nothing quite like the feeling I get when in the City of Light.

The photographs in this posting are magnificent. The intimacy of the Brassaï, the tonality of the Steichen; the dankness of the Marville and the informality of the Stieglitz. The first two Atget are cracking images. Note how the auteur éditeur uses the darkness of the tree trunks to divide the picture plane, better than anyone has done before or since. It is a pleasure to be able to show you Atget’s Work Room with Contact Printing Frames (c. 1910, below), an image I have never seen before in all the years I have been looking at his work. Make sure you enlarge the image to see all the details including the simplicity of the trestle table: “On the table are the wooden frames the photographer used to contact print his glass negatives; at right are several bins of negatives stacked vertically; below the table are his chemical trays; on the shelves above are stacks of paper albums – a shelf label reads escaliers et grilles (staircases and grills).”

I am particularly taken by the feather duster, the parcels wrapped in newspapers and tied with string, and intrigued by the print of a moonrise(?) over a bridge high up, tacked to the wall (see detail image below). Obviously this image meant a lot to him because it is the only one in the room and it would have taken a bit of an effort to put it up there. I wonder whose image it is, and what bridge it is of…

Dr Marcus Bunyan

.
Many thankx to The Metropolitan Museum of Art for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

 

“Oysters and a glass of wine, a corner café, the Sunday bird market on the Île de la Cité, a lover’s stolen kiss: Paris has loomed large in the imagination of artists, writers, and architects for centuries. For 175 years, it has attracted photographers from around the world who have succumbed to its spell and made it their home for part, if not all, of their lives.

Paris as Muse: Photography, 1840s-1930s (January 27 – May 4, 2014) celebrates the first 100 years of photography in Paris and features some 40 photographs, all drawn from the Museum’s collection. Known as the “City of Light” even before the birth of the medium in 1839, Paris has been muse to many of the most celebrated photographers, from Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre (one of the field’s inventors) and Nadar to Charles Marville, Eugène Atget, and Henri Cartier-Bresson. The show focuses primarily on architectural views, street scenes, and interiors. It explores the physical shape and texture of Paris and how artists have found poetic ways to record its essential qualities using the camera.”

Text from The Metropolitan Museum of Art website

 

 

Eugène Atget (French, Libourne 1857-1927 Paris) 'Nôtre Dame' 1922

 

Eugène Atget (French, Libourne 1857-1927 Paris)
Nôtre Dame
1922
Albumen silver print from glass negative
18.2 x 22.1cm (7 1/8 x 8 11/16 in.)
Gilman Collection, Purchase, Joseph M. Cohen Gift, 2005

 

 

Atget likely avoided Nôtre Dame during his early career as it was already well documented by other photographers. In his old age, however, he worked more for his own pleasure and during the last five years of his life photographed the cathedral regularly. He always viewed it in an eccentric way – either in the distance, as here, or in detail.

 

Eugène Atget (French, Libourne 1857-1927 Paris) 'Untitled [Atget's Work Room with Contact Printing Frames]' c. 1910

 

Eugène Atget (French, Libourne 1857-1927 Paris)
Untitled [Atget’s Work Room with Contact Printing Frames]
c. 1910
Albumen silver print from glass negative
20.9 x 17.3cm (8 1/4 x 6 13/16 in.)
Purchase, The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation Gift, through Joyce and Robert Menschel, 1990

 

 

This straightforward study by Atget of his own work room offers a rare glimpse of the inner sanctum of an auteur éditeur, as he described his profession. On the table are the wooden frames the photographer used to contact print his glass negatives; at right are several bins of negatives stacked vertically; below the table are his chemical trays; on the shelves above are stacks of paper albums – a shelf label reads escaliers et grilles (staircases and grills). Atget used these homemade albums to organise his vast picture collection from which he sold views of old Paris to clients.

