Brassai’s Paris: late night ramblings through a lost world.
Gyula Halász, known to the world as “Brassai” was born September 9, 1899 in Brassó, Transsylvania, Kingdom of Hungary (now Brasov, Romania) to an Armenian mother and a Hungarian father. At the age of three his family lived in Paris for a year, while his father taught French Literature at the Sorbonne. As a young man Halász studied painting and sculpture at the Hungarian Academy of Fine Arts in Budapest, and joined a cavalry regiment of the Austro-Hungarian army where he served throughout the First World War.
In 1920, Halász went to Berlin, where he worked as a journalist for Hungarian papers and studied at the Universität der Künste where he became friends with several older Hungarian artists and writers, including the painters Lajos Tihanyi and Bertalan Pór, and the writer György Bölöni, who later moved to Paris and became part of the “Hungarian circle”. Halasz himself moved to Paris in 1924, and learned French by reading the works of Marcel Proust and began using the pseudonym “Brassaï,” which means “from Brasso” in relation to his birthplace. Joining the social circles of the young artists in the Montparnasse quarter he took a job as a journalist, quickly becoming friends with the American writer Henry Miller along with French writers Léon-Paul Fargue and Jacques Prévert.
His work as a journalist combined with a penchant for wandering the late night streets of Paris led him into photography: he first used it to supplement his articles but soon began exploring the more artistic aspects. He was tutored by his fellow Hungarian André Kertész, and wrote that he used photography “in order to capture the beauty of streets and gardens in the rain and fog, and to capture Paris by night.”
Indeed, his photographs captured the essence of the city. His first collection, simply entitled ‘Paris de nuit’ (Paris by Night) was published in 1933 and was an immediate success. Alongside photos of the Paris’ seedier side, Brassai presented informal and candid portrayals of its intellectuals, the ballet and grand operas as well as his own artist friends and prominent writers of the time. The photographs vary from the sharply defined and brilliantly lit to the mistiness of rainy nights.
Brassai’s reputation as a photographer had reached the United States by the mid-thirties, and some of his work was included in an exhibition entitled Photography: 1839-1937 at the Museum of Modern Art. But he continued to document Parisian life until the outbreak of World War II, when unrestricted photography in occupied France became all but impossible. In the 1950s Brassai turned his camera on the graffiti he found in his wanderings through the city streets; he also travelled and photographed in various parts of France and Spain. He continued to work in other media, making drawings, paintings, and sculpture.
In 1956, his film, Tant qu’il y aura des bêtes, won the “Most Original Film” award at the Cannes Film Festival and in 1974 he was made Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters and given the Legion of Honor in 1976. Two years later, in 1978, he won the first “Grand Prix National de la Photographie” in Paris. His friendship with Picasso resulted in a highly acclaimed book on the artist and his contemporaries, ‘Conversations avec Picasso’, published in 1964.
After 1961, when he stopped taking photographs, Brassaï concentrated his considerable energy on sculpting in stone and bronze. Several tapestries were made from his designs based on his photographs of graffiti.
Gyula Halász died on July 8, 1984 in Èze, Alpes-Maritimes, in the south of France and was interred in the Cimetière du Montparnasse in Paris. In 2000, an exhibition of some 450 works by Brassaï was organized with the help of his widow, Gilberte at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris.
“When you meet the man you see at once that he is equipped with no ordinary eyes,” Henry Miller once commented on Brassai. And indeed he has left us with a wealth of visions from a Paris long removed.
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