Thursday, 15 November 2012

Photography vs painting: 2 exhibitions

Seduced by Art
National Gallery, 31 October 2012 – 20 January 2012

Pace Gallery, 4 October – 17 November 2012

Irini II, photograph by Bettina von Zwehl.
Exhibitions trying to promote photographs over paintings only reveal the weaknesses in the former medium.

The National Gallery exhibition specifically attempts to display the influence of painting, specifically oil painting, on photographers. The private Pace Gallery only compares Mark Rothko’s paintings and Hiroshi Sugimoto’s photographs, though as the Rothkos are from private collections and not for sale, I assume we are supposed to be concentrating on the photographs.

Primed by Brian Sewell’s ferocious attack on ‘Seduced by Art’, I didn’t have high expectations, but I left feeling the old curmudgeon had gone a little too far. That said, it is easy to think the curators were biased against photography from the outset – to be seduced by art implies photography is not itself art.

As if the title were a self-fulfilling prophecy, most of the photographs are indeed poor art. This isn’t a case of good photographers being trumped by great painters, as it might easily have been: many of the paintings for comparison were also poor. But any of them had greater intrinsic interest than most of the photographs.

In contrast, at the Pace I felt that the curators did Sugimoto no service by inviting comparison with Rothko.

Overall, both exhibitions rest on a false premise: that photography and oil painting are simply two different forms of visual art, much as oil paintings might hang next to drawings.

This assumption seems fairest with still life, which celebrates the mere technique of the oil painter in depicting things. A good photographer can do the same. This seems to confirm John Berger’s  idea that advertising photos continue the oil painting tradition, in stressing the tangibility, and perhaps desirability, of objects.

But everwhere else, and even in the best painted still lifes, there is the critical difference of composition.

A painter, with whatever technique, be it watercolour, fresco or computer generated images, must choose what to include, and can change details as necessary.

A photograph is first of all a record of something. The photographer can control composition to some extent, but almost every line and contrast and the way these connect is given, and cannot be changed without massive intervention.

Even portraits, where photos have taken precedence over paint, are very different depending on the medium. A good photo portrait, like any photo, captures a moment. A painting must necessarily capture something different, and in the greatest portraits it seems to depict a context, or the inner life.

As you’d expect, this difference is clearest in the landscapes at the National, where even the trickiest modern efforts, digitally compiling a view, are nonetheless required to be a documentary. This is how the sky looked, or could look like.

Sugimoto supposedly photographs landscapes, but they are so treated as to make them effectively abstract slabs of dark or light. In this respect, I agree with the curators that he is aiming for something similar to Rothko, in whose hands landscapes became completely abstract, and the communicative aspect became intensely, almost too intensely, direct.

On its own, some of Sugimoto’s work is very effective. But despite apparent similarity with Rothko, the painter is much more powerful. Part of this is due to the irritating symmetry of the planes in the photographs compared to Rothko. But comparing the symmetrical Untitled, 1969 with the photos, I was struck by the differences in texture. Some of this is even captured in the comparison (a photo, so limited) offered by the Pace here.
The painting is composed. As we can see the brush strokes, we know it has been composed. That the artist wanted precisely this effect, at this point. I perceive the overwhelming effect of a Rothko being this sense of struggling to communicate. Sugimoto doesn't achieve this.
Some of the finest photos in Seduced by Art exploit this difference between the media. An image cheekily entitled ‘the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction’, depicting various reproductions, and being itself one, is amusing. A photo of people looking at a painting in such a way that they merge with the painting’s scene, is an ingenious trompe l’oiel
National Gallery I, London 1989, by Thomas Struth. From Tate.
Another image arrestingly highlights the texture of Goya’s portrait of Wellington, while perhaps the finest are von Zwehl's two tiny portraits of a woman, where the lighting is so careful that for once it feels that a photo is ‘painting realistic’ rather than the other way round.
It’s a shame that Sugimoto’s photos weren’t displayed at the larger exhibition, as they would have illustrated that photography can indeed convey the same power as painting, in the hands of a serious, fine artist.

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