Many great photographers during the 20th century rose to the challenge of capturing Pablo Picasso on film—Henri Cartier-Bresson, David Douglas Duncan, Gjon Mili, and Irving Penn spring to mind. Yet only one understood Picasso through his sculptures, allowing viewers to do the same in the absence of the originals: the Hungarian-born Brassaï. He was 18 years Picasso’s junior—33 years old when they first met—but he quickly earned the trust and respect of the Spanish master for his unique ability to translate a vast range of sculptures into black-and-white gelatin silver prints. A generous selection of Brassaï’s photographs appears at the heart of the Picasso Sculpture exhibition now on view at MoMA, and still more are part of the Museum collection.
The task of translating three-dimensional objects into two-dimensional photographs is not an easy one, as visitors trying to photograph works from the current exhibition on their mobile phones might attest. Every angle renders another invisible: unless one resorts to collage or other visual manipulations, the photographer must choose a single point of view, and a specific height relative to the object. Photographers must contend with activity in the background as well as available lighting. These challenges are simplified in a studio setting, but they represent choices that all photographers of sculpture must make. Finally, and central to my concern here, are questions of scale: the majority of Brassaï’s photographs are a fraction of the size of the sculptures, but it is marvelously disorienting when the photographs make a tiny sculpture appear larger than life.
Brassaï was introduced to Picasso in December 1932 when he was commissioned to photograph the artist’s studios in Paris and at Boisgeloup for the new Surrealist periodical Minotaure. His success with this assignment is evidenced not only by the article published in Minotaure’s inaugural issue in June 1933, but by the fact that this was only the beginning of their friendship and professional relationship. Picasso would allow only Brassaï to photograph his work in preparation for the book Les Sculptures de Picasso (1949), having astutely noted the perils of an inexpertly handled camera. As Picasso told Brassaï in 1943, “[…] But here’s the reason I wanted to see you: a publisher has offered to publish an album of my sculptures. And he wanted to force a photographer on me. I would have nothing to do with that. I insisted it be you. And I’d be happy if you could accept this work. I like your photos of my sculptures. The ones taken of my new works [by another photographer] are not so great… Look at them. My Death’s Head has turned into a walnut.” (Conversations with Picasso, University of Chicago Press, 1999, p. 58–59)
Picasso’s admiration for Brassaï was rooted in the photographer’s ability to convey the monumentality and specificity of his sculptures in iron, plaster, wood, or bronze. This talent notwithstanding, Brassaï’s attentiveness to the smallest, most humble sculptures made of matchboxes, cardboard, torn paper, and pebbles, and his capacity to transmit a presence irrespective of their scale resonated with the artist’s nonhierarchical approach to the medium. There is one particularly exquisite disjunction of scale between the image printed on Brassaï’s signature high-gloss paper on view at the Museum; illustrating this post are two other favorites of mine from the collection, where the prints are much larger than the actual sculptures depicted.
I would like to extend my sincere thanks to Luise Mahler for her insight as well as her generous research contributions.