Entitled Brassaï: The Soul of Paris, a major retrospective of Hungarian photographer, sculptor and painter, Brassaï (1899-1984), at the Hayward Gallery represented a large chunk of the one previously held at the Pompidou Centre.
Since Brassaï really came into his own when he turned to photography, the Hayward Gallery presented over 280 photographs of his Paris by Night and Paris by Day collection as well as works from the surrealist review Minotaure and his suite of graffiti series.
Small fetish and portrait sculptures from the early 40s through to the late 70s demonstrate Brassaï’s search for ‘latent forms’ in seashore pebbles—the resulting shapes sculpted as much by the tools he employed as by his dreams and obsessions.
It was in the mid-30s that Picasso commented that photography could not be wholly satisfying, which prompted Brassaï’s engravings that are gathered under the title ‘Transmutations’. The female form is pared down to a musical instrument, a breast or pelvic curve being all that remains. This use of visual ellipsis places him within the cubist wave, and it was cubism’s leading exponent, Picasso, who requested Brassaï to document pictorially his sculptures in 1932 and then later in 1943.
Examples of “unintentional sculptures”—close-ups of brain coral, a mangled bus ticket, a fragment of soap, a thimble or a needle—, his brush with the surrealists and the publication of his work in the review Minotaure constitute a significant period in his artistic development. Nevertheless, he stated that his association with this other ism was “a misunderstanding”. In fact “the surrealism of my images was nothing more than the real rendered fantastic by the imagination. I sought only to express reality, as nothing is more surreal,” he once said.
Born in Brasso, Transylvania, Hungary, at the end of the 19th century, Gyula Halász first visited Paris with his father, a French literary professor at the Sorbonne, in 1903-4. Not until two decades later did he eventually step once again onto French soil. Never to return home. Between these two dates, Halász served in the Austro-Hungarian cavalry during WWI, then studied at the beaux-arts in both Budapest and Berlin. He took his first photographs in the spring of 1930 and adopted the pseudonym, Brassaï, in 1932.
From 1933, he took to recording graffiti that he found on cavern and factory walls. Whether comic or macabre, grotesque or sentimental, he described these scratchings and carvings as “nothing less than the origin of writing and nothing less than elements of mythology.” Out of the total number of nine series, four are on view: love, death, magic and primitive images.
But it is for his framing of the daytime world and the darker flipside of the day that he has become best known. A Man Dies in the Street, Boulevard de la Glacière (1932) exemplifies his cold, photojournalistic eye. Time and time again, Brassaï snapped the capital’s hard edge, as in The Fight, rue Saint-Denis, (1931), In a Brothel, Rue Quincampoix (1932) and prostitutes on the once seedy, gangster-infested, but now trendy, with all its tapas bars, rue de Lappe at Bastille. On other occasions, he captured the romance of Paris, as in Lovers in a Small Parisian Café (1932), whereas Walkers in the rain (1935), Steps of the Butte Montmartre with a white dog (1932-1933) and The Prison de la Santé, Boulevard Arago (1930) give instances of Brassaï’s marvellous grasp of composition, light, reflections and atmosphere.