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Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present.

“The exhibition explores early photography from the mid-19th century and the most exciting contemporary photographs, alongside historical painting. It takes a provocative look at how photographers use fine art traditions, including Old Master painting, to explore and justify the possibilities of their art. “

Overall, this exhibition was a bit of a curates egg. There were striking photographic images by photographers I’m embarrassed to never have heard of, juxtaposed with artists of equal fame.  Whilst hand-crafted paintings and mechanical reproductions were of equally high technical and artistical merit, I was at a bit of a loss as to the overall point of the exhibition.  The tag-line appears to explain its purpose, and yet the curation seemed to set an oil painting alongside a similar looking photograph (often times near identical) and  present this as some deep revelation that an artist in a contemporary medium has been influenced by an artist in an historical one.  Comparing the medium of depiction seemed erroneous and misleading.

Where the comparison of historical art to contenporary photography proved valuable and insightful was when the photographer/artist revealed a new interpretation, had taken “fine art” as inspiration and brought the themes and symbology of historical setting and represented those in equally moving, but contemporary ways with a “new”medium.

Eugène Delacroix - The Death of Sardanapalus (detail)

Eugène Delacroix – The Death of Sardanapalus (detail)

Tom Hunter: The Death Of Coltelli

Tom Hunter (an equally lay opinion here) appears to have been inspired by masterly art for his works, some more successful than others, Seeing these in isolation would I’m sure have heightened their impact and the spectators reaction to them, a joy I’m sure those who first saw these works are very grateful for, as seeing these in comparison seemed to rob both inspirator and inspired of their original power.

However, Jeff Wall’s  “The Destroyed Room” takes inspiration from the same classical art as Tom Hunter, using the same compositional element of the red canvass and the sweeping bright diagonal, but shifts the timeline of the chaos.  There retains within Hunters image an element of voyeurism, of intruding on a private moment, maybe a reluctance to inquire too closely, where as Wall’s interpretation appears “post-trauma”.  The motivation here is to feel compelled to inquire what happened, to piece together the scene and rebuild the destroyed room, to wind back to determine the source of chaos.  Artefacts of the missing presence bestrew the room, a clearly feminine room, and a sense of menace pervades.

Jeff Wall: The Destroyed Room (1978)

Jeff Wall: The Destroyed Room (1978)

Eugène Delacroix - The Death of Sardanapalus (1827)

Eugène Delacroix – The Death of Sardanapalus (1827)

Not all the collection was as inspiring or instructional as these introductions.  The exhibition quickly seemed to drop to meaningless comparisons of classical art versus photographic imagery,  interesting, but not much point, they’re different.

After the middling pleasantry that formed the larger proportion of the exhibition, it redeemed itself with Luc Delahaye. Scale is not normally, in my limited experience, something associated with Photography.  So much of our awareness and consumption of reproduction is on the small scale.  We seem somehow to perceive “art” to be on a greater scale, but seeing the photography by Delahaye was revelatory, not only for its scale, but also his unique reworking, or interpretation of the classical in a modern medium with contemporary themes.  Here, comparison worked not only as an assessment of compositional or thematic inspiration, but also as historical commentary.

Vernet: Battle of Jemmapes

Vernet: Battle of Jemappes

Luc Delahaye: US Bombing of Taliban Positions

Luc Delahaye: US Bombing of Taliban Positions

The positioning of Delhayes’s “US Bombing of Taliban Positions” could have been made with any classical battle vista.  The reference is clearly there, what’s missing is the turmoil of battle.  The image lacks any historical context, other than its title. The image bears no decisive moment, is this during or after battle?  Only the plumes of smoke give any intimation of timing.  The absence of chaos in the scene also indicates the distance of modern warfare from its recipients.  As juxtapositions go, this was most striking.  The contrast of the quiet, distant, almost peaceful location of the view (one can almost imagine the just departed goat herd) with the implied mayhem and slaughter taking place, also out of view, is disturbing.  Inherent in the image is the vast gulf that exists between modern warfare and the stone age recipients of it.  There is no close up human struggle, no hand to hand animal combat, just remote death instigated from an office probably thousands of miles away.

Is photography art?  Undoubtedly yes.  But its practitioners range in quality and artistic talent as in any other medium.   All art is inspired, influenced and moved by precedent, either as a progression of an idea, or in revolt to one.  I’m not sure that this exhibition had anything new or revealing to say, but certainly the works on display, especially of Delahaye, Hunter and Wall were a revelation.

Luc Delahaye: 132nd Ordinary Meeting of the Conference (2004)

Luc Delahaye: 132nd Ordinary Meeting of the Conference (2004)

Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present.- The National Gallery 30/10/2012 – 20/01/2013

A proper review here

Posted by lostolmos on November 11, 2012

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