Painting with Light; Art and Photography from the Pre-Raphaelites to the modern age @ Tate Britain 20/05/2016

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The London Eye

I walk along the Thames from Somerset House to Tate Britain which takes over half an hour; one is forced to make something of a diversion around the Houses of Parliament which directly border the Thames.

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Houses of Parliament

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monument near Houses of Parliament

I buy the catalogue on the way in but have little time to see it before going into the exhibition. Jonathan (our mothers were life long friends) is where we arranged to meet near the ticket desk and we go for lunch. We do not discuss the exhibition beforehand; he has read some reviews, I have not even got that far yet there is something to be said for seeing an exhibition blind rather than with a mind conditioned by reviewers who often have to satisfy the preconceptions of their readers. One reviewer talks about the impact of photography on painting yet the intriguing message of this exhibition seems to be that photography and painting nurtured each other. For the practitioners, they were understood as two different mediums which existed coindependently rather than engaged in business rivalry although there is mention of copyright issues.
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We spend over two hours walking around this exhibition and I am not even making notes merely chatting with Jonathan. He finds some of my insights helpful such as pointing out the use of more than one negative to make a photograph as in Gustave Le Gray’s seascapes. I find his asides relevant such as his feelings towards the artist Watts whose work he has seen en masse elsewhere.
It is interesting to note the way the two mediums interact with each other. Painters employ photography to make records of scenes they can finish painting later while photographers themselves are inspired by painting to make similar looking photographs. Although this exhibition ends with the dawn of Modernism in the early twentieth century (others see Modernism as beginning much earlier with the Pre-Raphaelites being cited as early Modernists), a similar dialogue continues today.
One surprise is a photograph made by John Ruskin. His is not a name I associate with photography although obviously he can not have been blind to what was then a new and emerging medium although it was generally regarded as a method of recording rather than an art. Photography was another mechanical invention in an age characterised by many yet during the latter part of the nineteenth century it was started to be seen as something more than this with the rise of Pictorialism of which Henry Peach Robinson, featured in the show, was a major exponent.
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Jonathan waiting patiently for me; I am on time!

