That painting and photography have influenced each other ever since the invention of the latter, in 1839, is well-known. The exhibition ‘Painting with Light’, running at Tate Britain until 25th September, explores this influence thoroughly, investigating the artistic dialogue that took place between painters and photographers in the 19th and 20th century. Striking for its unexpected juxtapositions more than for its rigour, the exhibition offers the chance to look at old material in a new way, to see both paintings and photographs in a different light.
The first rooms set the tone of the whole exhibition. The infinite possibilities stemming from the invention of photography and its interactions with painting were laid out: photos and paintings by the same artist; photos and paintings of the same scene; photos and paintings of different scenes, but with the same colours. Particularly poignant was ‘Edinburg from Calton Hill’ by Turner (1804), shown in parallel with photographs of the same spot by David Ovtavius Hill and Robert Adamson. Evanescent in the background, with the same seppia tones, painting and photographs looked strikingly similar. The section in general offered insights into the pictorial beauty of photos, and the painstaking details of paintings, as in ‘Florence from Bellosguardo’ by John Brett. In this work, the preservation of detail from close at hand into the distance is something the painter has taken from photography. The very soul of the exhibition was precisely this constant oscillation between photos and paintings, challenging the viewer with photographs that look like paintings and paintings that look like photographs.
John Brett, ‘Florence from Bellosguardo’ (1863)
The sections I enjoyed the most where ‘Tableaux’ and ‘Whisper of the Muse’, which focused on the search for pure beauty typical of the Pre-Raphaelites, and the influence of literature upon the artistic production of the movement. Painters and photographers alike recreated well-known scenes from literary works, from Shakespearean plays to poems by Alfred Tennyson. While I was used to the mannered and poised aura of Pre-Raphaelite paintings, featuring young women in enchanted forests, to see photographs of people posing in the same way was an eye-opening experience. Not only does it testified which authors were popular at the time (Tennyson and Shakespeare, but also Dante), but it was striking to see that actual people posed that way, seeking to recreate a work of literature in real life. Scenes like the pastoral tableaux, carefully (at traits artificially) arranged with costumes and props, emphasised how, in the Pre-Raphaelite movement, people were after idyllic beauty and peace, and actively strived to give them a physical embodiment in real life.
Later on, the exhibition seemed to grow somewhat weaker, in particular in the section dedicated to landscapes. The works exhibited were not as illuminating as the previous ones, and I felt they had less to say about the exchanges between the two different media. However, the penultimate room, ‘Into Light and Colour’, proved a hidden, unexpected gem. Devoted to the influence of Japanese culture in the visual arts in the second half of the 19th century, the room showcases the outcomes of this vogue in the pictorial and photographic media. While the influence of Japanese culture was nothing new, the material exposed shone with delicate beauty, most of all in the work ‘Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose’ by John Singer Sargent. The large canvas depicts two girls playing with Chinese lanterns, emitting a warm, suffused, rosy light that gives vibrancy the whole painting. Deliberately cropped in composition to recall Japanese prints, I thought the work captured the essence of the exhibition: painting with light, painting in light.
John Singer Sargent, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (1885-6)
Towards the end, the exhibition returned on Pre-Raphaelite themes such as idealised beauty and allegory, which were major subjects in the artistic production of the late 19th century. The choice felt a bit repetitive on the one hand, as this had already been explored in previous sections, and a bit of an anticlimax to end with on the other. However, scattered throughout the exhibition were some remarkable works, appreciable not only in themselves, but also for the clever way they were displayed. Seeing them right next to their photographed or painted counterpart set them against the historical background of the history of visual arts. In this, the intended purpose of the exhibition is undoubtedly achieved.