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!