Wednesday, 16 November 2011

An old review of Bill Brandt (1)

from The Perfect Parlourmaid

It being late and the evening filled with marking I am ransacking old articles and have found this one from 1993. It appeared originally in Modern Painters, reviewing Bill Brandt: Photographs 1928-1983 at The Barbican and Bill Brandt: The Assemblages and Associated Vintage Prints at Reeds Wharf Gallery.

There was something angelic about the elderly Bill Brandt. I only remember him from a television programme many years ago, before he died. He looked thin, white and insubstantial, spoke gently and seemed both bewildered and wise. From his photographs of nudes, which were the only works of his I knew at the time, I had imagined someone darker and racier, a David Bailey or Helmut Newton type. It was one of his pictures of The Perfect Parlourmaid he was talking about, images of children, landscapes, air-raid shelters and pubs already having passed before us on the screen. Pratt was the Brandt’s own parlourmaid, a stern, slightly sinister Mrs Danvers sort of figure. But she was not a frightener primarily. The picture had pinned her precisely behind the set table beside her assistant, She was under control, not just as a menial who ruled over little but maintained her self-respect in the ways available to her, but as a psychic force, I thought the picture understood that instinctively. Brandt looking at it, blinked, and said: Anyone could have taken that picture. Anyone. Meaning: You too would have seen what I saw. But to see thus; to remember the precise awe of the awed child and at the same time imagine being the object of that awe is not so easy. Artists do these things for us. They find and redefine the language that makes it possible. If one pays any heed to the proposition that life passes like a dream, or that history is a nightmare from which one is trying to awake (Stephen Dedalus’s words) then such photographs, which arrive like frozen moments out of a pageant of suggestions, may serve to intensify, thicken and clarify that dream.

Brandt does in fact have a photographic essay on dream which is included in his major Barbican retrospective. In a series of pictures a woman rises from her bed, meets a bearded figure on the landing, passes him, or another, on the stairs, She floats out summoned by a dreamers’ moon. It is a poor piece of work. The ‘Lullaby of Broadway’ dream sequence from Busby Berkeley’s Gold Diggers of 1935 has far more power and punch and makes Brandt’s look rather pallid. Perhaps he is too close to home: talking about dream rather than experiencing it. What he did experience was far closer to reportage, and therefore, paradoxically, for him, more genuinely dreamlike: its complexities reflecting the complex and marginal career of an outsider.

Brandt was that poetic archetype, a sickly and, in some ways, protected child. He was born in Germany to a father who was a British subject and a German mother with interests in the arts. His travels began following his treatment for tuberculosis in 1920, contracted when he was sixteen From Hamburg, his birthplace, he moved to Switzerland and thence to Vienna in 1927 where he was psychoanalysed by. While in Vienna he met Loos, was encouraged into photography by friends and met Ezra Pound who arranged for him to spend some time with Man Ray in Paris. Three months of Parisian Surrealism in Ray’s studio combined with journeys to England, Spain and Hungary provided him with a body of work we know little about and is sparsely represented in the exhibition, though what there is demonstrates a blend of dreamlike humour and theatrical insecurity: a pair of headless mannequins of 1929 in Paris for which Crevel wrote a text, wax figures in a museum, funerary sculpture and gestures of gypsies, beggars in Spain. In Hungary a drunken postman balances himself against the immensity of the plain and a hog rolls in mud.

In 1931 the newly married Brandt and his Hungarian wife, Eva Rakos, settled in England, opting for obscurity in a country where he had no reputation and therefore little work. His career as a photo journalist - albeit never quite a conventional one - was to develop here. Slowly, the commissions arrived and he joined that mass of talented men sent out on assignments to photograph days in various lives, or places and events of interest to the general public. The magazines for which Brandt worked had their own agenda of course. They ranged from the populist Weekly Illustrated, through the documentary Picture Post and the respectably but slyly erotic Lilliput . The caption is always an important element in the reading of pictures and these inevitably tended to simplification: they set out to domesticate and familiarise whereas Brandt’s instinct was to alienate. This should be qualified. At this time Brandt alienates within a secondary context. One finds references to the films of Hitchcock and Cocteau, to other photographers such as Kertész and Brassai, to certain graphic artists and to visual stereotypes derived from childhood. Brandt’s language took time to evolve: it had to work through whatever imagery lay to hand. Ian Jeffrey, in his informed and imaginative catalogue essay, suggests that Stekel’s psychoanalytical method made a lasting impression on Brandt, in that it provided him with an “iconographic depository” that he could ransack. It is a moot question how far a sophisticated man who has spent some time under such analysis can avoid self-consciousness or a programmatic approach to imagery. Perhaps that is precisely why his documentary work was so valuable to him. If, as Jeffrey says, the “whole of Brandt’s career amounted to one long submission of dreams to an imaginary analyst”, and he was “a paraphiliac, in love with the symptoms of his own condition” (which is perfectly possible since his or her own condition is one of the few fixed points in any artist’s mind), it will have come as welcome relief to have been set a given task. It will also explain his progress across genres, and the rather lurching quality of his career.

(to be concluded)

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