An Island of Obsession
Bill Brandt always thought of his nudes as his most important work. But, Paul Delany argues, he has a particular place among great British photographers for bringing an outsider's eye to his adopted country and capturing a strangeness that has come to seem familiar and true.
Paul Delany Saturday February 21, 2004
Bill Brandt came to London for good at the beginning of April 1934. He wanted to be English, and really belong to the fairy-tale island. This meant inventing a new identity for himself, as he turned 30, but also inventing an England that would satisfy his childhood fantasies.
He rented a small flat at 43 Belsize Avenue, while his wife Eva was nearby at 24 Lyndhurst Road. Belsize Park was becoming the favoured destination for Austrian Jews and other refugees from Nazism, but this exiles' London was only part of English life for Brandt; his English uncles Augustus and Henry took Bill under their wing. They had large houses in South Kensington, and neighbouring country estates: Uncle Augustus at Castle Hill, Bletchingley, and Henry at Capenor, Nutley.
To their uncles, Brandt and Eva must have seemed a rackety young couple. They were married, at least, but not living together, and they were without visible means of support. On the other hand, they knew exactly how to behave in society, and Eva was both elegant and vaguely aristocratic.
They were accepted as part of the family and, what is more surprising, allowed to photograph freely within their uncles' households. Brandt did not set up a studio like the one he had left behind in Vienna. For the rest of his career, his photography would be done in the streets of London, the English countryside and the houses to which he had access. All he needed was a makeshift darkroom at his flat, where he did almost all his developing and printing.
Within a very short time, Brandt formed the basic idea of his first collection, The English At Home. The layout of the book would be a series of contrasts between wealth and poverty. On the left-hand pages, he would have scenes from the life of his upper-class relatives. For the right, he would find English equivalents of the outcasts he had photographed on the continent: beggars, Gypsies and drunks. By showing English life in such stark opposition, he could leave himself out of the picture: living on their £7 a week on the edge of Hampstead, he and Eva belonged to an undefined middle.
Brandt did not include in his book any recognisable pictures of his relatives and their friends, nor did he show upper-class subjects "at home". Brandt wanted to show typical English behaviour, but also to bring out some quality of strangeness in even the most conventional and privileged social occasions.
Brandt's photograph Kensington Children's Party was printed opposite a scene of children playing in a dismal East End street. It is also a picture of internal contrast. The balloons at the top of the frame are supposed to represent hilarity but, hanging up there with their dangling ribbons, they become frozen, uncanny objects. At the bottom of the frame, the children's faces are frozen, too, into expressions of solemn self-control.
Usually Brandt avoided having his subjects look directly at the camera, and he had a wonderful rapport with children as subjects, but here he seems to have wanted to make the children self-conscious: they appear already captive to a precocious sense of duty. The contrast between them and the street children seems to speak for itself; yet what did it mean that these solemn party-goers were Brandt's little cousins and their friends? Was he observing English children, or judging them?
From 1936 until the outbreak of war, Brandt's work took on a steadily darker tinge, reflecting both the political disasters of the times and the shadows over his personal life. (His wife's health was weak, and she spent increasing amounts of time convalescing in Switzerland and France.) In the late 1930s, not even someone so intensely private as Brandt could escape politics. In France, the formation of a Popular Front in June 1936 was a belated response to the rise of fascism. A month later, General Franco rebelled against the republic to begin the Spanish civil war. Brandt accepted a duty to turn his camera towards scenes of injustice, though he insisted on showing the sufferings of the Depression in his own distinctive way.
Brandt had made a brief trip to south Wales in 1935, but that was his only foray into industrial Britain until the Jarrow marchers against unemployment arrived in London on November 8, 1936. They inspired Brandt to go and see the conditions that had driven them to walk 300 miles to the capital. His pictures of the north contain much more shock and indignation than his East End pictures, and are closer to the tradition of protest documentary than anything else in his work.
Almost all of Brandt's East End pictures, taken over a longer period of time, stand out for the respect they show their subjects, and for their visions of a more human London than the one we know today. His interior pictures of adults in pubs and cafes prove his diplomatic skills. How could someone so obviously upper middle class and foreign be allowed to bring out his camera in such places? With Brandt's Rolleiflex, there was no chance of a stolen shot; he needed his subjects to cooperate. His friends mention his extreme quietness, patience and politeness; no doubt an ability to buy drinks also helped.
But even with the modest success of The English At Home and A Night In London, Brandt had not yet found a way of connecting with a mass public in Britain. This began to change in the summer of 1937, when Picture Post and Lilliput, a new magazine, began to publish his pictures. His first major assignment for Lilliput, in May 1939, was Unchanging London, which recognised him as a specialist in the great city, and particularly in its dark underside.
