As an Englishman my ability to speak any language except my own is severely limited. So when I first picked up Graffiti Brassaï: Le Langage Du Mur I was a bit puzzled how graffiti could be the language of the sea? I quickly realised my mistake! In fact this is the first serious art-historical study of Brassaï’s Graffiti photography series. Researched by the curator Karolina Ziebinska-Lewandowska the book sheds light on the artist Brassaï and graffiti as his subject.
Between the 1930’s and 70’s Brassaï intermittently photographed graffiti. Up to six-hundred images captured what was happening on the, mostly Parisian, walls of France in the decades before the graffiti culture wave from America hit Europe. Oddly, in her introduction, Ziebinska-Lewandowska declares that, to the modern eye, Brassaï’s Graffiti project may seem boring. However put into context, alongside the work of his contemporaries, the photographs are a visionary series that “lends itself to infinite readings.”
Brassaï began taking photos in the 1930’s, stalking Paris by night with his camera. He soon picked up on the writings of its walls which he believed took the place of ‘nature’ in urban societies. Ziebinska-Lewandowska explains that, as a photographer, Brassaï was embraced by the Surrealists and his work featured in their pre-war publication Minotaure. Over the next few paragraphs several Surrealists are name-dropped. André Breton, Paul Éluard, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí and Jean Dubuffet all pop up. Throughout the book any artist Brassaï met or whose work his photos may have had an influence on are discussed. In fact simply being a contemporary of his seems to merit a mention. Later chapters are devoted to artists he collaborated with and then there’s his exhibitions beginning with the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Eventually there is a chapter headed les graffiti historiques. However rather than a discussion of the history of the graffiti Brassaï recorded this turns out to be a brief mention that he also sought out historical graffiti from further afield across France. And that’s it. Aside from anecdotes and brief snippets there’s no in-depth attempt to discuss or analyse the graffiti, its meaning, context or practitioners. The book aims to situate Brassaï amongst the artists and movements of his time but any deeper interpretation ends up confused and often contradictory.
The opening chapter describes how the Graffiti series was “collected as the recording of a popular street art”. In contrast to this apparent documentary approach Ziebinska-Lewandowska soon explains that Brassaï shared with the Surrealists a “fascination for the urban fantasy of which he was the inspiring interpreter.” Towards the end of the book she sums up the Graffiti project. Again it’s described in contradictory terms as “first and foremost a documentary project”, a psychological, ethnographic and sociological endeavour. Yet, at the same time, it is also “first and foremost an artistic project.”
Throughout the book it’s clear that the graffiti of Parisian walls was only ever seen as a foreign realm by Brassaï and his fellow artists. Brassaï was a “poet of urban culture”; his photographs turned the graff of the poor districts of Paris into his art rather than documentary. The images were displayed in galleries as massive, painting like, prints that transformed them into ‘primitivist’ art. Taken out of the street context and plonked into a museum it’s his photographs that were the artworks rather than the original graffiti. The book reproduces an article on the series that featured in Harper’s Bazaar which observed that “to the learned they are graffiti: to most, the scrawls and scratches that pass almost unobserved on so many walls, everywhere.” The graffiti only becomes significant because an artist has displayed them in the re-contextualised space of a gallery. (I recently heard an interview with the artist Amy Gear who shows that this notion of the artist having a special ability to percieve what others can’t is ongoing. She believes “an artist views more things as art as other people. They would maybe see it as a wall but I see it as a work of art.”)
In her book Civilizing Rituals the art historian Carol Duncan outlines the “vulgar, sexual and dangerous” representation of women in modern art galleries as part of what she calls “the modern artist-hero”. I think something similar is happening with the Graffiti series. The photographs were produced when the ‘artist-hero’ ventured into the slums of Paris to gawp at the poor and reinterpret their lives as art. The graffiti is constantly referred to as primitive, childlike, vulgar and mad. A Dubuffet lithograph in the book illustrates this with two grotesque figures seeing over lewd graffiti strewn walls with the city in the background.
Ziebinska-Lewandowska mentions that the photography historian Ian Walker has outlined the Graffiti series as having been shaped by the artistic movements of the time. The photographs were all taken and understood within the influence of Surrealism, then Existentialism, and later the Informalism of the 1950’s. I think the book misses an opportunity to draw connections between how graffiti was interpreted then and how it would be in the coming decades. The later notion that graffiti was a plague coming out of New York’s slums isn’t too dissimilar to how Brassaï’s contemporaries viewed it. Dubuffet’s lithograph merges the idea of an animalistic urge to mark territory with doing graffiti. This is a now fairly common perception that tagging is comparable to a dog pissing up a lamppost. In the 1930’s and 40’s the self-taught peasant Gaston Chaissac was embraced as a primitivist artist. In some ways he could be compared to Jean-Michel Basquiat who resented the primitivist label that would be attached to him too. It would be really interesting to see what parallels, or even direct connections, could be drawn from how Brassaï’s generation perceived graffiti and how it is understood in the present. Even to what extent could Brassaï’s work have shaped the reaction to graffiti in the coming decades?
Ultimately this book may just as well have been titled Le Langage Du Mer for how little it actually shed light on the ‘language of the wall’! Actual analysis of the graffiti, rather than the artist, is scant. What I was interested in was the graffiti itself; what was it, who did it, what was the context and how it might have been interpreted at the time? How did the graffiti fit into Surrealist theory or how it was conceptualised as primitive-art? Instead the book concentrates on Brassaï as the artist and his photos as art rather than the graffiti itself. The text mainly concentrates on what exhibitions and galleries the works were shown in and who they influenced in his artistic circle.
At one point Ziebinska-Lewandowska compares Brassaï to the surrealist photographer Emila Medková whose photographs look ultra modern almost as if they could have come off Instagram. It is the photographs of the graffiti where the strength of this publication really lies. The book is well produced with lots of black and white images. Various album covers, newspaper clippings, sketches, and artworks are reproduced. A lot of the pictures focus in really close which gives a good idea of how the images were scratched and scraped into the walls of Paris. Overall Graffiti Brassaï is a nice book to look at but, for me, the focus of the texts could have been taken in a different direction.