THE PARIS OF BRASSAÏ. PHOTOGRAPHS OF THE CITY PICASSO LOVED
The exhibition The Paris of Brassaï. Photographs of the City Picasso Loved, presented by Museo Picasso Málaga, shows the work of one of the most famous European photographers of the first half of the 20th century.
With his work, Brassaï helped to create the universal public image of Paris, the Eternal City. It is displayed here alongside works by Pablo Picasso, Pierre Bonnard, Georges Braque, Lucien Clergue, Fernand Léger, Dora Maar and Henri Michaux, and with period piece films, posters, sheet music and a large quantity of documentary material.
Brassaï’s photographs invite the viewer to wander through Paris, with its river Seine, Notre Dame, its brothels and its markets. His conjured up a superb depiction of society in his many shots of the intellectual, literary, and artistic scene of 1930s and 1940s Paris, ranging from Sartre to Beckett.
This exhibition has been organized with sponsorship from Fundación Unicaja and the special collaboration of Estate Brassaï succession, Paris; Institut Français, Seville, and Musée national Picasso-Paris. It sheds light on the professional relationship and friendship between Brassaï and Picasso, who considered Brassaï to be the best photographer of his work.
Brassaï arrived in Paris from Hungary in 1924. Little by little, he discovered the dynamic nature and the social idiosyncrasies of the great metropolis. While he initially explored the city’s nightlife, over time he began to create a precise X-ray of its architecture and its people. He joined the fascinating intellectual and artistic avant-garde community of which Picasso was a member, becoming one of its finest eyewitness photographers. But Brassaï was not just a photographer, he was also a versatile artist who drew, made sculptures, decorated, and made films.
As a photographer, Brassaï constructed a visual topography of the city of light (and shadows) in the 1930s and 40s, but this exhibition also aims to show him as a prolific creative artist. Brassaï’s Paris. Photographs of the City Picasso Loved features over 300 works, with photographs, drawings and sculptures that come mainly from the Brassaï family archives (Estate Brassaï Succession). Also on display are photographs and artworks by Pablo Picasso, alongside works by Pierre Bonnard, Georges Braque, Lucien Clergue, Fernand Léger, Dora Maar and Henri Michaux. Films, posters, musical scores, theatre programmes and a large quantity of documentary material from the Paris of that period, make up an exhibition that takes the visitor back to an unforgettable city and time.
The structure of the exhibition comprises four sections that relate to film, the visual arts, literature, and music, based on the photographic work of one of the most famous photographers of the first half of the 20th century. The exhibition layout begins with Who is Brassaï ? which displays artistic works whose main feature is their expressive freedom. Paris by Day features scenes from everyday life as if they were being shown for the first time: Paris by Night is a journey through a city of shadows that evokes the melancholy that emanated from the streets and characters. Conversations with Picasso brings together work by the two artists who enjoyed a long-lasting professional and personal relationship.
The Paris of Brassaï. Photographs of the City Picasso Loved, has been organized with the sponsorship of Fundación Unicaja, and the special collaboration of Estate Brassaï succession, Paris; Institut Français, Seville and Musée national Picasso-Paris. Works for this exhibition have been loaned by Centre Pompidou, Paris; Musée national d’art moderne-Centre de création industrielle; Colección Abelló, Madrid; Collection La Cinémathèque Française; Fundació Museu Picasso de Barcelona; Fundación Almine y Bernard Ruiz-Picasso - Faba; IVAM Institut Valencià d’Art Modern; Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf; Musée national Picasso-Paris; Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, and Museum Ludwig Kóln, amongst other institutions and collections.
Brassaï was the pseudonym of Gyula Halász (1899-1984), a Hungarian photographer who was best known for his work on Paris, the city where he made his career. When he was three years old, his family moved to the French capital, in the year that his father, a professor of literature, was teaching at the Sorbonne. As a young man, Brassaï studied painting and sculpture at the Academy of Fine Arts in Budapest, before joining the Cavalry of the Austro-Hungarian army during the First World War. In 1920, he went to live in Berlin to work as a journalist and to study at the University of the Arts. In 1924, he moved back to Paris, where he remained for the rest of his life. He soon made friends with writers Henry Miller (who described him in one of his books as “the eye of Paris”), León-Paul Fargue and Jacques Prévert. Inspired by his frequent night-time walks around Paris, Gyula Halász asked to borrow a camera to capture the beauty of the streets and gardens in the rain and fog. He used poetic metaphors in these pictures, leading more than one graphic reporter to describe him as a poet with a camera. He then began to sign his work with the pseudonym Brassaï. It means “the man from Brasso”, his birthplace, which is now part of Romania.
