Seduced by Art: Photography Past & Present

IMG_2907I was truly delighted to be invited to a private view of the current exhibition at the National Gallery, Seduced by Art Photography Past and Present last week.   The invitation was especially exciting as it had come as a result of the blog, and my occasional reviews of art exhibitions on in London.

This is billed as the first major exhibition of photography put on by the National Gallery, but timed as it is, perhaps coincidentally, concurrently with the major show of William Klein’s work at Tate Modern, I feel as if I’ve been on a mini photo immersion programme.

When I wrote about the Klein exhibition, I admitted that I didn’t really understand what made photography, or more particularly, his photography, ‘art’.   Thanks to a very engaging talk by one of the curators at the National Gallery, I have a much better understanding of the thought process behind their exhibition.

It has been hung so as to facilitate ‘a conversation’ between the photography and some of the major works in the Gallery’s main collection; so, for example, Gainsborough’s portrait of Mr and Mrs Andrews is alongside Signs of the Times, England, a 1991 portrait of an unnamed couple in their home.  While the two pieces are very different from each other, we were invited to compare their vocabulary, of what hints and symbols we can see of what the subjects chose to surround themselves with; that we can look at a portrait from 20 years ago and make certain judgements about the people by what they are wearing and what we can see in their home.  These same type of messages would have been as clear to an 18th century audience of the Gainsborough.

The hilariously bad tempered critic Brian Sewell has derided the concept of photography being art because, and I paraphrase with reckless abandon, it is too simple to click and take a picture, that there is no proper artistic preparation and process and therefore no artistic depth to a photograph.

It is entirely thanks to the talk that I now understand enough of some of the pieces in the exhibition to be able to disagree with Sewell on this point.

The Destroyed Room by Jeff Wall is a large transparency displayed in a lightbox, showing exactly that, a destroyed bedroom, with slashed mattress and dishevelled chest of drawers, and piles of discarded shoes and clothes.  It is juxtaposed with a small study of The Death of Sardanapalus after Delacroix, the colours and sweeps of which it echoes.  But it was having the fact that through the window of the destroyed room it is possible to see the struts supporting the outside wall, thus revealing it to be a staged tableau, that made me appreciate that the photo is but the end result of an entire process; the artist had arranged the artefacts to create the effect he wanted and had then photographed them.  This is not just a snap.

The second piece that I enjoyed was Blow Up: Untitled 5, 2007 by Ori Gersht, a large print on aluminium, showing the moment a floral arrangement explodes, literally blowing up a still life with flowers.  Apparently the photographer freezes a flower arrangement with liquid nitrogen and then captures the precise instant small explosive charges send its shattered pieces through the air.  Something about wondering how many times he’d had to try it to get it to work properly added to my appreciation of the drama of the picture.

My Bed, Hotel La Louisiane, Paris by Nan Goldin made me laugh, both because it’s the sort of photo I often take, (although mine aren’t as good) and, with the crumpled sheets, the food resting on a paper bag and the open books, it could quite easily be MY bed in any number of hotels.

As well as the main exhibition we were also invited to visit the room dedicated to a temporary show of some late works by Richard Hamilton, a painter but also one of the pioneers of digital painting cum photography and printing.  Many of the works on show illustrate his own conversation with Old Masters in the National Gallery’s collection

I really enjoyed walking through the silent and empty rooms of the Gallery to get there, the movement sensitive lights flickering on in front of us on the way, a rare opportunity to feel on our own in a place so normally full of other people, the rooms so grand and a little unsettling when only dimly lit.

And I feel better educated!

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1 Comment

  1. The Artist: Jeffrey Spahr-Summers | snapping twig

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