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Under Paris Skies

Review: Photographer Brassai was dubbed 'the eye of Paris.' Getty visitors are getting a rare chance to see why.

April 18, 1999|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | Christopher Knight is The Times' art critic

If you say to yourself, "Paris in the '30s," a picture will likely come to mind. Chances are, the picture will have been made by Brassai (1899-1984):

* Graceful bridges over the Seine at night, their lamplight softly glowing in moist atmosphere, reflections scattered across black water like diamonds on velvet.

* A chunky prostitute, eyebrows penciled into thin arcs and tight-sweatered chest thrust proudly forward, standing wryly at the edge of a snooker table.

* A huge mound of white-aproned man, ample arms folded across an even more ample belly, as he poses like an early-morning colossus astride the bustling activity of Les Halles market.

* A lesbian couple, one in a severe suit and the other a sultry satin dress, enjoying the nightly party at the famous boi^te Le Monocle.

* American expatriate writer Henry Miller loitering in a hotel doorway, his eyes like expectant targets circled by black-rimmed glasses.

Brassai, Miller famously wrote in one of many books and essays on his friend, was "the eye of Paris," and his photographs have distinctively shaped the way we have perceived the city ever since--especially in the decade before Europe erupted for the second time this century into catastrophic war. In a way, Brassai managed to achieve what the great poet and newspaper art critic Charles Baudelaire argued couldn't possibly be done by a photographer wielding a camera, only by an artist equipped with pencil, paints and brush: His photographs of Paris call to mind the critic's famous 1863 essay for Le Figaro, "The Painter of Modern Life," albeit now finally transformed into "The Photographer of Modern Life."

On Tuesday, the first full-scale survey of Brassai's work in more than 30 years opened at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Brentwood. The culmination of many years of research by Anne Wilkes Tucker, photography curator at Houston's Museum of Fine Arts, where the show had its debut in December, "Brassai: The Eye of Paris" brings together more than 100 gelatin silver prints for a satisfying overview of a remarkable body of work.

Indeed, the only disappointment in this otherwise captivating display is the absence of a catalog, which is said to be in production. (A Houston Museum spokesman was unable to say just when the catalog would be published or what had caused the delay.) Go and acquaint yourself with this incomparable artist.

The son of a Hungarian professor of French literature, Brassai was born Gyula Halasz in Brasso, Transylvania, in 1899. World War I made it impossible for the young man to study painting and sculpture in Paris, so he made do--first at the Academy of Fine Arts in Budapest and, late in 1920, at Berlin's Charlottenburg Academy.

To help support his studies, he worked as a journalist for various German and Hungarian newspapers. Brassai continued the freelance journalism when he finally moved to Paris in 1924. Somewhere along the way he also began to take photographs, in order to illustrate his stories. By 1929, he was making photographs in earnest.

Amazingly, just three years later he published a spiral-bound book of 64 photographs that remains one of the great ensembles of modern photography. Titled "Paris by Night," the book instantly established the reputation of the young artist.

Brassai's lush, wide-ranging photographs astutely recognized that, if Paris was indeed "The City of Light," then the cover of darkness was essential to the prospect of seeing that metropolis clearly. With the poet Leon-Paul Fargue and other friends, he regularly wandered the nocturnal city--an after-hours fla^neur for whom the urban landscape, outdoors and in, was an unending source of evocative subject matter.

One pleasure of the exhibition is watching how Brassai managed to coax a remarkable array of velvety tones across his pictures, because photographing at night posed a variety of technical problems. An eloquent 1932 self-portrait demonstrates something of how he managed it, while also emphasizing the pivotal importance of light to Brassai's artistic sensibility.

Bundled against the winter chill in an overcoat and hat, cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth, Brassai shows himself in profile standing before a slender tripod and peering into his Voigtlander Bergheil 6-by-9 camera. The camera used glass plate negatives (he later adapted it for roll film), and for each night's outing he would take along about two dozen negatives.

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