Bill Brandt, strangeness and magnetism

E

he magnetism of Bill Brandt’s snapshots should be able to be referred to and described, insofar as it is experienced in a resounding, almost physical way, from the viewer’s position. They are beautiful images, which attract attention for their flawless composition, but at the same time tend to include some puzzling element. One is faced with the unsuccessful attempt to represent in words what his photographs show. Well, they not only reproduce a portion of visible reality. In its material and figurative capture they manage to transfer the mystery of the invisible, which has always accompanied, as if emanating from the enigma that is clearly formulated without betraying it.

Born in Hamburg in 1904, Bill Brandt took a serious interest in photography during his stay at the Davos spa at the age of twenty, while he was recovering from tuberculosis. It seems eloquent to place the awakening of photographic sensitivity in a moment of illness and subsequent convalescence, a moment in which the body – practically healthy, but still resentful – captures nuances of reality with extraordinary precision.

East End young man dancing, March 1939. © Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive

The story that Edgar A. Poe titled The man in the crowd It precisely illustrates the perceptual acuity of a convalescent, who is permeated by the changing movement of reality, made up of individuals and groups. Regarding that episode, crucial in the life of Bill Brandt, Paul Delany has written that the “clear air and the brilliant alpine light” would have a great impact on his work, as well as – thinking on the dark side – also the omnipresence of the x-rays, “inverted photographs” that the patients dragged at all hours, taken by a special camera. An “instrument of destiny, with the ability to predict the future”, which coincides with what Brandt affirmed regarding any good portrait.

‘Tarde and Kew Gardens’. © Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive

Brandt’s subsequent travels through Europe led him to coincide in Paris with Man Ray, who would be his first wife was portrayed by the Hungarian André Kertész, and even arrived in the city of Barcelona, ​​whose street scene portrayed. One of those photographs, in fact, is exhibited in the present show. It would be London, however, his usual place of residence, where he would spend a good part of his life. Embarrassed by the rise of the nationalist movement, specialists have explained that Brandt tried to erase all ties to his home country.

Especially striking, in this sense, are his images during the thirties and forties. Years in which he reflected the whole of reality, both on a social level – showing the customs of the wealthy classes in contrast to the bad life of the workers – as well as, although to a lesser extent, on a landscape level. In addition to delving into the nature of human psychology, Brandt reveals the contrast between rigid and unquestionable geometric forms and the existence of other forms of life, which flourish semi-randomly.

His images oscillate between a falsely free of artifice realism and the phantasmagorical representation of reality, suggesting narratives to which the viewer is hardly alien.

The richness of shades and textures of black and white in the photographs compiled in the Fundación Mapfre exhibition, curated by Ramón Esparza, allows articulating the subplots that make up the broad spectrum of that reality. The evocative power of the shadow, the sinister aspect or creepy (literally, “inhospitable”) that the curator collects in one of his explanations, citing Freud and – closer to us – the Barcelona thinker Eugenio Trías, understood as the limit of beauty.

La obra ‘Hail Hell and Halifax’, 1948. © Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive
Portrait of Pau Casals. © Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive

Brandt’s images oscillate between a falsely artifice-free realism and the phantasmagorical representation of reality (shadows, mists or deformed limbs), suggesting narratives to which the viewer is hardly alien. The highest and lowest of the human condition shines through in the troubled times that send Londoners to sleep on the subway to protect themselves from the Luftwaffe bombings, which portrays blocks of buildings illuminated by the light of night, and experiences parks populated with strangely beautiful creatures that alternate with rather suspicious silhouettes.

Portrait of Pablo Picaso. © Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive

It is not only the ability to whisper stories to the viewer, which confirms the significance of Bill Brandt. From a strictly formal perspective, his work ventures into experimentation, in dialogue with surrealism but free from programmatic guidelines. Artists familiar to us such as Pablo Picasso, Pau Casals or Joan Miró were portrayed by him, as well as Francis Bacon, Robert Graves or René Magritte, represented in images that offer glimpses of their inner worlds. Undoubtedly, the gaze of the artist better captures the gaze of another artist. And perhaps the latter only allows himself to be portrayed knowing that he is capable of capturing the exceptionality of his gaze, keeping intact —like an Oedipal enigma— the origin of creativity.

The nude was one of the themes Brandt explored. © Bill Brandt / Bill Brandt Archive

Bill Brandt also plows the mystery of sensuality abounding in curved lines, even if it eventually resorts to the rigor of angularity. It thus seems to reveal the harshness of less ductile and pleasant experiences, such as the unworthy submission of men and women, or the consequences of war. And yet, in the embers of that yesterday’s worldBetween the death throes of a seriously wounded modernity, Brandt finds the space for beauty to bear fruit by incorporating the somber reverse. A critical counter-image that accompanies it, such as an x-ray plate, and certifies its authenticity.

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