Saturday, 26 January 2013


So often we look forward to an event, exhibition, or eagerly awaited new film or publication only to be let down by the reality. Conversely, some things we have little or no expectations of, either because we are unfamiliar with the artist in question or because we may even actively dislike their work. In these cases, we can be pleasantly surprised and even inspired.

A couple of weeks ago I spent a few days in London, rushing around trying to catch all the exhibitions I had been meaning to see before they close at the end of the month. Despite the best of intentions, it is usually the case that things are left to the last minute, as happens with most things in my life! I had been looking forward to Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present at the National Gallery as it deals with the two genres of art I am most interested in - photography and painting - specifically the influence of the latter on the former and the elastic and fluid nature of the relationship between the two. I'm not saying it was a bad exhibition - just that I came out feeling rather underwhelmed. Perhaps some of it is down to the exhibition space in the basement of the Sainsbury wing - a cramped and rather claustrophobic place, the walls painted in dark colours with no natural light. It works for some exhibitions but I felt the walls crowding in on me as I jostled to see the work on display.

This was the National Gallery's first major exhibition of photography exploring both early photography from the 19th century and the work of contemporary photographers, presented together with historical paintings displayed according to the traditional genres of still life, landscape, portraiture and nudes. The trouble with this approach is that so often it doesn't really demonstrate a dialogue between the two at all - it is totally one-sided. The curators have gone out of their way to show that photography takes its inspiration from painting yet failed to demonstrate that it is very much a two-way process. There is no mention of the widespread use of the photographic image in painting nor any of the debate about photography's effect on the history of art. Surely the reality is that photography, just like all other forms of art - literature, music, sculpture, painting - is concerned with the same universal themes of love, life and death which have been the main source of inspiration for all artistic endeavour throughout the centuries.

Many of the photographs involving contemporary restaging of paintings border on the kitsch or in the case of 19th century photographers, display large doses of Victorian sentimentality. The relationship between painting and photography is better illustrated when the photographer, rather than trying to mimic or restage a painting, instead reinvents the subject matter to say something relevant to contemporary life, as in Luc Delahaye's massive US Bombing on Taliban Positions which chillingly represents modern warfare without showing any human presence. It was hung beneath a panorama of a 19th century battlefield complete with soldiers and cannons and the juxtaposition of the two spoke volumes.

The Battle of Jemappes 1821 by Emile-Jean-Horace Vernet

US Bombing on Taliban Positions 2001 by Luc Delahaye

I was particularly taken with a photograph by Finnish photographer Jurma Puranen of Goya's painting of the Duke of Wellington. The photograph shows the surface of the painting transformed by reflections of light, bringing to our attention hidden details, the marks of the brush and craquelure, intensifying the colours and the areas of light and shade, revealing and concealing different elements.  It is a fine example of the transformative power of photography - taking a subject a making something new with it. 

The Duke of Wellington, 1812-14 by Francisco Goya

Shadows and Reflections (After Goya), 2011 by Jorma Puranen

It was a major drawback that many of the paintings on show were a rather undistinguished selection. The opening room featured arguably the most dramatic display of large-scale photographs - Jeff Wall's The Destroyed Room, Tom Hunter's Death of Coltelli and Sarah Jones' The Drawing Studio - all inspired by Delacroix' magnificent painting The Death of Sardanapalus. Instead of the original, all we got to see was a small lacklustre copy of the great painting by a little-known artist - hardly guaranteed to inspire anyone! All in all, a show of mixed parts and missed opportunities, yet for all that, it is always good to see photography exhibitions of this size and scope. I can't help wondering though what purpose is served by this endless comparing and contrasting of the two artistic genres. Photography is well able to stand on its own two feet without any outside help!

 The Death of Sardanapalus 1827 by Eugene Delacroix

 The Death of Coltelli 2009 by Tom Hunter

 The Drawing Studio 2008 by Sarah Jones

The Destroyed Room, 1978 by Jeff Wall

The National Gallery, 1989 by Thomas Struth

 The Rosy Wealth of June, 1886 by Henri Fantin-Latour

Blow Up: Untitled 5, 2007 by Ori Gersht

 Signs of the Times, England, 1991 by Martin Parr

 Mr and Mrs Andrews, 1750 by Thomas Gainsborough

I deliberately avoided reading any reviews of the show before I went, so was surprised to see afterwards how varied they were, ranging from delight to ambivalence to outright vitriol (no prizes for guessing which critic this is!) For those of you who have seen the exhibition, you will no doubt have made up your own minds. For those of you who haven't, you'll just have to take my word for it!


  1. I enjoyed this exhibition over all-despite having a party of Saga tourists loudly discussing their lunch plans within earshot!

    I agree that some of the art chosen was not great and I did get a little tired of seeing umpteen photos which were just a copy a painting. I understand that at the time the photographers were trying to legitimise their art but there could have been more signs of the influence photography had on art of the time. It must have made painters look at things differently. Eadward Muybridge's photographs of a horse running meant that painters had to reajust -there must have been other examples. Instead of showing us Julia Margaret Cameron's copies of paintings why not explore what effect - long and short term- her photographs had on portrait painting.

    The main ommission to my mind was to compare and contrast Georgia O'Keeffe and Imogen Cunningham. Both presented images of flowers which can be read in ways beyond the botanical. Yet it is O'Keeffe's images which are shown most and most widely known. Why? Does paint and canvas put a distance between us and an image which a photograph - even one heavily post produced - cannot? A photograph has started from something real.A painting however, we can convince ourselves, could be invented a mere figment of the artist's imagination. Are Cunningham's images too real and therefore too disturbing? Who was influencing whom?

  2. This wasn't a very good show but if it had been we might have all gone home well satisfied and have already begun to forget it. Instead it does the job of the failure : it raises all sorts of questions.

    Just one for now: the relations of early photography and its precursors. Not only painting: perhaps printmaking is more immediately relevant. I have long accepted the line that many early photographers were printmakers seeking a new skill. (And that part of Fox Talbot's motivation for investigating the possibility of photography was shame at being a bloody awful draftsman.

    The current exhibition at the RA offers a few clues. Despite its title, Constable Gainsborough Turner and the Making of Landscape, the show is mostly of prints after these painters and their predecessors. (As this is mostly new to me, I find it rather exciting.) Both painting and prints slowly escape the Italianate influence and move towards a more carefully observed actuality. First signs seem to come in the 1770s with prints after Richard Wilson and by the 1830s William Westall is working independently of painters with a near photographic precision, and David Lucas shows astonishing bravura in paraphrasing Constable. It looks like readiness for photography. It seems, then, unsurprising if, for a period, photography just continued the line.

    So when did photography begin to find its own independence? When did the reverse flow from photo to painting and printmaking start? What role the need to make engravings from photos while the ability to print photos in journals was lacking? Ruskin's praise for the daguerreotype when he was disparaging Poussin....................

    PS. On Vernet/Delahaye: The very comprehensible formal warfare (really so formal?)and a tactile medium. The remotely dispatched death and a non-tactile medium. Were drones involved then in Afghanistan? Lens-based warfare?

  3. Sorry - forgot to sign the last. Peter Luck