New York

Brassaï

Robert Schoelkopf Gallery

The Robert Schoelkopf Gallery, continuing its attentiveness to photography, has had a survey of the work of Brassaï. Brassaï’s problem was that of all the successors to Degas, whose work, in spite of its medium, represents in epitome what can be called the photographic esthetic—to try to reconcile a flat pattern with deep, or at least plastic, space. Only occasionally, as in the Marchand de journaux of 1947, does Brassaï succeed, and since so many other photographers were able to do this perfectly well, the question is why? I think the reason is that Brassaï’s idea of lighting, and consequently his way of rendering volumes, is terribly romantic. It isn’t just the nocturnal fog effect, as in Avenue de l’Observatoire, although these are of course blatant examples of what I mean. More typical is the famous photo of Picasso beside his iron stove (1939), of which the lighting is similar to that in many French films of the time—Children of Paradise, Les Visiteurs du Soir. These effects may come from Atget (e.g., the Three Graces in the Louvre), but even at that it would be Atget-cum-Cocteau (Diana in the Tuileries)! Nor is anecdote Brassaï’s strong point: in this he is like Cartier-Bresson, being either obvious or cute. There remain two kinds of subject which Brassaï’s handles with enough coherence and tension to make of these photos serious works of art, the naturalistic portraits and the scenes of low life. Since in principle the latter are not different, pictorially, from any of Brassaï’s other subjects, one has to suppose that their success is due rather to his personal response to the subjects.

Jerrold Lanes