Seduced By Art : the National Gallery 7th December 2012
OCA Study Visit
This was advertised as the Gallery’s first major exhibition of photography. It’s promise was that we would view Old Master painting through a new lens, with paintings and early and contemporary photographs (almost 90) being presented together according to traditional genres, “highlighting the universality of the themes and influences across all the works, both past and present. So this is an Exhibition that celebrated similarity rather than difference. What was interesting as well was the ‘hierarchy’ of genres in art, as per the list of the French Royal Academy – history pictures and tableaux; portraiture; figure studies; still life and landscape. It was suggested by OCA that we read/look at two internet sites beforehand regarding Jeff Wall’s work The Destroyed Room here and Tom Hunter’s work Death of Colotti here
Brian Sewell’s review in the London Evening Standard 1/11/2012 was not complimentary. “Foolishly, they have given it the title ‘Seduced by Art’, using the term in its loose romantic sense – as might a chick-lit writer – rather than as debauched, corrupted, raped; but in the corruption here at work it is the photographer who is the rapist,”. His view on the specially commissioned new photographs for the exhibition is that this surely indicated there must have been “too little evidence to lend importance to the link”. I could go on but it’s clear that Sewell does not like photography (unless he’s writing with his cynical tongue in cheek) and he even heaps calumny on the catalogue stating that it’s, “the nastiest example of book design every issued buy Yale University Press.
In fact I’d already ordered the catalogue in advance and was quite impressed by it, thinking that I hardly needed to go the Exhibition because it was so well-covered!
In terms of the Exhibition itself the question of curatorial selection also comes into play of course – selecting only photographs that are similar in some way to paintings. The Introduction to the Catalogue states, “Among a multitude of photographers, Seduced by Art focuses on artists who pay attention to historical picture making, whether painted or photographed and this is developed into a comparison between Historicism that validates new art “in the conventional terms of the old” and its antithesis Modernism “whose ethos was a break with precedent and whose motivation was a search for new modes of expression” (ibid 28)
I recently read an article in Source (Issue 73, 2012) by Eugenie Shinkle, who states that “The basic problem with Seduced by Art is its failure to distinguish imitation from inspiration” (Source, 2012: 58). One example given of this is Wall’s Destroyed Room and I do think a conceptual gap has occurred. There is a qualitative difference between validating new art ‘in the conventional terms of the old’ (which smacks of looking for imitation) and celebrating that leap of vision which recognizes underlying concepts and concerns and then, by creative alchemy, translates that into something entirely different and contemporary. To me that does constitute both “a break with precedent” and a new expressive mode. There is a synthesis between Historicism and Modernism rather than a distinct separation. As I walked around the Exhibition I became more and more interested in the way that the photographers were achieving this and so I returned home with a list or photographers to research further.
Before I discuss these I must mention as well the excellent talk given to us beforehand by Aliki Braine who put the Exhibition into context. She is herself a conceptual artist with MA’s in Fine Art and the History of Art and uses photography in her work. See here and here.
History Pictures and Tableaux
Jeff Wall The Destroyed Room (1978)
In addition to following OCA’s suggestion of looking at his work on the MOMA site, I also looked at two YouTube videos – both of which illuminate Jeff Wall’s artistic credentials; the depth of his academic knowledge, extent of research and his creative inspirations and influences.
Wall had a strong grounding in Western art and he did further post-graduate work at The Courtauld Institute from 1979-1973. There was a gap of several years where he made no art and so The Destroyed Room is one of his earliest conceptual pieces of work. There are transcript extracts from two interviews (1985 and 1993) on the MOMA site where he talks specifically about this photograph. Wall states that he became interested in Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus partly because he was lecturing in romanticism at the time. The end of the Napoleonic period heralded the beginning of modern, bourgeois, neurotic private life in that the eroticized ideal of military glory was being turned inward, back towards domestic life.
Monumental paintings wove together themes of war and military glory with the conflicts of private life and Wall describes how he used this as ‘a crystal’ to pass his ideas through ‘the historical prism of another work’ and trying to establish a space for himself by suggesting which historical directions and problems were important to him. The subject matter of The Destroyed Room is to do with aggression, violence and revenge in domestic life. He links this with the way in which commercial window displays of clothing and furniture were at the time influenced by the punk phenomenon. Interestingly, the photography was presented as an ‘installation, a nearly life-size transparency, in the window frontage of a gallery in Vancouver.
I also watched two You Tube videos from 2011 and 2012 where Wall talks about his later works.
In Contact Vol 2 he refers to photography’s claim to represent something natural and show a truth and then cinemagraphic images where more or less truth performances could be recorded like in a good film. He collaborates with performers as painters collaborated with models and he talks of conveying a representation of an event to the viewer. He described how he created an event –for Dead Troops Talk a dialogue with the dead, a soviet patrol in Afghanistan – that he shot piece by piece and then scanned, digitized and assembled these into an electronic montage. this image was not in the Exhibition but, reading about it, I was reminded of Aliki Braine’s description of the way in which some large scale paintings had been put together, piece by piece, with the same models posing as different characters as in Thomas Couture’s Romans of the Decadence and then how this might have inspired Oscar Gustav Rejlander’s The Two Ways of Life a a composite image made from 30 separate glass plate negatives (H. Kingsley, 2012, p.112).
