The Urchin Bijou, Bar de la Lune 1932 is a medium-size black and white photograph taken by the Hungarian photographer Brassaï that depicts an older woman sitting alone in a bar. She wears a hat bearing a flower, a coat with a fur collar and a patterned skirt, and although the woman’s clothes have the initial appearance of glamour, closer inspection shows they are somewhat tattered. Her face is very pale, accented only by shadows under her eyes and dark painted lips, and she wears multiple strings of pearls around her neck, on her wrists and twisted around her fingers. The woman sits on a padded bench that runs behind two tables made from dark wood, and her left hand rests on an object resembling silver snuff box or cigarette case that lies on one of the tables. On the other table, in the left of the composition, is a small wine glass and a stack of two white plates or ashtrays. The woman’s right arm is bent so that her hand supports her chin and she looks directly towards the camera.
Brassaï photographed The Urchin Bijou, Bar de la Lune in Paris in 1932. During 1931 and 1932 he frequently walked around the city at night carrying his camera, tripod, magnesium flash powder and a box containing twenty-four glass plate negatives (the most he could carry) in order to photograph Parisian nightlife. As the title suggests, this photograph was taken during Brassaï’s visit to the Montmartre nightclub Bar de la Lune and depicts a well-known Parisian resident referred to locally as La Môme Bijou (‘the urchin Bijou’) or Miss Diamonds, due to her heavily jewelled appearance and tattered and faded yet glamorous clothing. After asking permission to photograph her, Brassaï set up his camera and tripod and waited until La Môme Bijou assumed a pose and expression that he wished to capture, taking a total of three images of her in close succession, of which this photograph is the second. Brassaï then developed the glass negatives in the kitchen of his Parisian apartment, which he used as his darkroom at the time, although he did not print this particular image onto photographic paper until the 1960s. (See Brassaï 1976, pp.79–83; Anne Wilkes Tucker, ‘Notes on Brassaï’s Photographic Technique’, in Wilkes Tucker, Brassaï: The Eye of Paris, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston 1997, pp.157–8.)
Brassaï was fascinated by La Môme Bijou, writing in his 1976 book The Secret Paris of the 30s that he was ‘struck by this fantastic apparition that had sprung up out of the night … I had discovered what had to be the queen of Montmartre’s nocturnal fauna’ (Brassaï 1976, pp.79–80). When Brassai was in the Bar de la Lune that night in 1932, a bartender informed him that this individual was ‘La Môme Bijou. Once she was rich and famous, led the good life. When people still had carriages, she rode in the Bois de Boulogne in her barouche … Now she lives on charity’ (Brassaï 1976, p.81). Brassaï described her further as follows:
Behind her glittering eyes, still seductive, lit with the lights of the Belle Époque, as if they had escaped the onslaughts of age, the ghost of a pretty girl seemed to smile out. Had Miss Diamonds really been a demi-mondaine … or had she walked the streets from the Moulin Rouge to the Place Pigalle?
(Brassaï 1976, p.81.)
This description suggests that Brassaï may have conceived of the photograph as a nostalgic portrait of the Paris of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, commonly referred to as La Belle Époque (‘the beautiful era’), and as a reflection on the lost grandeur of that time.
Brassaï took The Urchin Bijou, Bar de la Lune as part of his project Paris by Night, much of which was published as a book of the same name in 1933 to wide critical acclaim. Although a variation on this scene was printed in Paris by Night (Bijou at the Bar de la Lune, Montmartre 1932, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago), Brassaï first published this particular photograph in 1976 in The Secret Paris of the 30s. The image of La Môme Bijou that featured in Paris by Night is one of Brassaï’s best-known works and formed the inspiration for the main character in the French playwright Jean Giraudoux’s 1945 play The Madwoman of Chaillot.
Brassaï, The Secret Paris of the 30s, trans. by Richard Miller, London 1976, pp.79–83, reproduced p.78.
Brassaï, 1899–1984, exhibition catalogue, Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Barcelona 1993, reproduced p.129.
Annick Lionel-Marie and Alain Sayag, Brassaï: ‘No Ordinary Eyes’, exhibition catalogue, Hayward Gallery, London 2001, reproduced p.20.
Supported by Christie’s.