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It's really saying something when female nudes radiating carnal urgency are the least exciting element of a famous photographer's work. These startling images come into view, along with a tiny, sensuous, red marble torso resembling an archaeological artifact, near the end of "Brassai," an engrossing new show at SFMOMA, which leaves no doubt that this artist, who was also an accomplished sculptor and writer, was a great of 20th-century photography. Even with over 200 intimately sized, black-and-white photographs, and a smattering of drawings and publications, divided into a dozen thematic sections, the exhibition never lags.
Born Gyula Halasz in Brasso, Transylvania — his pseudonym was derived from his hometown — Brassai moved to Paris in 1924. He arrived determined to become a painter, but found he was more captivated by the world unfolding outside the studio, and took to the streets of his adopted city. Paris, by day and especially at night during the 1930s, was his primary subject, and the focus of most of this show. No one, before or since, has photographed nocturnal Paris between the two world wars as much or as memorably as he did. His pictures, capturing a place or state or mind by turns bewitchingly beautiful, hedonistic and convivial with an edge of menace, are so thick with Parisian ambience one can almost taste and feel the air. If the sound of Edith Piaf singing "La Vie en Rose" wafted through the galleries, it wouldn't seem out of place.
When the city's cast of characters, from cesspool cleaners and the beefy market porters of Les Halles to posh society types like an older gent in a top hat and monocle reviewing the racing sheet at Longchamp (1932), and patrons of the lively clubs, cafes and two-bit dance halls of Montmartre, came out to play, Brassai was there with his Voigtlander Bergheil glass-plate camera. Unlike other fast-moving, mobile photographers of the age, Brassai worked with a tripod and the long exposures required for nighttime photography. That slow process produced sharply defined, deliberate, atmospheric images, such as a stunner shot through the archway of Pont Royal (ca.1933) and a splendid cinematic view from the balcony of Notre Dame looking toward the twinkling Hôtel-Dieu and the Tour Saint-Jacques in the distance (1932). With the silhouette of a gargoyle stationed stage right, could the Hunchback be far behind? Lovers huddle in restaurant booths and bistros, and steal furtive kisses on the boulevard Saint-Jacques, while revelers enjoy a raucous night out at the Folies Bergere (1931-32) and crowd the ornate bar at Maxim's for a gala soiree (1949). Low-lying fog blurs the glare of city lights shimmering on the Seine, suffusing Paris with an aura of mystery and intrigue.
Blunt, unflinching and devoted "to the magic of the unvarnished fact," Brassai haunted the streets and their habitués, putting the viewer in the company of thugs, pimps, toughs and careworn prostitutes plying their trade. He described this surging underground as inhabitants of a secret, sinister, fringe world that "represented Paris at its least cosmopolitan, its most alive, its most authentic."
It's no coincidence that the show's largest section is "Pleasures," which surveys an array of public entertainments and those seeking love, lust or something like it. In a series of voyeuristic, semi-staged photographs, he unveiled naked transactions inside brothels like Chez Suzy, where Brassai's assistant played the part of the client. He also recorded the Bacchanalian festivities at Magic City in 1932, an annual blowout during Lent when gays defied bourgeois propriety at a flamboyant ball where attendees, from coal miners and metallurgists to butcher's boys and stars of stage and screen, converged and flaunted their promiscuity with abandon.
Brassai's naturalistic portraits of artists and writers, many of them friends, were his specialty. They also helped pay the bills, and in 1982, were collected into "The Artists of My Life," a book for which he also penned the text. Among the masterfully photographed: Salvador Dali, Anais Nin, Henry Miller, Picasso, Jean Genet circa 1948 looking like a pugilist in shirt sleeves rolled up to the biceps, and Matisse in 1939, regarding a nude model in his studio — the quintessential portrait of the artist at work. In any other show by most any another photographer, this celebrity row would be the main attraction. Here it's an adjunct of the artist's central obsession and the bohemian life he led in Paris that would cast a spell on many a future ex-pat.
"Paris de Nuit," the 1932 modernist photogravure that got Brassai noticed, contains an illuminated l'Arc de Triomphe; a sparkling Eiffel Tower seen through the half-open gate of the Trocadero; a statue of Marshal Ney, arm raised, railing against the mist; and cobblestone byways glistening after an evening downpour, among other stellar images. It can be "leafed" through via touchscreen at the beginning of the exhibit.
Brassai fled Paris in June 1940, two days before the German army marched in. When he returned four months later, he refused to cooperate with the authorities and was forbidden to photograph freely. That didn't prevent him from covertly documenting Picasso's sculptures or shooting "The Bathroom Mirror" (Aug. 24, 1944). Photographing German soldiers and members of the French resistance fighting on the street from the fifth floor of his apartment building, he was mistaken for a German sniper. A bullet intended for him missed and shattered his mirror, whose image is a testament to bad aim and good luck.
Possessing a literary cast of mind, Brassai mythologized a culture that only a few years after many of these pictures were taken would be under siege by the German occupation and threatened with annihilation by Hitler, who ordered the city leveled when the tide of the war turned against him. In Brassai's photographs, one doesn't sense the evil in the ether or the ominous thunder rumbling through Europe. War still seems far away for these Parisians, living, working, loving and dancing as if there were no tomorrow.
Through Feb. 19. www.sfmoma.org