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Romance and realism in Brassai's Paris pictures
By Robert Reed / Special to The Daily Yomiuri

The Daily Yomiuri (Tokyo)
September 1, 2005 Thursday

The Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography in Ebisu is celebrating its 10th year with a schedule of special exhibitions that reflect its character as an institution dedicated to building and educating an audience for the art of photography. After a series of three exhibitions covering the history of photography in Japan up through World War II, the museum now presents a show of the works of Brassai, one of Europe's best-known photographers of the 20th century.

This show is exemplary of the kind of high-quality presentations of foreign artists the museum has sought to bring its audience over the last 10 years and, in fact, is one that was assembled by the Pompidou Centre, Paris, in 2000, to celebrate the centenary of the artist's birth and that has since toured to Britain and Italy.

Brassai is known today primarily as a photographer of the streets and cafes of Paris at the time between the two world wars when the city was the artistic capital of Europe. Like so many of the artists, writers and thinkers gathered in Paris at that time, Brassai was not a native Parisian but an expatriate drawn to the City of Light by its irresistible intellectual and artistic gravity.

Born Gyula Halasz, the pseudonym Brassai that he chose after beginning his artistic activities in Paris in the early 1930s means "of Brasso" (Brasov), his native town in what was Hungarian Transylvania (now part of Romania). His mother was Armenian and his father a Hungarian professor of French literature with a degree from the Sorbonne. After studying art in Budapest and Berlin, Brassai finally realized his dream of living in Paris at the age of 25, in 1924.

During his first years in Paris, Brassai supported himself by writing as a correspondent for Hungarian and German publications while devoting himself to the study of French. In Berlin, he had counted artists such as Kandinsky, Kokoschka and Moholy-Nagy among his friends, and after moving to Paris he was again quick to make friends in art circles. One of the first of these was the photographer Eugene Atget, whose works Brassai came to admire deeply.

It was in 1929 that a friend lent Brassai a camera so that he could take his own pictures to send back with his articles to Hungary and Germany rather than having to rely on other photographer's pictures. As soon as he began to take and develop pictures, Brassai decided that photography was a medium through which he could express his view of the world.

In Brassai's first serious portraits of Paris, beginning in 1930, what we see is not the City of Light but the empty streets of the Parisian night that he loved to wander. The collection of photographs published late in 1932 under the title Paris du nuit (and in the English edition as Paris After Dark in 1934) quickly caught the attention of the Paris art world.

In the selection of works from this period on view in the Ebisu show, we see the deserted night streets, peopled only occasionally by young hoodlums from the slums and prostitutes on the Place d'Italie. In these early years Brassai also photographed the nightlife of Paris, in the cafes and bars, the dance halls and the brothels.

If the images appear stark it is because Brassai sought unadorned reality above all else. If they seem unfinished it is because, like that first camera that started him on his quest, Brassai always tried to keep the spirit of the amateur, using no special equipment and developing no new techniques.

In keeping with this stance, he also fervently denied the label of artist throughout his career. The ground he broke was not in the realm of technique or style but in the new subject matter he found and the intimate knowledge of the fellow artists he photographed in their studios. Brassai considered Goethe to be his true mentor and he adopted the philosopher's aphorism as his own: "Little by little, objects have raised me to their own level."

There is a striking photograph in this show titled A Subway Pillar that exemplifies a series of photographs in which Brassai sought to express the nobility of ordinary objects. He called this series Objets a Grandes Echelles (Large-scale Objects) and it was these images that caught the eye of Picasso and made him ask Brassai to photograph the large stock of sculptures he had not yet shown the public.

Later, Brassai would be invited to the studios of many artists and writers of the day, including Matisse, Giacometti, Pierre Bonnard, George Braque, Georges Rouault, Bernard Buffet, Aristide Maillol, Samuel Beckett, Thomas Mann and Olivier Messiaen. Particularly memorable was a 1939 pictorial feature in Life magazine titled "Picasso in his Studio."

But this is not the side of Brassai's career that the Ebisu show focuses on. The Pompidou Centre collection from which his show is compiled includes the vast archive of the Brassai estate and the artist's personal collection that his widow, Gilberte, donated to the museum. From this, the show seeks to present the full spectrum of Brassai's own creative genius rather than his perhaps more visible role as chronicler of the Paris art world. Thus, the show includes Brassai drawings and sculpture as well as photographs.

As an art student, Brassai had naturally studied drawing, and he would return to drawing as a medium of artistic expression in his 40s, partly out of necessity. In the fateful month of June 1940, when the German Army occupied Paris, Brassai was in Cannes, having fled before the invasion with many of his artist friends. Although he had an invitation to move to the United States, he boarded the last refugee train back to Paris because he had forgotten to bring along his negatives.

Back in Paris, Brassai was told by the German occupation authority to apply for a license to practice his profession as a photographer. When he refused to do so, he was forbidden to work as a photographer for the remainder of the war. This is when he returned to drawing and made it a medium that he would continue to work in for the rest of his life. This is also the period when Picasso asked him to photograph his sculptures.

After the war, Brassai began making sculptures of his own, from the stones he found during his frequent alpine treks in the French Alps. Many of these charming works are stylized nudes that parallel his work in drawing and photography--also on display in this show. Other works seem to reflect the primitivism that had captured the imagination of Picasso and many other artists of the day. And one humorous sculpture is a Picassoesque bust in miniature of Picasso himself.

Another part of this show that is sure to impress visitors is the selection of prints from Brassai's Graffiti series, a collection of photos of Paris wall graffiti that the artist sought out and photographed over a period of more than 30 years. These images created a sensation in New York when they were first shown together at the Museum of Modern Art in a show organized by American photographer Edward Steichen.

The reception was equally fervent in Europe when Brassai's Graffiti books were published in Germany and France. By this time, artists like Picasso, Braque, Miro and Dubuffet were already avid collectors of these prints, some of which came in pairs with a 10-year interval between them to show how the graffiti had aged over the years. In this show, these haunting images are grouped under Brassai's original themes of Love, Death, Magic and the Primitive.

Brassai--From the Pompidou Centre Collection

Until Sept. 25, open daily 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (until 8 p.m. on Thursdays and Fridays). Closed Mondays except Sept. 19, when the museum closes the following day instead.

Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, a seven-minute walk from JR Ebisu Station.

Admission: 1,000 yen for adults, 900 yen for university students and 800 yen for high school and middle school students and seniors 65 and older.

Information: visit or call (03) 3280-0099.

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