bill brandt at the v&a

review for blueprint magazine

retrospective exhibition and biography by paul delaney

inter­viewed for a 1983 bbc arts doc­u­men­tary, when asked about one of his most clel­e­brat­ed images from the 1930s, bill brandt whis­pers, per­haps not entire­ly disin­gen­u­ous­ly, “… any­body could have tak­en this pic­ture. any­body.” here are two maid­ser­vants in lace uni­forms before a din­ner table. brandt had been impressed by the atten­tion to detail the maids had shown in their duties.  with such pre­oc­cu­pa­tions, he may well have approved of the metic­u­lous­ly dark set­ting for the major dis­play of his work which opened this spring at the v&a. the extra­or­di­nar­i­ly diverse range on dis­play, in “bill brandt: a cen­te­nary ret­ro­spec­tive”, (until 25th july 2004), has been curat­ed with a dili­gence and care approach­ing ven­er­a­tion.  the result is a com­pre­hen­sive selec­tion of key, and less­er known works, from every area and phase of his prac­tice in a career which spanned well over half a century.

the exhi­bi­tion also coin­cides, with the pub­li­ca­tion of a major new biog­ra­phy of the artist; “bill brandt, a life”, by paul delaney. tak­en as adjunct to this exhi­bi­tion, they por­tray a com­plex, gen­tle, yet secre­tive and deeply dis­turbed man. this psy­chol­o­gy, cou­pled with expo­sure to the artis­tic cur­rents of his time, pro­vid­ed an under­pin­ning for a body of work which left us a dark­ly pow­er­ful com­men­tary on his adopt­ed coun­try through times of great turbulence.

the exhi­bi­tion broad­ly fol­lows a chrono­log­i­cal tra­jec­to­ry in eight sep­a­rate sec­tions. these cov­er his devel­op­men­tal years, after appren­tice­ship in a vien­nese por­trait salon, as assis­tant to the stu­dio of man ray in paris.  there is the work he did for his two major books from the ‘thir­ties and ‘for­ties; ‘the eng­lish at home’, and ‘a night in lon­don’, as well as his work as a pho­to­jour­nal­ist, for ‘pic­ture post’ and ‘lil­liput’.  his land­scapes for ‘lit­er­ary britain’ are also here, as are his cel­e­brat­ed por­traits, and a sec­tion devot­ed to the nudes, which he began pho­tograph­ing in the late ‘40s, pub­lished in the mono­graph; ‘per­spec­tive of nudes’, in 1961.

the sweep­ing range of the work is imme­di­ate­ly appar­ent. yet with the diver­si­ty; from social doc­u­ment to sin­is­ter or com­ic celebri­ty por­trait, from dark north­ern streets to the uncom­fort­able inti­ma­cy and ambiva­lent eroti­cism of his nudes,  there is a force­ful coher­ence.  this has very often been ascribed to for­mal ele­ments in the pho­tographs.  there are the dark and grainy land­scapes; of york­shire moors, of ave­bury, or the driech high­lands of scot­land, where detail is sub­sumed into omi­nous abstract shapes. sim­i­lar abstrac­tion is in his lat­er nudes; naked flesh appears as only one sur­face among oth­er, inor­gan­ic tex­tures. far from the rich­ly gra­dat­ed grays of gallery fine prints favoured by famous con­tem­po­raries, many of brandt’s pic­tures have a reduced tonal scale where dark­er areas are  reduced to blocks of black, white areas washed out alto­geth­er.  more than many oth­er pho­tog­ra­phers, brandt’s work has this styl­is­tic stamp, much imi­tat­ed and vul­garised by sub­se­quent gen­er­a­tions of pho­tog­ra­phy stu­dents. some of this was for tech­ni­cal rea­sons. in brandt’s time pho­tog­ra­phers were, rarely regard­ed as artists, and the gallery was sel­dom the ulti­mate des­ti­na­tion for their work.  the major­i­ty of these prints were pro­duced for pho­to­me­chan­i­cal repro­duc­tion in mag­a­zines or news­pa­pers.  such process­es have a tech­ni­cal require­ment for dark, low con­trast prints.

but a more pro­found dark­ness in his work is unde­ni­able, there is a trou­bled and trou­bling qual­i­ty which may have its gen­e­sis, part­ly in psy­chol­o­gy, part­ly in the for­ma­tive influ­ences he was exposed to in the 1920s. brandt had suf­fered tuber­cu­lo­sis as a young man, was treat­ed in a sana­to­ri­um, and under­went psy­cho­analy­sis.  delaney’s biog­ra­phy attests to para­noid ten­den­cies and sex­u­al anx­i­eties which assailed brandt through­out his life. in paris and sur­re­al­ism, there was encour­age­ment to explore his com­plex psy­chol­o­gy through visu­al imagery.  he became an admir­er of the pho­tog­ra­phy of eugene atget, beloved of sur­re­al­ists as pro­to­typ­i­cal of their own con­cerns. he worked with man ray, formed a close friend­ship with hen­ri bras­sai.  he also met picas­so and braque. brassai’s work had the most imme­di­ate influ­ence, inspir­ing brandt to pro­duce the melo­dra­mat­ic and men­ac­ing “a night in lon­don” series.  lat­er, dur­ing the black­out, brandt made a fur­ther series of night pho­tographs, where the city, lit only by moon­light, takes on an oth­­er-world­­ly char­ac­ter, rem­i­nis­cent of de chiri­co paintings.

brandt’s pho­tographs made a huge con­tri­bu­tion to the dis­course of ‘eng­lish­ness’ dur­ing the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry.  giv­en the times, and his own sta­tus as an out­sider, and a ger­man at that, this is in itself an achieve­ment. his eng­land before the war shows a soci­ety deeply marked by rigid demar­ca­tions of class and wealth.  yet some of the indi­vid­ual pho­tographs from this peri­od, take on a myth­ic pow­er, tran­scend­ing the staight­for­ward ambi­tions of social doc­u­ment.  the for­lorn fig­ure of a soli­tary coal pick­er weari­ly mak­ing his way home from his day’s for­ag­ing, appeals to a uni­ver­sal view of human resolve in the face of over­whelm­ing despair.  this is one of the great exhi­bi­tions of the year.

ken edwards 2004

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