Bill Brandt

Nude, Campden Hill, London

1955, later print

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Not on display

Bill Brandt 1904–1983
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
Image: 231 × 198 mm
Accepted by HM Government in Lieu of Inheritance Tax and allocated to Tate 2019


Bill Brandt was born into an Anglo-German family in Hamburg. Beginning his career as an apprentice to a portrait photographer in Vienna in 1927, he went on to work in Man Ray’s (1890–1976) Paris studio from 1929–30; he began to acquire a reputation as a major photographer in his own right, with night photography becoming a particular speciality. He moved to London in the early 1930s and Britain became his adopted home. Brandt used black and white photography, and especially its ability to provide strong contrasts of light and shade, to document the social extremes of life in Britain, particularly those of the capital city (see, for example, Tate P15014P15017). In 1936 he published The English at Home, which highlighted stark societal contrasts. The publication A Night in London followed two years later. After the Second World War he focused on portraiture, landscape and the nude.

Brandt’s portraiture developed in the 1940s, often commissioned by publications such as Lilliput, Picture Post and Harper’s Bazaar, and frequently depicted leading artists, writers and figures from the worlds of film and theatre. Pablo Picasso at ‘La Californie’, 1955 1955 (Tate P15009) is among Brandt’s best-known portraits. One of a series of portraits taken at Picasso’s villa ‘La Californie’ on the Côte d’Azur in the south of France, it was commissioned by Harper’s Bazaar. Georges Braque on the Beach at Varengeville, Normandy, 1955 1955 (Tate P15018) depicts the artist at the age of seventy-three. Braque is one of several sitters who Brandt photographed twice, with up to several decades between. Brandt had first shot Braque at the age of fifty-four in 1936. When Brandt collected his portraits into a book in 1982, he included seven people whom he had photographed at different stages of their lives, including Braque. Louise Nevelson’s Eye, 1963 1963 (Tate P14998) is a close-up image of the eye of American artist Louise Nevelson (1899–1988). Brandt made ten similar photographs in the early 1960s; each is the closely cropped eye of a notable artist. While some appear to have been made during the same session as a published portrait, none are thought to be enlargements from a known work.

Brandt’s photographs of the nude are a significant part of his output from the 1940s onwards; he combined composition and technique to create psychologically haunting and formally inventive studies. Works such as Nude, Campden Hill, London 1957 (Tate P14999), Nude, Campden Hill, London, c.1956 1956 (Tate P15000), Nude, London, 1958 1958 (Tate P15001), Nude, Belgravia, London, 1953 1953 (Tate P15004), Nude, Campden Hill, London, 1955 1955 (Tate P15007), Nude, St. John’s Wood, London, 1955 1955 (Tate P14997) and Nude, London, 1950, March 1950 (Tate P15008) were shot not in studios but in rooms of Brandt’s choosing, so that he could go beyond the basic elements of form and light. In Bill Brandt: A Life, Paul Delany explained:

What did it mean to enclose a nude body in a room furnished in the style of a hundred years before? Victorianism meant the repression of the body; nudity in England typically existed ‘behind closed doors’, unlike the free-spirited outdoor nudes by continental photographers. The English tradition belonged to the dark rather than the light, with its images of women cloistered or restrained.
(Delany 2004, p.214.)

Using a wide-angle, fixed focus camera and moving in closer to the sitter, the space and figures become distorted and defamiliarized. Brandt discovered he could also achieve this desired effect outdoors, specifically on the beaches of England and France. The foreground of Nude, Vaste´rival Beach, Normandy June 1954 (Foot on Beach) 1954 (Tate P15010) is dominated a close-up of a foot. It assumes an abstracted monumental quality that is echoed by the rock formations beyond. Nude, Taxo d’Aval, France 1957 (Tate P15006) and Nude, Taxo d’Aval, France, 1958 1958 (Tate P15003) similarly focus on body parts. The earlier work shows a woman from behind: only a single bare shoulder, one hand and her hair visible; the other closes in further on the body, concentrating on the sole of one foot, so enlarged that it is abstracted and difficult to identify. In 1969 curator John Szarkowski wrote of these nudes: ‘These pictures – at first viewing strange and contorted – reveal themselves finally as supremely [poised] and untroubled works … Brandt’s late nudes … seem to be no women and all women, as anonymous and as moving as a bleached and broken sculpture, fresh from the earth.’ (John Szarkowski, quoted in Museum of Modern Art 2013, p.144.)

Further reading
Bill Jay and Nigel Warburton, Brandt: The Photography of Bill Brandt, London 1999.
Paul Delany, Bill Brandt: A Life, London 2004.
Bill Brandt: Shadow and Light, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Modern Art, New York 2013.

Helen Delaney
April 2019

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