Returning to Jeff Walls. In the video referred to above he also states, “Pictures are also about maintaining an invisibility for things. I might make a picture that contains both what it shows and what it excludes”. He illustrates this with reference to his work Restoration – designed to be made with a panorama camera and taken so that it shows exactly half of the space, “and there’s a part that disappears behind the picture edges ….. there’s a woman looking into the space, into a part of the picture that you can’t see; to make a little accent to that notion that there’s a space outside”. (about 6 min in on the video).
I was struck by the drama in Julia Margaret Cameron’s Iago (Study from an Italian) , 1867 and how that same sense of brooding intensity, alluded to by the averted gaze, has been captured by Craigie Horsfield’s Hernando Gomez, Calle Serrano, Madrid, Diciembre 2006. Again, the gaze leads us outside the frame into what is for us, an imagined space. Horsefield introduced the concept of ‘slow time’ , “believes in the portrait’s capacity to transmit a sense of human intgriy, which incorporates consciousness” (H. Kingsley, 2012: 79)
Horsfield is a sound artist and creator of tapestries as well as a photographer and there is a PDF here that contains a variety of his work, including tapestries. That site also has some more detailed information about him and a video where he explains how he approaches the tapestries Slightly off the point I know but I wanted to acknowledge the breadth of his work and how he integrates his concepts into his multi dimensional practice. After all ‘slow time’ is a musical term.
This aspect of photography as being a medium to express beliefs rather than an end in itself, takes me to Maud Sulter.
I lingered for a long time over Sulter’s portrait of herself as Calliope, the muse of epic poetry. This is from the series Zabat 1989 that showed nine allegorical portraits of black women artists and Calliope marked the publication of Sulter’s book of poetry also entitled Zabat (the name of a traditional African dance exalting women’s strength.) I was sad to learn that she died too young at the age of 47, in 2008. Her obituary is here.
I was entranced by Calliope – her beautifully sculpted features, neck; shoulders and upper chest emerging in golden-hues from the dark background. With textures of her dark velvet robe almost inviting one to touch them. Sulter’s inspiration included C17th portrait painting and a small, cased photograph serves as the emblem of her vocation. Neither the post card I bought nor the photograph in the catalogue, although beautiful, have quite that same sense of luminosity and texture as that of the actual photograph. I also noted that whereas the photograph in the catalogue has her facing to the left, the one on the V&A site has her facing to the right!
The next portraits that fascinated me were photographic miniature by Bettina von Zwehl.
Bettina von Zwehl
Irini I and Irini II (2011). Large format images transposed into jewelled miniatures. These tiny portraits (5.8 cm diameter) looked like jewels in their glass case and they form a link between the painted miniatures , daguerrotypes and also the cartes des visites that became possible with the advent of new glass plate negatives and smoothly coated albumen paper. Bettina von Zwehl made these small portraits whilst artist in residence at the Victoria & Albert Museum and there is more information here concerning her approach and how her desire to build a bridge between the old and the new was just one of the many influences in her work. I have also read elsewhere that she used the ambient light from a particular window at the Museum for her subjects.
There is one more image that particularly drew me, in the Figure Studies section.
Richard Learoyd does not appear to have a working website of his own but some information about him can be found here and here He uses a specially built camera obscura to direct light onto positive photographic paper which means that every image is unique (except of course it must be scanned or otherwise reproduced to produce the postcard I bought). There are other images created by him in the Exhibition but it was the Man with Octopus Tattoo II 2011 that drew me; not only in knowledge of how it was created, but with its clarity of detail and, of course, the amazing tattoo.
I read somewhere (can’t find a link now) that Learoyd met this man in the street; and they got talking. The man mentioned his tattoo ; was willing to show it to Learoyd and then to be photographed. If I’ve got this entirely wrong please put me right anyone. I know of the tradition amongst sailors etc but I am intrigued by people who want to have a large part of their bodies covered by tattoos. Some of the people I worked with had them and I was always fascinated when they came to show me their latest one – especially if coloured and done by an expert. In that newly raw state they really did look like paintings with the body as a canvas. I’ve often wondered about the need to have them and the type of link with ‘pain’ and was always reminded of Ray Bradbury’s book The Illustrated Man.
Of course there are the artistic links with the Lacoon and the sea serpent (also about pain); the Gorgon and her writhing hair,; octopuses having a long tradition of union with women; the goddess Kali; also the photograph by Umiko Utsu of the woman with her head replaced by a pearly octopus and even The Ancient Mariner. I wondered what stories this man might tell and whether this interested Learoyd also.
I’ve only noted a proportion of the photographers and images that interested me in this Exhibition. In the end it wasn’t for me about any implied lowering of photography in a ‘hierarchy’ of Art or it being seen as ‘imitative’. I didn’t see any photographs that I reacted against really either so it isn’t a case of my going off to work out “Why?”. I just enjoyed the visual spectacle and also my perception of photography as being an Art in itself.
What struck me overall was the amount of work that can go into the making of a photograph; the depth of research; desire to re-imagine the work of earlier artists and combine new approaches with the old. Jeff Wall made me think again about ‘space’ and how the relationship between what’s inside and outside the frame can drawn the viewer in. Above all was my sense of these photographers as artists of many talents and influences .
Kingsley, H (2012) Seduced by Art:Photography Past and Present, National gallery Company Ltd, London
Shinkle, E (2012) Unremarkable Resemblance in Source, (Issue 73, 2012) The New Wave, Photoworks North, Belfast
Source, (Issue 73, 2012) The New Wave, Photoworks North, Belfast