My thanks to Tamara Machmut-Jhashi for her input on an earlier version of this essay.
Art historians appear to have a devil of a time with the photographer Brassaï (1899-1984). The problem is not that his work lacks significance or popularity. To the contrary, he’s invariably given space in histories of twentieth-century art and photography. One can also easily obtain his images of Depression-era Paris and its nightlife as posters and prints. On top of that, coffee-table books devoted to his work appear to be a staple of bookstores’ and libraries’ photography sections. And Brassaï doesn’t lack for critical attention: exhibitions of his work are regularly reviewed in ArtForum, Art News, and the like. But as Marja Warehime notes in the introductory chapter of her study Brassaï: Images of Culture and the Surrealist Observer, critical attention is not the same as critical scrutiny, and, in Brassaï’s case, the amount of the latter is nowhere near commensurate with that of the former (1). Scholarly articles are next to nonexistent. As far as books are concerned, Warehime’s study is the only full-length scholarly work published in English. Most of the writings about Brassaï (including the exhibition catalogs and the coffee-table volumes) are just extended versions of the brief entry on him in Arnason’s and Prather’s History of Modern Art: primarily biography with a brief characterization of his work (350).
Warehime blames the situation on Brassaï himself, calling it “the logical result of the fact, daunting for any critic, that Brassaï was a perceptive and articulate spokesman for his art” (1). This comment deliberately echoes novelist Lawrence Durrell’s remarks in an introduction written for a 1968 exhibition catalog. But Durrell’s comment that Brassaï’s own statements are “the best guide” to his work (5) seem, having read the essay, more the result of deadline-related expediency than any critical timidity. (The essay is little more than an account of a session when Durrell posed for the photographer.) I don’t agree with Warehime; the problem, I believe, is that contemporary scholarly criticism is principally concerned with relating artists to their sociohistorical contexts, and their work to theory paradigms. The problem with Brassaï is that while history groups him with the Surrealist artists, his work, with its grounding in realism, objectivity, and naturalism, would appear to have little in common with theirs. The artist who stands apart from a prevailing historical-aesthetic context is bound to be overlooked.
The first question to be asked is: Does Brassaï fit in with the Surrealists? Biographical information would seem to indicate so. According to Anne Wilkes Tucker, His work appeared in their publications, such as Le Minotaure and Verve (62). They admired his photographs (78), and the movement’s leader, André Breton, was so taken with Brassaï’s work that he invited Brassaï to join the official group, an offer Brassaï declined (Arnason 350). There appears to be aesthetic common ground as well. The painter Giorgio de Chirico, a guiding light for the Surrealists, wrote in a 1913 essay that the future of the arts was “to see everything, even man, in its quality of thing [emphasis in the original]” (397). Judging from novelist Henry Miller’s appreciation of Brassaï, the photographer’s work meets that particular standard. Miller writes:
Brassaï has that rare gift which so many artists despise–normal vision [emphasis in the original]. He has no need to distort or deform, no need to lie or to preach. He would not alter the living arrangement of the world by one iota; he sees the world precisely as it is and as few men in the world see it because seldom do we encounter a human being endowed with natural vision. Everything to which the eye attaches itself acquires value and significance, a value and significance, I might say, heretofore avoided or ignored. (241)
But when one looks at the Surrealists’ own writings on aesthetics, one immediately sees the chasm between them and Brassaï. The photographer idolized Goethe and, according to Anne Wilkes Tucker, he “sought to achieve Goethe’s particular objectivity, which combines a feeling for the essential with a profound understanding of, even a submission to, the object” (23). In other words, Brassaï’s guiding aesthetic principle was to find poetry and transcendence in the everyday, accomplishing this by developing as intensely a synoptic view of the subject as possible, and expressing that view through his work. One would think this approach anathema to the Surrealists. To quote André Breton:
The mistake lies in thinking that the model can only be taken from the exterior world, or even simply that it can be taken at all. Certainly human sensibility can confer a quite unforeseen distinction upon even the most vulgar-looking object; none the less, to make the magic power of figuration which certain men possess serve the purpose of preserving and reinforcing that which would exist without them anyway, is to make wretched use of it. (405)
Breton’s motives for inviting Brassaï to join the Surrealists are unknown. Perhaps he sought to reform the thinking of a major talent he was friendly with; perhaps he felt Brassaï’s work embodied his statement that the “enchantments that the street outside had to offer me were a thousand times more real” (405). Breton, though, was not above trying to have things both ways when his taste and his views clashed. In the “Manifesto of Surrealism” (1924), he defines Surrealism as “[d]ictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern” (26). Two paragraphs later, he writes that Dante could have passed as a Surrealist (26). The notion that Dante wrote his poetry “exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern” is absurd, as anyone who’s ever read even a portion of The Divine Comedy can attest. Whatever the reason for the offer, the fact remains that Breton and Brassaï had antithetical views of art: Breton insisted on articulating the inner landscape; Brassaï insisted on objectifying the outside world. The two cannot be reconciled.
