Published  27/09/2004

Bill Brandt: A Centenary Retrospective

Bill Brandt: A Centenary Retrospective

Victoria and Albert Museum, London
24 March-25 July 2004

Bill Brandt: Nudes

Pentagram Gallery, London
July 2004

Two parallel exhibitions of the work of the greatest British 20th century photographer provide a timely retrospective of two sides of Brandt

In the introduction to Paul Delaney's catalogue (published by Jonathan Cape 2004) is the defining statement, 'Bill Brandt was a man who loved secrets'. His world was protectively enigmatic, as the selection of subjects for this exhibition seems to emphasise. From the mysterious, deep-toned views of an October brooding Isle of Skye - so characterised not by storm but by stillness - to the photo-portraits of Graham Greene (1945), and of that arch literary mystery of the 1960s, Alain Robbe-Grillet (1965), the secretive disposition of the camera lens (and Brandt's own eye) contrives that the subjects do show no expression. Yet compliant with this secrecy comes a barely explicit social awareness ('conscience' might be too definitive a usage here).

On the one hand we observe the echoing, but silent avenues of a depressed Glasgow (1948) but on the other we find a rearward view of an Eton boy, undignified and oblivious, spreadeagled on the playing field in full school uniform (1933). That can be compared, over the same subject, with the somehow more atmospheric and inspiring photographs taken for the book Eton Portrait by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy (published 1937, but surely taken sometime earlier). Did Moholy-Nagy see these Brandt photographs? He almost certainly did and was inspired by them, but decided on a different, less socially aware treatment. They make an interesting comparison.

Brandt, in his evocative fruit stall picture (1929), which acknowledges Eugene Atget as his inspiration (as did numerous contemporary artists, including notably Man Ray), directly references his sources. One that is repeated in his work is the famous figure of late 18th century, Samuel Johnson. Johnson was also secretive (as the unexplained and unaccounted for Jacobite sword and buckler found in a closet in his London house exemplified).

It seems Brandt really did wish to be remembered by posterity for his female nude studies. These are available in profusion, as exhibited at the Pentagram Gallery, and run to the late 1960s. They seem to lack the profundity of the social chapter, however beguiling they appear in their cryptic physiognomy of the female form.

What equivalent of Brandt exists today? None, it seems. Most claimants lack the elusive, rare quality that was Brandt's hallmark. Brandt got in everywhere, silently. E.M.Foster, so recessed as to appear almost like a cornered quarry in his rooms in King's College, Cambridge; that too is captured by Brandt

Michael Spens

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