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Brassai's Visual Love Letter to Paris at SFMoMA

  • Brassaï - Kiki de Montparnasse and her Friends, Therese Treize and Lily, ca. 1932 at SFMOMA in 2018
  • Brassaï - Paris, 1930-33
  • Brassaï - On the boulevard Saint-Jacques, 1930-32
November 15, 2018
A philosophy graduate interested in theory, politics and art. Alias of Jelena Martinović.

One of the most renowned photographers of the interwar period, Brassaï contributed significantly to both commercial and avant-garde photography. Throughout his career, the city of Paris had served as his muse. Called “the eye of Paris” by his friend Henry Miller, Brassaï captured his adoptive city in all its facets, celebrating and revealing the complexities and hidden sides of French society and culture.

From children playing in the public gardens to an amorous couple on an amusement park attraction, Brassaï’s Paris photographs, which were also released in a book, capture something very special, something intense, deeply moving and often surprisingly humorous about this city. In an interview given shortly before his death in 1984, the artist explained how the French capital had served as an infinite source of inspiration and had reigned as the unifying theme that characterized each phase of his photography work.

The upcoming exhibition at SFMoMA will bring together some of Brassaï’s most iconic photographs, as well as many never-before-seen works. Simply titled Brassaï, it focuses on the Parisian scenes characterized by intimate candor, showing lovers, prostitutes, workers and gatherings in cafes, bars, and dance halls. In addition to the depictions of Paris, the show will include portraits of the most famous representatives of the city’s creative avant-garde such as Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí, and Henri Matisse, who were at the same time Brassaï’s friends.

Brassaï - Salvador Dali and Gala, Villa Seurat, Paris, 1932-33, printed posthumously
Brassaï – Salvador Dali and Gala, Villa Seurat, Paris, 1932-33, printed posthumously

The Practice of Brassai

Born Gyula Halász in the Transylvanian town of Brassó in 1899, Brassaï was trained as a painter in Budapest, and then in Berlin. In 1924, he moved to Paris, becoming drawn into the artistic life around the Montparnasse and surrounding himself with the likes of Picasso and Henry Miller. During the way, he would write for publications throughout Europe and the United States. It was here that he changed his name to Brassaï, a word signifying “from Brassó”.

Initially taking photographs to accompany his articles, he eventually became enchanted with the medium, mostly down to his friendship with Andre Kertesz. The artist would take nighttime walks through the French capital, documenting the streets of the French capital and those who populated them during after hours only, such as prostitutes, street cleaners and rag pickers. For him, Paris at night was a world complete in itself, with its own story, its own characters. He loved how it seemed deserted after midnight, how shadows ruled the corners and how people of the night would emerge after everyone’s gone to bed.

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

After he devoted himself to photography exclusively in 1931, he took his prints to Vu magazine and landed a book contract soon after. That book became Paris de Nuit, arguably the most famous out of all books he published. A stunning collection of black and white images, the book juxtaposed luminous, dreamlike nightscapes with documentary photographs of the nighttime’s denizens. In an era of slow lenses and even slower film, Brassaï was the first photographer in the world to shoot extensively at night. For this reason, the series was not only celebrated for its powerful content but also as a technical marvel.

Bal des Quatre-Saisons, rue de Lappe, ca. 1932, Billiard Player, Boulevard de Rochechouart, Paris, 1932-33
Left: Brassaï – Bal des Quatre-Saisons, rue de Lappe, ca. 1932 / Right: Brassaï – Billiard Player, Boulevard de Rochechouart, 1932-33

Paris and Brassai

Depictions of Paris at night during the 1930s remain one of the most famous bodies of work by Brassaï. Camera in hand, he scoured the streets, bars, ballrooms and occasionally brothels of Paris, unabashedly capturing the city’s inhabitants in their natural habitats. Favorite subjects of his moody, gritty, night photographs were prostitutes, drinkers, pimps, hoodlums, and other ‘marginal’ characters. Being at ease with all types of people played an important role in his work. His images are characterized by a stunning candor, filled with brooding atmosphere and implied narratives. Sometimes, he would also give directions to his subjects.

I need the subject to be as conscious as possible that he is taking part in an event… I need his active participation…

Towards the end of the 1930s, he created a body of work which captures the graffiti which was carved into and painted onto walls around Paris. Brassaï treated the graffiti he came across as found objects, often isolating one singular carving or scrawl to capture it in detail. He also photographed the more respectable sections of Paris society: its writers, artists, intellectuals, operas and ballets.

Avenue de l'Observatoire in the Fog, ca 1937
Brassaï – Avenue de l’Observatoire in the Fog, ca 1937

Brassai Paris Photographs at SFMoMA

Although he dabbled in drawing for a while during the German occupation, Brassaï soon resumed his career in photography and never quite returned to painting the way he had intended, a move he regretted for the rest of his life. However, his photographic legacy is immense, influencing generations of photographers. As he explained himself, his images were surreal simply because his own vision brought out the fantastic dimension of reality.

My only aim was to express reality, for there is nothing more surreal than reality itself. If reality fails to fill us with wonder, it is because we have fallen into the habit of seeing it as ordinary.

For him, a photographer needed to have a certain sensitivity to life, to living things, and at the same time, “the art which will enable him to capture that life in a certain specific way.” Intimate and honest, his images show he was endowed with all these qualities.

The exhibition Brassaï will take place at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art‘s Floor 3 from November 17th, 2018 until February 18th, 2019. It is organized by Fundación MAPFRE in collaboration with the SFMoMA. Major support for the show is provided by The Bernard Osher Foundation, with the generous support provided by Diana and Steve Strandberg.

Featured images: Brassaï – Kiki de Montparnasse and her Friends, Therese Treize and Lily, ca. 1932; Brassaï – Paris, 1930-33; Brassaï – On the Boulevard Saint-Jacques, 1930-32; All images © Estate Brassaï Succession, Paris, courtesy of SFMoMA.