Stalking the moment
Bill Brandt: A Centenary Retrospective V&A, until 25 July
photography is doing well at the I moment: 2004 is not only the centenary of Cecil Beaton. billed as 'the most significant British-born photographer of the 20th century' and currently celebrated at the National Portrait Gallery, but also of Bill Brandt (1904-83), officially recognised as 'the foremost British photographer of his time'. Wherein lies the difference in these accolades? The hint is in 'British-born'. Although Brandt wanted above all else to be accepted as English, even going to the extent of claiming he was born in south London and was really of Russian descent, he was in fact German, and had spent his early years in Hamburg and Vienna. But he should not have worried, for his very foreignness equipped him with the insight into Englishness which so tellingly informs his remarkable photographs.
At the V&A, in a spaciously laid-out exhibition, is a selection of more than 150 Brandt photographs, mostly vintage gelatin-silver prints from the Bill Brandt Archive. The earliest image is a portrait of Ezra Pound taken in Vienna in 1928, when Brandt was undergoing psychoanalysis at the hands of Wilhelm Stekel. Although the treatment turned out to be something of a fiasco, and Brandt walked out, it did seem to cure him of the TB from which he had been suffering for many years. (In 1924 he had stayed in a tubercular sanatorium at Davos. the sort of place immortalised by Thomas Mann. The patterns of the snowfields and the forests in the clear air evidently left a strong visual imprint. Paul Delany, in his excellent new biography of Brandt, published by Cape at £35, writes: `The printing style that Brandt preferred in his later years, where saturated blacks and clear whites drown out intermediate detail, was a throwback to the play of light in Davos.') Brandt's high bourgeois German upbringing had nurtured a delicate, sensitive and artistic young man, whose first ambition was to be a painter, then an architect. (His mature photographs are very painterly in their effects, and he
became an inspired photographer of architecture.) He worked for a time as a commercial photographer before leaving for Paris in 1930, where he was briefly an apprentice to Man Ray. Brandt remained on-and-off in Paris for four years, absorbing Surrealism (Bunuel's L'Age d'Or was a crucial influence) and studying the work of other photographers, in particular Brassai. He was drawn to the spectacle of the streets, and already began to play upon the strangeness and enigma he could conjure from the most ordinary encounters. Sojourning in Barcelona, he photographed a street photographer's painted background, headless bodies bereft of clients, and a supplicant beggar appealing to the heavens.
Although he had already visited England, it was not until 1934 that Brandt settled in London, and took up residence in the country that was to become his true artistic home. Despite earlier elocution lessons, he continued to speak English with a German accent, which is why he always whispered. Tom Hopkinson, his editor on the illustrated magazines Lilliput and Picture Post, which provided much of his bread-and-butter work, described Brandt as having 'a voice as loud as a moth and the gentlest manner to be found outside a nunnery'. Gentle he may have been, but he was relentless when it came to pursuing the image that he wanted, and his patience was unbounded. He would spend hours or even days setting up a street scene in precisely the way he wanted it, or waiting for a light effect, and when he photographed landscape he was even more resolute. He stalked the moment he had in mind — simply waiting for the elements to furnish him with the exact requirements of his mental image. Thus he waited years for Stonehenge to be under snow, and then depicted the subject in a completely original and unforgettable way.
There is an irony here, for Brandt gained something of a reputation as a documentary photographer, and yet he was constantly staging his shots, not snapping events as they happened. This is truly subversive, much more so than the supposed political impulse behind Brandt's juxtaposition of the rich and the poor in his book The English at Home. Actually, Brandt had an entrée to the homes of the well-to-do through family connections, and was equally able to photograph the endlessly poignant 'In a Surrey Garden, Cocktails Before Dinner', and 'Parlourmaid and Under-Parlourmaid Ready to Serve Dinner' as card players in the Old Kent Road, whose naturalness of mien must have taken a great deal of the celebrated Brandt charm and patience to achieve. It seems likely that for Brandt the social contrast between these subjects was visually rather than politically exciting.
The whole story of Brandt's life, its mystery and sense of personal mythology, is riveting — as is the work into which it
directly feeds. At the V&A we are shown various themes in some detail: from the apprentice years, to the making of the book A Night in London (featuring the infamous Charlie Brown's pub in Lirnehouse, among other savoury and unsavoury venues), then moving north to record the poverty of the industrial heartlands in the wake of the Jarrow March. Two images of Halifax are especially gripping: a shot of the stark, almost grand beauty of railway lines and chimneys, done in 1937, and the later `Snicket in Halifax', its gleaming black cobbles rising up like a wall against hope.
Then, with the onset of war, Brandt moves from the general to the particular, from types to individuals, and begins taking portraits — both of people and of the landscape. There are so many potent images in this exhibition, to pick out one or two is unfair. Yet the thin unerring line of the Pilgrim's Way in Kent lingers in the mind, as do the wide curves of Cuckmere River, and the wonderfully composed nudes on the East Sussex coast. Of the superb portraits, Robert Graves, Francis Bacon and Graham Greene stand out. And Arp's eye, embedded like an elephant's in folds and creases of skin. Photography at its best.
Also at the V&A, in its permanent Photography gallery. is a display called Other Sides of Bill Brandt, which comprises a recent acquisition of the museum — two fascinating albums of photographs by and of Brandt, assembled by his first wife Eva Boros, and recording the years 1928-39, spent in Vienna, Paris, Spain and England. Two other exhibitions are also of relevance. At the commercial gallery, England & Co, 216 Westboume Grove, W11, a retrospective of Bill Brandt's younger brother Rolf (1906-86) has just come to an end, An artist and illustrator (an album of his collages and drawings is featured in Other Sides of Bill Brandt), Rolf was first an actor, and was often a key player in his brother's carefully staged compositions. His own work traversed the spectrum from Surrealism to Abstraction, ending up with constructions dealing with colour theory and optical effects. As England & Co handle Rolf Brandt's estate, his distinctive and original work can be viewed there by appointment.
The other exhibition is devoted to Bill Brandt's portraits and is at the National Portrait Gallery until 30 August. The NPG owns more than 100 of them, and has selected 40 of the best, including striking images of T.S. Eliot, John Piper and Glenda Jackson. While it is always good to see more of Brandt's portraits — and indeed it was in an exhibition at the NPG in 1982 that I first got to know these richly contrasting and unusually memorable images — I can't help feeling that the NPG is stealing some of the V&A's thunder by mounting this display. Surely Cecil Beaton is enough for anyone?