Bill Brandt, on the border between beauty and sinister | Madrid

An aura of mystery and beauty surrounds Bill Brandt’s photography (Hamburg, 1904-London, 1983) with its opaque shadows, its streets lit only by the moon, its nudes that turned distorted bodies into abstract sculptures … This added to his work in the dark room, without fuss when it came to retouching the negative until he achieved what he wanted. That taste for the nebulous led him into his own life. He was a German from a wealthy family who, when he arrived in England in the early 1930s, with Nazism in his country, proclaimed himself as English as the phlegmatic inhabitants of Victorian mansions, or the Ascot races, both of which he photographed. Actually, his name was Hermann Wilhelm Brandt.

PHOTO GALLERY: Images of the Bill Brandt exhibition

The photographer Bill Brandt, between experimentation and the document. By Joan Fontcuberta

The powerful mystery of Bill Brandt, master of the darkroom

His work, from the beginnings in surrealism, to the classic genres: landscapes, nudes, portraits … in a trajectory of five decades, can be seen in the 186 photographs of the exhibition dedicated to him by the Mapfre Foundation from June 3 to June 29. August. The copies, measuring 18 by 24 centimeters for the most part, were positively made by Brandt himself. “I consider it essential that the photographer make his copies and enlargements. The final effect of the image depends to a large extent on those operations, ”said Brandt, a twentieth-century classic who was trained in Man Ray’s studio in Paris, where he enjoyed the bohemian life in the late 1920s. He came to him after a portrait he made of Ezra Pound in 1928, which received numerous praise and which served as a passport to learn from Man Ray, explains Ramón Esparza, curator of the exhibition, which is framed in PhotoEspaña. The influence of the genius of surrealism marked him for his entire career.

In his early work there is already that taste for surprising images, such as the reflections of mannequins in shop windows. As a detail there are several of his time in Spain, such as that of a shepherd on the outskirts of Madrid, in 1933. Shortly after settling in England and burying his German origin, he began to photograph his family environment, the part british and rich from the Brandts, a constant in his career. For your first book, The English at Home (1936), he contrasted scenes from the life of the aristocratic class, such as the mansions of the exclusive Mayfair neighborhood, with the homes of the most humble; like that miner who sits at the table dyed with coal. The image is well known Maid and second maid ready to serve dinner, “Taken at his uncle’s mansion,” says Esparza.

With the world war, the British Home Office gave him two orders, one is about London refugees in the subway from the bombings; in the other, he runs through the city, bombarded, ghostly, among rubble, even laughing at death in a snapshot he took of a sleeping man sheltered in the empty sarcophagus of a church.

'Maid and second maid prepared to serve dinner', 1936.
‘Maid and second maid prepared to serve dinner’, 1936.ARCHIVO BILL BRANDT

In the exhibition, some of his street photographs prepared by Brandt himself draw attention, who, as he said in an interview with the BBC in 1983, which can be seen at the end of the tour, did not believe “in the decisive moment of Cartier-Bresson”. In one of those shots, a man stalks a woman against a wall; seems to be giving him some lewdness. Actually, they were his sister-in-law and his brother. “He saw places and situations that attracted him and he returned to that place with family or friends to create a scene,” adds Esparza.

The curator explains that after a period in which he worked for publications, especially illustrated weeklies, Brandt was able to afford the luxury of “being an artist, and he wanted to be recognized as such.” After the war, that world of capped maids, elegant salons and delicious evenings that he had enjoyed, and that he masterfully portrayed the famous series Up and down, vanished. In the BBC interview a very tall and thin man is seen, of distinguished bearing, speaking almost in whispers, elegant in his brown turtleneck sweater and a black jacket.

So he began his artistic foray into classical genres, but always in an original way and full of beauty. It is time for portraits – he did about 400 – of characters such as Graham Greene in his apartment, Pau Casals playing the cello, Peter Sellers leaning behind a newspaper he is holding in his hands, or the magisterial Francis Bacon, staring blankly. , between diagonals, under a gray sky and with a sloping lamppost that seems to threaten him. His subjects never appear in the center of the image, always in a corner, from the side… the exception was made with the photographer who, he confessed, he most admired, Brassaï.

'Francis Bacon, en Primrose Hill', 1963.
‘Francis Bacon, en Primrose Hill’, 1963.ARCHIVO BILL BRANDT

In that portrait game, he said that there was “to wait until something intermediate between the dream and the action occurs in the portrait of the portrayed person.” From there he derived one of his experiments, entitled The eye of … These are images of an eye by artists such as Braque, Tàpies, Giacometti … to be able to see what the gaze of those who portrayed the world with their art was like.

In his landscapes, Brandt noted a combination of elements that was “familiar and strange at the same time,” he noted. Moats, ruins, paths or Hadrian’s wall, in an aesthetic reminiscent of the ghostly castle of the Macbeth by Orson Welles.

However, what he was most proud of was the nudes, which can be seen in a book he published in 1961. When he passed away, The world He recalled that Brandt celebrated the end of World War II by doing his first nude in a room. What can be seen in the Mapfre exhibition are fragments of the bodies that, distorted and, sometimes, with a rocky nature in the background, gives them that disturbing and, at the same time, poetic air. On one of the walls there is a visual game in which photos of bodies and stones are grouped, which the viewer ends up confusing. In other cases, they are indoor nudes with exaggerated proportions, thanks to a wide-angle camera. Another of his successes, but one that he explained modestly: “Everything was done by the lens, which distorted the image. I didn’t do anything ”.

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