From the 1920s through to the 60s, Brassaï (Gyula Halasz, born 9 Sept 1899, in Brasso, Transylvania; died 7 July 1984) took pictures of the walls of Paris. He was interested in scraped-out shapes, paint-marks both deliberate and random, processes of decay. Lots of faces.
Flammarion’s book of Brassaï’s series, Graffiti (1993/ 2002), includes his writings on the different categories that he identified, and on previous artists. “By carving their name in stone,” he explains of a previous compulsive tagger, “they want to save themselves from the wreckage, as Restif did. Man holds fast to ‘permanent’ materials as if to a life buoy.”
The Tate holds 11 images from the series, though not these three, that most interest me:
They are in the section on ‘The Language of the Wall’, in the introduction to which Brassai explains that graffiti is removed by municipal workers. Or, as it’s too much like hard work, they don’t remove it, but overwrite, paint over, palimpsest, augment it.
Sometimes they just scribble over the top with paintbrushes, in what Brassaï calls a ‘calligraphy’ of defacement:
“It also happens that a mangled, obscured graffiti can come back from the dead, as in the case of the Cross of Lorraine,the symbol of Gaullism.” In reaction to swastikas appearing, people painted crosses. These were painted over. But the images pushed through.
I like the way that Brassaï thinks he’s taking pictures of previously overpainted pictures, all round his favourite city. But he’s really collecting lovely images of sharks and jellyfish.