At a time when the Centre Pompidou is showing the photographer’s well-known Graffiti, we retrace the career of Brassaï and his popularity on the art market, peaking in 2006.
Paris by night. Who, better than Brassaï, has managed to capture the magic of the French capital after dark? Gyula Halász was born on 9 September 1899 in Brașov (Austria-Hungary), of a Hungarian father and an Armenian mother. Young Gyula moved to Paris at a tender age with his parents – in 1903 when his father was hired to teach literature at the Sorbonne. Later, Gyula Halász headed to Budapest where he studied at the School of Fine Arts, then signed up with the Austrian-Hungarian cavalry during World War I. He then set down his suitcases in Berlin, in 1921, to continue his art studies – at the Academy of Fine Arts of Berlin-Charlottenburg – while earning a crust as a journalist. Here he met Kandinsky, then coined his pseudonym in 1923, inspired by his birthplace. Indeed, Brassaï means “from Brașov”.
In 1924, he returned to Paris and settled in the district of Montparnasse, still largely frequented by artists and poets. Legend has it that he learned French by reading Proust and memorising ten words per day. Here, he met Henry Miller – who later called him “the eye of Paris” –, Léon-Paul Fargue, the famous Kiki of Montparnasse and Jacques Prévert. In 1946, the latter would illustrate his Paroles d’une photographie in the Graffiti series. At the same time, Brassaï continued his career as a journalist by writing for Hungarian and German newspapers. It was only in 1930 that he started photography, introduced to it by André Kertész, initially to document his articles. Very quickly, Brassaï developed a passion for the art that was gaining in strength at the time. “From the moment that I realised that the camera was capable of immortalising all the beauties of nocturnal Paris which I fell passionately in love with during the wanderings of my Bohemian life, taking photos was no longer a mere pleasure for me.” Indeed, he wound through the capital’s streets relentlessly, meeting louts, accordionists, painters, prostitutes and other night creatures. Street violence and poetry crop up in his images in which he captures the essence of Paris between the wars. In 1931, he published hi first book, Paris la nuit.
From 1930 to 1963, Brassaï worked as a freelance photographer for Verve, Paris Magazine, Picture Post, Réalités, Coronet, Détective, Paris-Soir and Harper’s Bazaar. He shot people, but not exclusively, and his Graffiti series would make a significant impact on surrealism – as of 1932, he contributed to the journal Le Minotaure –, namely by developing an aesthetic of the trace, the imprint. In the photographer’s opinion: “Art is spawned by man’s obsession and desire to leave an indelible trace of his ephemeral passage on this Earth.”
While Brassaï’s photos of Paris are his best-known ones, they are not his only ones, as he also took many portraits, immortalising the great figures of his era: Salvador Dalí, Pablo Picasso – a dear friend –, Henri Matisse, Alberto Giacometti, Jean Genet, Henri Michaux, etc. He was also interested in fashion photography, namely carrying projects with Christian Dior.
During World War II and the Occupation, as night curfews made it more difficult for him to take his nocturnal photos, he moved to the South of France for a time. In 1943, he began photographing Picasso’s sculptures, prompting him to pick up drawing and sculpture again. While mainly recognised for his photography, Brassaï was a creator who dabbled with a little bit of everything. He made a feature film, Tant qu’il y aura des bêtes, in 1956, which Cannes crowned with an award. He also wrote 17 works including Marcel Proust sous l’emprise de la photographie, as well as the well-known Conversations avec Picasso.
Brassaï gained renown both in France and overseas. He received the gold medal at the Venice Photography Biennale in 1957. In 1976, he became a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur, and was recipient of the inaugural Grand Prix National de la Photographie two years later. As of the 1950s, Brassaï started travelling widely. He is especially well-known in the United States which he visited in 1957. Towards the end of his life, the artist became particularly interested in writing. He died on Saturday 7 July 1984 in Beaulieu-sur-Mer. He is buried at Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris.
Until 30 January 2017, the Centre Pompidou (Paris) is welcoming “Brassaï Graffiti” in its Galerie de Photographies (Photograph Gallery). The institution thus pays homage to this iconic series by Brassaï, who declared: “With the language of the wall, not only do we come across an important social phenomenon that has never yet been studied, but also one of the strongest and most authentic expressions of art.”
The Parisian institution holds a large collection of the artist’s photographs following a series of acquisitions carried out in the 1990s, especially thanks to a major donation by Gilberte Brassaï who, in 2002, handed over to the Centre Pompidou some 200 prints, 5,000 contact sheets and 35,000 negatives.
According to Karolina Ziebinska-Lewandowska, curator of the exhibition: “Through his Graffiti, Brassaï clung to the evolution of 20th century art and, essentially, the changing relationship between photography and the visual arts.”
