Paintings and photographs have a lot in common. As David Hockney points out, they are both part of a bigger story: the relationship between human beings and pictures of all kinds. That’s been going on for tens of thousands of years, and is still evolving today.
So the new exhibition at the National Gallery in London, “Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present,” has a fascinating subject.
It aims to make a three-way connection: between European painting, photography in the early decades after its inception in 1839, and what certain camera-based artists are doing right now. Unfortunately, although it contains some striking examples of contemporary photo-art, it ends up a bit of a mess, both chronologically and visually.
The bond between painters and photographers in the 19th century was intriguingly incestuous. Each looked hard at the other’s medium. Many painters were affected by the detailed precision, and also the blur and immediacy of photography. Conversely, early photographic portraits and compositions are often based closely on Old Master paintings.
Julia Margaret Cameron, a brilliant Victorian photographer, was a case in point. She was visibly affected by the example of paintings both by old masters and contemporaries such as G.F. Watts.
In “I Wait“ (1872), she made a real child pose with folded arms and artificial wings like an angel in Raphael. Similarly, Oscar Gustav Rejlander’s “The Two Ways of Life” (1857) was an elaborately posed composition of multiple nudes and gesticulating figures in robes -- actually a collage of 30 different exposures -- resembling Raphael’s frescoes.
There were reasons for this dependence. Photography was an astonishing new medium for making images: Painting was a well of know-how on how to put pictures together. That is, how to make them look appealing and coherent and carry meaning
However, the exhibition adds another layer to this 19th-century narrative. In the past few decades, reacting against the mid-20th-century orthodoxy of photography as documentary reportage, a number of artists have produced camera images, often on a grand scale, that echo Old Master painting.
Thus “Keep Them Sweet” (2010) by Maisie Broadhead carefully restages “An Allegory of Wealth” by Simon Vouet (about 1635), though with a few alterations (her winged cherub is wearing a disposable nappy).
The half-naked woman in Tom Hunter’s “Death of Coltelli” (2009) is in a tatty present-day bedroom. It precisely echoes the pose of a sad figure from Delacroix’s painted panorama of romantic sex and violence, “The Death of Sardanapalus” (1827).
These contemporary photo-works are the most intriguing things on show. Unfortunately they are hung side by side with early photographs and paintings dating back to the 17th century, and there are problems with this visual mix.
One is that, although they are closely related, it is dangerous to put paintings and photographs together in the same room. Like some family members, they tend to fight (and paint often wins because it has greater richness in physical, chemical terms).
As a result, “Seduced by Art” looks like a jumble, and the chronology is confusing as well. The argument is clearer in the catalog than on the walls (always a bad sign in an exhibition). Finally, it misses out a deeper historical perspective.
The fascination of lenses for painters began long before 1839. Canaletto in the 18th century and Vermeer in the 17th century were clearly affected by what they saw through the camera obscura -- essentially, a filmless camera. The connection between painting and images made by the lens is much more profound and interesting than “Seduced by Art” reveals.
Seduced by Art is at the National Gallery until Jan. 30, 2013; three photographic “interventions” are also hung in the permanent collection beside works by Constable, Degas and Ingres.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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