Hungarian-French photographer and artist, Brassaï moved to Paris in 1924. He often wandered the dim, foggy streets of the French capital at night, obsessively photographing the people and the streets of Paris. His first collection of photographs appeared in his 1933 book Paris de nuit (Paris by night) and earned him the nickname “the eye of Paris” by author and friend, Henry Miller.
Among many of his obsessions, Brassaï spent more than twenty five years recording the marks, signs and traced left on the walls by the city’s inhabitants. These ‘trouvailles’ or ‘accidental finds’ were seen by the artist as “one of the most powerful and authentic expressions of art”. The resulting Graffiti series consisted of over five hundred photographs, systematically taken and recorded by Brassaï and some of these appeared in his 1961 book Graffiti.
Centre Pompidou’s beautiful little exhibition presents a selection of photographs from the Graffiti series, some of them little-known and previously unseen, in the museum’s Galerie de photographs. Walking into this cleverly-lit space gives one the impression of accidentally stumbling across a secret place full of mysterious relics of a bygone era.
Brassaï’s photographs are accompanied by a selection of documents, book dummies and reviews. There are also some examples of Brassaï’s collaborations with other writers and artists, notably collages made by Jacques Prévert with the Graffiti photographs as the base, photographic projects with Picasso and lithographs by Jean Dubuffet.
In his notebooks, Leonardo da Vinci wrote, “if you look at any walls spotted with various stains or with a mixture of different kinds of stones, if you are about to invent some scene you will be able to see in it a resemblance to various different landscapes adorned with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, plains, wide valleys, and various groups of hills. You will also be able to see divers combats and figures in quick movement, and strange expressions of faces, and outlandish costumes, and an infinite number of things which you can then reduce into separate and well conceived forms”.
The same probably holds true for Brassaï’s photographs of graffiti on Parisian walls. His close-up shots of walls are quite often seen as an extension of surrealist principle of dépaysement (or the act of displacing an object from its surroundings or reality, thus, rendering a whole new meaning or interpretation to the object itself). Some of the photographs are seen as examples of an art brut or primitive art, while a few are evidently a direct expression of an ongoing sociopolitical struggle in a post-war Paris. Some of them are abstract markings or engravings, thus bringing up linkages to Tachisme and informal art.
Keeping aside formal classifications of the graffiti, Brassaï’s photographs have the ability to induce the viewer to come up with his/her own perception of a hidden language and imagery, much akin to perceiving objects in cloud formations. This visual stimulation of imagination is perhaps the strongest aspect of these photographs.
Brassaï – Graffiti, through January 30, 2017 at Galerie de photographes, Forum-1, Centre Pompidou, Place Georges-Pompidou, 750014, Paris; Free entry
November 9, 2016 to January 30, 2017
At Centre Pompidou
Brassaï – Graffiti
Centre Pompidou’s latest offering is a fascinating little exhibition of photographs from Hungarian-French photographer Brassaï’s celebrated Graffiti series.