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