The Fundación MAPFRE in Barcelona holds a stunning retrospective of the work of the Franco-Hungarian photographer Brassaï. Curated by Peter Galassi, the exhibition honors the photographer of Paris by night while highlighting some lesser known themes in his oeuvre.
The Paris scenes captured by Brassaï are instantly recognizable. They show the city’s streets, shadows cast by its immortal gas-lit monuments, the cobblestones of the Latin Quarter, Montmartre stairways sloping down in silence, and seedy, smoke-filled corners around the Place d’Italie. Some scenes show how little Paris has changed over the years (e.g. Façades rue de l’Hôtel de Ville, 1930–1932). Days go by, buildings and moods stay the same. Love flows with the Seine.
Brassaï draws on the heritage of nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature, painting, and philosophy. His oeuvre perpetuates the literary fascination with the French mythology of the underworld. Brassaï uses similar imagery for Parisian life, Paris by night, and the large discrepancies between the underworld and the high society: Le Bal des Quatre-Saisons rue de Lappe portrays elegant women and their beaus in a clever play of mirrors worthy of Manet. The gangs (Big Albert’s Gang, 1931) or, further on, policemen with their puffed out capes, bring to mind Carné’s films. A line of prostitutes evokes images from Maupassant’s brothels in La Maison Tellier. Everything is there: dinner theaters, dancehalls, society men, rag pickers, and those dozing off in a corner.
And yet, Brassaï’s gaze never resorts to caricature. He steps back from his subject into the position of a distant admirer. He seems at ease in every social sphere. At the time, Paris was undergoing transformation. By day, Brassaï followed the indefatigable broom of a street cleaner; at night, he tracked the motley crowds. Artistic circles were moving from Montmartre to Montparnasse. Brassaï accompanied Picasso and the Surrealists, as well as spent time in dives with prostitutes (Chez Suzy, rue Grégoire de Tours, 1932). He contributed to various journals, such as Paris Intime, Minotaure, and Paris Magazine. Through his way of thinking and his concrete, physical experience of the city, he was in touch with a formidable subject-matter. Brassaï was at home in brasseries, he intermingled, and inhaled the air of the city, even as Paris gradually yielded to his gaze. He discreetly made the city’s heart throb.
The parallel with Baudelaire seems almost too obvious. Both bridged a wide gap: high and low society; the misery of back alleys and the pleasures of the flesh; the underworld and scraps. Brassaï’s oeuvre is a true extension of Baudelaire’s poetic research. They share the same topos, crisscrossing Parisian boulevards and back streets. Unlike Atget, Brassaï spent as much time in the street as he did indoors. He would step inside and delight in the games and the mises-en-scène of Parisian pleasures.
A complete list of the artistic figures of this seedy Paris, of this brilliant Paris, of this rogue city, this home of the wretched, would be long: from François Villon to Toulouse-Lautrec, from Jean Genet to Jacques Prévert, Brassaï’s photography revives readings, visions, and imaginings.
Even if one has seen some of his photos a hundred times, Brassaï’s oeuvre is as fascinating as ever. The exhibition at the Fundación MAPFRE in Barcelona surpasses any rediscovery, the pleasure of seeing forgotten masterpieces. It offers an interpretation of the French artistic heritage, perpetuation of a way of looking through photography, and a constantly reconstructed topography of the Parisian territory, with its figures, its streets, and its poetry.
Arthur Dayras is a writer specializing in photography. He lives and works in Paris.
February 20 to May 13, 2018