In the 1930s, Paris was by no means a feast. Various events were leaving their mark on a new age, with major financial and political repercussions. The decade began with one of the greatest financial crises the world had ever experienced: the Great Depression. This was to lead to the collapse of the financial system and to poverty for thousands of families. Europe was facing the possibility of new wars and uprisings that would lead to the rise of totalitarianism. Culture and art were not blind to these events, but art dealers and artists were irresistibly drawn to Paris, seeking in the City of Light a new artistic and personal life that matched their ideals, along with the necessary freedom to make them happen.
Brassaï’s photographic work during these years helped to construct the image we have today of the French capital, with its depictions of artistic, social and intellectual life. He took X-ray-like shots of the great city, during the day and at night, from its dark alleyways to it dazzling social and artistic scene. The exhibition The Paris of Brassaï. Photographs of the City Picasso Loved shows the modern, cosmopolitan city par excellence, in a Europe that bore the hallmarks of the great changes brought about by 19th-century industry and by the international exhibitions of the early 20th-century. It was a city that Brassaï loved, as did his colleague and friend, Pablo Picasso.
In 1932 he published his first photographic book, “Paris de Nuit”. It contained high-contrast night shots with full bleed and no margins that feature the play of light and shadow, taken on streets, squares, rooftops, street corners, gardens, buildings and monuments. During his nocturnal wanderings, smoking cigarette after cigarette, the gaslights, fog and car headlights lit up a unique Paris, transforming its rigorously classical architecture and capturing the strange beauty of the fleeting shadows. His negatives became black and white photographs with a strong sense of mystery. They are pictures that alter your perception of the familiar. “Paris de Nuit” was a cultural sensation and a well-deserved success that caught the attention of leading art magazines such as Minotaure, one of the most important cultural publications of the time.
Brassaï liked to say that his birthplace was very close to that of Count Dracula, and that, like him, he was a nocturnal creature. For this reason, in several of his unforgettable photobooks he showed an alternative Paris, with scenes in brothels and bars where young gay men, lesbians and transvestites are all seen having fun. They also contain scenes from the city’s social life, high society, and intellectual circles.
The photographer himself described 1932 and 1933 as the most important years of his life. It was during these years that he met the key figures of Parisian cultural life, many of whom were also foreigners, and he evolved alongside the intellectual milieu and the artistic avant-garde movements that were flourishing in Paris at the time.
His earliest works coincided with the rise of Surrealism in France. The movement believed that photography encouraged a division of the poetic personality simultaneously into subject and object. But although his pictures display the same attraction to the dreamworld expressed by the surrealists, and his series on graffiti indicates his interest in the wonder of random discovery and the primitive world, Brassaï always denied belonging to the movement. His photographs, based on the traditional realist style, are evocative images that condense the atmosphere of a brief moment, without becoming documentary photography.
Brassaï was part of the Paris intellectual circle, as was Picasso, at a time when art was flourishing. He took photographs of artists who were to become the sacred monsters of our age, many of whom were his friends: Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí, Alberto Giacometti, as well as leading writers of the time such as Jean Genet and Henri Michaux. His portraits reveal his great skill at capturing the personality of his sitters, creating a collective portrait of the intellectual circle.
Brassaï was the first person in the history of modern photography to intuitively consider the camera as a tool with which to dissect urban life. “The eye of Paris”, as Henry Miller dubbed him in one of his essays, also directed his gaze at the drawings, marks and doodles on Paris walls. He came across these popular anonymous signs and imprints on walls during his walks along Parisian alleyways: faces, symbols, animals, handprints, the scratched-on outlines of sketches… They were captivatingly primitive, and he elevated them to the status of “Art Maudit” or Damned Art because, for him, they were more than just ways for people to express themselves.
Over the years, Brassaï compiled a catalogue of the marks that the capital’s inhabitants left on its walls, with photos that no editor would publish, until at last they were collected together in a book, Graffiti (1961), after Edward Steichen declared his admiration for this work and his intention of organizing an exhibition at MoMA in New York. When Brassaï immortalized these street pictures, the term graffiti had not yet been coined, and it was not until the 1980s that it finally became classified as Urban or Street Art.
Brassaï was a prolific creative artist who also produced drawings and sculptures, wrote numerous articles and published 17 books. His film Tant qu’il y aura des bêtes won the award for the best original short film at the Cannes Film Festival in 1956, and in 1978 he won France’s Grand Prix National de la Photographie.
Photography constantly accompanied Picasso, not only as a testimony to his life, but often revealing his personality, work and inner circle. Of all the many relationships he struck up in Paris with writers, essayists, playwrights and visual artists, the Museo Picasso Málaga exhibition focuses on the close and prolific professional relationship between Brassaï and Pablo Picasso.
