It’s hard to be stuck in a studio while longing to enjoy life outside. Brassaï, famed for his classic images of Paris, was neither a photographer nor a Parisian — he wanted to be a painter. But once he arrived in Paris in 1924, he gave up his brushes. The fact was, he was so attracted to Parisian life that he said he had no interest in confining himself “to the four walls of an atelier all alone.”
That sentiment and others cited in “Brassai,” a book recently released by Spain’s Fundación Mapfre, were most likely colored by Brassaï’s retrospective regret for not returning to painting. His legacy would come from his peregrinations outside the studio.
Born Gyula Halasz in 1899 in the Transylvanian city of Brasso (now in Romania), Brassaï was the son of a local professor of French literature and remembered his fourth birthday in belle epoque Paris during his father’s sabbatical at the Sorbonne. Brassaï was enamored with Marcel Proust, so perhaps his need to see beyond four walls is rooted in the Proustian belief that habit threatens an artist’s childlike wonder.
That sentiment led him to photography, though originally to illustrate articles he published as a journalist, which he considered merely a day job. He later committed himself fully to photography, which let him wander through Paris photographing bars, ballrooms and occasionally brothels, sometimes giving direction to his subjects.
“After he got to Paris, he found life outside the studio much more fascinating than the challenge of painting,” said Peter Galassi, the Museum of Modern Art’s former chief curator of photography, who wrote the book’s first essay. “And then he was lucky that he had the talent to turn that fascination into great photographs.”
Though Henry Miller named Brassaï “the Eye of Paris,” his ear was a foreign one, as the writer Antonio Muñoz Molina notes in the book. But, as with Sylvia Plachy or Inge Morath, photography became his main language, or a supplement to learning French through Proust’s writing. The difference between Plachy and Morath — born in 1943 and 1923 — and Brassaï was timing. After World War I, there were no cultural outlets for photography.
“There were no museums, collectors, or dealers,” Mr. Galassi said. “That generation of photographers born around 1900 created the modern tradition of photography because there hadn’t been one before. Inevitably, that had to include people planning to do something else with their lives.”
As with Morath, though, photography for Brassaï began with the written word. After dodging combat duty in the Austro-Hungarian Army because of a sprained knee, and a brief period in Berlin, he arrived in Paris and began writing for various European publications. He didn’t want his name associated with work he considered dull compared with the more serious arts he wanted to take up later — like painting, or sculpture, another one of his pursuits — so he adopted the byline Gyula Brassaï and finally, in the 1930s, Brassaï, which means, “of Brasso.” To supplement his articles, Brassaï commissioned photographers and collected old photographs, operating what he would describe as a small photo agency.
Finally, in 1930, he bought a camera. After taking his own photos for his articles, he devoted himself to photography exclusively in 1931, when he took his prints to Vu magazine and landed a book contract not too long after. That book became “Paris de Nuit,” arguably one of his most famous.
Eventually, Brassaï befriended Picasso, whose work he had photographed during the early 1940s for “Conversations avec Picasso.” Picasso encouraged Brassaï to go back to his earlier media, mentioning to his then-girlfriend, the artist Françoise Gilot: “Dentists and photographers are never satisfied with their work. Dentists want to be doctors and photographers want to be painters.”
Brassaï dabbled in drawing again, if only during the German occupation, because he refused to submit to censorship of his photos. He also turned to writing, using overheard conversations at a cafe as inspiration.
After the war, Brassaï resumed his career in photography and never quite returned to painting the way he had intended, a move that he regretted for the rest of his life.
“Alas, even a long life is short and one must choose,” Brassaï said in a 1980 interview. “When someone has a gift for painting or sculpture, the road is marked, no hesitation. But when there are several strings to one’s bow, that’s almost a calamity. One is perpetually torn by one’s gifts, in a sort of civil war, threatened by dissipation, full of regret for what one might have done and did not do.”
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