 

Eugène Atget (French, Libourne 1857–1927 Paris) 'Untitled [Atget's Work Room with Contact Printing Frames]' c. 1910 (detail)

 

Eugène Atget (French, Libourne 1857-1927 Paris)
Untitled [Atget’s Work Room with Contact Printing Frames] (detail)
c. 1910
Albumen silver print from glass negative
20.9 x 17.3cm (8 1/4 x 6 13/16 in.)
Purchase, The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation Gift, through Joyce and Robert Menschel, 1990

 

Eugène Atget (French, Libourne 1857-1927 Paris) 'Marchand de Vin, Rue Boyer, Paris' 1910-11

 

Eugène Atget (French, Libourne 1857-1927 Paris)
Marchand de Vin, Rue Boyer, Paris
1910-11
Albumen silver print from glass negative
21.5 x 17.6cm (8 7/16 x 6 15/16 in.)
Gilman Collection, Purchase, Joseph M. Cohen Gift, 2005

 

Eugène Atget (French, Libourne 1857–1927 Paris) 'Boulevard de Strasbourg, Corsets, Paris' 1912

 

Eugène Atget (French, Libourne 1857-1927 Paris)
Boulevard de Strasbourg, Corsets, Paris
1912
Gelatin silver print from glass negative
22.4 x 17.5cm (8 13/16 x 6 7/8 in.)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gilman Collection
Purchase, Ann Tenenbaum and Thomas H. Lee Gift, 2005

 

 

Atget found his vocation in photography in 1897, at the age of forty, after having been a merchant seaman, a minor actor, and a painter. He became obsessed with making what he termed “documents for artists” of Paris and its environs and compiling a visual compendium of the architecture, landscape, and artefacts that distinguish French culture and history. By the end of his life, Atget had amassed an archive of more than eight thousand negatives, which he organised into such categories as Parisian Interiors, Vehicles in Paris, and Petits Métiers (trades and professions).

In Atget’s inventory of Paris, shop windows figure prominently and the most arresting feature mannequin displays. In the 1920s the Surrealists recognised in Atget a kindred spirit and reproduced a number of his photographs in their journals and reviews. Antiquated mannequins such as the ones depicted here struck them as haunting, dreamlike analogues to the human form.

 

Marie-Charles-Isidore Choiselat (French, 1815-1858) Stanislas Ratel (French, 1824-1904) 'Untitled [The Pavillon de Flore and the Tuileries Gardens]' 1849

 

Marie-Charles-Isidore Choiselat (French, 1815-1858)
Stanislas Ratel (French, 1824-1904)
Untitled [The Pavillon de Flore and the Tuileries Gardens]
1849
Daguerreotype
15.2 x 18.7cm (6 x 7 3/8 in.)
Gilman Collection, Purchase, The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation Gift, through Joyce and Robert Menschel, 2005

 

 

Taken in September 1849 from a window of the École des Beaux-Arts, this daguerreotype exhibits the dazzling exactitude and presence that characterize these mirrors of reality. True to the daguerreotype’s potential, stationary objects are rendered with remarkable precision; under magnification one can clearly discern minute architectural details on the Pavillon de Flore, features of statuary and potted trees in the Tuileries Gardens, even the chimney pots on the buildings in the background along the rue de Rivoli.

Daguerre himself had chosen a nearly identical vantage point in 1839 for one of his earliest demonstration pieces, and it may well have been with that archetypal image in mind that Choiselat and Ratel made this large daguerreotype a decade later. Choiselat and Ratel, among the earliest practitioners to utilise and improve upon Daguerre’s process, first published their methods for enhancing the sensitivity of the daguerreotype plate in 1840 and had achieved exposure times of under two seconds by 1843. Unlike Daguerre’s long exposure, which failed to record the presence of moving figures, this image includes people (albeit slightly blurred) outside the garden gates, on the Pont Royal, and peering over the quai wall above the floating warm-bath establishment moored in the Seine. Still more striking is the dramatic rendering of the cloud-laden sky, achieved by the innovative technique of masking the upper portion of the plate partway through the exposure.

 

William Henry Fox Talbot (British, 1800-1877) 'The Boulevards at Paris' May-June 1843

 

William Henry Fox Talbot (British, 1800-1877)
The Boulevards at Paris
May-June 1843
Salted paper print from paper negative
15.1 x 19.9cm (5 15/16 x 7 13/16 in. )
Gilman Collection, Purchase, The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation Gift, through Joyce and Robert Menschel, 2005

 

 

Talbot traveled to Paris in May 1843 to negotiate a licensing agreement for the French rights to his patented calotype process and, with Henneman, to give first hand instruction in its use to the licensee, the Marquis of Bassano.

