The New Look from Paris

The photographs of Brassaï record his adopted city - its monuments, its ordinary people, its low-life. But these seemingly mundane images were the creation of a profoundly modern eye
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For the centenary of the birth of Brassaï, the Pompidou Centre in Paris is presenting the first comprehensive retrospective of his work. Brassaï was above all a cosmopolitan artist - not only did he bring a foreigner's enchanted eye to his photographs of Paris in the 1930s and 1940s, but he also rubbed shoulders with all the right people in the right places at the right times. His portraits of the likes of Ambroise Vollard, Alberto Giacometti and Jean Genet are as classic as his street scenes of Paris by day and by night. And yet it is legitimate to wonder if Brassaï merits such a major show, for although his photos are consistently good - indeed, very good - how many of them seem truly memorable?

Born Gyula Halász in 1899 in Brasso, Transylvania (now part of Romania), the young man served in the Austro-Hungarian cavalry during the First World War before attending art school first in Budapest and then in Berlin, where he remained for several years. In 1924 he moved to Paris, and managed to make a living by writing for Hungarian and German magazines. Although he met Eugÿne Atget as early as 1925, Halász only began taking his own photos in the early 1930s, the years he hobnobbed with Alexander Calder, Henry Miller, Raymond Queneau, Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, not to mention the surrealist crowd, encountered through his contributions to the magazine Minotaure. It was in 1932 that Halász adopted the pseudonym Brassaï, meaning "from Brasso", his birthplace.

Throughout his photographic career Brassaï cultivated a certain "amateur" image. He always did all his own printing at home, and never had a proper studio. Yet acclaim came early with the 1934 publication of Paris de nuit ("Paris After Dark"), and by the late 1930s he was working regularly for Harper's Bazaar (a relationship that lasted for twenty-five years). Brassaï remained in Paris during the war, but refused to apply for German authorisation to publish his work. It was during these first two decades of his career that he produced his most compelling photographic work, those highly evocative shots of an apparently timeless Paris. He later became a "grand old man" of photography, travelling the world and exhibiting his sculptures and drawings as well as photographs. Brassaï died in 1984.

The Pompidou retrospective, filling half a dozen rooms, is not organised chronologically. It does, however, include lesser-known aspects of Brassaï's oeuvre, notably his life drawings, sculpture and collages (known as "transmutations"). The rooms are arranged thematically, focusing on his portraits, his studies of graffiti (very well hung here), his daytime street scenes, his contribution to the 1951 "Five French Photographers" show, his semi-abstract photography (patterns of coral and flowers, plus aestheticised nudes), and finally the famous Paris after Dark series.

The show confirms Brassaï's impressive talent for rendering two aspects of Paris in the 1930s and 1940s: the everyday life of ordinary Parisians (or, more often, of the city itself, frequently at night); and exotic scenes of Paris low-life with its bars, streetwalkers and licensed brothels. Yet Brassaï's individual photos may not necessarily be the best in their class. His everyday images often lack the serendipitous charm of Robert Doisneau's, while his exotic figures - the transvestites and prostitutes - never attain the soul-bearing genuineness that Diane Arbus coaxed from hers.

But therein lies the genius of this show: Brassaï's overall vision steadily emerges from it, which is the finest thing a retrospective can offer. The viewer comes away with a much better sense of his dialectical view of place and time, of ordinariness and specialness. This is immediately apparent in individual compositions such as The Concierge (1946), one of those everyday Parisian images which are simultaneously typical and unique. Nothing was more ordinary, in those days, than a concierge sitting at her ground floor window, policing the street, framed by pots of geraniums and crazed walls; but Brassaï has not only recorded the mundaneness of that time and place, but also captured special details such as this woman's phalanx of three cats, including one apparently kept on a lead and enthroned on a folding stool. Even though it remains period-specific, the image is given a timeless patina.

In a similar vein, The Statue of Marshal Ney in the Fog is typical of the pristine emptiness of that part of Paris at night; such people-free spaces allowed Brassaï to sculpt ambient light wonderfully (his technical skill at exploiting lateral or hidden light sources in his night photography is truly impressive). Yet the lack of human presence might flatten this photograph were it not for a hotel sign looming in the distance, suggesting the unseen presence of city and people against whom Marshal Ney raises a quixotic sword.

Such gems then acquire more substance from the overview provided by this retrospective. Their slightly uncanny if subtle details can be seen as the product of an alert eye that reflects Brassaï's flirtation with surrealism, which is more evident in the mildly bizarre "transmutation" collages. Similarly, his life drawings, executed in the 1920s and 1930s, shed light on his photographic nudes; the apparently cool, modernist abstraction of those nudes also accommodates Brassaï's personal penchant for outrageously curved hips, legs and breasts. The aestheticised vision thereby becomes erotic, the universal becomes idiosyncratic.

Brassaï's fascination with graffiti - not today's superficial spray paint, but yesterday's deep-etched lines - stems not only from an obsession with making one's mark in space and time, but also with seeing and recording those marks as a way of gainsaying death (the hollow eyes of a skull often feature implicitly). His sculpture, mostly carved from stones and pebbles whose initial shape suggested final form, is yet another way of letting chance and nature play a part in the creative process, which entails a shift away from 'the hand that makes' toward 'the eye that notices'.

Brassaï's eclecticism was also very much a part of his period. This show reveals that he had a profoundly modern eye, and the strength of his oeuvre lies in its pivotal role as the intersection of a personal sensibility (Brassaï) with a specific period (interwar modernism) and a given place (Paris, city of light). His Concierge is more than anecdotal - she epitomises a certain way of looking at the world; his Ney is more than pretty; it represents history facing the onrush of the present.

As might be expected, given the "megamuseomania" currently reigning in Paris, the Pompidou show is much too vast to enjoy in one visit. The best way to get the most out of a single trip is to cruise through the whole exhibition with deliberate speed. Then, once armed with a good overview, wander back through the rooms, letting the themes intertwine, seeking out idiosyncratic details, allowing Brassaï's characteristic sensibility to surface.

His was a cosmopolitan, modernist vision of Paris in the first part of the 20th century, when that city was still the centre of the universe.

Brassaï is at the Georges Pompidou Centre, Paris, until 26 June