Painters, for centuries, were very confident with how their art depicted the world around them—that is, until photography came into the picture.
Paintings or drawings were used to capture a scene or an object, document a moment in time or create a portrait. With the first photograph taken and developed by French pioneer Nicéphore Niépce in 1826, it appeared that paintings were no longer needed to document since they were slow and labor-intensive to create and could not compete with the realism and accuracy of photography. Paintings were also more expensive, limiting the medium to an elite few in the upper class. The artist Paul Delaroche famously declared, “Painting is dead.” We of course know that he was wrong. Inasmuch as photographs took the place of paintings as a form of more accurate documentation, painting survived and even thrived.
If anything, what transpired was an engaging interaction between the two mediums, the dynamics of which are explored in the exhibit “Capturing Moments” at the Tate Modern in London. It’s a rare opportunity to see extraordinary works from the YAGEO Foundation Collection, including paintings by Francis Bacon, Gerhard Richter and Peter Doig and photographs by Thomas Struth, Andreas Gursky and Hiroshi Sugimoto, shown in dialogue with many recent additions to Tate’s collection, including works by Lorna Simpson, John Currin, Laura Owens, Michael Armitage and Louise Lawler.
The show begins with a quote from Susan Sontag: “The painter constructs, the photographer discloses.” Of course, in the contemporary art world, it’s not that simple and the two modes of creation may not be easily separated and distinguished this way.
Pablo Picasso actually found that the arrival of photography catered to his needs, saying that “Photography is capable of liberating painting from all literature, from the anecdote, even from the subject. So shouldn’t painters profit from the newly acquired liberty to do other things?” It encapsulated modern art’s foundational raison d’être of being set free from the documentary impulse.
New styles and perspectives were developed in response to photography’s challenge, particularly when exploring the human figure, which Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon exploited by using it to expose the visceral reality of the self. Freud preferred painting from real life while Bacon drew from photographic material, distorting the body to reveal what he called “the pulsations of a person.” Picasso also challenged the notions of painterly representation and linear perspective to develop the Cubist style, collapsing multiple perspectives into one single moment in time.
While Bacon’s images may suggest ways to embody the multiple, fractured facets of the mind, George Baselitz turns the canvas upside down, upsetting the visual order so that we can look closer, not at the figures but the painted surface instead: “It’s material, expressive painting that resists the precision of the mechanical eye and a world increasingly filled with photographic imagery.”
Sometimes, a painting is turned into photography, like in Jeff Wall’s “A Sudden Gust of Wind” based on an ukiyo-e woodblock work by Hokusai. Depicting four figures caught in a sudden gust that sweeps across a landscape, the image seems like an instant moment frozen in time, but the photograph was actually staged meticulously in several moments —over a hundred, in fact. Wall photographed actors on windy days then collaged and digitally superimposed elements of the image together, challenging the traditional notion that photography faithfully records reality during what Henri-Cartier Bresson called the “decisive moment” when the shutter is released.
The largest space in the exhibit is devoted to the theme of convergence, fusing popular imagery and mechanical processes with high art as embraced by artists around the globe—in what came to be known as Pop Art—exemplified by artists as diverse as Pauline Boty, Richard Hamilton and Andy Warhol, who capture their world and environment while exploring the cult of personality and investigating the sexual politics of visual culture. As Boty critiques the objectification and stereotyping of women in advertising and popular culture, Warhol and Hamilton comment on the constructed and performative nature of masculinity.
Another blockbuster is David Hockney’s “Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures),” not just because it’s one of his most celebrated images but because of its deep relationship with photography. The scene was conceived through a serendipitous spotting of a pair of unrelated photos on the floor, which gave him the idea of the standing figure looking down at the swimmer. To complete the painting, Hockney employed a complex process that included taking hundreds of photos. The painting encapsulated his ‘60s and ‘70s obsessions: pools and bathers, enigmatic double portraits, queer desire and longing, sardonic riffs on abstraction.
In the final room, artists grapple with the visual and emotional possibilities of painting in the digital age, and how the medium can respond to our contemporary reality. Assimilating history and its relationship to images in order to offer new ways of understanding the present, new media, the internet and archival material collide with the tradition of Western painting to create timely pictorial languages.
Lorna Simpson, Salman Toor and Chrsitina Quarles draw from broadcast media to represent political struggles like the legacy of racism and structural violence in the US, the migrant crisis in the US/Mexico border, and our position in a world that constantly bombards us with news of international conflicts.
Drawing from lived experience, Toor and Quarles portray the contemporary body as fluid, ambiguous and queer, entangled with others and inhabiting multiple worlds. Whereas gestural painting is traditionally associated with heroic, masculine actions, these artists use digital renderings to create carefully controlled gestures.
At the end of the exhibit, a quote of Jeff Wall tries to sum up the themes and questions that were explored: “Part of the poetry of traditional painting is the way it created an illusion that the painting depicted a single moment. In photography there is always an actual moment — the moment the shutter is released.”