Once one gets past Brassaï’s sometimes sensationalizing accounts of his own art—that he “was eager to penetrate this other world, this fringe world, the secret, sinister world of mobsters, outcasts, toughs, pimps, whores, addicts, inverts”—one realizes that the photographer was making portraits of singular human beings with whom he empathically identified. His pictures are trenchant psychological studies of individuals who lived life as they wanted to (or, in many instances, had to). Brassaï felt at home in Paris’s underground, a realm of the alien and the alienated, because he, too, was an outcast: a Hungarian-born foreigner who was too other to ever properly fit the role of the assimilated Français, even though he became a French citizen in 1949 and lived in France until his death in 1984. The thirty-nine Brassaï prints on view at Marlborough—many of which appeared in the artist’s first exhibition at the gallery’s New York space in 1976—showed us that the acclaimed Rive Gauche voyeur could also be, on occasion, more than a little tender.
Brassaï, like Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, who inspired the photographer, found his subjects in places of entertainment—cabarets, bars, dance halls—where they frequently were the entertainment. Yet Brassaï gained access to these sundry haunts and milieus because he was welcomed as a fellow traveler (or, perhaps more accurately, as a gawker who didn’t judge). One wonders if Brassaï envied the “outsiders” he snapped for how comfortable they appeared to be in their own skins. Take the stylish lesbian lovers of Au Monocle, un couple (Fat Claude and her Girlfriend at Le Monocle), ca. 1932, who seem cozy and affectionate with one another, or the cheerful men—one of whom wears a frilly white frock and matching hat—dancing together in Un couple au bal Magic-City, (A Couple at the Magic City Ball), ca. 1931–33.
Some of Brassaï’s people are clearly from the underclass, while others ostensibly belong to the upper class (such as one “Monsieur B.,” who’s clad in a gold-brocade kimono and enjoying some opium); yet all are peculiarly classless by reason of their pursuit of la vie jolie in whatever form. Carnal desire further erodes these social boundaries, as we see in Chez ‘Suzy’ la presentation (At Suzy’s, Introductions) ca. 1932–33, in which a suited slick-haired john sizes up a trio of hard-assed graces at a brothel. Among the most dignified portraits here were Brassai’s pictures of the homeless. His 1934 portrait of one top-hatted man, referred to as “the dean of Parisian vagabonds” in the work’s title, looks positively aristocratic.
“There is a history of darkness in the making of images,” novelist and photographer Wright Morris wrote, noting that “at Pech-Merle and Altamira, in the recesses of caves, the torchlit chapels of worship and magic, images of matchless power were painted on the walls and ceilings.” Virtually all of Brassaï’s photographs are dialectical studies in visibility and darkness—his camera was his guide through the sensuous, sin-filled night. Brassaï wanted his work to be recognized as art at a time when photography was still struggling for respect, which may explain his numerous pictures of avant-garde artists, such as Aristide Maillol, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso. These men—self-made “originals”—are as decidedly individualistic as the drag queens, sex workers, and myriad bons vivants that appeared throughout this show. Brassaï worships them all in the torchlit chapel of his photographs, where they are transformed into magical presences, as though seen in a waking dream.