I do not make notes during my visit with Jonathan as I am returning later as part of a guided tour with the curator. The critique seems to be that this exhibition is too academic and not visual enough. Photography is a visual medium yet more and more, photographs are being read as cultural objects rather than being seen as visual marvels; this is presumably because there are just too many photographs out there and many are being imposed upon us notably in advertising.
Curator Carol Jacobi worked with an expert in nineteenth century photography! This exhibition is about the conversation between photography and painting.
Celebrating early painter-photographer relationship, Hill and Adamson. There is a painting and engraving of Edinborough by Turner from the top of Calton Hill as well as Hill and Adamson’s photography made in similar vein. Hill also painted this view.
Small, miniature painting by Hill of city from elevated position following deaths of Adamson and his daughter in childbirth. It is called In Memoriam!
The Disruption portrait is a huge painting of a convention that took place when there was a schism in the Scottish church. Every individual was photographed for Hill to paint at a later date; some of the photographic studies are also on show alongside the painting which has not been out of Scotland for over 100 years.
6 of the photographers in this exhibition are women; it seems to have been an acceptable occupation for them!
Daguerrotypes are also on show; they face each other!
Photography has a direct relationship to what is in front of the camera. Idea of truthfulness in art assumed greater importance. Photography aided the development of photography.
Ruskin’s albumen print is from Northern France. His photographs were used by his students to make copies. Detail in this image of ivy over medieval carving. His Perennial Cornflower is a wonderful study using pencil and brown ink while his Dandelion Seeds is actually a photoglyphic engraving.
Use of photographs as preparatory studies. Views of Jerusalem. Photographs might take a few hours to make but paintings took days. The photograph became aide memoires! Photography became a useful form of communication which is one of the reasons for it’s rapid growth.
Important essay now online is P.G.Hamerton “The relationship between Photography and Art” from his book, Thoughts on Art. For instance, deals with the problems of painting with white as it always off white of some kind is one subject discussed.
FG Stephens in 1850 from The a Germ; “Truth in every particular ought to be the aim of the artist .”
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Sometimes not easy to distinguish between a painting and a photograph; curators have been careful to label each image.
Photography not able to make instant views, snapshots, so tends to be more contemplative at this time.
Fenton was a prolific photographer of this era. He used wires to hold objects in place which later needed to be painted out. Required “patient models”.
Creation of tableaux vivants, story telling from British literature. The Lady of Shalott who could only see the world through a mirror; part of Arthurian legend. Julia Margaret Cameron a photographer who was inspired by Tennyson.
Album of photographs, privately owned by members of the royal family. The Davenport album used members of the family!
Photographs exhibited only for a relatively short time in the interests of archival preservation.
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“Whisper of the Muse”, the Holland Park Circle as it was known, included both painters and photographers. Use of friends and family as models. Relationship between Cameron and Watts for example. Rossetti made 18 photographic images of Morris’ wife with help from someone with technical knowledge; enabled him to make many paintings of Jane Morris over the next two decades. Woman waiting for her lover not knowing he has gilted her.
A photograph of the artist, GF Watts, by Cameron and a similar looking self-portrait of Watts are other artifacts on show here.
Turning point in exhibition! Photography no longer concerned with definition, more subjective with softer outlines.
Landscape became more important. Whistler is exhibited here. Rise in interest of naturalism and realism; ideas coming from intellectual development in Paris. “Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads” by Emerson is also being exhibited; the copy is a bit tatty having belonged to T.F.Goodall, the painter who travelled with Emerson and used his photographs in making paintings. I have to say that I find the photographs more attractive although they did not take nearly so long to make! P.H.Emerson had not just an eye for a beautiful image but the ability to capture one.
Naturalism had a real eye for beauty which is apparent in Emerson’s photography. Atmospheric effect and light! Luminous beauty not unlike that of Turner paintings whose Picturesque Views in England and Wales were a direct inspiration for members of The Linked Ring. There are a few views of Harlech Castle.
Whistler is quick to see the values of photographic representation. The way photography flattens things into designs, asymmetry within views.
Grimshaw was painting over photographs; the images were taken during the day then painted as night scenes.
Influence of turn of the century craze and fashion around Japanese art. Effected painting and photography. Photographs made in Japan became a source of inspiration for artworks. It was also around this time that the autochrome came into use, the beginnings of colour photography.
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Exhibition concludes with recognition of photography’s immense influence; no longer so intimate, more international.
Painters and photographers sharing theories of art, similar aesthetics. Recalling physique of Michelangelo subjects for instance. Idealised notions of beauty prevailed. Fred Holland Day exclaimed that photography was now less about chemistry and more about poetry; it seems he did not use the “A” word.
Holland Day’s work is featured in this final room; in “The Vision” he has superimposed images to make a study of the myth of Orpheus. Day was an American who was inspired by Keats. A nude by Day shows a much darkened figure whose form is barely visible in shadow but outlined by a meagre amount of side lighting; this image was probably influenced by a Michael Angelo study and is an example of work that won praise from the critic, Charles Caffin. Day was also a publisher.
Photographers could now make a lucrative career out of making photographs. (Could they not do so earlier as with the Daguerrotype?)
Subject of goddess who took a bite of pomegranate! International sharing of ideas and spirited relationship between painters and photographers. Biting of fruit signifies notion of shame. Three artworks deal with this theme with Rosetti painting, a photogravure by Zaida Ben-Yusuf and a more modern photograph by Minna Keene. Oscar Wilde also wrote “A House of Pomegranates”.
It is interesting to hear from the curator yet I wonder whether she might be coming from a background of painting as art rather than a photographic background in which art tends to be seen as an aspect of photography rather than it’s purpose.
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