While recognition of Brassaï’s contribution to art history does not date from yesterday, it did not reach the institutional sphere until the start of the 2000s. Between 1968 and 2000, his works appeared in an average of two exhibitions per year. Ever since, they have featured in fourteen exhibitions every year. But Brassaï is still shown rarely in monographic exhibitions which represent only 15 % of his appearances.
It was thanks to a few big events at the end of the 1990s and at the start of the 2000s – fifteen years after his death – that the photographer gained new notoriety. First, a retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston in 1998 (“Brassaï – The Eye of Paris”) which travelled to the Getty Center (Los Angeles) in 1999, then the National Gallery of Art (Washington). Next, a vast travelling exhibition, followed by a retrospective at the Ludwig Museum (Budapest) in 2000, before the exhibition “Brassaï – No Ordinary Eyes” at the Hayward Gallery (London), also in 2000.
During his lifetime, Brassaï was obviously no unknown. The first major French solo exhibition dedicated to his work took place in 1963, at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Five years later, John Szarkowski in turn organised a monographic exhibition, this time at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. And in 1974, Brassaï was guest of honour at the Rencontres Internationales de la Photographie in Arles.
The United States, France and Germany make up nearly two-thirds of Brassaï’s exhibitions. This spread is reflected in the photographer’s media coverage, with the three countries responsible for over half of the articles about him – France alone represents 35 % of Brassaï’s media mentions. The three writers who have written the most on him are Michel Guerrin (Le Monde), Valérie Duponchelle (Le Figaro) and Magali Jauffret (L’Humanité).
The number of articles on Brassaï continues to grow: an average of 17 per year between 1949 and 2000, 275 between 2001 and 2010, and over 450 ever since. The press titles to have written the most about him are Le Monde, The New York Times, Le Figaro and El Pais.
In auctions, the market for Brassaï’s work has been relatively stable since 1989, if we exclude a peak in 2006 related to a sale in Paris. The photographer rakes in around $220,000 per year – with an increase between 2012 and 2015 when he reached an average of $450,000 – for around fifty lots placed on auction. This rise was triggered by a few striking sales, namely that of Le Pont du Carrousel (1932) at Phillips (New York) in April 2012 for $70,000, going over its high estimate of $50,000. At the same sale, Couple at the Bal de Quatre Saisons, Rue de Lappe (1932) also sold for $38,000. In December 2014, Sotheby’s sold, in New York, Chez Suzy (1932) for $40,000.
And special mention can be made of the famous sale organised by auction house Millon in 2006: over 700 lots, in other words the largest set of Brassaï’s works to ever go on auction, were placed on sale on 2 and 3 October at Drouot-Montaigne. The collection, once belonging to the photographer’s widow, Gilberte Brassaï, who died in 2005, comprised 550 photographs, vintage prints or exhibition prints, produced by the photographer himself. Estimates varied from several hundred to €15,000.
Of the 764 lots, 639 lots sold – making up an unsold rate of 14 %. The sale was immensely successful, yielding over €5 million. The world record for a Brassaï was set at €85,000 by Pavés, a vintage print, while the record for a work by the artist comes to €170,000 for the collage-on-cardboard Graffiti I. Still today, these two auction results for Brassaï works have not been bettered. The artist’s iconic images were also in demand as 88 shots showing his roamings through Paris gathered €864,500 while his shots of Picasso totalled €131,600. Môme Bijou (c. 1930-1932), a period print, brought in €41,000, crushing a high estimate of €8,000. Today, out of Brassaï’s top fifteen auction results, thirteen still date from this historic sale. Thanks to the sale, Millon has sold 30 % of Brassaï’s works in terms of volume and 45 % in terms of value. France represents 60 % of the artist’s market. The United States also holds a privileged rank for Brassaï, with Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Swann behind a few fine sales.
Since 1989, over 2,700 works by Brassaï have been placed on auction. 2,000 of them have found new owners – which brings us an unsold rate of 27 %. In all, his works have notched up $12 million, in other words an average price per lot sold of $6,000. Obviously, Brassaï’s photographs are his works that sell the most – almost nine out of ten lots, and 94 % of the artist’s business volume at auctions. His photographs from the start of the 1930s are particularly sought after. Out his fifteen best auction sales, eleven crown shots taken between 1931 and 1935, with these four years representing one-half of the photographer’s turnover and his lots placed on auction – $6 million and over 1,000 lots placed on sale.
It can be said that Brassaï’s market reflects the photography market. His works are relatively affordable but vary greatly depending on the prints and the periods from which they come. Brassaï is thus associated with a stable market, not counting the exceptional sale by Millon in 2006.