No doubt excited to be traveling on the continent with a photographic camera for the first time, Talbot seized upon the chance to fulfil the fantasy he had first imagined on the shores of Lake Como ten years before. Although his business arrangements ultimately yielded no gain, Talbot’s views of the elegant new boulevards of the French capital are highly successful, a lively balance to the studied pictures made at Lacock Abbey. Filled with the incidental details of urban life, architectural ornamentation, and the play of spring light, this photograph, unlike much of the earlier work, is not a demonstration piece but rather a picture of the real world. The animated roofline punctuated with chimney pots, the deep shopfront awning, the line of waiting horse and carriages, the postered kiosks, and the characteristically French shuttered windows all evoke as vivid a notion of mid-nineteenth-century Paris now as they must have when Talbot first showed the photographs to his friends and family in England.

A variant of this scene, taken from a higher floor in Talbot’s Paris hotel, appeared as plate 2 in The Pencil of Nature.

 

Alfred Stieglitz (American, Hoboken, New Jersey 1864–1946 New York) 'A Snapshot, Paris' 1911, printed 1912

 

Alfred Stieglitz (American, Hoboken, New Jersey 1864–1946 New York)
A Snapshot, Paris
1911, printed 1912
Photogravure
13.8 x 17.4cm (5 7/16 x 6 7/8 in.)
Gift of J. B. Neumann, 1958

 

 

Born in Hoboken, New Jersey, Stieglitz trained to be an engineer in Germany and moved to New York in 1890. His lifelong ambition as an artist (and advocate for the arts) was to prove that photography was as capable of artistic expression as painting or sculpture. As the editor of Camera Notes, the journal of the Camera Club of New York, and then later Camera Work (1902-17), Stieglitz espoused his belief in the aesthetic potential of the medium. He published work by photographers who shared his conviction alongside European modernists such as Auguste Rodin, Pablo Picasso, Constantin Brancusi, and Francis Picabia.

 

Michel Seuphor (Belgian, born 1901) 'Paris' 1929

 

Michel Seuphor (Belgian, born 1901)
Paris
1929
Gelatin silver print
11.4 x 16.4cm (4 1/2 x 6 7/16 in.)
Purchase, The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation Gift, through Joyce and Robert Menschel, 1994
© 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

 

 

The Belgian painter, poet, designer, and art critic Seuphor moved to Paris in 1925 and entered the artistic community of such expatriate artists as Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, and Theo van Doesburg. Little is known about his work with the camera except that this photograph was made the year Seuphor founded Cercle et Carré (Circle and Square), a group dedicated to abstraction that would include Kandinsky, Mondrian, Jean Arp, Kurt Schwitters, and Le Corbusier.

 

Marie-Charles-Isidore Choiselat (French, 1815-1858) Stanislas Ratel (French, 1824-1904) 'Défilé sur le Pont-Royal' May 1, 1844

 

Marie-Charles-Isidore Choiselat (French, 1815-1858)
Stanislas Ratel (French, 1824-1904)
Défilé sur le Pont-Royal
May 1, 1844
Daguerreotype
Gilman Collection, Gift of The Howard Gilman Foundation, 2005

 

 

In January 1839 the Romantic painter and printmaker Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre (1787-1851) showed members of the French Académie des Sciences an invention he believed would forever change visual representation: photography. Each daguerreotype (as Daguerre dubbed his invention) is an image produced on a highly polished, silver-plated sheet of copper.

Using an “accelerating liquid” of their own devising, the daguerreotypists Choiselat and Ratel were able to reduce exposure times from minutes to seconds, which allowed them to capture events as they happened. Here the mounted guards stationed along one of Paris’s most famous bridges registered clearly on the daguerreotype plate, but even with a short exposure time the moving crowds and rolling carriages became a blur of activity.