However, one writer has made a fairly comprehensive effort to do so: Marja Warehime. Borrowing a term from James Clifford, she characterizes Brassaï’s work as “ethnographic surrealism” (5), which she defines as “operat[ing] on a familiar culture, attempting to break down cultural conventions by short-circuiting the traditional habits of thought or perception that “normalize” a particular order of things” (89). By which she means that Brassaï’s work jolted cultural consciousness by confronting society with aspects of itself that it had not traditionally acknowledged. There are three major problems with this. The first is that Brassaï’s subject matter–Parisian landmarks and exteriors and the nightlife found in restaurants, brothels, and the like–had been mainstays of French painting since the last quarter of the nineteenth century. This is a good sixty years before Brassaï’s first album, Paris de nuit, was published in 1933. There was nothing new about his subjects; what was new was his choice of medium and the power of his style. The second problem with “ethnographic surrealism” is that, as defined, it could be applied to every artist who’s rendered mundane subject matter, from Breughel and Cervantes to Courbet and Jean-Luc Godard. The third problem is that it is still about objectifying the physical world rather than articulating the inner landscape. As such, it cannot be surrealism. This notion of “ethnographic surrealism” seems to be an instance of a critical category functioning as a Procrustean bed: it’s either too narrow or too broad to be of any real use. A better approach might be to let the work suggest its own context rather than forcing the context to define the work.
As noted above, Brassaï’s most famous photographs are his treatment of Paris both inside and out. Although no one can deny the often spectacular beauty of his greatest outdoor shots, it is his treatment of Paris interiors and nightlife that constitutes his most distinctive work. The aesthetic philosophy he inherited from Goethe led him to epitomize his subjects, to characterize them as fully as possible. Goethe, however, may not have been the only writer whose lead (and demands for “objectivity”) Brassaï was following. The most striking aspect of Brassaï’s interior shots is the frequent use of mirrors to expand and inflect the scene being depicted. Brassaï was familiar with the work of Friedrich Nietzsche–in Brassaï’s book Henry Miller: The Paris Years, Miller describes Nietzsche as one of Brassaï’s idols (36)–and one can’t look at these photographs without being reminded of this passage from On the Genealogy of Morals:
There is only a perspective seeing, only a perspective “knowing”; and the more affects we allow to speak about one thing, the more eyes, different eyes, we can use to observe one thing, the more complete will our “concept” of this thing, our “objectivity” be. [All emphases in the original.] (119)
Using mirrors, Brassaï allows more affects to speak about the scene, giving the viewer another set of eyes through which to view it. The photographs leave one with a greater objectivity, a more complete concept of the moment depicted.
Group in a Dance Hall is a typical example of Brassaï’s use of the technique. The image’s foreground shows two couples sitting on one side of a dance hall table. The first couple–the man and woman who dominate the composition—are the apparent protagonists of the scene. Their expressions indicate their boredom, but, beyond that, their state of mind is ambiguous: are they annoyed at something, or simply lost in their thoughts? The second couple complicates the scene. The man’s expression can’t be read, but the woman’s manner is in stark contrast with that of the first couple: her expression is attentive and amused. She’s looking in the same direction as the first couple, which indicates that they’re all reacting to the same thing off-camera. The mirror behind the couples, however, explicates the scene; the questions raised by the couple’s expressions are answered. They’re all reacting to a gregarious fellow on the opposite side of the table. He is the true protagonist of the scene; he is the center of the other players’ attention. (He even attracts the notice of a woman at another table.) Brassaï’s construction of the image is extraordinarily shrewd. He uses the dominant positive shapes of the first couple to mislead the viewer about the picture’s subject. And then, using contrast to raise questions about the scene, he directs the viewer to a fuller understanding of it. The use of the mirror gives the viewer a greater sense of the range of the group’s interactions than would have been possible if, say, the mirror were removed and the mirrored characters appeared in the foreground of the composition. The image would be more about the first couple’s reactions than the group’s interactions. The mirror adds a perspective and gives the viewer a fuller sense–a fuller concept–of the scene.
