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Painting with Light: The tug-of-war between painting and photography

Experimenting with interiority, subjectivity, ideas of perception

by Francesco Carelli, University Milan, Rome

carelliTate Britain uncovers the dynamic dialogue between British painters and photographers; from the birth of the modern medium to the blossoming of art photography. Spanning over 70 years, this exhibition brings together nearly 200 works – many for the first time – to reveal their mutual influences. From the first explorations of movement and illumination by David Octavius Hill (1802-70) and Robert Adamson (1821-48) to artful    compositions at the turn-of-the-century, the show discovers how painters and photographers redefined notions of beauty and art itself.

The dawn of photography coincided with a tide of revolutionary ideas in the arts, which questioned how pictures   should be created and seen. Mid -nineteenth innovations in science and the arts became part of intense debates about “truth “, variously defined as objective observation and as individual artistic vision.

Dependence, rivalry, envy, emulation: painting and photography, like members of a dysfunctional yet in­separable family, just cannot cast off lineages of influence and appropriation. Photography, from its appearance in 1839, looked to painting for fundamental models of depiction. Yet it threw the older medium into crisis, removing at a stroke painting’s unique capacity to bear witness.

How these two media leapfrogged through the Victorian age, defining themselves against one another, is the subject of Tate Britain’s exhibition Painting with Light.

It begins in Scotland, where the young chemist Robert Adamson developed the collotype. In the 1840s, with painter David Octavius Hill, Adamson produced soft sepia photographs of Edinburgh imitating Turner’s romantic compositions from Carlton Hill. The pair also collaborated on the “Disruption Portrait”, depicting from photographs, in individual detail and at the same scale, all 457 members of the rebel assembly that founded the Free Church of Scotland in 1843. This panoramic example of pictorial democracy still has a queasy, unsettling effect — one does not, in life, survey 457 people in close-up — but it marks the egalitarian spirit both of the non-hierarchic church and of the all-seeing camera.

Painters and photographers moved out of the studio, to explore light and other atmospheric effects as well as geological subjects, landscape and architecture. New photographic materials like glass plate negatives and coated printed papers offered greater accuracy and photography became a valuable aid for painters.

Ruskin advised artists to depict nature “rejecting nothing, selecting nothing” — like a camera. Tate juxtaposes John Everett Millais’s “The Woodman’s Daughter” (1850) with 1850s photographs including Francis Gresley’s “At Winterdyne” and the anonymous “Figure in a Wood”. The compositions in both media play on the luminosity of oblique light defining tree trunks, and immaculate recordings of each blade of grass, leaf, bough, and their shadows.

Painters now began to imitate photographers: Frederick Goodall’s orientalist fantasy “The Song of the Nubian Slave” (1863) takes its motif from Roger Fenton’s crystalline “Nubian Water Carrier” (1858). Fenton himself, on the other hand, studied painting in Paris; his sculptural neoclassical figure posed in a London studio — the wires to steady the jug on the model’s head are visible — looks back to Ingres and Delacroix.

Many photographers trained as painters. They set up studios and employed artists' models, skilled at holding poses for the time it took to take a picture. Later in the century, improved photographic negatives required shorter exposure times and it became easier to stage and capture difficult positions and spontaneous gestures.

  Photography adapted the Old Master traditions within which many photographers   had been trained, and engaged with the radical naturalism of JMW Turner (1775-1851), the Pre-Raphaelites, and their Realist and Impressionist successors. Turner inspired the first photographic panoramic views, and, in the years that followed his death, photographers and painters followed in his footsteps and composed novel landscapes evoking meaning and emotion. The exhibition includes examples such as John Everett Millais's (1829-

96) nostalgic The Woodman’s Daughter and John Brett’s (1831-1902) awe inspiring Glacier Rosenlaui. Later in the century, PH Emerson (1856-1936) and TF Goodall’s (c1856-1944) images of rural river life allied photography to   Impressionist painting, while JAM Whistler (1834-1903) and Alvin Langdon Coburn (1882-1966) created smoky Thames nocturnes in both media.

The exhibition celebrates the role of women photographers, such as Zaida Ben-Yusuf (1869-1933) and the renowned Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-79). Cameron's artistic friendships with George Frederic Watts (1817-  1904) and Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1830-94) are recognised in a room devoted to their beautiful, enigmatic portraits of each other and shared models, where works including Cameron’s Call, I Follow, I Follow, Let Me Die and Rossetti’s Beata Beatrix are on display.

Highlights of the show include examples of three-dimensional photography, which incorporated the use of models and props to stage dramatic   tableaux from popular works of the time, re-envisioning well-known pictures   such as Henry Wallis’s (1830-1916) Chatterton. Such stereographs were widely disseminated and made art more accessible to the public, often being used as a form of after-dinner entertainment for middle class Victorian   families. A previously unseen private album in which the Royal family painstakingly re-enacted famous paintings   is also exhibited, as well as rare examples of early colour photography.

 The relationship between landscape painting and photography continued to develop into the twentieth century. The etchings and nocturnes of James Abbott McNeill Whistler inspired photographers, who adopted his atmospheric subjects and aesthetics. While photography had achieved a technical sophistication that allowed photographers to produce highly resolved, realistic images, many chose to pursue soft - focus effects rather than detail precision.

 It would take over a century before photo-based approaches — Gerhard Richter, Andy Warhol — came to dominate painting, eventually co-opting it as a conceptual medium. But the beginnings of that process are here, as even Victorian traditionalists rapidly adopted the camera as a tool. Academic painter William Etty, proclaiming photography “a revival of Rembrandt”, was the first to paint a “Self-portrait” (1844) from a photographic source: downcast eyes reflecting his shy, private personality, rather than looking out at a mirror.

Even Rossetti, obsessively painting his lover Jane Morris from life, commissioned John Parsons to photograph her posed against a flat background, flowing hair and thick drapery accentuated, as aid to composing literary portraits such as “Mariana”. Rossetti’s heightened, sensory depiction — heavy fabrics, pale, soft skin, moist Cupid mouth, dreamy translucent eyes — demonstrates how painting answered photography with an exaggerated, almost hyperrealism. Painting’s alternative, ultimately more fruitful, response to photography was to go beyond naturalism, experimenting with interiority, subjectivity, ideas of perception, finally abstraction: modes dominating French 19th-century art and leading eventually to modernism.

That strand emerges in Victorian culture with Whistler: the ethereal, schematic moonlit river views “Nocturne: Blue and Silver — Cremorne Lights” and “Nocturne: Blue and Gold — Old Battersea Bridge”, which the artist called “an arrangement of line, form and colour first”, and which rejected painstaking Pre-Raphaelite realism and anecdote.   The “Nocturnes” owe debts to the camera’s flattening and cropping; in turn they informed fin-de-siècle pictorialist photography. Cuban-born Peter Emerson, initially shocked by Whistler’s “evil nocturnes”, attempted similarly misty renderings in photogravures.

Determined that photography have “its battle to fight and win” as painting’s equal, Coburn insisted nevertheless that it “achieve victory by virtue of its own merits — by the unique subtlety of its tonal range and its capacity to explore the infinite gradations of luminosity, rather than by imitating the technique of the draughtsman”. His innovative photogravures of London, with lights glistening on wet pavements; watery reflections are marvelous stage sets of light and shadow, and star in this generally underwhelming exhibition.

Showing photography and painting together is notoriously difficult: small, monochrome 19th-century photographs inevitably struggle against loud, salon-scale canvases and that is visible in this exhibition.  

Highlights

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