 

Charles Marville (French, Paris 1813–1879 Paris) 'Rue Traversine (from the Rue d'Arras)' c. 1868

 

Charles Marville (French, Paris 1813–1879 Paris)
Rue Traversine (from the Rue d’Arras)
c. 1868
Albumen silver print from glass negative
34.8 x 27.5cm (13 11/16 x 10 13/16 in. )
Gift of Howard Stein, 2010

 

Brassaï (French (born Romania), Brașov 1899-1984 Côte d'Azur) 'Street Fair, Boulevard St. Jacques, Paris' 1931

 

Brassaï (French (born Romania), Brașov 1899-1984 Côte d’Azur)
Street Fair, Boulevard St. Jacques, Paris
1931
Gelatin silver print
22.9 x 17.1cm (9 x 6 3/4 in.)
Purchase, Alfred Stieglitz Society Gifts, 2007
© The Estate of Brassai

 

 

Born in Transylvania, Gyula Halász studied painting and sculpture in Hungary and moved to Paris in 1924 to work as a journalist. About 1930 he changed his name to Brassaï and took up photography. The camera became a constant companion on his nightly walks through the city’s seamier quarters, where he aimed his lens at showgirls, prostitutes, ragpickers, transvestites, and other inhabitants of the demimonde. His first and most famous book of photographs, Paris de nuit (Paris by Night), published in 1933, includes a variation of this scene of three masked women tempting men into a sideshow.

 

Edward J. Steichen (American (born Luxembourg), Bivange 1879-1973 West Redding, Connecticut) 'Untitled [Brancusi's Studio]' c. 1920

 

Edward J. Steichen (American (born Luxembourg), Bivange 1879-1973 West Redding, Connecticut)
Untitled [Brancusi’s Studio]
c. 1920
Gelatin silver print
24.4 x 19.4cm (9 5/8 x 7 5/8 in.)
Gift of Grace M. Mayer, 1992
Reprinted with permission of Joanna T. Steichen.

 

 

Steichen lived in Paris on and off from 1900 to 1924, making paintings and photographs. A cofounder with Alfred Stieglitz of the Photo-Secession, Steichen offered his former New York studio to the fledgling organisation as an exhibition space in 1905. Known first as the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession and later simply by its address on Fifth Avenue, 291, the gallery introduced modern French art to America through the works of Rodin, Matisse, Cézanne, and, in 1914, Constantin Brancusi.

Steichen and Brancusi, who met at Rodin’s studio, became lifelong friends. This view of a corner of Brancusi’s studio on the impasse Roncin shows several identifiable works, including Cup (1917) and Endless Column (1918). The photograph’s centrepiece is the elegant polished bronze Golden Bird (1919), which soars above the other forms. Distinct from Brancusi’s studio photographs – subjective meditations on his own creations – Steichen’s view is more orchestrated, geometric, and objective. Golden Bird is centred, the light modulated, and the constellation of masses carefully balanced in the space defined by the camera. A respectful acknowledgment of the essential abstraction of the sculpture, the photograph seems decidedly modern and presages the formal studio photographs Steichen made in the service of Vanity Fair and Vogue beginning in 1923.

 

 

The Metropolitan Museum of Art
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New York, New York 10028-0198
Phone: 212-535-7710

Opening hours:
Tuesday – Thursday: 9.30am – 5.30pm*
Friday and Saturday: 9.30am – 9.00pm*
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The Metropolitan Museum of Art website

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12
Sep
13

Exhibition: ‘French Twist: Masterworks of Photography from Atget to Man Ray’ at the Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington, DE

Exhibition dates: 29th June – 15th September 2013

 

C’est magnifique!

Marcus

.
Many thankx to the Delaware Art Museum for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

 

 

Ilse Bing (1899-1998) 'Cancan Dancers' Moulin Rouge 1931

 

Ilse Bing (German, 1899-1998)
Cancan Dancers

Moulin Rouge 1931
Gelatin silver print
6 1/4 × 9 in. (15.9 × 22.9cm)
Collection of Michael Mattis and Judith Hochberg
© Estate of Ilse Bing. Courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York

 

Ilse Bing (German, 1899-1998) 'Champ-de-Mars from the Eiffel Tower' 1931

 

Ilse Bing (German, 1899-1998)
Champ-de-Mars from the Eiffel Tower
1931
7 1/2 x 11 inches
Collection of Michael Mattis and Judith Hochberg
© Estate of Ilse Bing, Courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York

 

Ilse Bing (1899-1998) 'Boarding House for Young Women, Tours' 1935

 

