Magazine article Artforum International

... et Lumiere

Magazine article Artforum International

... et Lumiere

Article excerpt

Photographic views of Paris propose two dissimilar worlds: that of daytime and that of night. . . . The elements of the night are the great stage directors of the social fantastic, which is ingenuous and always easily understandable.

Pierre Mac Orlan, 1930

Photographers, like detectives, often try to capture a subject through repeated visits to the scene of the crime. When that subject is night, as it was for Brassai in Paris in the early '30s, the resulting images are likely to possess some of the crude and revelatory qualities of dreams. In Brassai's night world, shadows reveal more than they conceal, anthropomorphized by the light sources that create them. The Art Nouveau railings adorning the city's Metros assume otherworldly personae, isolated by the photographer's lens against the darkness. Prostitutes and dandies emerge as luminous specters in brothel doorways and at lamp-lit street corners.

When Brassai began his nocturnal Paris rambles, the Surrealists had nearly cornered the market on dreams as material for artistic expression. The fruits of the unconscious, they realized, lay all about, waiting to be plucked by those who knew how to look. As the retrospective exhibition this fall at the Fundacio Antoni Tapies in Barcelona clearly illustrated, Brassai knew how to look. The first major Brassai retrospective since 1979, this compelling show was notable for reuniting two groups of images that first appeared more than forty years apart, in the books Paris de nuit (1932) and Le Paris secret des annees 30 (1976). The earlier book features charcoal-y heliogravures of cobble-stoned roads, industrial and residential buildings, strikingly illuminated statuary--primarily outdoor Paris; Le Paris secret beckons readers inside the city's back-alley bars and brothels. The photographs were actually conceived as a single project, but the books separate them into two statements, the first romantic and "presentable," the second decadent--so much so that it could not be published at the time. To bring these photographs together was a welcome act of revisionism, restoring the intermingling of the respectable and the risque that Brassai found in '30s Paris. Brassai was friendly with Salvador Dali, Andre Breton, Man Ray, and other Surrealists, and his photographs often appeared in Surrealist publications. Yet he turned down Breton's invitation to join the group. What emerged in the Barcelona show were the subterranean links between Brassai's overtly Surrealist work, most of it created for Minotaure, and the nighttime photographs of Paris de nuit and Le Paris secret. While his daytime street photographs still retained their semblance of the documentary, the show revealed the night images as stylized constructions, the output of an artist who frequently demanded full and patient cooperation from the players in what were essentially theatrical tableaux.

Reinterpretations were also invited by some of the prints in the exhibition--the power trio of guitar, bass, and drums. The vocals of leader/guitarist King Buzzo--growling and rumbling, sometimes indecipherable, seemingly not human--are a fourth instrument, adding an eerie undertow to the thunderous pull. The sound is intensely percussive, as if everything were being banged out, nailed down. The new album, Houdini, ends with over ten minutes of drums, and while there are any number of lengthy drum solos in rock history, this is definitely not one of them. The piece sounds like a virtual war zone. Shots ring out, tanks rumble by, bombs rain down, sabers, even, are rattled. …

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