Bill Brandt




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Early Life

Bill Brandt was born in Hamburg, Germany on 3 May 1904, into a wealthy family of bankers and merchants. He spent his early years in Germany, and then, as he suffered from tuberculosis, at sanatoria in Switzerland and Austria. He moved to London in 1933 and, by the time of his death in 1983, had transformed himself into a quintessential Englishman, the result of a lifetime trying to bury his roots. He had also become world-famous for his highly idiosyncratic photographs.

Photographic Career

Brandt’s early work was a mixture of photojournalism for magazines such as Picture Post, and personal photographic projects that he undertook, some being published as books such as The English At Home (1936), and London At Night (1938). Both as a photojournalist and an Anglophile, Brandt was drawn to the British class system, and much of his work highlights its inequalities during the inter-war years. He also became particularly well known during the Second World War, for his images of Londoners sheltering from the Blitz in Underground stations.

From the mid 1940s, Brandt’s work began to change completely, as he concentrated almost exclusively on the female nude for the remainder of his career. With an eye that was drawn in equal measure to Surrealism, Photojournalism and even Conceptual art, Brandt has been recognised as one of the most influential and important British photographers of the twentieth century.

Bill Brandt died in London on 20 December 1983.

Performing Englishness: The Surreal Art of Bill Brandt

Bill Brandt produced a photographic oeuvre that seems not only highly individual but also very British. It can come as something of a shock, therefore, to find that Brandt was in fact German by inheritance, birth and upbringing, and that his Englishness and view of England were constructed, in part, to “satisfy his childhood fantasies”. Furthermore, the methods of such construction were often influenced by dominant European cultural and intellectual movements. The following is intended as an introduction to the complex of influences at work on Brandt and his images.

Before exploring Brandt’s influences, it is necessary to rehearse his Germanic background and the possible reasons for his rejection of it. His domineering father, like his father’s brothers, had been born in London and was therefore a British citizen. However, all four of his grandparents were German, and he himself was born and raised in Hamburg. Indeed, his formative years in a wealthy mercantile haut bourgeois family read almost like the summary of a novel by Thomas Mann (a writer he would later dismiss defensively as “worthless”). He was educated at Realgymnasien in both Hamburg and Elmshorn, spent four years at sanatoria in Switzerland, and then entered a period of psychoanalysis in Vienna.

Brandt’s biographer, Paul Delany, and others have speculated on the effect on him of the rigid conventions of haut bourgeois German life. After all, the dismissal of a nanny who had substituted for their mother left Brandt’s younger brother, Rolf, broken hearted. Of more certain damage was the time that he spent at Elmshorn from the age of fourteen, in the wake of the First World War. There he was bullied, and possibly sexually abused, by masters and boys for being too different: the only boarder and, in their eyes, “English”. The subsequent contraction of tuberculosis, and the treatments he underwent in Switzerland and Vienna, further separated him from his nation as well as from most of his family. The important exception was Rolf, who went to Vienna to train as an actor and director. (He, like Bill, would also forge an artistic career in England, as an illustrator and art teacher.)

So, in very broad terms, Brandt equated a German identity with social and familial restrictions, and with anxieties concerning sex, violence and general wellbeing. In undergoing analysis with Wilhelm Stekel for a period of three months, he absorbed a theoretical structure to reflect on these concerns and so provide a springboard for his creativity.

Wilhelm Stekel: Psychoanalysis and Symbolism

A former disciple of Sigmund Freud, Wilhelm Stekel had become a rival, and was considered a charlatan in some psychiatric circles as a result of his rapid analyses. His essential belief that every disease was caused by a hidden emotional conflic’ made it appropriate in his eyes for him to treat the tubercular Brandt. That “hidden emotional conflict” was often put down to the “repressed hatred of authoritarian parents”, which, in addition to triggering disease, might foster sexual difficulties in adult life. It seems that Brandt was victim not only of an authoritarian parent but of an authoritarian culture, and that, while he overcame his physical illness, he developed a complex attitude to sexuality, which manifested itself, in life, in his need for triangular relationships and, in art, in the sadomasochistic elements of his images of nudes.

However, Stekel’s approach to psychoanalysis may have had a wider and more fundamental influence on Brandt’s photography. For, as Ian Jeffrey has written, in his essay on Brandt’s influence, “what Stekel did for Brandt, it could be guessed, was to extend the concept of symbolism to the everyday”. The interpretation of the details of dreams and fantasies reappears in Brandt’s work as a fascination with the potential significance of objects and figures. This related his developing imagination, at least in Jeffrey’s mind, to the methods of such Symbolists as Hamsun, Munch and Strindberg, and would prepare him, more crucially, to become a devoted fellow traveller of Surrealism.

Eugenie Scharzwald: Progressive Vienna

Stekel was not alone in influencing Brandt during his time in Vienna; equally important, for the direction of his creativity, was the hostess and patroness, Dr Eugenie Schwarzwald.

