graffiti

Hello all, this is a roving report on graffiti and displaced Hungarians.

I have more time for writing these days as I no longer have to walk my children to school every morning; they’ve got big enough to go by themselves. But I used to spend several hours a day dashing from my home to drop-off, pick-up, another pick-up. It was actually a good break in the writing day, giving an opportunity to get some fresh air and reflect on what I’d been working on. There were two other benefits to the journey (apart from the pleasure of re-seeing my children): I’d go past a beautiful Citroen DS car, Pallas model, that is parked in the neighbourhood; and, for a while a graffiti artist or ‘tagger’ was active in the streets round where I live.

He or she would write – with spray-paint or pen – the name ‘Lurk, L-U-R-K’ on walls, electrical boxes, signs, everywhere. I like this word, lurk. It isn’t specifically submarine; lurking can be done on dry land, – it’s anything to do with waiting, hidden, often with nefarious purpose, and while peering – but I often associate it with what sharks do. But sharks don’t have to be in the water; once I started to become interested in artwork about sharks, I started to see them everywhere. Much like some religiously-minded people see visions of the Virgin Mary wherever they look, I began to see sharks. In clouds, in tree-bark. In the burnt patterns on toast. In the pavement just outside my house: here’s a mako, and a friendly Greenland shark.

As Roland Barthes and his compatriots from 1968 might have said, under the paving stones, the sharks.

One other benefit of pick-up time at a rather cosmopolitan school was that I was able to ask fellow-parents for advice about language. Particularly, I’d often find myself hurrying along next to a friendly Hungarian mother. I was able to ask her, the mother, about something that I’d been looking at that morning. Which was, the classic poster design for the film Jaws. You’ll probably recognize it: blue water, white sky, along the horizon a woman swimming. In the water a shark is approaching, upwards, and in the sky the word ‘JAWS’ is written large, in blood red. This film poster design is based on the second US version of the book’s cover, and it’s justifiably a classic, much parodied. And, germane to my purposes here, much translated. Here’s a selection of the poster as adapted for non-English speaking countries. You’ll see it’s the same concept, but the word rolls over, like in a fruit machine.

Translations of film titles is another topic altogether, but I’d just agree with a good point that David makes in his book (Multiple Joyce, forthcoming from Sagging Meniscus, all good bookshops), that the shark in Jaws, like ‘Moby Dick’ the whale in the hyphenated novel Moby-Dick, is not exactly the eponymous protagonist; there’s a slight mismatch. The jaws are a part of the shark, not its personal name. In other languages: der weisse Hai – the white shark, identifying the protagonist in a general, descriptive sense; tiburon – shark; ajkula – Bosnian, apparently, for shark. In French, the teeth of the sea, hmmm. But there was one more version of this poster that took my attention, and it’s this one:

A Capa, this is apparently the Hungarian word for ‘shark’. How do you pronounce it, I asked my friend, and she told me that ‘c a p a’ with no accent is not a word. It must have the accent, and then it’s ‘TSA-PPA’. Like the musician. That’s how you say it.

But I first saw the word on the poster here written down, and it reminded me of a name, Capa. It’s the surname of a photographer, and this is my second strand for today, the lurking theme, left over from my last report when there was discussion about whether ‘Roger Fenton’ sounded like a Crimean sort of name or not.

Robert Capa, born 1913, died 1954, famous war photographer. This is my other strand: photographers, and a rather particular subset of photographers: those who went from Hungary to Paris and changed their names. They rotated, translated, moved their names from one word to another.

This Robert Capa was born Endre Ernő Friedmann in Budapest, fleeing to, eventually, Paris, in the twenties. He there teamed up, and fell in love, with photographer Gerda Pohorylle, but they ended up working separately, she under the name of Gerda Taro, and Andre Friedmann under the new name of Robert Capa. (Capa later had a long affair with Ingrid Bergman, which shows good taste.)

There’s debate about whether the name was chosen as a tribute to the film director Frank Capra, or for other reasons. But I like to think it’s based on the word in his native language for ‘shark’. What else do war photographers do, except wait around like sharks, lurking, for the moment of maximum violence that they capture? They are always ready to snap.

There’s a second photographer I’ll turn to, Capa’s compatriot Gyula (or Julius) Halász, born in 1899 in what was then Brassó, in the Kingdom of Hungary, and is now Brașov, Romania.

