Woody Allen's movie Midnight in Paris is a jolly, slightly melancholy fantasy about the time between World Wars I and II that the protagonist, played by Owen Wilson, considers the city's golden age when Paris brimmed with artists and writers from around the world.
An exhibition at the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts explores that same period from a very different perspective, without the nostalgia that Midnight, in the end, acknowledges is just a yearning for a false past.
"The Secret Paris of the 1930s: Vintage Photographs by Brassaï" is heavier on the melancholy than the jolly, but it's a truer homage to the City of Light. Thirty-four photographs, many from Brassaï's famous 1933 book, Paris by Night, document a fringe world beneath the glittering surface.
Brassaï (1899-1984) was the pseudonym of Hungarian artist Gyula Halász that meant "from Brassó," where he was born. He worked in Hungary and Berlin, then moved in 1924 to Paris, where he lived for the rest of his life. He was a friend of many fellow artists and writers, including Pablo Picasso, and supplemented his income as a painter and sculptor with articles for periodicals.
He began taking photographs because he earned more if a story had pictures to go with it, though he didn't at first believe photography had artistic merit. But he discovered that the Paris he loved best, at night and often soaked with rain or shrouded in fog, was most eloquently captured by that medium. He wanted to document the night dwellers who populated the streets, cafes and brothels as well as fancy hotels and the Paris Opera. He had high-society friends who gave him access to the glamorous social life of the city, but even those images are moody, conveying the sense that the party's over for the tailcoated men and ball-gowned women.
Most of the photographs show us the people who hang out in bars or work the streets and brothels. Lovers kiss or quarrel, hookers in various stages of undress meet with clients, people looking for something or nothing hang out together. In other hands, the subject matter could be depressing, maudlin or judgmental. Brassaï doesn't make the mistake of giving them either dignity or pathos. He uses them as they appear in his view finder.
One stunning example is a trio of photographs taken from a window depicting a man on a sidewalk, either dead or unconscious, and the crowd that forms and dissipates after he is removed. We will be tempted to see an ironic, dramatic statement in the narrative, but we will be mistaken. Brassaï purposefully remains physically distant, not getting close enough to tease out the condition of the man or the reactions of the bystanders. He doesn't seem interested in imposing interpretation or judgment on the scene.
He is, however, interpretive in his composition. He frames his photographs as if they are grisaille, or monochromatic, paintings. He loved diagonal lines and used them to contrast with the rigid right-angle format of the photographic print. When you start looking for them, they're everywhere in his work. He also used art-history references. In one print, two young women at a bar gaze into the camera's eye while behind them, a bartender is reflected in a mirror. It's a riff on Edouard Manet's famous Bar at the Folies-Bergère.
The exhibition is handsomely mounted at the museum. I admit to having doubts about the gallery setup in its new location in the Cube building on Ashley Drive. They're located around the perimeter of the building, open to the five-story atrium and floods of light, never a good idea for art, but they have a spaciousness I didn't anticipate and handsome off-white shades that filter the light. Through them, the large glass rondelle that dominates one wall of the building looks like an Impressionist painting.
The Brassaï photographs occupy the second floor, but don't miss third-floor galleries that showcase the museum's permanent collection. On view now are more than 50 photographs.
I hope the staff has figured out a way to affix identifying labels to the stone walls that seem to repel conventional adhesives. They were working on it during my visit, and I missed seeing titles.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8293.