Brandt broke with Stekel when he tried to end his patient’s relationship with the sixteen year-old, Lyena Barjansky. It was through Lyena that he met Schwarzwald, who ran the school that she attended.

Schwarzwald gathered around her a considerable circle of Viennese cultural figures, notably Arnold Schoenberg and Adolf Loos; many were liberal, avant-garde and Jewish, and, as such, provided Brandt with an alternative to the values of his German upbringing. Schwarzwald similarly encouraged a group of young people in Vienna and at Grundlsee, and they came to represent the peers that Brandt had failed to develop during his schooling.

More directly, Schwarzwald suggested that Brandt should take up photography, and facilitated his entry into the studio of Grete Kolliner, a Jewish portrait photographer who had once attended her school. In her studio, he acquired many skills, including the lighting, retouching and re-photographing that presented a sitter at his best or, if a performer, in characteristic pose. His own early portraits were of people he met at Schwarzwald’s salon: George Antheil, Ezra Pound and Schoenberg.

Rolf Brandt: Staging and Restaging

Brandt shared many of his Viennese experiences with his brother, Rolf, who, though two years younger, also contributed to his developing aesthetic.

The brothers were close, but had distinct personalities. More gregarious than Bill, Rolf played an active role among the youth at Grundlsee and became engaged in left-wing politics. Yet, less anti-German than Bill, he would find it enough to settle in Britain rather than adopt an English identity.

Rolf’s most quantifiable influence on Bill’s photography was through his knowledge of directing and, particularly, acting, which he studied at the Theaterschule Kalbeck, Vienna, and the Sprachbildners Muller, Berlin, before joining the repertory company at the Friedrichstheater, Dessau, in 1929.

When the brothers travelled together, Brandt took photographs, and Rolf “helped him to visualise urban incidents as little theatrical scenes”. One notable early example, taken in Hamburg around 1930, shows Rolf’s future wife, Ester Cotton, sitting by the entrance to a Chinese restaurant while wearing an Oriental mask. The staging of the shot and the detail of the mask together sharpen the activity of looking at an image that first seems mere reportage, and makes the viewer question what he sees.

Once Bill had followed Rolf to London, in 1934, he began to use his brother in his images, almost as the lead actor of a small repertory company. Some of the most striking images from Brandt’s first book of photographs, The English at Home (1936), may be said to star Rolf, including The Taxi Home and After the Celebration. Another of the plates, Sunday Evening, has a cast of five, all of whom were relatives or friends of Bill: “Djuri Szulyovsky is in the foreground with Eva [Bill’s first wife]; next come Rolf and Ester; finally Augustus Brandt [Bill’s youngest brother] by himself”. Note the irony of this group appearing in a volume entitled The English at Home. This is a troupe (à la Bertolt Brecht or Max Reinhardt) performing Englishness, with Rolf as Bill’s alter ego, rehearsing his adoption of English identity.

Even more dramatic is an appearance by Rolf in Bill’s second book, A Night in London (1938). In Street Scene, he and his wife, Ester, strike stances and cast shadows that appear to epitomise the genre of film noir, and indeed “the picture is an almost exact reproduction of a scene from Hitchcock’s Sabotage [itself based on Conrad’s The Secret Agent], which came out just before Brandt’s shot [in 1936]”. Here, Bill and Rolf have moved from staging to restaging, a strategy that became characteristic of Bill’s approach to his work, as a way of understanding, emulating and surpassing his models, be they photographer, film maker, or illustrator (the metier to which Rolf later turned). Rolf’s contribution ensured that Bill’s photography moved beyond documentary and into art.

Man Ray: Surrealism

On leaving Vienna in 1930, but before settling in London, Brandt spent four years in Paris, a city then considered by many artists to be the cultural capital of the world. Yet, as a result of his extreme sense of privacy, not to say secrecy, he was conspicuous by his absence from those artists’ memoirs, and most of his movements remain a mystery. What is known is that he was drawn to the city by the notoriety of the Surrealist experiments that took place there, and spent three months of 1930 in the studio of the Surrealist photographer, Man Ray.

Brandt entered Man Ray’s studio with two and a half years’ photographic training and a willingness to pay for further experience. Their relationship was not as master to pupil, Brandt gaining less through instruction than observation. What he gained was a sense of what it was to be an art photographer (as opposed to the commercial photographer represented by Grete Kolliner). Indeed, he became so obsessed with Man Ray’s modus operandi that he went through “all the drawers and files that [he] would not have dared touch when [Man Ray was] in the studio”, an activity that, according to Rolf, led to his dismissal.

Man Ray’s approach to photography validated the core of Brandt’s aesthetic while, at the same time, illuminating its distinctive aspects. Both considered the camera as the ideal medium for producing surreal images, while exploiting it in very different ways. Man Ray stayed in the studio, “a storehouse of effects and symbolic objects”, making technical experiments. But, while Brandt admired this focus on such an enclosed artificial world, and could find inspiration in it, he turned outwards in order to discover the surreal quality of the Paris streets.