He also moved to Paris and took the name of Brassaï, after his hometown. Brassaï became very well-known for his pictures of Paris: the city, the nightlife, the lights shining off the cobbles and beside the bridges. He has one less well-known preoccupation, though, that he worked on from the 1930s through the 1960s, which is a series called Graffiti, first published, says the Tate,

“in the Surrealist magazine Le Minotaure in 1933, and exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1956”. Five years later Brassaï gathered the photos in this series into a book of the same name. It’s been reprinted more recently, and is very good.

The photos in Brassaï ‘s Graffiti series are of the walls of Paris, and the markings that he noticed in and on the walls. So some are of deliberate painting, done by others. Some are of cracks or shapes, or damp patches, that spontaneously appeared, which Brassaï noticed and photographed. He was interested in markings on the urban surface that looked like faces, religious symbols, primitive signs.

As well as the images, Brassaï wrote for his book an essay in which he expresses his admiration for previous graffiti artists, and in particular the much earlier Nicolas Retif, or Restif de la Bretonne. This Restif is a rather extraordinary figure from late eighteenth century France: a writer, printer, foot-fetishist, spy, would-be publisher of a literary magazine. He said his aim in starting this up would be to “set right the blunders of all the others, and get revenge for men of letters for what’s been done to them”. Some of you will feel for him here.

And Restif was a keen inscriber on walls all round Paris, but not with a spray can; he went about physically chiseling important names and dates into stoneworks all round the city. Brassaï, in the mid twentieth century, is intrigued by this precursor, pre-carver, from two hundred years before, and wonders what it was that prompted him to make the effort .

Restif chiseled his graffiti, decides Brassaï, because he needed all the sensory and physical stimuli, in order to make his words stick. To write properly, he required: “the smell of the Seine, […] the light thrown by a torch, the scratch of metal.” Then he could make his mark, and, wandering round the city, could review, retrieve, relive it later. In fact, suggests Brassaï, Restif is like Proust, in his desire “To make the past live like the present moment”.

Brassaï explains:

“As he dotted graffiti about Ile Saint-Louis, Restif was preparing and, as it were, inciting reminiscences akin to Proust’s experiences with “madeleines,” “uneven paving-stones,” and “starched towels.” “I savor the present,” wrote Restif, “then I hark back to the past.”

This Proustian comparison is quite a claim, by and about a proto-graffiti-artist.

Brassaï continues:

“Restif de la Bretonne’s mania is one link in a brotherly chain that connects “scribblers” the world over. By carving their name in stone, they want to save themselves from the wreckage, as Restif did. Man holds fast to “permanent” materials as if to a life buoy. Life is full of ironies, however, and none of Restif’s graffiti would have come down to us had he not also recorded them and collected them in a book he entitled Mes Inscriptions. Even while he was still alive, his “enemies” set about removing them, and time has done the rest. In the intervening centuries, the stones he carved on Ile Saint-Louis have all disappeared. The roulette wheel of time sometimes favors fragile papyrus or a Dead Sea Scroll, whereas porphyry and granite tables have forever vanished.”

That’s the photographer Brassaï writing about the writer-stone-carver–graffiti-artist Restif. I like his image of holding fast as to a life buoy among the wreckage, which is what Ishmael does at the end of Moby-Dick – he’s clinging to the coffin, which is inscribed all over with text. And I like Brassaï ‘s consideration of permanence vs transitoriness. It applies to his own work, too: the images he caught of marks on the walls, printed in magazines, now in coffee-table art books, with physical prints in national museums, but also available on-screen at the press of a button. I’m interested (some of you might remember a talk from last year about archaeology) in this play between solidity, marking, and art; the visible vs the durable.

I’ll leave you with a last lovely couple of images from Brassaï ‘s Graffiti. He explains that during the occupation, Parisians would sometimes, to counteract the swastikas, paint the Cross of Lorraine onto walls, the cross with an extra t-stroke. The authorities would quickly remove these symbols of resistance. Except, being French municipal workers, they didn’t remove them, they took the easy route and painted roughly over the crosses, in what Brassaï calls ‘a calligraphy’ of defacement; a sort of palimpsest. But the images, beautifully, would reassert themselves, gradually wearing through and becoming visible again from under the waves of whitewash. It’s a sort of substance-based defiance. This is great in itself, but as a water-death-writing enthusiast, I also like the way the walls look straight after the whitewash, with the swathes of paint, tentacles trickling down.

They’re jellyfish, or other marine creatures. Brassaï thinks he’s documenting resistance, and the substance of the city, but really he’s a shark photographer.

We’re lurking everywhere, whatever the language.