Howard Greenberg Gallery, Brassai and Henry Miller’s Paris
(September 10 – October 24, 2015)
By ROBERT C. MORGAN, OCT. 2015
Before I knew about the photographer Brassai, many years ago I had the occasion to read Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller. It was a book about an American writer born and raised in Williamsburg, who went to Paris in 1930 in search of his true voice. It soon became apparent that this voice has little in common with other writers associated with the history of American literature. The decade of the 30s in Paris was nothing less than a bustling flagrant hub of avant-garde culture in Europe. The acute attraction and fascination of Paris for the burgeoning writer Henry Miller would eventually prove exemplary.
Miller did not come from a privileged class. He arrived in Paris with very little money, which quickly vanished. Even so, the young writer had a knack for borrowing what he needed from friends and colleagues and always to take advantage of a good meal and wine, whether or not he was invited. In Paris, Miller acquired a sordid, yet festive vision of life. When he needed a respite from the social overload in Montmartre, he moved with his friend Alfred Perles, to a sleazy apartment near the outskirts of Paris in an area called Clichy.
In Clichy, Miller continued to write, frolic, and lust after women, while never sure of how his next meal would appear. It was during this time he became close to the photographer Brassai (born 1899 as Gyula Halasz in Brasso, Transylvania) called ”the eye of Paris,” whose work Miller praised and wrote about at length. Years later, Brassai would write a biography on Miller, focusing on their years together during this extraordinary period.
Upon retuning to New York in 1940, Miller became wrote a modest book about his highly fictionalized adventures in Clichy, replete with tales of love and (mostly) lust. Later, while living in Big Sur (California), in 1956, he re-wrote the manuscript, titled Quite Days in Clichy, at the request of his Parisian publisher, Jack Kahane. The publisher also invited Brassai to include 27 photographs in the edition, mostly of nightlife in Paris, during the decade of the 30s. Miller believed Brassai understood his writing and that they implicitly shared a vision of art emanated from the streets of Paris.
Greenberg’s exhibition is the only extant set of black and white prints used to accompany Miller’s book. They are filled with the allure of Paris at night. We see people in cafes, walking the streets, standing in doorways, romantic scenes, portraits, facades, streetcars and prostitutes. We see the contrasts between hard industry and people relaxing in a variety of poses. Nothing is staged, and because nothing staged, the excitement of everyday life – no matter how incidental it may appear – is filled with enticement and intrigue.
Paris awakens to the eye of Brassai as a place where people come to find themselves and to know one another, and to discuss the heartbeat of art as a sensual act of desperation in search of feelings beyond the ordinary, yet within a city that beams its energy everything. This is the city where Miller became the writer he had always wanted to become. Paris was the place to come to terms of selfhood through lack of pretension.
These photographs are hypnotic in a way, They catch something about a place and a time that appears ineluctably real, purposefully in touch with the human mind and heart, carefully entwined with the source of intellect as it emerged and evolved from the streets to the typewriter, and back again to the camera, the photographic vision of Brassai at time when nothing and everything was at stake.
Indeed, these starkly crafted, intuitive images by the compassionately intelligent eye of Brassai were brazenly marked and cropped by the artist. He went to all lengths to get them right, each one in a sequence of the story of where art emerged in the modern era. They were meant to distill the moments when Paris truly became the City of Lights. WM
Robert C. Morgan is an educator, art historian, critic, poet, and artist. Knowledgeable in the history and aesthetics of both Western and Asian art, Morgan has lectured widely, written hundreds of critical essays (translated into twenty languages), published monographs and books, and curated numerous exhibitions. He has written reviews for Art in America, Arts, Art News, Art Press(Paris), Sculpture Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, and Hyperallergic. His catalog essays have been published by Gagosian, Pace, Sperone Westwater, Van Doren Waxter, White Cube (London), Kukje (Seoul), Malingue (Hong Kong), and Ink Studio (Beijing). Since 2010, he has been New York Editor for Asian Art News and World Sculpture News, both published in Hong Kong. He teaches in the Graduate Fine Arts Program at Pratt Institute as an Adjunct Professor and at the School of Visual Arts.
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