Brassaï @Marlborough New York

JTF (just the facts): A total of 39 black and white photographs, framed in brown wood and matted, and hung against grey walls in a single room space on the second floor of the gallery. All of the works are gelatin silver prints (some are vintage and ferrotyped, others were printed in the 1970s), made between 1931 and 1955. Physical sizes range from roughly 9×7 to 15×11 inches (or the reverse), and no edition information was provided. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: With all the pent up tensions and jangled nerves we’re feeling these days, between the global pandemic and the Presidential transition here in America, there is something altogether soothing about having a chance to spend a few quiet minutes with a show of familiar but still altogether impressive vintage photography. Combine the softly darkened room, the photographs that transport us back to another place and time (largely 1930s Paris), and the silence of being able to see the show without anyone else in the room (a byproduct of thinner COVID-era attendance), and you’ve got the recipe for a much needed dose of art-induced calm.

In just the past several years, we’ve had a number of opportunities to re-acquaint ourselves with the pleasures of Brassaï’s photographs. A 2018 retrospective catalog published by Fundación MAPFRE (reviewed here) accompanied an extensive traveling exhibition of his work, and this was followed up by a smaller 2018 gallery show of vintage prints at Edwynn Houk Gallery (reviewed here), so the main tenets of Brassaï’s artistic thinking are likely still relatively fresh in the minds of many. This show hits some of the high points once again, with a mix of images known and unknown.

No survey of Brassaï’s work would be complete without at least a quick trip through some of his most famous nocturnal haunts, and this show delivers a broad sampling of Parisian after hours activity. Brassaï’s photographs of lively bars and dance halls are busy with couples and groups drinking, smoking, listening to live bands, and carousing. He often used the mirrors along the back walls to double his compositions, combining an angled view down with the reflected arrangement of those sitting on the other side of the table. His images capture subtle moments of flirtation and boredom, the nuances of gesture, touch, and glance telling layered stories of actual interest (or lack thereof). His observant portraits of eccentrics and characters, like the famous Madame Bijou, add to the egalitarian mix, and when he got to the dance floor, Brassaï was happy to photograph whoever was having fun, including same sex couples, those in drag or cross dressing, mixed race couples, and anyone in an elaborate costume, treating previously hidden or marginalized subcultures with attentive, non-judgmental openness. 

He applied the same interest and photographic ingenuity to more private nighttime encounters, including the goings on at topless stage shows, brothels, and opium dens. Images here look steeply down at the stage of the Folies Bergère from the rafters, using the stacked curtains to divide the space, and then cleverly use mirrors and images from behind to turn the nude introductions and the dressing and cleaning up afterward of a brothel visit into discrete (and tastefully anonymous) moments. Brassaï’s lesser known images of opium smokers center on the languorous details of the process, from the silk kimonos and the exotic Asian accoutrements to the lounging bodies and their shadowy ecstasies. 

While Brassaï had plenty of photographic success both inside and outside at night in Paris, this show only offers a few resonant examples of his work in the nocturnal streets of the city. A pair of images of street thugs and a prostitute in search of a customer will be familiar to most, and an image of a night porter at Les Halles captures his crusty presence, while a gloomy view of Notre Dame turns the church into a darkly hulking mass. Aside from one other elevated view of the nighttime fun fair at the Place d’Italie, the show doesn’t wander the lonely streets and empty bridges of Paris as much as it might have.

Instead, more attention is paid to Brassaï’s portraits of artists. Picasso memorably sits with the jagged shadow of his wood stove, Miro playfully poses with deer heads, Kokoschka sprawls in the garden, and both Matisse and Maillol are seen hard at work. An early portrait of Salvador Dali is perhaps the most intriguing discovery in the show, as it shows the dapper young Dali before the swagger of success has enveloped him – he looks more earnest and searching, an artist still trying to make it, rather than one reveling in his own self-satisfied glow. 

In a certain way, this show feels like a much needed artistic palate cleanser, where our worries of the day are replaced by a momentary time warp visit to a different age. This edit doesn’t introduce us to much about Brassaï that we didn’t already know, but there is undeniable comfort to be found in that familiarity. Just because we might be able to predict which image is coming next as we circle the gallery doesn’t mean we will be satisfied by its triumphs any less. Sometimes the reassurance of consistent quality we already know is enough. 

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced between $10000 and $35000, with two prints marked POR. Works by Brassaï are readily available in the secondary markets, with prices generally ranging from roughly $2000 to $60000, with a few vintage outliers in six figures.

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Read more about: Brassaï (Gyula Halász), Marlborough Gallery

One comment

  1. Charles Johnstone /

    I can’t tell you how great it is to read these reviews . Especially now that I am out in San Fran area for a couple of months. Please keep up the good work!!!
    Quick aside Brassai would hang out at Elaines when in NYC and through Elaine met and mentored a very young Jonathan Becker and gave him his start in photography which led him eventually to VF. Elaine loved telling that story especially knowing that I was a photographer. Miss those days and I know Jonathan does too.

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