Brassaï: a Nocturne in ‘The City of Light’

Hungarian photographer Gyula Halász, more widely known as Brassaï (1899–1984), formed an integral part of the artistic scene of Paris between the two world wars, creating some of the most striking examples of night photography. Brassaï’s oeuvre was eclectically influenced by Surrealism, Italian Baroque, French Realism, and European literature, articulating a visual result of 1930s culture. Although his photographs cannot be classified as belonging to any single art movement the qualities, which they share with Surrealism and Realism bring to mind the debates around photography’s dual nature — its documentary as opposed to its artistic aspects. The unprecedented way in which Brassaï harmonized these, as well as his ability to dramatize even the most mundane of subjects, turned his work into an epitome of the type of photographic work which anticipated and marked the transition between the age of modernism and the era of mass-media culture.

Self-portrait, Brassaï photographing at night. © Photographie Brassaï/ RMN

In his seminal essay, ‘’The Painter of Modern Life’’ Baudelaire coined the term flâneur, to designate the twofold nature of the modern artist as a self-aware wanderer, who nonetheless desires to blend in with the crowd. The painter Baudelaire had in mind was Constantin Guys and it was his work, that Brassaï identified as the precedent for his own photographic explorations. Associating himself with the French modernist tradition of the 19th century, Brassaï did more than simply conjure up the obvious links between his method as a photographer and the concept of the flâneur. Rather, he evoked the nostalgic view of an older Paris, which was characteristic of the period’s feeling of cultural degeneration and the instability of the attempts for its reinvention.

Ball of Montagne Sainte-Geneviève, c. 1932.Credit…Estate Brassai Succession, Paris

Fascinated by the spectacle, which went on in the many cabarets, bars and cafes, framing Parisian cultural and social life at that period, Brassaï interpreted it in a distinctly novel way. Deeply affected by Italian Baroque with its taste for the irrational and the theatrical, Brassaï understood it as a stylistic development, which brought about new possible directions in art. His treatment of the Parisian night-time spectacle through a signature use of intense contrasts is one way in which he implemented the Baroque sensibility into his work. It is also this sensibility, which links Brassaï’s work to Surrealism.

Photographie Brassaï/ RMN

Nevertheless, Brassaï cannot be classified as Surrealist photographer per se, as he embraced not so much the movement’s tenets, but its ways of perceiving the world and interpreting it. The typically Surrealist intention to present familiar subjects in unfamiliar ways in order to rid oneself of cultural prejudices and limited perceptions is evident in Brassaï’s work. He succeeds in defamiliarizing the cityscape by revealing its nocturnal face. Paradoxically, darkness unveils a different urban reality, otherwise hidden by the daylight. It is not a coincidence that Henry Miller labelled Brassaï ‘’the eye of Paris’’, attributing him with ‘’normal vision’’, which meant the ability to see beyond the appearances of things, to strip away the veil of pretense and to perceive reality in its raw and unadorned essence. The direct and honest air of some of Brassaï’’s photographs (such as the famous Bijou), where the subjects react to the photographer’s presence, doubtless bring Miller’s words to life.

Brassaï, ‘Bijou’ of Montmartre, 1932

The first of Brassaï’s photography books, Paris de Nuit (Paris Nocturne), 1932 brought him immediate recognition. This was not, however, due to any novelty of the theme he treated, as there was already a prolific literate tradition of representing Paris at night (in Balzac, Proust and Baudelaire, to name a few), but it was rather due to the specific character assumed by Brassaï’s Paris. The sixty-four photographs exhibit a particular dialectic between private and public, open and closed, accessible and inaccessible which is interpreted through dramatic use of light and shadow. One way in which the difference between these notions is made apparent is by Brassaï’s common use of barriers such as gates and fences, which block the clear view of various public spaces. However, these barriers also form part of Brassaï’s larger affinity for the stylistic effects of different textures, such as ironwork, cobblestones, and grids, inspired by the Bauhaus. Hence, his work is visibly influenced by a variety of nineteenth and twentieth-century themes, resisting any attempt at stylistic classification.

Brassaï, Open Gutter, From “Paris by Night”, 1932
© Photographie Brassaï/ RM

Brassaï ‘s depictions of Parisian monuments such as the Arc de Triomph or Notre Dame de Paris, or of cobblestoned streets, of parks and cemeteries are usually seen through the veil of fog, rain or haze, which was his strategic solution to the difficulty of photographing under street lights. He either avoided their direct luminosity completely or he made use of atmospheric conditions to reflect, disperse and mitigate it, which proved to be more than a simple tactical device. It aestheticized and dramatized the photographs by imbuing them with a certain mysterious, surreal quality, which places his work in the grey area between the documentary and the creative possibilities of photography.

Brassai, Foggy, © Photographie Brassaï/ RM
© Photographie Brassaï/ RMN

Furthermore, the photographs in Paris de Nuit betray his attempt to remain as neutral as possible, depicting the city’s architectural and formal beauties. Where its inhabitants are photographed, it is always from a distance. This can be attributed to Brassaï’s background as a photojournalist, and to his initial conception of the photograph as inevitably remaining something of a scientific record and thus commanding the photographer’s objective observations. This view later evolved into the dual notion that photography also allows for artistry, expressed by Brassaï’s comparison of the photograph to a rectangle, which requires you to fill it up with ‘’white and black spots or colours’’.

Rue de Lappe, c. 1932.Credit…Estate Brassai Succession, Paris

Brassaï’s changing idea of the nature of photography is apparent in a later work of his: The Secret Paris, which remained unpublished until 1972. Here the spectacle of public and private has become commonplace, serving as a backdrop to the more intricate play between class, and sexual oppositions. In a strikingly more intimate and natural manner, Brassaï discloses a view of an underground Paris, populated by marginal characters, such as prostitutes and clochards. Focusing on them as the subject of his photographs, Brassaï elevates them to protagonists of art, challenging bourgeois society by taking interest in those outcasts whose existence it would rather forget.

Toilette, Chez Suzy, c. 1932
Streetwalker, near Place d’•Italie. 1932.Credit…Estate Brassai Succession, Paris

Brassaï’s photographic oeuvre is indicative of the instability of the interwar years reflected in his art by an eclectic embrace of various stylistic and ideological influences. More than a twentieth-century flâneur, documenting nocturne Paris or merely a Surrealist divulging unknown realities, Brassaï’s figure is emblematic of the 1930s search for a novel artistic vocabulary, that could anchor an ever-changing cultural experience, but which would nonetheless remain inevitably tinted by an air of a doomed nostalgia.

Brassaï: Prostitutes at a bar, Boulevard Rochechouart, Montmartre, c. 1932, PS 82. Private collection
Couple d’Amoureux dans un Petit Cafe, Quartier Italie, c. 1932 © Estate Brassaï Succession Paris

NOTES:

Marja Warehime, Brassaï : images of culture and the surrealist observer, Louisiana State University Press | c1996.

Sylvie Aubenas, Quentin Bajac, Brassai: Paris nocturne, Thames & Hudson | 2013

Art History and Russian MA student at the University of St Andrews, Scotland.

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