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June 2004

Positive Negative

Art versus photography in the 19th century

No one quite remembers who said it first, but it is the painter Paul Delaroche who, upon first seeing a daguerreotype, in 1839, is credited with the gloomy pronouncement that “painting is dead.” As an academic history painter, Delaroche’s fear of this powerful new medium, which could document the world far more precisely and quickly than any painter, was certainly warranted. This now seems like a strange thing to say, especially in the face of the resurgence of painting in contemporary art. But photography posed a definite threat to the livelihood of many 19th-century painters. And, though it didn’t succeed in killing painting off, photography radically transformed traditional forms of pictorial expression and the relationship of the human being to the image forever. Munich’s Kunsthalle der Hypo-Kulturstiftung has put together an exhibition tracing the first 50 years of aesthetic dialogue between photography and painting. The show, entitled “A New Kind of Art? A Different Kind of Nature!” features around 260 photographs, beginning with the early works of William Henry Fox Talbot, the inventor of the negative process. Displayed side by side with the photographic archives are 40 paintings and drawings by artists such as Achenbach, Courbet, Delacroix, Gérôme, Manet, Jean-Léon Gérôme Pifferaro and Waldmüller.

Many initially rejected photography as a soulless, mechanical medium whereby reality is reproduced by using purely technical and chemical means. But as is the case with any new technology, initial resistance eventually gave way to general acceptance. Over time, the new technology even rendered the services of the miniaturist superfluous and endangered the careers of many portrait painters. Wielders of brush and pigment were forced to redefine their artistic roles. Many artists adapted to the times by becoming photographers themselves, or by coloring in black and white prints. Others, ranging from painters and sculptors to architects and illustrators, embraced the new medium as a useful aid for reference and case studies. The painter Gustave Courbet, for example, often utilized photographs as aids in depicting certain motifs. The current exhibition juxtaposes his Sleeping Nymph (1866) with a nude photograph taken by Camille d’Olivier in 1858. As with all the coupled works in the exhibition, these two pieces are not a matching pair; that is, one is not necessarily based on the other. Instead, their relationship highlights the mutual influences of photography and painting. In this instance, the photograph shows the struggle of early photographers to develop a new visual language as it betrays a pronounced reliance on compositional concepts drawn from painting. In the painting we notice a verisimilitude and heightened attention to detail, which might reflect the influence of photographic aids.

Other paintings in the exhibition reveal still more specific influences of photography. The 1854 painting of a pipe-player by Jean-Léon Gérôme, Pifferaro, for instance, seems to possess even more of a photographic quality than the photograph next to it with an identical motif, taken a few years earlier. The careful detail, uniform black shadows, extreme tonal contrasts and vivid pigments make the image look more like a colored-in black and white photograph than a painting. Painters, however, continued to hold their ground and maintain their niche in the artistic world despite the initial death threat posed by the photographic process. For example, Courbet, despite his efforts towards mimetic realism, remained deeply rooted in traditions of painting in that he deliberately revealed the materiality of the paint with which he created his illusions. And, as for portrait painters, their less photogenic patrons soon discovered the undeniable advantage of the flatteringly painted portrait. Well placed lighting and softening effects in a photograph were nothing compared to the plastic surgery that a stroke of paint might perform for the sake of posterity. But, ultimately, the key to painting’s survival throughout the last century resides in the fact that a photograph is a copy of reality showing us what we know is there. Conversely, painting invents its own reality, which may more effectively capture a truth that lies beyond the superficial appearance of the outside world.

As photography became more common and accepted, 19th-century painters capitalized on this essential difference between the two media and began exploring the more radical expressive potential of paint. Yet, the painterly response to photography remains a relevant aesthetic issue to this day. Many contemporary names, such as Sigmar Polke or Chuck Close, whose work would be impossible without the aid and influence of photography, come to mind. And as the technologies associated with digital imaging and computer art continue to evolve, we may soon even be forced to ask ourselves if traditional photography itself is not perhaps in its last throes of death.

“A New Kind of Art? A Different Kind of Nature!: Photography and Painting in the 19th Century” will be on view until July 18 at the Kunsthalle der Hypo-Kulturstiftung, located at Theatinerstr. 8.

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