The National Gallery, London, UK
It is often said that there are no original ideas, an expression never more apt than at the National Gallery's first exploration of photography and art. Staying loyal to its classical routes, the gallery exhibits hugely influential works from fine art alongside modern day photographic images. According to the guide it "suggests compelling ways in which fine art traditions e.g. painting have influenced modern photography since its conception in the mid 19th century." Sarah Roberts heads to the Sainsbury Wing of the Gallery to find out more.
Following the current curatorial trend for thematic rather than chronological exhibitions, Seduced by Art organises its works according to different genres of painting, telling a historical narrative of photography, from portrait to landscape, and each time referring back to classical fine art.
Setting the Scene
French painter Frédéric Villot's 'The Death of Sardanapalus' (1844) depicts a decadent, orgiastic interior scene of writhing half-clothed figures, washed with deep reds and the drama of a classical Delacroix composition. The painting sets the scene for the rest of the room as its influence echoes through the large scale photographic images. 'The Destroyed Room' (1978) by Canadian artist Jeff Wall reciprocates the movement and chaos of Villot's work, as amidst the rips and tears of its interior a scattering of objects, such as combs, pins, buttons and high heels, elude to the frenzy of human presence. Viewing the two pieces side by side, clear parallels can be seen in the texture, levels, colour and context of the compositions.
In 1839 the advent of photography was about to change the way art was perceived forever. The ability to capture an image and reproduce it many times shook the very core of human perception. Previously, the viewer adhered to a classically influenced view of the figure, in the context of Ingres and the ancient Greek nude. With photography came a renewed celebration of the female form, which ranged from those classical poses to a pornographic capturing of the flesh.
The French photographer Louis-Jean Baptiste Igout (1837-1881) embarked on a series of works entitled Académies that included a huge range of photographic images of the male and female form. His contact sheets of the contorted muscles of a male nude resonate for me beyond the walls of the exhibition, from Rodin's gargantuan bronze figures to the athletes of Leni Riefenstahl's 1939 film, 'Olympia'.
Igout's female nudes stand as if sculptures, bodies half veiled, amidst a decadent, classic interior. The passive female figures
of these early photos depict in essence the same naked female from decades before. As next to French Neoclassical painter Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres' 'Angelica saved by Ruggieroi' (1819-39), vulnerability and submissiveness still dominates the figure.
The face has been recorded throughout the history of fine art, the photograph serving only to strengthen the legacy of this image. In classical painting, the portrait has often been used to signify class and the separate levels of society. For 20th century photographers, such as the British artist Martin Parr, the purpose is no different. Parr's raw photojournalistic style captures reportage of "real" life through its everyday subjects. 'Sign of the Times, England 1991' seeks to portray a typical middle class couple and their mundane suburban life. But the couple are too young, the context strangely off. Hanging adjacent to this large scale photographic print a mid-18th century oil on canvas entitled 'Mr and Mrs Andrews' (1750) by the English painter Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788) shows a frightening likeness to Parr's pseudo-reality in its "satirical portrait of a protracted pose" that, to the modern viewer, seems nothing but fake.
In terms of composition, the influence of still life and its organisation of forms lie at the core of any successful image. This part of the exhibition exposes the bond between the classic 17th century Dutch painters and modern day photography. American photographer Nan Goldin's 'My bed, Hotel la Louisiane, Paris' (1996) pictures a collection of objects arranged on a mattress. The colour palette and textures of the image, its ochre hues and shadows, create a snapshot of an interior that is likened to a modern day version of Caravaggio's classic 'The Supper of Emmaus' (1601) by the Italian Baroque master.
The exhibition's final room is concerned with landscape and, as the well-loved images of oak trees and broad sweeping fields come into view, it seems clear to me what Seduced by Art is trying to achieve: to emphasise a common visual language that continues to inform human existence. Certain colours, textures, poses and compositions form the backbone to our perception of fine art, from classical painting to contemporary photography. The tiniest accent of which recalls an emotive understanding of the canvas and a shared human need for the image. Yes, we all see things differently but a fundamental visual language binds our understanding and love of life and art.
Sarah Roberts, Assistant Editor
Seduced by Art: Photography Past & Present. All images © The National Gallery, London