Brassaï - Biography and Legacy
Hungarian-born, French Photographer, Draftsman, Sculptor, Writer, and Filmmaker
Brassó, Transylvania, Austria-Hungary
Biography of Brassaï
Brassaï, born Gyula Halász in Brassó, Transylvania (now Romania), was named after his father. He was the eldest of three sons and his parents were a young, upper-middle class couple. His mother, Mathilde Verzar, was Catholic of Armenian descent and his father was an elegant and refined Hungarian intellectual, who provided for his family as a teacher of French literature. The young Gyula cherished the memory of living in Belle Époque Paris during his father's sabbatical leave. While his father furthered his studies at the Sorbonne and the Collège de France, Gyula and his brother Kálmán played in the Luxembourg Gardens. Gyula was fascinated by the attractions of the big city. As he later remembered it: "At the Champ de Mars, I saw Buffalo Bill and his gigantic circus with the cowboys, Indians, buffaloes, and Hungarian Csikos. At the Theatre du Chatelet, I was enthralled by a fantastic spectacle called 'Tom Pitt,' and I was at the ceremony welcoming Alfonso XIII to Paris." Upon the family's return to Brassó, Gyula started school and proved to be an interested student, especially attentive in his studies of Hungarian, German and French. He also exhibited much creativity and talent in drawing.
Early Training and Work
Gyula was an adolescent of fifteen when World War I broke out. Because Romania was at war with Germany and Austria-Hungary, the Halász family fled Brassó as Romanian troops marched over the Transylvanian border. They settled for a time, as did other Transylvanian refugees, in Budapest, where Gyula finished his schooling and graduated. In the fall of 1917, Gyula joined the Austro-Hungarian cavalry regiment, but did not see combat due to his sprained knee and having spent much of the war convalescing in a military hospital. Once his military duties were over, and in spite of continued hostilities, Gyula studied painting and sculpture at the Hungarian Academy of Fine Arts in Budapest. He shared an apartment with János Mattis-Teutsch, his tutor and mentor. Mattis-Teutsch, an accomplished painter in his own right, was attached to an influential group of Hungarian and international avant-gardists, and through that friendship, Gyula too soon found himself immersed in Budapest's avant-garde community.
Soon after the signing of the Armistice in November 1918, Gyula joined the Hungarian Red Army to fight in support of the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic, a Communist rump state that lasted only 133 days. He fled Budapest as a conservative regime replaced the Communist government in 1920. On the advice of his father, Gyula, now twenty, decided to head to Berlin. He had a fluent command of German, and, as a former citizen of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, he was welcomed into the city. Indeed, he took up work as a journalist for the Hungarian papers Keleti and Napkelet while attending the Academy of Fine Arts in Berlin-Charlottenburg. During this period, he learned more about painting, theatre and music, and wrote prose and poetry. While in Berlin he also became friends with established Hungarian artists and writers - namely the painters Lajos Tihanyi and Bertalan Pór, and the writer György Bölöni with whom he would soon form a circle of friends in Paris. At the end of only his first semester, Gyula left Berlin and his studies behind. He returned to home in preparation for his return to Paris.
By 1924 Montparnasse had become the center of avant-gardist activity. Upon his arrival (in the February of that year) Gyula duly sought out his Berlin acquaintances. He brushed up on his French by reading Proust and he earned his living by working as a journalist for the German and Hungarian press. Gyula would sometimes illustrate his interviews and articles with drawn caricatures, or photographs, which he sourced from junk shops or booksellers operating along the banks of the Seine. Photographic imagery was in especially high demand within the booming publishing industry and, in December 1925, Gyula joined the German picture agency Mauritius Verlag.
André Kertész would arrive in Montparnasse in 1925. Kertész (who spoke no French) was already an experienced photographer and photojournalist and the two men worked together on several articles for Lucien Vogel's weekly French pictorial, VU. It was Kertész indeed who taught Gyula the techniques of photographing at night, and he helped nurture in his compatriot and friend, an appreciation for the artistic possibilities of photography.
