In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Brassaï 1899–1984
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
Image: 298 × 204 mm
Purchased with funds provided by the Photography Acquisitions Committee 2014


This black and white silver gelatin print is one of a group of eleven photographs in Tate’s collection from Hungarian photographer Brassaï’s extensive series Graffiti, begun in the 1930s and continuing into the 1960s (see Tate P80978P80988). The photographs were taken in Paris and, as the title suggests, depict close-ups of graffiti carved into and painted onto walls around the city. Brassaï worked on the series alongside other projects for three decades, culminating in the publication of the photobook Graffiti in 1961 (a copy of this book is in the collection of the Tate Library and Archive). The eleven prints in Tate’s collection are from a group retained by Brassaï’s publisher, Chr. Belser Verlag in Stuttgart, until the 1990s when they entered a private collection. They were printed by Brassaï in the 1950s as working proofs for the book and as a result are marked by the artist on the back with cropping instructions and page numbers; some also have small white crop marks on the front. Brassaï’s graffiti images were first published in the Surrealist magazine Le Minotaure in 1933, and exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1956, in a show organized by the American photographer and curator Edward Steichen (18979–1973).

Brassaï trained as a painter and sculptor in Budapest and then Berlin, where he began working as a journalist, experimenting with photography as a way to enhance his articles. He moved to Paris in 1924 and is best known for his photographic depictions of the city during the inter-war period. When photographing in the streets, Brassaï treated the graffiti he came across as found objects, respecting the original creators but at the same time using his judgment to make a selection, choosing only those he considered to be a formal success. He often isolated one singular carving or scrawl, photographing it up close, emphasising its individual detail. In so doing, he was able either to abstract it by taking it out of its immediate surroundings or draw attention to its schematic yet evocative figurative imagery.

Brassaï also wrote extensively about the subject of graffiti in relation to art history, referencing cave painting, and highlighting the difference between the use of a wall as opposed to paper. As an attempt to make sense of the visual language of the street, he categorised his Graffiti photographs into archetypes, which later formed the chapters of the photobook. He organised his photographs into nine subgroups, the first two being broad groupings relating to the medium and practice of graffiti: The Language of the Wall and Propositions of the Wall. The first of these included painted graffiti, while the second referred to abstract shapes made incidentally by the cracks and signs of deterioration which occur naturally over time. The remaining seven subgroups relate to what he saw as the formal qualities and associative subject matter of the graffiti. They are: Birth of Man (Tate P80979, which depicts a rudimentary carving of a face with holes for eyes, nose and mouth but no encompassing shape for the head), Masks and Visages (Tate P80978), Love (Tate P80982 and P80988), Death (Tate P80980P80981), Animals, Magic (Tate P80983 and P80987) and Primitive Images (Tate P80984P80985).

Further reading
Lawrence Durrell, Brassaï, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Modern Art, New York 1968.
Anne Wilkes Tucker, Brassaï: The Eye of Paris, exhibition catalogue, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston 1998, pp.94–7.
Péter Baki, Colin Ford, George Szirtes, Eyewitness: Hungarian Photogrpahy in the Twentieth Century, Brassaï, Capa, Kertesz, Moholy-Nagy, Munkacsi, exhibition catalogue, Royal Academy of Arts, London 2011.

Shoair Mavlian
July 2013

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