Sunday, 18 September 2016

There is a light that never goes out.

The invention of photography in 1839 contributed to a period of change for visual art in Britain. New technologies and innovations led to a 'conversation' between photographers and painters which shaped the work of both during the Victorian and Edwardian ages.

Tate Britain's Painting With Light exhibition begins in Edinburgh in the 1840s. Auld Reekie was home to a community of scientists, writers, and artists. In 1843 Robert Adamson established one of the first photographic studios. Together with the painter David Octavius Hill they took more than two thousand photos over a four year period. That's even more than I take on my phone most weeks.

These works were symbolic of the relationship between photography and painting/drawing. Compare JMW Turner's Edinburgh from Caulton Hill (below, top) with Hill and Adamson's far less idyllic photo of the same place for example. 

Hill's 1846 oil painting fuses both the idealistic and the realist approach to satisfying effect.

Photographs at the time, despite often being resolutely bleak, were being compared to the works of masters like Titian and Rembrandt. Hill and Adamson aimed to capture the cosmopolitanism of Scottish society, schisms in the church, and different styles of Highland dress.

Intense debates about the truthfulness of art became part of the ongoing debate. Inspired by artist and critic John Ruskin an approach of 'rejecting nothing, selecting nothing' took hold in which both painters and photographers left the warmth of the studio to explore light and atmospheric effects.

The effects were varied. Ruskin's Courtyard of a Late Gothic Wooden House, Abbeville and John Everett Millais's almost chocolate box Woodman's Daughter seem to have nothing in common but both sprang from this line of questioning and thought.

More impressive were those artists who grappled with the concept of awe. John Brett's 1856 Glacier at Rosenlaui was based on a Coventry Patmore poem and William Dyce made Pegwell Bay look somehow otherworldly and not at all near Ramsgate. Atkinson Grimshaw's Bowder Stone, Borrowdale almost looks like a photograph. Even to our modern eyes.

Once they'd got outside there was no stopping them. In Italy John Brett painted Florence from Bellosguardo. Thomas Seddon and William Holman Hunt travelled even farther afield. To Israel where Seddon made Jerusalem and the Valley of Jehoshaphat from the Hill of Evil Counsel (catchy name) and Holman Hunt got to grips with Nazareth. Bold colours and sun dappled affects dominate these canvasses.

There was, of course, more than a little exoticism at play here. Orientalism, as defined by Edward Said, was ramped up even further with Frederick Goodall's Song of the Nubian Slave in 1863. Frank Dillon's fetishisation of Mamluk architecture in A Room in the House of Sheikh Al-Sadat at Wafa'Iya, Cairo could easily be accused of the same. Yet they're both elegant and tender works that can only be admired whatever our reservations.

The use of tableaux was also popular at this time. Shakespeare was ripe for interpretation but it appears that Tennyson, more than anyone else, was the go to guy. He was a direct inspiration for Holman Hunt, Edward Burne-Jones, and Millais.

Julia Margaret Cameron drew from Arthurian legend and Henry Wallis painted, in 1856, the suicide of the 18th century poet Thomas Chatterton. It's a real event but one imagines Wallis allowed himself as much artistic license as Chatterton did arsenic.

Of local interest to me was Edwin Landseer (most famous for the lion sculptures at the base of Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square) and his painting The Plundering of Basing House. Cromwell's troops are seen sacking, and disrespecting, the Charles I loyalist stronghold that still stands on the edge of Basingstoke.

With Tennyson still chief inspiration Julia Margaret Cameron took the photo of his Elaine mourning Lancelot in the 1870s. It shares compositional similarities with Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Beata Beatrix from a decade earlier. Rossetti was emboldened by Baudelaire's suggestion that art made from memory could be more powerful than art made from life. At the bottom of these three works you can see his Mariana from 1870 and draw your own conclusions. Personally I have problems with the pre-Raphaelites and their wilful obsession with a past that never was. I reckon they'd vote Brexit.

The landscape painting of the time could go either way. Taking cues from French impressionism and realism but transporting the action, if it could be called that, to Norfolk paid dividends artistically for Thomas Frederick Goodall. 1883's Rockland Broad and Bow Net from three years later hardly appear to be from the brush of the same artist but both convey an ache for capturing life as it was at the time.

They're good but they suffer by sharing a room with works that to my mind are amongst the greatest ever produced by any artist in any era. Whistler's Nocturnes are utterly joyous to me. Yearning, wistful, longing. I almost feel as happy looking at them as I do when walking along a river or a beach on a cool summer's evening.

As if in reaction to the clarity of photography artists, and none more so than Whistler, were taking a more expressive approach. Beneath the two Whistlers you can see Alvin Langdon Coburn's Regent's Canal from 1904. Almost ironically Coburn sought to create photography as hazy and ambiguous as a Whistler nocturne. He also underlines Whistler's debt to Hokusai and the Japanese tradition of wood carving. I can't emphasise enough how much I adore these paintings. Click on them and make them large!

Other artists found other ways to depict the city at night and to approach the relatively new phenomenon of street lighting. Arthur Hacker's Wet Night at Piccadilly Circus from the 1910s conveys London as a blur of nocturnal action. It's the logical next step from Atkinson Grimshaw's slightly more sober, though no less groundbreaking, Pall Mall from three decades before.

Japanese culture was very much the thing in Britain in the second half of the nineteenth century and although it was viewed through a highly romantic prism it contributed to advances in our artistic language. Flattened planes, new colour palettes, and cropped formats all became part of the vocabulary. Theodore Roussell's Reading Girl (1886) and John Singer Sargent's Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (1885) being prime examples.

Yet the lure of mythology and the epic didn't entirely loosen its grip. George Frederic Watts's Orpheus and Eurydice from 1869 and Rossetti's Proserpine, painted five years later, both continued to look for different routes forward, backwards, and sideways. In the end it was the likes of Whistler and Grimshaw that pointed the way towards modern art. Photography had played a pivotal part in the advances they made and shaped the way art is viewed today.

If you think the camera never lies you need to sit down and have a good long chat with one some day very soon.

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