Having sourced images for the German press from 1926, Gyula had started to make his own photographic images by the end of the decade. By 1931 his photography started to appear regularly in the crime and sex-oriented magazines Paris Magazine, Pour lire à deux, and Scandale, and in the weeklies Vu, Voilá, and Regards. Gyula was able to sell the reproduction rights of his photographs to other magazines and books and this provided him with sufficient revenue to survive the depression years. Gyula still nurtured his dream to become a painter however, and in order to reserve his real name for his true art, Gyula used (and had already used intermittedly) pseudonyms for many of his journalistic articles (Jean d'Erleich, being perhaps the best known). Brassaï, a derivation of the name of his home town, was the pseudonym he chose to sign his own photographs. It was Gyula's friend, the art dealer Zborowski, who introduced him to Eugène Atget, and it was on this most esteemed of Parisian street photographers that Brassaï began to model himself.
Like his father, Gyula, with his love for Paris and French manners found himself as welcome in aristocratic circles (to which his lover Madame Delaunay-Bellville had introduced him) as he was in the demi-monde of prostitutes and pimps. Fashionable society had loved to mingle with the Montparnasse 'riffraff' ever since the success of Josephine Baker and her Revue Négre and having one foot in high society and one foot in the Montparnasse night scene proved inspirational for his art. His photographic career effectively soared after showing 100 mounted prints to the editor Carlo Rim and the publisher Lucien Vogel of the magazine VU. Vogel was also a member of the editorial board of the lavishly printed monthly Arts et Métiers graphiques and it was he (Vogel) who advised Brassaï to show a smaller group of 20 night photographs to its publisher Charles Peignot. Brassaï duly signed a contract with Peignot for the photo book Paris de nuit (Paris by Night). The book was launched on December 2, 1932 and henceforward Gyula became forever known to the world of photography as Brassaï.
Brassaï moved in social circles with some of the most important artists and writers living in Paris during the thirties including Pablo Picasso, Alberto Giacometti, Jaques Prévert and Jean Genet. It was the writer and friend Henry Miller who gave him his famous nickname, the "eye of Paris." Miller later wrote, "The acquaintance and friendship of the most phenomenal artists of the century were worth a trip to the moon!"
At the age of 33, Brassaï's name was forever associated with the lights of the city, brothels, circuses, and the criminal underworld. The success of Paris by Night brought him contracts for further books, and commissions for publicity portraits of artists and writers, too. He photographed Oskar Kokoschka, Georges Braque, André Derain (among others) and the fees from these portraits augmented his regular income. The Greek-born art critic E. Tériade (Efstratios Eleftheriades) soon invited Brassaï to photograph Pablo Picasso's studios on the rue La Boétie and at Boisgeloup, outside of Paris. This collection appeared in the young Swiss publisher Albert Skira's deluxe art magazine Minotaure, which first published in June 1933. Brassaï continued to contribute to Minotaure and it was through his connection with the magazine that he would make the acquaintance of Man Ray and other Surrealist luminaries including Salvador Dalí, Paul Eluard and André Breton.
In 1933 he became one of the first members of the venerable Rapho agency, created in Paris by another Hungarian immigrant Charles Rado. Not until 1935 did Brassaï follow up Paris by Night with the publication of his second picture book, Voluptés de Paris (Pleasures of Paris). The book focused on street prostitutes, gay balls, guinches (Portuguese), Kiki de Montparnasse and the Casino de Paris (and other urban meeting places). Much to Brassaï's disgust, however, the supporting text, approved by the publisher, encouraged the reader to look at his photographs from a salacious and voyeuristic viewpoint. Brassaï immediately disowned the book but he learned from the experience, insisting of control over all production aspects of future book publications.
By the mid-thirties Brassaï had gained international renown. He could switch between street and artistic photography but chose to focus now more on high society. He contributed images to monthly arts and culture publications including Liliput and Coronet and, as of 1935, the upmarket American magazine Harper's Bazaar. The Americans allowed Brassaï an artistic freehand and, although his photographic work was lucrative, Brassaï could not refrain from practicing the traditional arts. Indeed, in the spring of 1937 he took the decision to resign from his position at the magazine Coiffure de Paris to devote his energies to painting and sculpture. However, the German invasion of France in the summer of 1940 derailed his plan. Apart from a short spell in the South of France, Brassaï remained in Paris for the duration of the occupation. He had to obtain false Romanian papers while his only means of income proved to be a clandestine 1943 commission from Picasso, his friend now of some ten years, to photograph sculptures for a planned book. Though Brassaï had made several portraits of Picasso during the thirties, it was following Picasso's commission that the two artists began to see each other on a regular basis.
