Monday, 10 December 2012

Seduced by Art: National Gallery

The third of 3 major exhibitions I visited on my recent trip to London. I had originally planned to visit Tim Flach at the Osborne Samuel gallery, but a web preview of the exhibition suggested that very few of the shots that interested me most were actually on display so I plumped for the National instead. I was a bit spoiled for choice as there were also exhibitions by Ansel Adams and Cartier-Bresson also available.

Anyway – Seduced by Art it was. No-one could deny the ambition of the show – which according to their website set out to show “how photographers use fine art traditions,including Old Master painting, to explore and justify the possibilities of their art. [1]

It’s worth a brief pause to examine this statement as it rather coloured my view of the exhibition – not a terribly rational reaction, but true nonetheless. In particular I am irritated by the idea that a photographer needs to “justify the possibilities of their art”. To whom? The curators of the National Gallery?

I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they’re simply being provocative not least because the opening exhibition, which sets a copy of Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus alongside Wall’s Destroyed Room and Hunter’s Death of Coltelli shows clear similarities and the Wall at least appears to be widely recognised as being influenced by the Delacroix.[2]

From this point on however I feel the exhibition begins to try too hard. For example, the comparison of Julia Margaret Cameron’s work with pencil sketches from her mentor lack conviction. Surely the similarity in tonality referenced is as much a function of the low-contrast albumen print as deliberate intent on her part, and she was working in an era when to be accepted as art a photo had to at least look like a painting, or refer to painterly subjects – so perhaps it could equally be argued that she was in a strait-jacket rather than under the influence. Ditto “Two ways of Life” by Rejlander.

While I was looking at Dijkstra’s Girl in a Bathing Costume I was treated to another visitor earnestly explaining to her colleagues that it was no coincidence the the girl’s pose mimicked that of Boticelli’s Venus – a claim repeated in at least one review I have read [3]. Unfortunately for this theory both the girl and Dijkstra have confirmed that the pose was a coincidence, with the similarity only being realised later.[4] This removes neither the beauty of the Boticelli nor the impact of the Dijkstra, and I’m at a loss to understand why this suggestion needs to be made in the face of direct evidence to the contrary – unless there is a suggestion that the Venus archetype is so ingrained in American culture that shy teenagers automatically pose like a Boticelli Venus when faced with a camera.

Elsewhere in the portrait section there was a Gainsborough compared with a Martin Parr and another painting (I forgot to note which) compared with a Tina Barney painting of a rather aristocratic gentleman in his dining room. While these do share similar characteristics it’s difficult to argue anything beyond vague pictorial similarities, which given the limited permutations available for portraits is not entirely surprising – it is a well established practice drawing on hundreds of years of history, just as it was when the old masters did their paintings.[5]

As I was a little pressed for time, I did not have the opportunity to look as closely at some of the images as I would have liked but it would be difficult to forget the impact of the next room, which featured a Struth photo of visitors to a gallery huge on one wall (questioning the reality of what we are looking at – a question I still haven’t resolved) and equally large a Luc Delahaye photo of the aftermath of a bombing raid in Afghanistan juxtaposed with Vernet’s Battle of Jemappes. Again these latter two come under the heading of trying to hard for my tastes. Battlefields have smoke, so it’s no great surprise that there are some similarities in terms of the smoke rising from the fields, but there any obvious “influence” ends. Indeed the exhibition notes quote Delahaye as saying  that there was no direct reference, similarities are a result of “shared pictorial and cultural references”. I would interpret this as meaning that those similarities are as much part of the viewer as the artist. I was more struck by the difference – the 1821 battle is all about people, the Afghan battle is devoid of humans – it’s a remote war.It says something for the mind set that the exhibition had given me by this point that initially I thought the photo was a tableau.

And this for me is the nub of it. Each of the objects on display was interesting in its own right – the paintings and the photographs – but I couldn’t help feeling that photography was somehow being patronised. Both Delahaye and Vernet have something meaningful to say about warfare, and attitudes to warfare, in their periods. Ditto Parr and Gainsborough, Boticelli and Dijkstra in their respective fields. One does not need to be justified or reinvigorated by the other.

I can’t sign off without mentioning Broadhead and Cole’s “Ode to Hill and Adamson” – a time lapse photo series in which a portrait of a woman is created “in the flesh”.. The final images are sufficiently close to the real thing that you would be hard pressed to claim that one was more “true” than the other. As we watch things more and more frequently on screens and mediated through other sources we really do need to take care with what we choose to believe.


[1] – retrieved 10/12/2012

[2] Photographs: Jeff Wall (Pub: National Gallery of Victoria)

[3] – retrieved 10/12/2012

[4] – retrieved 10/12/2012

[5] – retrieved 10/12/2012

1 comment:

  1. Really good article Nigel—it shows your reaction to, and your thought process! I'm a little envious!