Picasso was an admirer of Brassaï’s work, and in 1932 he hired Brassaï to photograph his work. One shot in particular seems to illustrate the aesthetic ideas being discussed here. It features Picasso standing in his apartment (above left). The photograph appears in Brassaï’s Conversations with Picasso, where Brassaï provides this description:
Picasso had been living in that apartment for fifteen years when I met him. The extraordinary thing was that, apart from the fireplace mantel, where a little of his imagination showed through, nothing bore his mark…Olga [Picasso’s wife] jealously made sure that Picasso did not impose the powerful imprint of his personality on a realm she considered hers alone. (6-7)
Given this, it’s clear that Brassaï’s photograph is a rendering of Picasso’s sense of alienation from his home and marriage. The only aspects of him that appear in “real space” are two paintings framed on the wall and two sculptures set on the mantelpiece. They are extensions of him that have been domesticated and put in their place. Picasso himself is shown in the mirror. He stands away from the scene, distant, isolated, almost like a ghost. He haunts this home; it is not a place for him to live. The picture stands in marked contrast to one taken the same day in Picasso’s studio (above right). Here, Picasso is in his element and his presence almost overwhelms the picture; his intensity is such that one half-expects him to lunge out of the photograph. It provides a powerful counterpoint to the living room image, where the mirror image–the added perspective–reveals Picasso to be barely in his home even when he’s there. Brassaï’s use of the mirror is more subtle here than in Group in a Dance Hall. He doesn’t use it to give a fuller sense of the moment; he uses it to provide a greater understanding of Picasso’s circumstances beyond the moment.
Mirrored Wardrobe succeeds in providing both a greater sense of the moment as well as that of a larger context. The figure in “real space” is a fully-dressed man standing in front of a mirrored armoire. His back is to the viewer; he holds his hands in front of him, hidden from the viewer’s gaze. One can’t tell if he’s adjusting his tie, unbuttoning his shirt, or some other action. The second perspective afforded by the mirror shows a near-naked woman with her back turned. The second perspective combined with the first explains the present tense of the scene: the viewer is witnessing a session in a brothel. Brassaï indicates the larger context by the positioning of the figures: not only are their backs turned towards the viewer; their backs are turned towards each other as well. The image is conspicuously absent of any sense of rapport, warmth, or even lust between the two figures: they are cold, aloof, and have no apparent interest in each other. The image is a subtle indictment of prostitution, a depiction of it as a dehumanizing experience for both whore and john. The image is a brilliant realization of Nietzsche’s goal for a more complete objectivity; through its artful handling of added perspective, it indicates the particulars of the moment, the general of the moment, as well as the general of a larger context.
Brassaï abandoned the mirror technique after World War II. According to Anne Wilkes Tucker, Brassaï’s experiences living in Paris during the Occupation were horrifying, with him living in constant fear for his life (100-101). One wonders if, after seeing how the Nazis appropriated and perverted many of Nietzsche’s ideas, Brassaï renounced any further interest in or guidance from the philosopher’s work. Nonetheless, it’s clear that a good deal of his work demonstrates how at least some of those ideas could be adapted into art. He does not stand alone in this regard: Nietzschean notions of perspective and objectivity are reflected in a great deal of modernist fiction, such as Virginia Woolf‘s To the Lighthouse and William Faulkner‘s The Sound and the Fury. Picasso and Braque appeared to be applying them to descriptivist imagery in their early Cubist work. The examples seem never-ending.
Art historians’ difficulty with Brassaï appears to stem from an inability or an unwillingness to look at his work beyond the biographical/historical context in which it was created. The problem is that Brassaï was a maverick within that context. Although he worked alongside the Surrealists, he was not of them. That maverick status makes looking at his work in such a context–through that perspective–largely fruitless. Critics react by either avoiding analysis altogether or by, to borrow some of Nietzsche’s terminology, adding false affects until the object (here, Brassaï’s work) is falsified and/or the perspective seeing it becomes absurd. The solution, perhaps, is to recognize when it’s time to let an examination of the work suggest its context rather than trying to force the context to define the work. One must recognize when a perspective becomes a perspective unknowing–when it’s time to find a new affect and allow it to speak.
Arnason, H. H. and Marla F. Prather. History of Modern Art. 4th ed. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall/Abrams, 1998.
Brassaï. Conversations with Picasso. Trans. Jane Marie Todd. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1999.
Brassaï. Henry Miller: The Paris Years. Trans. Timothy Bent. New York: Arcade, 1995.
Breton, André. “Manifesto of Surrealism.” Manifestoes of Surrealism. Trans. Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1969. 1-48.
Breton, André. “Surrealism and Painting.” Trans. David Gascoyne. Theories of Modern Art. Ed. Herschel B. Chipp. Berkeley: U of California P, 1968. 402-409.
Durrell, Lawrence. “Introduction to Brassaï.” Brassaï. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1968. 9-16.
De Chirico, Giorgio. “Meditations of a Painter.” Trans. Louise Bourgeois and Robert Goldwater. Theories of Modern Art. Ed. Herschel B. Chipp. Berkeley: U of California P, 1968. 397-401.
Miller, Henry. “The Eye of Paris.” Max and the White Phagocytes. Paris: Obelisk, 1938. 241-254.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo. Trans. Walter Kaufman and R. J. Hollingdale. New York: Vintage, 1967.
Warehime, Marja. Brassaï: Images of Culture and the Surrealist Observer. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1996.