Ilse Bing (German, 1899-1998)
Boarding House for Young Women, Tours
1935
Gelatin silver print
11 1/8 × 7 1/2 in. (28.3 × 19.1cm)
Collection of Michael Mattis and Judith Hochberg
© Estate of Ilse Bing. Courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York

 

Brassaï (1899-1984) 'Lovers, Bal Musette des Quatre Saisons, rue de Lappe' c. 1932

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984)
Lovers, Bal Musette des Quatre Saisons, rue de Lappe
c. 1932
9 3/8 x 7 inches
Collection of Michael Mattis and Judith Hochberg
© The Brassaï Estate-RMN

 

 

In the early 20th century, between the two world wars, Paris saw a fervour of change. From 1910 to 1940, the city became a creative epicentre for artistic exploration, attracting international avant-garde artists – including photographers experimenting with Surrealism, Modernism, and the new reportage. French Twist: Masterworks of Photography from Atget to Man Ray, on view at the Delaware Art Museum from June 29, 2013 through September 15, 2013, features 100 vintage prints from this golden age of French photography and explores the variety and inventiveness of native and immigrant photographers working in France in the early 20th century.

This exhibition presents a number of themes that capture the flavour and nightlife of Paris at this exciting moment. “Life of the Streets,” “Diversions,” and “Paris by Night” are just some of the topics that these masterful photographs explore. Visitors will experience Eugène Atget’s lyrical views of Paris streets and gardens, Man Ray’s surrealist experiments, and Henri Cartier-Bresson’s pioneering photojournalism, as well as works by Ilse Bing, Brassaï, Jacques-Henri Lartigue, André Kertész, and Dora Maar. Many of these artists settled in France for life, while others, fleeing the Nazis, brought their Paris‐trained sensibilities and influences to America.

 

Eugène Atget

The exhibition opens with one of the most significant figures in the history of photography, Eugène Atget, whose work influenced a range of artists from Surrealists to documentary photographers. This selection encompasses pictures of city streets, architectural details, and the gardens at Versailles and includes one of his most famous photographs, Boulevard de Strasbourg, Corsets (1912).

 

La vie de la rue (Life of the Street)

This section includes images of the streets and buildings of Paris – of the bustling Champ-de-Mars and the deserted Avenue du Maine – and features a large selection of photographs by Ilse Bing. In her modernist views of urban architecture, Bing provides a modern take on the old city through unexpected angles and dramatic cropping.

 

Divertissement (Diversions)

Divertissement focuses on the myriad amusements available in the City of Lights. Lartigue provides an insider’s view of upper-class life in the Belle Epoque, while Bing and Brassaï chronicle the attractions of the dance hall, the theater, and the street.

 

Henri Cartier-Bresson

The master of the “decisive moment” and one of the most significant photojournalists of the 20th century, Henri Cartier-Bresson is featured along with 17 famous photographs from his travels around the world. This section includes his stellar images of the Spanish Second Republic and his iconic view of the coronation of George VI in London.

 

Les basses classes (The Lower Classes)

Between the wars, photographers from Ilse Bing to Andre Kertész to Brassaï chronicled lives of poor Parisians, often bringing a Modernist sensibility, rather than a reformer’s eye, to scenes of urban poverty.

 

Paris de nuit (Paris by Night) 

In 1933 Brassaï released his photo book Paris by Night, which chronicled the city’s streets and amusements after dark. The book became an immediate success and Brassaï became famous as the foremost photographer of the city’s bars and brothels, performers, and prostitutes.

 

L’art pour l’art (Art for Art’s Sake)

This section focuses on the technical experimentation and virtuoso technique of photographers including Pierre Dubreuil, Edward Steichen, and Pal Funk Angelo. It features examples of unusual techniques like cliché-verre, solarisation, and oil printing.

Cliché verre is a combination of art and photography. In brief, it is a method of either etching, painting or drawing on a transparent surface, such as glass, thin paper or film and printing the resulting image on a light sensitive paper in a photographic darkroom. It is a process first practiced by a number of French painters during the early 19th century. The French landscape painter Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot was the best known of these. Some contemporary artists have developed techniques for achieving a variety of line, tone, texture and colour by experimenting with film, frosted Mylar, paint and inks and a wide assortment of tools for painting, etching, scratching, rubbing and daubing.

