The eye of Paris

He carried his name or, rather, pseudonym, like a banner. Brassaï whose real name was Gyula Halasz, was born in 1899 in Brasov (Brasso in Hungarian) in Romanian Transylvania, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. From early childhood he dreamt of France: he heard a lot about its language and culture from his father, French teacher.

Brassaï was so impressed by his first trip to Paris that he promised to himself to return there for ever. The plan was interrupted by the outbreak of the First World War: As anyone who fought on the enemy's side, he was forbidden entrance to France.

After demobilisation Brassaï heads to Budapest in order to receive education in art. Later, in 1921, he moves to Berlin and continues his education in the Fine Arts Academy taking classes in drawing, painting and sculpture. His acquisitive mind and a special sense of friendship quickly made him popular in the Berlin circle of avant-garde artists that included Vassily Kandinsky, Oskar Kokoschka, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, and Lajos Tihany.

Three years spent in Berlin at education and self search in drawing (mainly nudes) only strengthened Brassaï's willingness to dedicate himself to art. This dream, thought Brassai, could be realised only in Paris. Having arrived there in January 1924 he wrote to his parents that he feels himself in full harmony with the city and "studies Paris and its people living and moving".

Brassaï is convinced that his talents will flourish here. His life becomes very intensive. He studies French in order to overcome the language barrier, earns money by drawing caricatures for French and German newspapers and occasionally works for Hungarian and Romanian press as journalist and artist. From time to time, he even receives commissions from rich philanthropists, but he considers all these jobs futile and not very lucrative.

In the evenings, Brassaï enjoys the life of the left bank of Seine, the legendary Montparnasse world of artists, intellectuals, emigrants, adventurers and women of demimonde. Late in the evening, he accompanies his countryman André Kertèsz (or Salvador Dali or George Ribemont-Dessaignes) to the Cupole restaurant, to be followed, closer to dawn, by the Rotonde where he continues his last evening conversation with Nancy Cunard, Man Ray, Kiki and Henry Miller. This kind of pastime brought to his mind the idea of his project, Paris at Night.

It happened so that, at some point, the editors Brassaï worked for asked him to provide photographs to accompany his articles. At first he turned to his friend photographers, to begin eventually making photographs by himself. Very soon he became dissatisfied with using only the illustrative function of photography. By 1929, when his pictures were first published in the press, it had already occurred to Brassaï that photography brings the kind of aesthetical pleasure that painting could not.

His memory kept the images of the unknown Paris captured by the aged Eugene Atget. But, unlike Atget who, afraid to be short of time, would take up his camera with the first rays of sun, Brassaï being under the influence of his surrealist friends is interested in the unusual and thus chooses night life for his subject. He follows Atget in the pursuit of reality but at the same time he tries to turn the real into the sur-rearl (after his own words). In the dim light of streetlights he finds the unusual, unknown, despised Paris. Brassaï "learns" from darkness, taking long walks from Montparnasse to Montmartre alone or in the company of Henry Miller, Blaise Cendrars or Léon-Paul Fargue. He recovers from darkness the images of the outcasts: thieves and prostitutes, turns the austere classics of Parisian architecture into grotesque scenes and captures the unusual beauty of blurry silhouettes, blinding light of street lamps and fogs over the Seine.

By 1932 his album of 64 photographs was ready. These images became a real revelation as Brassaï was first among photographers to dare build them upon the play of darkness, shadows and half shades, on the one side, and glazing flashes of light – on the other side.

The album was an immediate success, and it gave Brassaï way to full time employment with most important art reviews and respectable fashion magazines. He starts shooting for such editions as Verve and Minotaure, the latter publishing his series of photographs of coral "sculptures" that received applause of Salvador Dali and Andre Breton. At the same time, Brassaï as photographer and reporter started his long time cooperation with Carmel Snow, the famous editor of Harper's Bazaar.

It was then that the editor of Verve Eugene Tériade introduced Brassaï to Pablo Picasso. The two artists shortly found a common language and Brassaï, taken by the game of keeping dialogue with another creative individual, starts photographing Picasso's work. The fruit of this cooperation that lasted until the 1960s, were to be "Picasso's Sculptures" and "Conversations with Picasso" that included the most famous portrait of the master made in his studio. Their trust was mutual, which is visible in the dialogue quoted by Brassaï in his "Conversations with Picasso" (1964), Picasso reproaching Brassaï for having abandoned painting:

– You have a gift and are not using it. I wouldn't believe that photography could fully satisfy you. It forces your full self-denial!

– I like this position of obeyance. There is an eye, not a hand, there is no need any more to touch objects… (Brassaï, Conversation avec Picasso, Editions Gallimard, 1964).

Nevertheless, this conversation made Brassaï follow the advice of his friend and take up, beside photography, painting, drawing, sculpture and even cinema: his short film "As Long As There Are Animals" received award in the Cannes in 1955.

Brassaï was, undoubtedly, a man of invincible beliefs. As anyone who survived the horrors of war and occupation, he felt keenly the fragility of human life. He starts an inexpected project that demands solitude, photographing Parisian graffiti, these mysterious signs left by people long departed, the traces of human hands that overcome the oblivion. He reads other people's lives in the inscriptions left on the walls, fixes his attentive eye on the love confessions cut on park trees, re-creates anew the world history with graffiti on barrack and factory walls. Brassaï even invented his own classification of these inscriptions: birth, life, love, death, animals, magic… He did not stop after the publication of his graffiti album in 1960 followed by exhibitions in different countries. Brassaï perseveres in photographing graffiti as if in need to discharge a duty for humanity.

Short before his death, summing up the results of his life, he made a list of his 30 best works among which the last ones were "Unknown Paris in the 1930s" dedicated to Henry Miller, and "Artists in My Life".

Henry Miller who named Brassaï "The Eye of Paris" wrote later: "Several hours spent with him gave you the feeling that you had been sifted through a great sieve leaving only the praise of life".

Agnès de Gouvion Saint-Cyr

The exhibition organized together with L'Institut Français de Saint-Pétersbourg.

Part of the official France-Russia 2010 Year program