Every so often back in the ’30s, dark stretches of nighttime Paris would be lit by a sulfurous flash. Brassai was at work, taking pictures in which conventional beauty held little appeal. Like Toulouse-Lautrec, he was a well-born, highly trained visual artist who found inspiration in the down and dirty.
Born in Transylvania at the turn of the century, he graduated from the the fine arts academy in Berlin and moved to Paris in 1924. Provisionally a painter and journalist, his true occupation during those early years involved all-night prowls of the city’s outlying neighborhoods. “The beauty of evil, the magic of the lower depths” were the attraction, and he began to carry a camera to preserve them. Fearless, he talked his way into underworld dance halls, strangers’ apartments, the locked bell tower of Notre Dame, capturing a city most of its residents had never seen.
His work caught the eye of the intelligentsia and brought commissions from magazines and journals. He began associating with another set of outlaws, the Surrealists. Through them, he came to know and collaborate with Picasso, Matisse and other leading artists of his time. By the time he died in 1984, Brassai’s name counted among them.
The Centre Nationale de Photographie’s current show presents 160 of his works dating from 1930 to 1950. Featured are his early photos of the demimonde, forays into Surrealism, documentation of graffiti and portraits of artists. Table displays provide additional insights on his life and work: here are books he illustrated, pages from The Minotaur and other journals, and photos where he is the subject (the funniest is Richard Avedon’s, in which Brassai, dapper yet game, suffers a herd of hungry goats).
A large portion of the exhibition is given over to Brassai’s early “Paris by night” series. These depictions of rain-slicked gutters and groping couples are by now old standards, but mass reproduction hasn’t diminished their power. A pool-playing tart poses like a starlet, unaware that her hand reads like a harpy’s claw. A public urinal becomes a lighthouse in the winter night, at once a landmark and safe haven. “Môme Bijou,” the woman rumored to have inspired the play “The Madwoman of Chaillot,” lists like a beached wreck in a Montmartre bar, eyes glittering hard as her rhinestones.
The next series of pictures, of graffiti carved into walls and passageways, sounds dull in description. In fact, they have a spooky magic best seen to be understood. What Brassai saw in these crude carvings were “ancestral figurations, age-old motifs from mythology, legends and art” that sprung from a race memory where “certain archetypes survive like fossils.” His prints all bleed flush to their frames, without any white border. This makes the crude Venuses and death’s heads all the more like pictographs sheared off a cliff face, “found images” at once primitive and immortal.
Brassai’s artistic contemporaries – painters, writers and theorists – loved his works and were eager to form alliances. He photographed Miró, Breton and Picasso, among others, and did a series on Picasso’s rue La Boétie studio. Here again, the camera seeks out the raw truth rather than prettiness. Pictured are Picasso’s fireplace chock-full of junk, his palette and paint tubes strewn all over the floor. From this mess would emerge the sublime, the photo saying what hundreds of words couldn’t.
When Brassai turns his attention away from the human, his work loses something. One room of the show is dedicated to what he called “latent images”: extreme close-ups of droplets, matchheads, twisted Métro tickets. They’re fine as formal studies, but not nearly as engaging as his earlier work. Similarly, his venture into Cubism is a great idea that doesn’t quite live up to its promise. Here he took photos of nudes and scratched on motifs inspired by Picasso and Braque. But since these motifs routinely frame an attractive breast or buttock, the cumulative effect is one of artsy peekaboo.
The exhibition itself falters in one respect: aside from a few wall plaques, which present Brassai in his own words (he was an illuminating and urbane writer), too little background information is provided. Given the tangled relationships of Surrealism, Cubism and the overall post WWI intellectual climate in Paris, one wishes for more. But what more could be asked of the Paris photos? They’ve become part of the city’s mystique, as enduring as her monuments. Theirs is a view on Paris that is not to be missed.
“Brassai: de Surrealisme à l’art informel,” until May 9, Centre Nationale de la Photographie, Hôtel Salomon de Rothschild.