Painting Exposed

Painting with Light (11 May-24 September 2016, Tate Britain)

I am bringing two pieces of baggage to this show.

Firstly a sense that a few London galleries seem to be finding excuses to show the ever popular Preraphs — compare the National Gallery Painters’ Paintings and the V&A’s Botticelli. And also the talk by Karen Shepherdson on Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr puts a debate about photography as art and commerce onto my mind. And having just seen William Eggleston at The National Portrait Gallery, my mind was on art.

This show looks at the relationship between photography and painting, between the pioneer days in Scotland and the early twentieth century, obviously focusing on British practitioners. On one level, photography is clearly there to replace painting – why bother with all the effort of oils and canvas when you can expose a view in seconds? Photography documents what is there.

Unfortunately, of course, we then devalue photography because its instantaneous nature reduces labour – pointing and clicking removes work.

A naive position. The choice of lens, exposure, focal length and framing all takes expertise, and the time spent in a dark room and printing an image will have an impact on the image produced.

So we have a series of photographs and (mostly) paintings, with the photographs as source for the paintings or photographs as parasitic on paintings. In the critical discourse around adaptation, we tend to favour the original over the copy – the novel is better than the film version of the novel…

Or not.

But would we like the photographs more or less without the alibi of painting?

Photography was invented more or less at the same time in France and England — Louis Daguerre in the late 1830s and William Henry Fox Talbot in England in the mid-1830s. Whilst Daguerre gave his techniques to the world and the daguerreotype craze took hold, Fox Talbot controlled things with a London patent. His decision not to apply for protection in Scotland left a gap for two pioneers there.

Painter David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson came together on a five year project to produce a painting of The Disruption, a recreation of the 1843 break away of the Free Church from the established Church of Scotland, at the suggestion of physicist David Brewster. Hill and Adamson took many portraits of friends and colleagues, as well as people who were at the Disruption and fishermen and local working women. These were pieced together to form a composite portrait, with an appropriate democracy of representation, which was then painted over. They also took photos from Calton Hill and Edinburgh Castle, some of which are photos in their own right, others were sources from paintings or engravings, some in dialogue wit the ever preset J.M.S. Turner. There’s a portrait of William Etty, the York-born artist notorious for his seductive female nudes and his heroic male nudes; Etty was to use the photo as basis for a self-portrait.

Meanwhile, back in London, photography had its scientific uses — recording plants and specimens, details of architecture — which could then be used in books and journals or as inspiration for painting. Atkinson Grimshaw lifts a boulder for a Lake District painting, a record of cliff faces may aid a Pegwell Bay — A Recollection of October 5th 1858, although William Dyce adds Donoti’s Comet. Thomas Seddon takes 120 to paint what James Graham photographed; William Holman Hunt can start a view of Nazareth on the spot but use the photo to fill in the gaps. The colour action of painting can enrich the perspective, distinguishing the hills, where the chemicals of Gareth’s exposure are too greyed.

Photography also aids the studio — Roger Fenton’s photographs of westerners in exotic dress or jugs balanced (with wires) on their heads, offers source material for orientalist paintings and can be used as publicity for the painters. Fenton entered into an agreement with the British Museum to record key items — such as the Elgin Marbles — for documentary purposes and sold prints of these to fund the venture. The British Museum, recognising a nice little earner, appropriated the negatives in 1859 and started their own merchandising. Julia Margaret Cameron, come to photography in middle age, returns painting to photography by restating such images with models — and I suspect is one of the few photographers to emerge from the exhibition with artistic status, perhaps thanks to the recent recovery work on her reputation.

Photography seems to enter into a dialogue with art in the recreation of tableaux — the Death of Chatterton, the Lady of Shalott is created on paper and canvas, and even the royal family seems to recreate artwork in the odd corner of a palace. Whilst a painter is free to select what she paints, photographers such as Henry Peach Robinson and Roger Fenton get criticised for printing multiple negatives; painting is clearly honest lying. Stereoscopes also allow the monetisation of artwork and staged recreations of them.

The rise of photography aside photography creates a fruitful interaction — Julia Mitchell Cameron is a neighbour in Holland Park with painters such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti and G.F. Watts, and links up to Alfred Tennyson and the Princep family. The painters and poets pose for the photographer, the painters illustrate poets, the photographer recreates portraits. Again I get a sense of photography as leisure, monetisation or publicity, part of a social glue rather than aesthetic statement. Photography takes place in the garden, conservatory or studio, an upper middle class occupation still.

Photography becomes even more functional — painting goes outside in the last third of the nineteenth century and photography allows the recording of details for finishing in the studio. Peasant workers and tools, boats and landscapes are documented, allowing an aesthetic of the rural. Meanwhile the rise of a kind of proto-Impressionism in Whistler’s nocturnes inspire Alvin Langdon Coburn’s night photography. Underexposure of photographs can give the illusion of night, and the blur can be used to aesthetic effect. Atkinson Grimshaw produces his fantastic paintings of cities at night — Pall Mall and St James on display here, Liverpool and Newcastle elsewhere — by painting onto photographs.

As we reach the twentieth century, the Lumières give us colour photography in the form of autochrome, which demands great dexterity and forward thinking from the photographers in terms of their use of colour and more dark room difficulties. (It might be noted that photography as art was slow to embrace colour — it was fine for fashion, butt it was not until the 1970s that photography in colour entered the gallery with any frequency.) Added to this, a fad for Japanese prints in London impacted on subject matter in both media.

In summary, this becomes a mixed bag of paintings — there are good paintings but few great ones — and I still feel the photography comes off as second fiddle. But it is an interesting conversation to follow, even if the British context narrows things a little. Across at Tate Modern, Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings are in dialogue with Alfred Stieglitz her husband’s pictures, and Munch and Astrup draw on and use photography. It is less awkward than the National Gallery’s conversation between classic paintings and photography from a few years ago, and we also need to navigate the technical history of cameras that impacts on what can be done.

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