BRASSAÏ at the Foam Gallery, Amsterdam

BRASSAÏ Couple d’amoureux dans un petit cafe quartier Italie c.1932
© Estate Brassai Succession, Paris

It was said the invention of photography freed painters from the need to be representational in their work; they could splash out, relishing the joy of colours and shapes for their own sakes. The burden of recording people, landscapes and all the rest was taken on by photographers. And a burden it was with cumbersome wooden cameras and single shot sheet film. With the development of small format, roll film cameras the photographers were themselves liberated and could roam the highways and bye-ways taking pictures when and where they wanted.

This freedom enabled photographers to not only report on and record the world around them it also enabled them to create a new art form, a medium that would stand alone and create its own milieu.

Milieu was an important factor in the work of Brassaï. His hunting grounds were the dingy dives and lamppost-lit streets, the brothels and bars, the cafés and restaurants of Paris in the 1930s. He captured not only the darker side of the city of light but also the high society and the artistic elite, recording the social lives of his friends Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí and Henri Matisse et al.

Brassaï was the pseudonym Gyula Halász who was born in 1899 in Brassó, Hungary (today Brașov, Romania). He lived in Paris for a while as a young child where his father was Professor of Literature at the Sorbonne. He studied painting and sculpture in Budapest and served as a cavalry officer in the First World War. After studying journalism he moved to Paris and started taking photos to accompany his articles. His first collection of photographs, published in the 1933 book Paris de Nuit (Paris by Night), was a great success and the subject of an essay by Henry Miller.

This excellent and comprehensive exhibition is the photographer’s first retrospective in The Netherlands. Organised into twelve thematic sections the 170 prints, plus a selection of drawings, sculpture and documentary material, it records and reveals a long lost world which set the bar for artistic activity – Paris still likes to think of itself as the intellectual and artistic capital of the world. Maybe, but it ain’t the same one in which Brassaï lived and took his photos.    Michael Hasted   10th November 2019

The exhibition is organised by Fundación MAPFRE in collaboration with Foam and continues until 6th December.