Brassaï continued with his photographic practice throughout the forties but it would no longer be his only preoccupation. Encouraged by him to return to drawing - "You own a gold mine, and you're exploiting a salt mine" Picasso had rather obliquely advised - the famous artist arranged and attended the opening of the exhibition of Brassaï's drawings at the prestigious Galerie Renou & Colle in June 1945. The following year those same drawings were published in a volume titled Trente dessins (Thirty drawings) accompanied by poetry by Jacques Prévert.
By the end of the forties, Brassaï had grown into middle-age. He was by now happily married to Gilberte-Mercédès Boyer, twenty years his junior, and he gained French citizenship in November 1949. The postwar era saw Brassaï returning to some themes and style in his earlier work as well. He worked once more for Harper's Bazaar whose generous commissions took him travelling around the world. He began to explore writing, filmmaking, and theater at this time also.
Brassaï authored about 17 short stories, biographies and photo books in his lifetime including The Story of Maria (1948), Henry Miller: The Paris Years (1975) and Artists of My Life (1982). He engaged successfully with filmmaking too and in 1956 he won the award for Most Original Film at the Cannes Film Festival for his movie Tant qu'il y aura des betes (As Long as there are Animals). His photographic achievements were also acknowledged with prestigious honors and even life-time achievement awards: namely the Gold Medal for Photography at the Venice Biennale (1957) and later the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres (1974), and Chevalier de l'Order de la Legion d'honneur (1976) in France.
In the late 1950s, Brassaï bought a Leica and he photographed in color for the first time. He also managed to travel with his wife to the USA in 1957 having taken up an invitation by the Holiday magazine. Stops along this trip included New York, Chicago and Louisiana. He summarized his relationship with America thus: "I'm the opposite of Christopher Columbus ... this time it's America who has just discovered me."
Moving into the sixties, Brassaï re-discovered his early work and he made new prints and new additions of early photo books. His photographs of graffiti, taken over three decades as of 1933, were published in a photo book titled Graffiti in 1961. These pictures of inanimate and often abstract wall markings captured the essence of Paris in a symbolic and mystical way. Brassaï published his memoirs Conversations with Picasso in 1964, which Picasso favored by commenting that "If you really want to know me read this book." He ceased taking new photographs as of 1962, a decision which seems to have coincided with the death of Carmel Snow, the New York editor of Harper's Bazaar that same year.
Brassaï lived until the age of eighty-four, when he passed away on 8th of July 1984 in Beaulieu-sur-Mer, Alpes-Maritimes in the south of France. He was buried in the cemetery of Montparnasse in Paris, where his artistic adventure had begun 60 years earlier.
The Legacy of Brassaï
Brassaï expanded the subject matter of photography through his fascination with the manners of urban nightlife as it played out in high society and on the streets of Paris. His ability to comingle with society at large, matched by his ability to express himself in various mediums, speaks of an artistic polymath who understood what it meant to absorb and embrace different influences. Indeed, during his prolific career, he created over 35,000 photographic images - ranging through the stylistic methods of Straight Photography, Street Photography and Documentary Photography - while also experimenting with drawing, filmmaking, and writing. He is though best known as a photographer and for the ethereal quality - so admired by the Surrealists - that he brought to his images.
Brassaï was in fact one of the two most influential photographers in European photography of the 1930s. With Henri Cartier-Bresson, "the classic and measured" Brassaï captured "the spirit of the bizarre," as John Szarkowski, former director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, succinctly put it. His fascination with figures who belonged to the Parisian underworld had an impact on later generations of photographers, notably Diane Arbus and Nan Goldin, who also captured images of people on the fringes of society. His urban landscapes meanwhile continue to define the romantic ideal of Paris as the bohemian metropolis. His technical mastery of night photography paved the way for other photographers to explore iconic cities at night. One such project was Bill Brandt's unconcealed homage to Brassaï A Night in London (1936), a collection which launched Brandt's own highly successful career.