Photography Given Kudos In First National Gallery Exhibition – Review

The exploration of the relationship between painting and photography is so large a topic that this complex, sober exhibition cannot help but omit some of the key strands that have come to define this symbiosis. Indeed, curator Hope Davis acknowledges this fact when stating the show sets out to make an argument about the links between historical art, art history, and early and contemporary photography. This is one of the first times the National Gallery has shown photographs so this is a significant moment in charting the intersection between the two forms, and it is treated with appropriate gravity, yet one can’t help but feel, despite the venue, that there could have been a more adventurous exploration of so fruitful an avenue. There are some delightful moments here, and some excellent work, but little of new import, at least with regards photography’s increased cultural currency. On the other hand, as a an exhibit designed for large audiences probably deaf to photography’s claims of status, this is very well organised introduction.

Broken up into 5 rooms, the show begins with ‘Setting the Scene’ in which the the curator seeks to outline her approach. Here, Ferdinand-Victor-Eugene Delacroix’s painting ‘Death of Sardanapalus’, from the 19th century, is shown as the inspiration for Jeff Wall’s ‘A Destroyed Room’ and Tom Hunter’s ‘Death of Coltelli’. Hunter and Wall are predictable inclusions as they often directly reference the work of the masters in their work, although the blurb on the wall argues that there are also compositional and formal references at play. Far more interesting is Sarah Jones’s interpretation ‘The Drawing Studio’, in which the photographer incorporates a contemporary sense of absence.On the right side of the room, the themes raised by an early Oscar Gustav Rejlander, ‘The Two Ways of Life’, itself shown to be influenced by an 18th Century Aquila Etching, are echoed in Karen Knorr’s photograph ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, with a cheeky postmodern flourish. The ‘tripod’ (curator’s word) approach is thus established, in which classic paintings and early photography are seen as key influences on contemporary photographic practice, and early photography is itself, shown to be founded upon art historical practices and concepts.

Jeff Wall, The Destroyed Room, 1978, printed 1987
Cibachrome transparency in fluorescent lightbox
158.8 x 229 cm
National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Purchased 1988

In Room 2: Portraits, a Martin Parr image is shown to reference a Gainsborough, and a Margaret-Cameron is shown to ape Corregio’s ‘The Madonna and the Basket’. Tina Barney’s portraiture is included alongside some obligatory Struth, both photographers who, like Hunter and Wall, explicitly reference Art traditions in their work. And so the pattern repeats across the remaining rooms, divided into the major Art Historical subject matter. In room 3: The Figure, the show’s signature image, frankly overrated, ‘Man with Octopus Tattoo 2’ by Richard Learoyd is somewhat tenuously associated with an Ingres.. By contrast, the wonderful Rineke Dijkstra is shown to have been influenced by Eugene-Emmanuel Amaury-Duval’s ‘The Birth of Venus’ with more success, but again it is fairly direct referencing by photographers known to directly reference. Surely there would have been added value in exploring more lateral cross-fertilisation between the forms, in which the influence of the Art Historical is more situated in the practitioner’s subconscious, then in or as an explicit point to his/her work. The influence of Painting need not be so obviously foregrounded.

© X7796
Richard Learoyd, Man with Octopus Tattoo II, 2011
Unique Ilfochrome photograph
148.6 x 125.7 cm
Courtesy of McKee Gallery, New York
© Richard Learoyd, courtesy McKee Gallery New York

Some of the strongest work comes in Room 4: Tableaux. As a concept this allows the curation the most room to breathe, as it is the process of staging that tie these pairings together rather than subject matter per se. The juxtaposition of the traditional war painting ‘Battle of Jemappes ‘ by Emile-Jean-Horace Vernet, full of romantic detail and bustling human endeavour, with Luc Delahaye’s ‘U.S Bombing on Taliban Positions’, in which the nature of modern conflict is expressed through the absence of any such endeavour, any such romanticism, and all that remains is a smoke trace of violence, is the most delightful in the show. There is meaning in this relationship. Another delight is Jorma Puranen’s commissioned piece ‘Shadows and Reflections (after Goya)’ in which the artist has photographed Goya’s ‘The Duke of Wellington’ portrait in such a way as to include a band of reflected light along the top, exposing the texture and materiality of the paint as well as, arguably, the loss of the role of such portraiture in the modern world.

The Still Life room (room 5) offers pleasures and frustrations in equal measure. Ori Gersht’s excellent ‘Blow-up: Untitled 5’ in which he blows up a real fruit-bowl modelled on Adolphe Braun’s ‘Study of Tulips’ is a glimmer of the exciting things this show could have done. The inclusion of a Nan Goldin seems tokenistic here. But what of Irving Penn, or other still life photographers who, despite not photographing fruit bowls, are as relevant to keeping on or subverting the tradition as those included. Again need this relationship be so academic! The final, Landscapes and Seascapes room redeems, with its inclusion of an poignant Richard Billingham seascape, and the well seen but still surprising ‘Fenweh’ by Tacita Dean
© X7840
Ori Gersht, Blow-Up: Untitled 5, 2007
Lightjet print mounted on aluminium, 248 x 188 cm x 6 cm (framed),
Mummery + Schnelle, London
© Courtesy of the Artist and Mummery + Schnelle, London

Within the permanent collection in the Wilkins building are three interventions in which photographs are hung alongside pieces from which they have derived inspiration. Another excellent Billingham landscape hangs alongside its Constable muse, but the Craigie Horsfield piece inspired by Degas, ‘ E.Horsfield. Well Street, London, February, 1987’ is painfully, heart-achingly beautiful and a clear highlight.

© X7591
Richard Billingham, Hedgerow (New Forest), 2003
Lightjet print mounted on aluminium
122 x 155 cm (framed)
Southampton City Art Gallery (11/2004)
© The Artist, courtesy of the Anthony Reynolds Gallery London

Overall this feels like a show curated by Art Historians, Art Curators, who see Photography as an extension of the practices and traditions that have arguably underpinned most cultural practice over the last centuries. This is a perfectly justifiable position, and there are many aesthetic and formal continuities teased out here, but to focus so closely on a group of photographers whose practice is based around referencing their cultural forebears is to weaken the message the show seems intent on putting across. Many photographs are made by practitioners who do not see themselves as owing anything to either Art or Early Photography, yet still do, and to have included them, to have made a slightly more contentious statement would have opened this concept right up, As it is, this exhibition is safe, methodical, complex and occasionally delightful.

Main Image: © X7574
Luc Delahaye, 132nd Ordinary Meeting of the Conference, 2004
Digital C-type print, 138.7 x 300 cm
Wilson Centre for Photography
Courtesy Luc Delahaye and Galerie Nathalie Obadia

Words: Kerim Aytac

Seduced by Art at the National Gallery

31 Oct-20 Jan 2013

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