Legendary Photographer Brassai Reads the Writing on the Wall
When the future is bleak, denial only delays the inevitable—and can often make our fall from grace that much harder. But for those who cast illusions to try to comfort themselves, the wise advise us to read “the writing on the wall.”
It’s a telling phrase that speaks to the truth about graffiti: it has been here as long as humanity has used written language as a means to record our reality. Writing on the wall is inherently subversive in a culture that supports the creation of private property, particularly in the public realm, for it reminds us that the desire and need to communicate will trump the attempt to reign it in. To leave a written mark behind not only transgresses the law, but it is also a silent scream, cry, or whoop of laughter let loose in the world.
Where many will train themselves to ignore or deride graffiti, seeing it as a “blight” on their beliefs that the public realm should be pristine in order to preserve appearances and illusions of “civility,” there are those who wisely keep their eyes on the walls and their ears to the street, keen to learn from those who feel compelled to share something of themselves with total strangers.
Hungarian-born artist Brassaï (1899-1984) was one such man. He began photographing graffiti on the streets of Paris in the early 1930s, and continued throughout his life, drawn to document the curious marks he discovered. “These concise signs are nothing less than the origin of writing, these animals, monsters, demons, heroes, these phallic gods, no less than the elements of mythology,” Brassaï observed.
In celebration, the Centre Pompidou, Paris, presents Brassaï: Graffiti, currently on view through January 30, 2017. The exhibition features a selection of published and unpublished works from the series, along with documentary materials to help contextualize the project.
Brassaï loved to photograph at night, getting to know his newly adopted city by foot. Drawn to working class culture, he would walk through neighborhoods, photographing the people, the streets, and the structures that shaped the very nature of city life. “He was the first in the history of modern photography to intuitively understand the camera as an instrument of urban dissection,” explains curator Karolina Ziebinska-Lewandowska.
With camera in hand, Brassaï was free to examine the city in the many forms it took, using photograph as a means to recontextualize various aspects of human experience. He understood, “Night does not show things, it suggests them. It disturbs and surprises us with its strangeness. It liberates forces within us which are dominated by our reason during the daytime.”
Graffiti, then, came to embody something wholly new. It was not so much vandalism as it was one of the purest manifestations of the artistic impulse. The desire to express one’s self in and of itself, devoid of fame, status, or remuneration for one’s work, can be seen in the graffiti Brassaï photographed. His tightly cropped images of the iconography that called to him speak to the photographer’s desire to preserve them as works all their own. Without context, we can only consider the very impulse to create an image for the public to engage with—or ignore, as their wont.
In 1961, Brassaï published the photographs in a book titled Graffiti, which gave credence to both forms: the fine art photograph and the writing on the wall. As Ziebinska-Lewandowska explains, “Published for the first time during the burgeoning Surrealism movement, these photographs of found drawings were understood as an expression of the capital’s unconscious.”
Finally, the cognoscenti were ready to take note, to read the writing on the wall. It would be several years before graffiti finally broke through and found itself inside the museum and gallery world, putting the voice of outsider artists on par with the greats of the academy and the salons. In a small but meaningful way, Brassaï helped set the stage, encouraging the art world to think outside the box and embrace the voice of the people who were inclined to create art by whatever means possible.
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.