Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present, National Gallery | Visual arts reviews, news & interviews
Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present, National Gallery
In a first for the National Gallery, the battle between art and photography lives on
"From today, painting is dead" was the forlorn conclusion of French painter Paul Delaroche on seeing a photograph for the first time in 1839. His gloomy prediction was premature, of course; more than 170 years on, the battle for supremacy is still raging.
Divided into genres such as Portraiture, The Figure and Still Life, the National Gallery’s first exhibition of photography follows the twists and turns of this ongoing war. The main casualty of the clash turns out not to be painting but engraving, the medium most often used to disseminate images prior to the invention of the camera. One of the snippets of information brought to light by this fascinating exhibition is that Roger Fenton, famed for his photographs of the Crimean War, augmented his income by photographing old master paintings or, better still, engravings because the black and white copies were more readily available and easier to reproduce than the originals.
Henry Fox Talbot, another pioneer, called the new medium "the pencil of nature", implying that because the images were made directly by light, they were more truthful than drawings or paintings. At the foot of Raphael’s Sistine Madonna, 1514, two plump cherubs lean on a ledge. The two children in O.G. Rejlander’s 1857 homage maintain similar poses by resting their arms on a box; according to a contemporary reviewer, this cute copy "tests Raphael by nature and beats him hollow".
Models were expensive to hire, so painters often relied for source material on anatomical engravings. These aroused in Delacroix "a feeling of revulsion, almost disgust for their incorrectness, mannerisms, and their lack of naturalness". Spotting an opportunity, photographers soon began supplying artists with male and female nudes in suitable poses. These "poorly built, oddly shaped... and not very attractive" specimens didn’t live up to the ideal of the academic nude, yet Delacroix claimed to learn "far more by looking (at them) than the inventions of any scribbler" and in 1853 he commissioned Eugène Durieu to photograph a series of nudes (pictured above right, © Gregg Wilson), which he helped to pose and light.
For many, though, veracity was not the issue. Photographers like Julia Margaret Cameron were keen to be accepted as artists, rather than just recorders of reality. Her version of a cupid is a child with wings, which attempts to outdo Raphael by evoking the inner world of the sulky model. With its richly dark sepia tones, her "Iago" is clearly inspired by Rembrandt’s portraits; the model’s introspective gaze and chiselled solemnity are intended to convey his inner being as convincingly as any Rembrandt. “My whole soul has endeavoured to do its duty,” she said, “in recording faithfully the greatness of the inner as well as the features of the outer man."
The struggle for acceptance as an art form would not fully be won for another hundred years. Nowadays, though, photographs are exhibited and sold alongside paintings, drawings and sculptures and have been joined by other "new" media such as film and video; while early photographs by pioneers such as Fenton and Cameron are an established part of the artistic canon. Seduced by Art therefore weaves a complex picture in which citations may be multi-layered – paying homage as much to photographs as Old Master paintings.
Nicky Bird recently spent time tracing the descendants of Cameron’s sitters on the Isle of White and, although not related to her, Bird’s niece Jasmin could easily be the sister of Kate Keown (pictured left above, © Gregg Wilson), who posed for Cameron 135 years earlier. The juxtaposition of photographs with probable sources of inspiration is not always as convincing as this pairing, though. Last year Richard Learoyd photographed a man naked save for a necklace and giant octopus tattooed across his left side. This arresting image (pictured overleaf: Man with Octopus Tattoo II) is hung beside a photograph of the Laocoön, a sculpture from 25 BC of a Trojan priest and his two sons hopelessly entwined in the suffocating coils of a sea serpent.
Subscribe to theartsdesk.com
Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 7,000 pieces, we're asking for £2.95 per month or £25 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.
To take an annual subscription now simply click here.
And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?
more Visual arts
Poor art and pretentious art, with lashings of art gobbledygook - not a vintage year
More than blue and white porcelain emerged from the 300-year dynasty
Conductor Jonathan Nott's world-class team is only one reason for visiting Germany's jewel
The landscape artist revealed as a student not just of nature but also of the Old Masters
A white artist recreates a 'human zoo'. Are we meant to be surprised at the blacklash?
New formulations and materials preoccupied the late sculptor to the end
A Catalan fishing village is the world capital of Surrealism
A modest but groundbreaking display brings together portraits of a great dynasty
A rich and multifaceted body of work that offers a modern twist on the memento mori
An exhibition that lends new insights and depth to the late photographer's work
Andrew Graham-Dixon begins an excellent trilogy about World War One artists with Paul Nash
Turner was a brilliantly radical artist, but was he of his time or outside it? Both, of course