For Brandt learned not only from Man Ray but also from Man Ray’s friends and exemplars. In wandering the streets, he was following Eugène Atget, who Man Ray considered a proto-Surrealist, and Gyula Halász, known as Brassaï, who also learned from Atget’s images. In other ways, he gained from the work of René Crevel, Paul Eluard and Balthus. After the Second World War, he would make portraits of several Dadaists and Surrealists, and it is safe to assume that he either knew them or knew about them, probably through Man Ray.

The lasting importance of Surrealism, and particularly Parisian Surrealism, for Brandt could be instanced in many ways. Just one example is his involvement with the short-lived but seminal French periodical, Minotaure. Though settling in London in April 1934, his photograph of Parisian mannequins appeared in Minotaure 5, in May of that year, as the subject of an essay by Crevel, while his photographs of the Scilly Isles appeared in Minotaure 6 in December. Even when he did not contribute to the magazine, it seems that he read it, and his work would continue to reflect its contents long after it folded in 1939. Items in Minotaure 7, of June 1935, including a Man Ray semi-nude, affected the composition, mood and titles of some of his first nudes, produced over a decade later.

For Ian Jeffrey, “Brandt was a true Surrealist, probably the only true one in photography” and, though he qualifies this by adding that “his was a curious Surrealism of the prosaic detail”, it is still a significant claim, even excepting Man Ray.

Citizen Kane: Film

Brandt’s development as a photographer, in the late 1920s and early 30s, coincided with the development of cinema, and he was aware that the potential of the camera lay as much in the moving image as in the still. While never working as a film maker himself, he moved towards the medium in making photographic sequences, and gained great inspiration from some of the most fruitful cinematic innovators. Indeed, his appetite for Parisian Surrealism had undoubtedly been whetted by the film collaborations of Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí: Un Chien Andalou (1928) and L’Age d’or (1930). Other directors would prove of equal importance: Alfred Hitchcock, as already noted; the German Expressionists, Fritz Lang and Robert Wiene; and Orson Welles, especially for his debut feature, Citizen Kane (1941).

In Steven Dwoskin’s documentary, Shadows from Light (1983), Brandt recalled the impact that this last film had made on him:

When Citizen Kane was first shown I’d never seen a film in which real rooms were used and you could see everything, the ceiling, and terrific perspective, it was all there. It was quite revolutionary and I was very much inspired by it and I thought: “I must take photographs like that”.

The appeal of Citizen Kane lay, for Brandt, in both its artificial production: blending trick effects, painted sets and stock footage and its cinematography, and also in the ways that these elements played with the viewer’s emotions.

As Delany has explained, Brandt was responding not only to the contribution of Orson Welles but also to that of his cameraman, Gregg Toland; for he “could render all the elements of the shot background, middle ground and foreground in sharp focus”, an achievement comparable to Brandt’s Gull’s Nest. Toland had worked previously with the German émigré, Karl Freund, on Mad Love (1935), a Hollywood remake of Robert Wiene’s Orlacs Hände (1924). In turn, Freund had been the cameraman on Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927). So, while Citizen Kane was a Hollywood film, it had its roots in German Expressionism, the pull of Europe remaining strong.

The influence of Citizen Kane on Brandt’s photographs manifested itself most clearly in the deep focus and distortion of his late nudes; this was the series of which he was most proud, and which best expressed his longstanding sexual obsessions. He paralleled the effects of Toland by using an old wooden Kodak camera with a wide angle lens, which he had bought in 1944, a decade after the model had been introduced. However, he thought it was Victorian, and thus particularly suitable for capturing his figures in interiors, with their extremes of light and shade, and of scale, that echoed the quality of John Tenniel’s Wonderland or Gustave Doré’s London.

Bill Brandt: Britain

Brandt’s idea of Britain, and his yearning for it, was filtered through childhood fantasies and Continental cultural ideas. When he made his first adult visit to England in 1928, he was “entranced, especially by its photographic possibilities”. However, his view of the country would be clarified by his experiences in Paris, for the Surrealists considered England, and particularly Victorian England, as the most surreal of places.

Once Brandt had settled in London in 1934, much of his work, and aspects of his life, would appear to uphold those values that had survived the Victorian age into the mid twentieth century, but would do so almost as a great Surrealist project.

As Brandt collected Victoriana for use in his images, so his images collected society’s Victorian remains: the Hampstead flower-seller, the Bond Street hatter, the parlourmaids. He had met these characters in his childhood books, such as William Nicholson’s London Types (1898) and Alice Raiker’s Cherry Stones (1906), the latter illustrated by Charles Crombie. Now he would explore them, subvert them, strip them bare: literally in the nudes that he titled The Policeman’s Daughter (1945) (alluding to Swinburne’s erotic novel) and The Woodman’s Daughter (1948) (alluding to Millais’ painting).

At the same time, Brandt would follow his naturalised uncles in becoming more English than the English, disassociating himself from the Little Vienna that provided a refuge for fellow émigrés, and immersing himself in British society from top to bottom. He was home at last.

David Wootton