In December. 1932, the art critic Tériade invited Brassaï to take pictures of Picasso, his studio and his sculptures, to illustrate the first issue of Minotaure. This collaboration led to a long and sincere friendship that was sustained by mutual admiration. Brassaï was fascinated by Picasso’s personality, and Picasso admired the photographer’s unbiased gaze. The two friends were both foreigners in the big city: one of them was to become one of the great photographers of the 20th century, and the other, the great artist who changed the history of art. They shared an extraordinary gift for observation, as well as great curiosity. They both collected strange objects that had been thrown away and found again by chance, and they shared a keen interest in primitive art, art brut, bones, poetry and graffiti. They also had a common dislike of focussing on a single discipline, in their urge to explore other creative fields.
This obvious and very special complicity meant that Brassaï became an exceptional witness to Picasso’s private world: the places where he created art, the works themselves, his family life and his friends. Brassaï was one of the few people Picasso allowed free access to his studios, and he was the first to photograph his sculptures. The Málaga-born artist opened the doors of his studios to him in Boisgeloup, La Boétie and Grands Augustins, successively. Brassaï had a great sense of detail, he knew how to put order into disorder, and he composed his photographs in an almost architectural way, giving a new dimension to the works Picasso created and the objects and materials with which he surrounded himself.
One of the most important books in terms of getting to know Picasso, is Brassaï’s Conversations with Picasso (1964), a fascinating text that is outstanding for the immediacy and detail of a man who wrote in the same way he took pictures. This chronicle, which Brassaï illustrated with over 50 photographs, runs from September 1943 – eleven years after he first met Picasso – to September 1962. It provides us with two decades-worth of the artist’s story and, above all, of an environment where Picasso was the epicentre, while at the same time describing the history of art and the main events of those years. The relationship between Brassaï and Picasso remained intact until the Spaniard’s death in 1973. Brassaï died in the South of France in 1984 and was buried in Montparnasse cemetery, in the city that both he and Picasso loved.
Coinciding with the opening of the exhibition The Paris of Brassaï. Photographs of the City Picasso Loved, Museo Picasso Málaga has organized the seminar “Paris. The Construction of a Myth” on Tuesday 19th and Wednesday 20th October. It will look at the universal imagery based on Paris that developed in the history of photography, as well as that of literature and film. Many archive records compiled by historians also testify to the construction of the idiosyncrasies and singularities of one of the most important capital cities in European and world history. Guest speakers include Philippe Ribeyrolles, Estate Brassaï Succession; Ramón Esparza, retired professor at Universidad del País Vasco and independent curator; Jean-Pierre Montier, Emeritus professor at Universidad Rennes 2; David-Sean Thomas, director of exhibitions at Musée Departemental Albert-Kahn; film critic Fernando Méndez Leite, and the artistic director of Museo Picasso Málaga, José Lebrero Stals.
For the occasion, Museo Picasso Málaga and La Fábrica have jointly published the photobook Brassaï (Paris & Picasso), which contains 105 full-page photographs and an excerpt from the text in which Henry Miller dubbed Brassaï “The eye of Paris”. This bi-lingual hardback edition is printed on coated paper, to highlight the photographs’ half-tones and nuances of light and shade.
The book is now available to purchase from the Museo Picasso Málaga bookshop and is due to be distributed to Spanish, European and US bookshops.
As is customary for all our exhibitions, Museo Picasso Málaga is offering visitors a previously disinfected audio guide, in both Spanish and English, with which to visit The Paris of Brassaï. Photographs of the City Picasso Loved. In the Spanish version of the guide, the actor Antonio Dechent has lent his charismatic voice to bring to life the story that the photographer told in his various interviews and writings, including Conversations with Picasso and Henry Miller. The Paris Years.
An extensive educational and cultural programme has been prepared which, over the autumn and winter months of this year, will look at the evolution of the photographic image throughout the 20th century, ranging from analogic photography and film to digital, along with its links to literature. Creative writing and reading workshops have been organized, with the generic theme of Paris, the city that Picasso loved.
Paris. Photocall is a memory space that recreates a photographic studio where visitors are invited to travel back in time to the Paris that Brassaï immortalized with his camera. It reveals a fascinating era, using the visual and poetic techniques employed by the artist. The pictures that participants take can be downloaded via MPM’s social media, or if they prefer, they can take their own pictures on their mobile phone. This space has been created in collaboration with Apertura. Centro de Fotografía y Artes Visuales.
The Walls of Málaga project has also been set up and, just as Brassaï created his own visual topography of Paris, participants can use a large map of the city of Málaga to gradually construct a representation of the city, made up of photographs taken by its inhabitants. This project has been created with the collaboration of OMAU.
The programme also includes workshops for adults that focus on reproducing images using cyanotype and photogravure techniques. An extensive programme for different levels has also been designed to run over the Christmas and Semana Blanca school holidays. Finally, the Museum in Movement programme is starting up again, so families can come along on Saturday mornings to enjoy artistic activities that feature photography and the city.
The Paris of Brassaï
Photographs of the City Picasso Loved