(Transylvania, France 1899 – 1984)
28.5 x 22.0 cm image (irreg.); 30.4 x 23.4 cm sheet
‘I was inspired to become a photographer by my desire to translate all the things that enchanted me in the nocturnal Paris I was experiencing.’ Brassaï 1933 1
Considered by Henry Miller to be the ‘eye of Paris’, Brassaï (born Gyula Halász) studied painting in Budapest and Berlin before moving to France in 1924. There he worked as a newspaper correspondent and interacted with the core of surrealist activity: Georges Bataille, André Masson, Tristan Tzara and Le Corbusier, for instance. Inspired by André Kertész, Brassaï turned to photography and took to Paris at night, capturing the nocturnal milieu of cafés, bars, brothels and the intimacies of the street. Although not formally part of the surrealist group (he declined an invitation to join citing a protest at their lack of objectivity) he worked for the surrealist journal ‘Minotaure’ contributing images to illustrate texts such as Breton’s ‘La nuit du tournesol’ (no 7, 1935) which recorded sites of Breton’s experiences with ‘l’amour fou’.
‘Filles de Montmartre’ 1932 (AGNSW collection) portrays two women drinking in a bar, playing dice and perhaps plying their trade. Brassaï has captured them in an intimate moment of friendship, sitting near a service area with the bar bills and glasses behind them. An intricate triangularity of gazes is established: the photographer’s at the women, theirs at him and the reflected barman who watches the interaction. The trick of the light gives an almost transparent feel to parts of the photograph; the girl on the left who seems to fade out of the image mirrors the complex shadowing, movement and doubling of form to the right.
In contrast, in ‘Bijou au bar de la Lune, Paris’ the heavily made up and bejewelled Bijou drinks alone, portraying an air of confidence that reveals her familiarity with the scene. A cigarette lies by her feet as if hurriedly discarded on the approach of Brassaï, the spontaneity of the moment reflecting his humble appreciation of reality: ‘the most everyday event that leads to the extraordinary.’ 2
1. Johnson B ed 2004, ‘Photography speaks: 150 photographers on their art’, Aperture, New York p 146
2. Naylor C ed 1988, ‘Contemporary photographers encyclopaedia of photography’, 2nd edn, St James Press, Chicago p 119
© Art Gallery of New South Wales Photography Collection Handbook, 2007
Donna Brett, Photography: Art Gallery of New South Wales Collection, 'The surreal aesthetic', pg.113-129, Sydney, 2007, 118, 123 (illus.).