By Pete Vonder Haar
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"During my first years in Paris," wrote French photographer Brassai, "beginning in 1924, I lived at night, going to bed at sunrise, getting up at sunset, wandering about the city from Montparnasse to Montmartre. And even though I had always ignored and even disliked photography before, I was inspired to become a photographer by my desire to translate all the things that enchanted me in the nocturnal Paris I was experiencing."
Brassai's "journeys to the end of the night" would take him from sweeping overviews of fog-shrouded monuments, bridges, waterways and streets to the dark underside of Paris in the '30s with its whores, transvestites and opium dens. He photographed parks and cafes, bookstalls and brothels, and the entire spectrum of his era's professional and social "types": women in ball gowns and plumed masks, bare-breasted dancers at the Folies-Bergere, bums holed up along the quay, policemen with billowing capes.
Brassai was born Gyula Halasz in 1899 in Hungary. He emigrated first to Berlin, and later to Paris, where he adopted the pseudonym Brassai and worked not as a photographer but as a journalist, writing mostly for German magazines. His closest friends were artists and intellectuals (in Paris, he got to know Le Corbusier, Mac Orlan, Tzara, Derain and Henry Miller), and as an accomplished author, sculptor, draftsman and filmmaker, his reach was broad.
In 1932, after years of prowling, Brassai published a paperback, Paris de Nuit (Paris by Night). Not only did it secure his place in the history of photography, it influenced night photography everywhere and inspired a generation of photographers including Robert Doisneau, Bill Brandt and Diane Arbus.
Over the next five decades, until his death in 1984, Brassai produced 44 series of photographs, published 17 books and hundreds of articles, participated in countless exhibitions and created an award-winning film. But though his work has received considerable critical acclaim, it hasn't received critical scrutiny -- until now. Just in time for his centennial, the Museum of Fine Arts-Houston has organized a landmark exhibition of his work. Fifteen years in the making, "Brassai: The Eye of Paris" is the first major retrospective of the artist's work in the United States in more than three decades. Curated by Anne W. Tucker, head of the MFA photography department, it features some 140 photographs, drawings, sculptures and books.
As the show demonstrates, Brassai offers a vision of culture, a vision that reflects both his own ambitions and the larger forces that shaped them. He took the pulse of Paris, capturing the city at a heady time: the cafes crammed until all hours with artists and writers, the raucous life of the popular dives and dance halls, the costume balls worthy of Marie Antoinette, the brawny workers at Les Halles, the painters and sculptors in their studios.
Although many artists explored the shadowy side of Paris, only Brassai recorded the most bizarre activities, the places where dreams are dreamed and passions awake, where crimes are committed and evil lurks. Nobody else reveled quite so much in the "beauty of sinister things," risking death threats from switchblade-brandishing mobsters.
When he photographed society mavens and intellectuals, gangsters and pimps, they did not hide their nature, blend into the background or pretend to be caught unaware by the camera's lens. Rather, they posed for Brassai full face and sure of themselves. As Tucker writes, "Brassai's subjects are situated in their everyday environments -- at their desk or easel, or in a favorite bistro. They are neither consciously posed nor captured off guard."
Even in photographing objects, Brassai aimed to reveal the human connections. Dozens of other artists have photographed graffiti, but none isolated its raw, disturbing beauty with such candor. Even when he shot the monumental features of the city, he chose details or angles that made Paris an intimate, magical place. The difference between Brassai and others is that Brassai was not just a photographer, but a poet with a camera.
Arranged by subject matter, the exhibition presents well-known photographs from most of Brassai's series, including "Secret Paris of the '30s," "Picasso" and "Graffiti." There are three series of nudes, ranging from traditional figure studies to compositions that isolate the torso from its extremities. One cropped photo shows nothing but a black corset, net stockings and a round derriere. For the "Transmutations" series, he scratched drawings onto photographic plates, turning nudes into primitive, masklike creatures. In this section, Tucker has also grouped a few of Brassai's sensual drawings and sculptures.
In 1932, Brassai was asked to photograph Picasso's studio, which began a lifelong friendship between the two artists. The pictures were printed in the first issue of Le Minotaure, the exquisite surrealist magazine. At least one image focused on Picasso's eyes, opened very wide, revealing the whites around the pupils. Commissions from Harper's Bazaar after World War II enabled Brassai to continue photographing Picasso's sculptures, such as the cast bronze of the artist's right hand and a death's head bronze skull.
Thus Brassai penetrated the public façade of French avant-garde life, showing Picasso, Matisse, Dali, Giacometti and others in relaxed or private moments. There is Henry Miller, seen standing in Brassai's doorway, with a mandarin smile and a pouting, full lower lip. (It was Miller who called Brassai "the eye of Paris.") Also included in this grouping is a portrait of Madame Marianne Delauney-Belleville, whose family produced handmade cars. She taught Brassai the graces of French society, offering him insights into that mysterious universe known as "the world" -- as in, a man of the world -- and became his mentor and patron.
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