Cliché verre is French. Cliché is a printing term: a printing plate cast from movable type; while verre means glass. (Text from Wikipedia)

 

Andre Kertész, Dora Maar, Man Ray

These three important photographers – all immigrants to Paris between the Wars and all involved in Surrealist movement – are featured in individual sections that highlight their most famous works. Kertész is represented by his photographs of the painter Piet Mondrian’s studio. Maar’s Surrealist street photographs capture her dark humor, and a full complement of Man Ray’s experimental and psychologically charged images summarize his photographic interests.

 

La figure (Portraits and Nudes)

La Figure showcases experimental approaches to the classic subject of the female nude, including a cameraless photograph and a solarisation by Man Ray and a distortion created with fun-house-type mirrors by Kertész.

Ilse Bing (German, 1899-1998), nicknamed the “Queen of the Leica” after her camera of choice, moved to Paris in 1930 and immersed herself in its cultural milieu, interacting with painters like Pavel Tchelitchev and fashionistas Elsa Schiaparelli and Carmel Snow. The decade she spent in France is considered the high point of her artistic career.

Dora Maar (French, 1907-1997) created startlingly imaginative Surrealist photographs under the tutelage of Man Ray. However, she is best known as Picasso’s lover, muse, and “Weeping Woman” from 1936 to 1943. Her photographs documenting Picasso’s creation of Guernica hang alongside the painting in the Reina Sofía museum in Madrid.

JacquesHenri Lartigue (French, 1894-1986), considered by many to be a child prodigy, received his first camera as a gift when he was six years old and immediately set to work documenting the activities of his energetic family and circle of friends. Lartigue’s light‐hearted snapshots capture the essence of France’s Belle Époque, the halcyon period before World War I when it seemed that modernity would bring nothing but progress and delight.

 

Eugène Atget (French, 1857-1927) 'Boulevard de Strasbourg Corsets' 1912

 

Eugène Atget (French, 1857-1927)
Boulevard de Strasbourg Corsets
1912
Printing-out paper
8 3/4 x 7 inches
Collection of Michael Mattis and Judith Hochberg

 

Eugène Atget (1857-1927) 'Rue Egynard' 1901

 

Eugène Atget (French, 1857-1927)
Rue Egynard
1901
Albumen print
8 1/4 × 7 in. (21 × 17.8cm)
Collection of Michael Mattis and Judith Hochberg

 

Man Ray (1890-1976) 'Solarized nude' 1930

 

Man Ray (American, 1890-1976)
Solarized nude
1930
11 5/8 x 8 7/8 inches
Collection of Michael Mattis and Judith Hochberg
© 2013 Man Ray Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY / ADAGP, Paris

 

Edward Steichen (1879-1973) 'Three Pears and an Apple, Voulangis, France' 1921

 

Edward Steichen (American, 1879-1973)
Three Pears and an Apple, Voulangis, France
1921
Gelatin silver print
14 x 11 inches
Collection of Michael Mattis and Judith Hochberg

 

Man Ray (1890-1976) 'Kiki de Montparnasse' 1923

 

Man Ray (American, 1890-1976)
Kiki de Montparnasse
1923
11 x 8 3/4 inches
Collection of Michael Mattis and Judith Hochberg
© 2013 Man Ray Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY / ADAGP, Paris

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984) 'Fille de Montmartre playing Russian billiards, Blvd Rochechouart' 1932-33

 

Brassaï (French, 1899-1984)
Fille de Montmartre playing Russian billiards, Blvd Rochechouart
1932-33
11 1/4 x 8 1/4 inches
Collection of Michael Mattis and Judith Hochberg
© The Brassaï Estate-RMN

 

 

Delaware Art Museum
2301 Kentmere Parkway
Wilmington, DE 19806

Opening hours:
Wednesday, Friday – Sunday 10.00am – 4.00pm
Thursday 10am – 8pm
Closed Monday and Tuesday

Delaware Art Museum website

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His art work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes Art Blart, a photographic archive and form of cultural memory, which posts mainly photography exhibitions from around the world. He holds a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne, a Master of Arts (Fine Art Photography) from RMIT University, and a Master of Art Curatorship from the University of Melbourne.

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