Thursday, 17 November 2011

An Old Review of Bill Brandt (2)

Continued from yesterday. Strange to think this was written eighteen years ago. It seems no time at all, and Brandt still seems like that to me.

Knowing what we now know of Brandt’s development, it is amusing to consider that his first book of photographs, The English at Home, had been turned down by one publisher in 1936 for not being ‘erotic’ enough. Eros and Thanatos are patently his tutelary gods, or so they appear to us looking back at his work from this, the wrong end of the lens. Things loom and stretch or lurk in shadows, form dark masses against light, part reveal and part hide secrets. There are many pictures of people looking, fewer of what they see. The English at Home shows social masses: the upper classes as a block of hard hats and frock coats, the lower as softer, more battered shapes. Often their backs are to us: we are creeping up on them. We creep up on the lovers in ‘Top Floor’ in 1938, or appear to. We know it is stagy, that it has been set up as a version of film noir, that Brandt often did set his subjects up, nevertheless there is discovery or at least a process of exploration. We forgive Brandt his contrivances because we know that we are being enticed into a world of fiction rather than of hard facts and that the first question we instinctively ask before his pictures is not What Really Happened but What Is Really Happening, meaning by that, what is really happening to us.

Brandt is unapologetically stagy and inward. From the empty Bermondsey street of 1938, through portraits and fashion photos, through all the lives of barmaids, miners, nippies and parlourmaids it is obvious that the events they enact are scenes from the internal dramas of an isolated psyche. Eventually, the creatures that had been the animating force in his journalism, take over entirely and desire realises itself. It does so most dramatically in the nudes.

One might complain that these, indeed all his pictures, are intrusions into real lives. After all, aren’t even these distorted nudes in the haunted rooms of the forties people after all, with their own jealously guarded inwardness? Such complaints wouldn’t be fair or even sensible. It is not as if Brandt were pretending to be objective. Think of the earlier work. A maid dips her hand into a bath; a wild couple devour each other in a shaggy bar; pretty girls lie around in a wartime holiday camp as if they were dead; naked soldiers enter ridiculous open-air contraptions for showering, boffins buzz away inside the illuminated hives of their offices, children strut on the verge of adulthood or lean like elementals out between lace curtains. Families play at death in bomb shelters, bend themselves into extraordinary shapes ; hills turn to bodies, bodies into rock; paths and hedges wind like luminous vertebrae into the dark soft sky. Images are constantly juxtaposed: like the girl carding wool in Giotto’s ‘Annunciation to Anna’, a woman weaving in one picture seems to drag closer the dark storm clouds of the neighbouring photograph with every turn of the wheel. The soldier hitching in the car’s headlight turns into a terrified rabbit in the next. Everything is electric and intangible. Naked objects of desire stretch out enormous demanding palms towards us, as commanding as Pratt the parlourmaid in her own element. Women are dominant figures; in one aspect delicate and hungry, in another vast as primal landscapes. They are secret principles more than individuals and it is useless to ask about the inwardness of principles, especially when everything else is principle.

Towards the end of his life Brandt turned his attention to assemblages. His friends were rather puzzled by these. He employed feathers, skeletons, shells, string, fragments of wings and arranged them into ambiguous patterns whose compositions remind us of Miro and Ernst. Some of these are on show at the Barbican, but most of the collection, purchased from Noya Brandt, the artist’s widow, can be seen at the Reed’s Wharf Gallery near Tower Bridge. The resultant objects are joky, threatening, fetishistic, obviously pregnant with meaning. Coming at the end of Brandt’s career they can only serve as a coda, but it would be a great mistake to imagine them as mere dabbling. To Brandt they were numinous, unknown, unknowable magical objects exciting memories and desires. Compositionally they are not unrelated to either the Hampstead nudes of the forties or the body-as-landscape nudes of the fifties. They stand a little melancholy in the cold Thames light, as I suspect Brandt might have done. Brandt’s attitude to the Other is tender, tangential and passionately evanescent. The impression of an angel is not absolutely misleading. He is certainly one of the great photographers, perhaps the most poetic and subjective of the lot. Both exhibitions should be seen. The world is richer, more melancholy and magical for them.

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