The Secret Paris of the 1930s:
Vintage Photographs by Brassaï

Exhibition Dates:  May 31, 2012 – August 19, 2012

Essay by Joanne Milani, FMoPA Board of Trustees

“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” ~ Ernest Hemingway

Gyula Halasz – better known as Brassaï – could easily have uttered the same words. He and Hemingway (both born in 1899) tasted Paris to the fullest in the early years of the twentieth century. Halasz derived his name from his birthplace, Brasso, on the Hungarian-Romanian border. That is the name made famous by his photography.

Hungarian by nationality, cosmopolitan by temperament and Parisian by choice, this very popular man-about-town was known as “Gyula” by close friends, “Halasz” when he wrote articles for respected publications, “Fourbi” (or “Big Mess”) by the high-society crowd who embraced him, and “Brassaï” when he made photographs as well as penned plays and articles for off-beat audiences.

Here was a gregarious man who mixed with the who’s who of Paris between the two world wars. From Picasso to fellow Hungarian photographer Andre Kertesz to writers Henry Miller, Jean Genet and Samuel Beckett, to sculptor Alberto Giacometti, to Surrealists Man Ray and Salvador Dali, dancer Roland Petit and filmmaker Jean Renoir – the list of his friends and acquaintances is endless.

He moved from party to party, from high-society soirees to artists’ cafes, as easily as he jumped from activity to activity: journalist, playwright, sculptor, painter and, finally, photographer.  He was talented in many areas. When Picasso first looked at Brassaï’s drawings in 1939, he exclaimed, “You’re crazy, Brassaï” You have a gold mine, and you spend your time exploiting a salt mine!”

For Picasso, the “salt mine” was photography.  For Brassaï, the rarified atmosphere of a painter’s studio was stale and airless.

“Photography in our time leaves us with a grave responsibility,” he wrote.  “While we are playing in our studios with … nude studies and still lifes … life is passing before our eyes without our ever having seen a thing.”
His camera, however, brought him closer to pulsating, uncontrollable living beings on the streets and in the dance halls and brothels. He turned his lens on the fleeting moments of life: on lovers kissing, quarrelling, flirting and dancing, or on prostitutes walking the streets or lining up for the approval of clients.

For him, the camera was a still-young medium not yet accepted as a fine art. It afforded him mobility, accessibility and freedom from the centuries of tradition weighing down painting, sculpture and drawing.  He could make his own rules – and he did. “I like living beings,” he said. “I like life, but I like to capture it in such a way that the photo does not move.”

Notice how he seizes those fleeting, breathing moments and traps them as if they were flies caught in amber. In many of his photographs of people, he captures a strong diagonal movement that is anchored by a wall, the frame of a mirror, a post or building in the background.  For example, in Bijou au Bar de la Lune, Montmartre, Bijou’s basilisk gaze commands your attention. Her hands dance in a diagonal motion across the surface of the photograph, a direction that is repeated by the brass rails behind her. But her massive body and the repeated vertical accents behind her firmly hold in place those energetic diagonals.

Such strategies of composition have been used by painters for centuries. Classically-trained Brassaï appropriated them (consciously or unconsciously) for his photographs.  What he could not transfer from his art-school studies was knowledge of how to use the camera to orchestrate the subtle range of tones on his night scenes of Paris. That skill he forged for himself.  Brassaï’s foggy-night views of the city exemplify his mastery of light exposures. The evanescent grays and layered blacks reveal how well he mastered his new, young medium.  During this period, artists in every medium were challenging centuries-old traditions in the visual arts, literature music and dance. Those challenges fueled the extreme excitement in the air described by Hemingway.

One of Brassaï’s friends was Picasso, the grand master of the challenges. When Brassaï happened to leave behind in Picasso‘s studio a blank photographic plate, the voraciously creative Picasso seized the plate and had fun making an engraving on it. You can imagine how surprised Brassaï was when he recovered his plate the next day!  This was a pivotal moment for Brassaï. He had long been torn between drawing and photography. Eager to leave behind his bread-and-butter labor as a photographer and writer for magazines, he started engraving photographic plates himself, works he called Transmutations – which might refer to not only the Cubist reshaping of the nudes depicted in the work but also of the evolving mediums of drawing and photography.

It might also describe Brassaï’s signature contribution to photography as he “transmuted” the medium from a recording of reality to an evocation of life in a dynamic time and place – an exact excitement never to be experienced again.

“There is never any ending to Paris and the memory of each person who has lived it differs from that of any other… Paris was always worth it and you received in return for whatever you brought to it. But this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.” ~ Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

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