PRINT February 1994



Photographic views of Paris propose two dissimilar worlds: that of daytime and that of night. . . . The elements of the night are the great stage directors of the social fantastic, which is ingenuous and always easily understandable.
—Pierre Mac Orlan, 1930

Photographers, like detectives, often try to capture a subject through repeated visits to the scene of the crime. When that subject is night, as it was for Brassaï in Paris in the early ’30s, the resulting images are likely to possess some of the crude and revelatory qualities of dreams. In Brassaï’s night world, shadows reveal more than they conceal, anthropomorphized by the light sources that create them. The Art Nouveau railings adorning the city’s Métros assume otherworldly personae, isolated by the photographer’s lens against the darkness. Prostitutes and dandies emerge as luminous specters in brothel doorways and at lamp-lit street corners.

When Brassaï began his nocturnal Paris rambles, the Surrealists had nearly cornered the market on dreams as material for artistic expression. The fruits of the unconscious, they realized, lay all about, waiting to be plucked by those who knew how to look. As the retrospective exhibition this fall at the Fundació Antoni Tàpies in Barcelona clearly illustrated, Brassaï knew how to look.

The first major Brassaï retrospective since 1979, this compelling show was notable for reuniting two groups of images that first appeared more than forty years apart, in the books Paris de nuit (1932) and Le Paris secret des années 30 (1976). The earlier book features charcoal-y heliogravures of cobble-stoned roads, industrial and residential buildings, strikingly illuminated statuary—primarily outdoor Paris; Le Paris secret beckons readers inside the city’s back-alley bars and brothels. The photographs were actually conceived as a single project, but the books separate them into two statements, the first romantic and “presentable,” the second decadent—so much so that it could not be published at the time. To bring these photographs together was a welcome act of revisionism, restoring the intermingling of the respectable and the risqué that Brassaï found in ’30s Paris.

Brassaï was friendly with Salvador Dalí, André Breton, Man Ray, and other Surrealists, and his photographs often appeared in Surrealist publications. Yet he turned down Breton’s invitation to join the group. What emerged in the Barcelona show were the subterranean links between Brassaï’s overtly Surrealist work, most of it created for Minotaure, and the nighttime photographs of Paris de nuit and Le Paris secret. While his daytime street photographs still retained their semblance of the documentary, the show revealed the night images as stylized constructions, the output of an artist who frequently demanded full and patient cooperation from the players in what were essentially theatrical tableaux.

Reinterpretations were also invited by some of the prints in the exhibition—most of them contemporary, made from the original negatives under the supervision of Manuel J. Borja-Villel, director of the Fundació Tàpies and curator of the exhibition, and the watchful eye of Gilberte Brassaï, the photographer’s widow. Many of Brassaï’s works were originally produced primarily with book or magazine reproduction in mind, and some of these took on new life as full-size exhibition prints. The “Sculptures involontaires,” ca. 1932, for example, glowed with Surreal intensity. Their new scale and heightened contrast amplified the disjuncture of isolating everyday objects (a rolled-up Métro ticket, a blob of toothpaste) in space, and they seemed more “sculptural” than on the pages of Minotaure, more “involuntary” when torn from the magazine’s layout. Again, as reprinted for the retrospective, La toilette dans un hôtel de passe. Rue Quincampoix. Paris, ca. 1932, unveiled a clear reflection of the photographer, trademark cigarette in hand, in the mirror at the image’s upper left-hand corner. Reproducing this photograph in Le Paris secret, Brassaï had neatly dodged himself out of it in the darkroom, presumably for fear of breaking the illusion of an intact underworld.

Hungarian by birth, Brassaï caught something quintessential about ’30s Paris. Looking at his depiction of a fringe bohemian culture, you wouldn’t know that Europe was on the brink of war. Turning his back on the political tensions of the day, Brassaï translated into imagery his friend Pierre Mac Orlan’s notion of the “social fantastic,” a vision of urban nightlife in which the music hall is “a direct extension of the street.”

Fille de joie au billard russe. Boulevard du Rochechouart, Montmarte. Paris, ca. 1932, confronts us with a round face, round eyes, round, bulbous breasts, round billiard balls on the table. The prostitute stands resolutely, blankly, before Brassaï’s unflinching eye. A man is reflected in profile in the mirror behind her; in a distortion of spatial relationships characteristic of mirrors when photographed, he seems to be eyeing her impatiently. The composition may refer to Manet’s Bar at the Folies Bergère, 1881, another richly enigmatic image, and an icon of the fading era Brassaï was intent on preserving.

With Un costume pour deux, bal du Magic-City, Paris, ca. 1931, Brassaï provides a provocative glimpse of gay Paris: one suit, two men. One wears the jacket (and nothing else), the other wears the pants (and nothing else). Side by side, they look like a peculiar cabaret act. A split figure, they are a cadavre exquis brought to life.

Romantic stills clipped from the cinematic flow of city existence, these images call to mind the recent debate over Robert Doisneau’s endlessly reproduced Kiss at the Hôtel de Ville, 1950. Like Brassaï, Doisneau caught charged moments of stereotypical Frenchness and, it turns out, frequently staged them. But Brassaï offers an edgier, more threatening, and ultimately a sharper vision. Other images at the Fundació Tàpies—such as Troglodyte, ca. 1930, a cave interior with two ocular openings that places viewers in the skull of the eponymous creature; Ciel postiche (False sky, ca. 1932-34), a sly double image of a torso front and back; and the 12 exquisite cliché-verre prints of abstracted nudes—further inform our reading of Brassaï’s night photographs as carefully conceived and executed fictions. They reveal the experimental side of an artist full of invention, open to the vicissitudes of chance, a Surrealist despite himself.

Michael Sand is managing editor for Aperture magazine and Aperture books. He writes frequently on photography.