Brassai - The Soul of Paris - Goya - The Hayward Gallery

I love to go to photographic exhibitions and this one of Brassai especially- The Soul of Paris - was first shown at the Centre Pompidou, Musee National d'Art Moderne, Paris and later at the Hayward Gallery on London's South Bank, which is where I saw it.

Brassai: born in Transylvania in a town called Brasso. He changed his name in 1932, so he adopted the pseudonym Brassai after "of Brasso", the name of his town, although he never went back to his country and declared "the only date of birth which counts for me is not Brasso 1899, but Paris 1933". His name, before he changed it, was Gyula Halasz born on 9 September 1899.

This exhibition was to celebrate his centenary. He was known as "the eyes of Paris" as described by Henry Miller. Brassai was considered one of the greatest photographers of the 20th century and a foremost interpreter of the 1930s romantic Paris. He arrived in Paris in 1924. He used to go out in the night, coming from Transylvania he liked the night!!! Without any special equipment for taking photographs in the night he was able to produce that gorgeous and total blackness that is a feature of his vintage prints: beautiful photos of the Seine and its bridges, especially the image of the Statute of Marshal Ney seen against a foggy night. The fog pervades everything apart from the lone illuminated "HOTEL" sign as if suspended in the air; a fine study in light, shade and texture the photo was published in the surrealist journal Minotaure in 1935 which established his reputation as a photographer.

Talking of "Surrealism" he was also a close friend of Picasso and visited his studio, continuing to document Picasso's life and work throughout the 1930s and 1940s. He was also friendly with Matisse. He provided illustrations for Salvador Dali's articles in the periodical Minotaure, also for Andre Breton's novel I'Amour Fou. You can see the photo of Brassai's artist friends in Paris in the exhibition. In fact, it was Picasso that persuaded him to take up drawing. Brassai had studied in Budapest and Berlin, so there is a section containing his nude drawings with the emphasis on large buttocks and you can see the same huge bottoms in his sculptures. But as the name of the exhibition says The Soul of Paris, it is incredible to see through his photos of the 1920s and 1930s the modern cosmopolitan world - fine shops, boulevards, theatres and palaces. It was a Paris of artistic exiles such as Somerset Maughan, James Joyce, Wyndham Lewis, Giacometi, Picasso and Dali.

Brassai started his work in Paris as a sports journalist. Then, as he had to add a photo to what he had written, he brought a camera, a Voigtlander (he could only carry 24 negatives because they were so heavy). So he had to choose his subject well. As I mentioned before, he preferred to photograph during the night. He then published a collection of photo shots of his exploration of the city. His first book was Paris de Nuit, which was published in 1932. He is best known for his photos of Paris by Night - soul of Paris. His images were simple. His equipment was not fast working (he couldn't take an "instant" photo); so, in order to take photographs of his subjects (which were usually friends) their poses had to he held for five minutes. But in 1935 Brassai acquired a Rolleiflex, a smaller camera with a fast film. At that time he was settled in the 14th, but he used to go to the 13th at night. He photographed dark liped prostitutes with shiny black shoes, pimps, tramps, madams, gangsters, market-trades, people falling asleep or dropping dead on the street, the drunks, thugs and sailors; the brothel-interiors that he called his "Secret Paris"; all types of trench class and condition. The one that I liked most is the one of the lovers in the cafe, taken at a small cafe near Place d'Italie; the woman has one of her hands to her ear and his face is lifted with an expression of anticipatory pleasure. The man's head leans toward to kiss her and his sleek combed hair meets the conjunction of the two mirrors and we see multiple pairs of lovers reflected in the mirrors.

The Pont Neuf at night is photographed from a spot on the embankment where everyone who has visited Paris has taken a photo. But Brassai's photo shows a fog coming off the river and filling the midnight air with dampness. He has been accused of staging some of his pictures and the photographs in the exhibition in London. He has 17 drawings, 34 small sculptures and 270 black-and-white photographs in the exhibition placed in very large rooms. They all come from the Brassai Estate and are on long-term loan to Centre Pompidou.

What really captivated me was the last part - the graffiti of the primitive 20th century - walls engraved -with marks and pictograms. He used to take notes on where the graffiti was located and go back to photograph it again and again as it changed over time; altered with new marks and signs, really fascinating. He took these types of photos for over 30 years. In the book The Graffiti he has an elaborate system for classification and decoding of the images. He considered the graffiti to be one of the mysteries of human life. In his Self-Portrait of 1932 he looks very much the Frenchman with the cigarette dangling from his month. During the exhibition his 1956 film So Long as there are Animals was shown: the giraffes and chimps of Vincennes Zoo. In the bookshop you could buy Brassai's Paris de Nuit, which also inspired Bill Brandt to publish his London by Night in 1938. You could also purchase Brassai's No Ordinary Eyes with an essay by Henry Miller and Roger Grenier. Together with Brassai in the Hayward Gallery there is an exhibition of Goya: Drawings from his Private Album.

In his book Camera in Paris he says "Consider Goya. He, too, loves the street with its crowded life, beggars, townsmen, labourers, and workers. He watched them and sketches them at their ordinary daily tasks. He does not forget the hunchback, the halt and the blind, the idiot or the prostitute. With the same calm intensity he notes the outdoor games, pictures on the riverbank, the harvest, the fairground, the lunatic asylum, the execution, the disembowelled picador or the horrors of war. 'Yo lo vi', he writes beneath a certain engraving - I saw it. His whole work lives; even his nightmares served to swell the rich hoard of pictures stored up ready for use in his memory. Goya saw with his own eyes every side of life; he was the eye-witness of his time. " 150 years of distance runs between Goya and Brassai!

Verinha Ottoni.


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