Brassai revealed true Paris via artifice

Photography: The Hungarian refugee sought revelations in the City of Light's bars and brothels.

November 01, 1999|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

Earlier this year the critic Andy Grundberg published a volume of essays titled "The Crisis of the Real," in which he examined photography's precarious position in the postmodern era.

The "crisis" of the title refers to a paradox that has bedeviled photography almost since its inception: The image produced by camera and lens possesses an appearance of objective "truth," yet this claim to truthfulness is largely illusory.

Photography makes whatever it represents appear "real," but that reality exists only in our minds. The peculiar power of photography lies in its ability to compel belief in the truthfulness of what is represented, regardless of the actual circumstances that gave rise to the image.

Grundberg explored these ideas in relation to postmodernist artists such as Cindy Sherman, whose most famous pictures are self-posed photographs that masquerade as production stills from 1950s-era B movies.

Sherman's postmodernism, Grundberg argues, stems from her practice of masking and unmasking photography's claim to truthfulness. Sherman's pictures wear the mask of scenes from movies that were never made, a reality that the artist simultaneously unmasks by posing herself in the fictional frame.

That a bold fiction may approach closer to truth than banal fact was something the Hungarian-born photographer Gilberte Brassai understood instinctively. Brassai's brooding photographs of Parisian night life during the 1920s and '30s, on display at the National Gallery in Washington, constitute one of the great historical documents of the 20th century, even though many of his most famous pictures were actually artfully staged inventions.

"Brassai: The Eye of Paris" is the first exhibition in more than 20 years to examine the artist's entire career as photographer, sculptor, journalist and author. It includes beautifully printed vintage photographs from his famous "Paris by Night" series, his high society pictures, portraits of artist friends and colleagues and haunting but relatively little-known studies of graffiti made before and after World War II.

Brassai, who arrived in Paris in the mid-1920s as a penniless political refugee from Hungarian fascism, is best known for his photographs of the city's dance halls, bars and brothels, which he recorded during nocturnal wanderings with such fellow artists as the French poet Leon Paul Fargue and the American novelist Henry Miller.

His earliest pictures were luminous nighttime shots of the city's architecture, monuments and bridges, which were published in his first book, "Paris by Night," in 1932. The book, which established his mature style -- what Miller called "poetic realism" -- proved an immediate success and earned the artist enough financial stability to continue with even more daring work.

For his next book, Brassai undertook to photograph what he called "The Secret Paris," a study of the city's nocturnal underworld of prostitutes, gangsters, nightclubs and bordellos.

Some of these pictures seem to have been commissioned by the publishers of lurid detective magazines and risque periodicals Brassai occasionally worked for. Others appear to have sprung directly out of the photographer's own initiative and curiosity.

In any case, Brassai enlisted the help of both his art world friends and numbers of newly made criminal acquaintances, whom he bribed with drinks or otherwise cajoled into introducing him to their secret world.

The pictures in the "Secret Paris" series seem to have the casual spontaneity of snapshots. Yet almost all of them were, in fact, carefully planned and composed in advance with the collaboration of their subjects, especially the indoor scenes of bars and brothels, where photography was either prohibited or extremely dangerous, or both. In a few of these scenes, Brassai actually appears himself as one of the social types he documents.

Brassai figured out his own way of making these seemingly "candid" pictures. After arranging his sitters, he would set up his camera on its tripod and have an assistant hold a flash gun nearby. Then he waited until his sitters forgot about his presence. At that moment he signaled the assistant to set off the flash, opened the shutter and exposed the film.

Brassai was quite open about his method. "I have to involve them in a certain manner," he said of his sitters. "Due to the situation, there is something like complicity."

Yet the fact that the resulting images were not "real" candids did not make them "untrue" for Brassai, who considered his work unsuccessful only if it proved unconvincing.

What mattered to him was the art that revealed social types that actually existed but which were normally invisible. His attitude was similar to that of the novelist or filmmaker who seeks only to create convincing characters in a fictional situation.

In this sense, Brassai could be called the first postmodernist, long before such a term was even imaginable. In his relative casual disregard for the visual "facts" of his pictures he was ahead of his time.

It is telling that Brassai's audience -- including many of the critics who wrote perceptively about his work -- never suspected that his photographs were staged. For years his pictures were accepted with the same naive credulity accorded to newspaper photos and magazine picture essays.

Only now, when a new generation of artists has begun to unmask photography's spurious claim to truthfulness -- and the deeper truths of creative imagination -- can we fairly assess the nature of Brassai's art and the achievement it represents.

Brassai

Where: The National Gallery of Art, 4th Street and Constitution Avenue, N.W., Washington

When: Through Jan. 16

Hours: Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Admission: free

Information: 202-842-6353

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