In spring 1938, Eva Brandt became friendly with a fellow TB patient at one of her sanatoriums, Marjorie Beckett. She brought Marjorie to London to meet Brandt, or perhaps sent her there with an introduction. Eva's idea was that Marjorie was too shy, and needed to be drawn out socially.
But she also thought that if she was unable to be in London herself, then "Billy shouldn't be alone". And if he was going to have someone else, better that it should be someone Eva already liked. When Marjorie and Bill promptly fell in love, it was, on some level, what Eva expected and even wanted - though she clung to the belief that she would always be the most important woman in Brandt's life, whatever happened.
When he met Marjorie, Brandt had been a photographer for 10 years without paying much attention to women as subjects. He had done some pleasing but derivative nudes in the style of Man Ray, using Eva as his model; and there were some vivid staged pictures using his sister-in-law, Ester Brandt.
But his fascination with Marjorie led to a much bigger project of staging pictures, probably in the winter of 1939-40. Brandt took multiple shots and linked them into a narrative, publishing seven of them as Nightwalk: A Dream Phantasy In Photographs in the American magazine Coronet.
Nightwalk begins with Marjorie asleep in bed and ends with her waking up. In between is a dream sequence of five pictures in which she wanders through hallways and staircases in her dressing gown, carrying a Jack Russell, and meets a sinister figure played by Brandt's brother Rolf. She sleeps in a divan bed in Brandt's living room.
In the darkroom, Brandt montaged into the window a full moon and a roofscape with two chimneys, as in a scene from Robert Wiene's The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari (1920). This classic of German expressionist cinema supplies the nightmare atmosphere, the theme of somnambulism and the threatening madman - Rolf wears a Caligari-style stovepipe hat.
But Brandt's central idea, of female vulnerability, is only a subplot in Caligari. Although the sequence is presented as a woman's fantasy, the viewer doesn't see events through her eyes. Instead, we see what a male spectator would see and, on some level, enjoy: a half-dressed woman threatened with unspeakable acts of violation. There is nothing openly pornographic in Brandt's scenes, yet a sadistic imagination seems to be at work, one that is excited by the woman's fear.
Belgravia photographs - those taken in the Eaton Place flat that Eva moved to after she and Brandt separated. His first Eaton Place nude (1951) shows a woman's crossed legs - they may be Marjorie's - seen from the head. It belongs with two other pictures that feature the French doors of the flat, opening on to a balcony, and a Victorian spoon-backed chair.
One is the Eaton Place Still Life that had been Brandt's farewell present to Eva in 1948, the other is the Portrait Of A Young Girl of 1955, for which Rolf's 10-year-old daughter Judith was the model. In all three pictures, the chair seems to be a surrogate for Eva herself, absent from her flat while Brandt does his work. The deep-focus portrait of Judith makes her into an uncanny, Alice-like figure - perhaps the ghost of the child that Eva and Bill could never have.
For Brandt, the 1960s did not come as any kind of personal liberation; rather, they marked the collapse of the project he had worked on since he had come to England 30 years before. The publication of Shadow Of Light in 1966, a selection of his best pictures in all genres, set the seal on his reputation as the dean of English photographers - an artist rather than a reporter in the view of Cyril Connolly, who wrote the book's introduction.
But 1966 was also the year of Antonioni's Blow-Up, a tribute to the new photographic scene of "swinging London". Brandt was in partial eclipse from the late 1960s until his death, taking mostly portraits and excluded from the fashionable photojournalism of the Sunday supplements.
He was an unusual émigré in that he was free from the traditional afflictions of nostalgia and loss of roots. For him, there was no feeling of self-division. He never returned to Germany after 1933, and refused to speak his native language. He brought his neurosis with him to England in 1934 and it continued to possess him, in spite of his physical removal from the place that had spawned it.
Some things can be preserved by being taken out of their time altogether, such as Brandt's landscapes and formal nudes. But for most of his pictures, the time of their taking is of the essence; and they can deliver that time to us today. Brandt's pictures of the 1930s arose from his special perspective: London as seen from Paris and Vienna. But as time did its sifting, they became everybody's 1930s. Over and over again, the history of art shows how the extraordinary vision of a culture ends up being the typical one.
This is an edited extract from Paul Delany's book Bill Brandt: A Biography, to be published next month by Jonathan Cape at £35. To order a copy for the special price of £31 (plus UK p&p), call 0870 066 7979. Bill Brandt: A Centenary Retrospective will be at the V&A from March 24 - July 25, 2004
© The Guardian 2004