After decades spent exploring the seedier realms of Paris, the photographer Brassaï (1899–1984) came to the conclusion that graffiti was not vandalism but rather “the survival instinct of all those who cannot erect pyramids or cathedrals to perpetuate their name.” Born Gyula Halász in the Transylvanian town of Brassó, from which he took his professional name, Brassaï studied painting in Budapest and Berlin between the world wars, before moving to Paris. Working initially as a journalist, he was soon supplementing his income by shooting photographs to illustrate his articles. In 1933 he published — to wide acclaim — Paris de Nuit, a collection of dramatic pictures that capture prostitutes under streetlamps, lovers in smoky bars, gargoyles contemplating the gloom, and other visions of the City of Light after dark.
It was around this time that Brassaï began wandering the streets in search of graffiti scratched into walls already scabrous from age and weather. Photography was a complicated undertaking in those days, and he hauled his camera and accessories around in a suitcase, along with a wooden tripod and a bag fitted with black satinet sleeves that allowed him to change his film and plates out of doors. He surveyed avenues and poked into alleyways and alcoves, carrying a notepad in which he would make thumbnail sketches and enter the address of a particularly compelling graffito, so that he might return at different times of day to judge the effects of the sun. His wife, Gilberte, who sometimes accompanied him on his rounds, described Brassaï stalking the perfect congruence of light and shadow: “Smoking cigarette after cigarette, he would wait with infinite patience for the right moment to strike.” Brassaï’s obsessiveness about lighting and framing transfigured the raw expressions on the walls into passionate compositions that — decades later — retain their punch even when translated into the unlikely medium of wool tapestry.
The libertine novelist Henry Miller once described Brassaï as “the eye of Paris,” and the photographer’s graffiti series reveals not only a sharp observational skill but an empathetic soul as well. Brassaï quested after figures and symbols he felt were “endowed with an inner life of their own, pared down to the bare essentials, as slender, as hard as skeletons.” Among the half-dozen vintage prints at the Higher Pictures gallery, one documents the rough grace an anonymous artist displayed in carving a woman’s waist, mons, and thighs into a cracked and pitted wall, the brutish technique sharply at odds with the seeming tenderness of the flesh. This was not graffiti for dilettantes wielding fat Sharpies — these images were gouged and scraped directly into stone, ephemera made concrete.
This rawness partially explains why the two large tapestries hanging in the gallery have such uncanny and forceful presence. However cumbersome the silver-print process was in Brassaï’s time, the fascination here is that its immediacy — that moment when light and shadow are frozen as the shutter snaps — has been so startlingly reproduced in the ancient and painstakingly slow medium of weaving. The photographer collaged together more than twenty images as guides for master weaver Yvette Cauquil-Prince, which she enlarged to these roughly five-foot-high, ten-foot-long works. These dimensions convey the immediate physicality of creating graffiti — how far one’s arms can reach with a knife or nail, followed by a couple of steps back to survey one’s handiwork — while the collages recombine Brassaï’s individual compositions into the sort of visual free-for-all he encountered during his explorations.
In one of his essays about graffiti, Brassaï notes how a wall “throws down a challenge. Protecting property, defending order, it is a target for protest and insult, as well as for demands of every sexual, political, or social persuasion.” Both tapestries in this exhibition were created in 1968, and a viewer with a historical bent might ponder whether Brassaï, in revisiting his interest in the proverbial writing on the wall, was sensing the gathering zeitgeist that exploded in the streets of Paris in May of that year.
The major theme here is one of yearning. “These simple words, inscribed in flamboyant lettering within a heart, sum up love: the fusion, the confusion of two beings” is how Brassaï, always the journalist, describes the joined initials, overlapping hearts, masks, nudes, animals, birds, and fanciful hybrids that populate these wall hangings. Although the photographs were shot in black-and-white, Brassaï designated a patchwork of subdued color for the tapestries’ backgrounds, perhaps inspired by the tones of haphazardly painted walls. In Graffiti I the dominant hues are earthy browns, a loamy bed for the inscribed initials and names, which are sometimes scratched out, as if an affair had gone sour. Cauquil-Prince closely followed Brassaï’s originals — scrabbly incisions captured in the photographs are translated into notched threads, variegated silver-print shadows are replicated in close-toned wool knots — but the shift in medium slows down the eye to savor exquisite textures and evocative colors, while retaining the immediacy of the attacks on stone.
Nocturne is slightly smaller than Graffiti I, but its midnight blues and moon-shade purples close a circle begun with the publication of Paris de Nuit. The drama in those photos originated in chiaroscuro geometries and entwined limbs; in the tapestries, an equally compelling impact arises from palimpsests of desire and loss.
While we have evidence about the lives of, say, pharaohs and popes beyond just the stone edifices they left behind, graffiti offers us history with no context. The power of Brassaï and Cauquil-Prince’s beguiling tapestries lies not just in their formal beauty but in the time we take to wonder just who “Max” might have been, and whether “D.C. & J.S.” ever made a go of things.
Brassaï, Language of the Wall: The Tapestries, 1968
980 Madison Avenue
Through March 5