It was a strange feeling. Suddenly, I was asked to become the subject of someone else's art-making. And not just to sit for a portrait in the usual sense of the word. Portraits are usually fairly straightforward affairs, either commissions or records of friends and colleagues. Artists tend to use their fellow artists as subjects because they esteem them, share creative time together (such as Edouard Manet painting Monet working in his studio-boat) or even, sometimes, because they need an inexpensive model. But my request to be the subject was a little different, I learned.Read More
Down the ages, man has historically turned to the surrounding world to create a virtual reality in art, through the complex interplay of what the eyes perceive, how the colours have impact and what emotions are invoked. In other words, artists have used the world around them as the major source of their artistic inspiration and subject matter.
After the invention of photography in the decades before 1850, the basis for art making changed. As Henri Matisse observed, "The invention of photography released painting from any need to copy nature," which enabled the artist "to present emotion as directly as possible and by the simplest means."
Indeed, after the mid-19th century, artists' experiments grew more and more divorced from nature in many instances. Monet, for instance, still based his work on nature but it was often a very different vision and interpretation of nature, which meant, of course, that he was regarded as a main innovator in the new school of Impressionism.
As the years passed and artists grew less and less interested in the old, academic way of depicting the world around them, experiments multiplied. Gauguin, Van Gogh, Cezanne, then Picasso, amongst others, led the way to an art that put more emphasis on colour, emotion and thus a psychological impact. Cezanne compressed, distorted, changed perspective, volumes, relationships, colour relationships and played such games with "reality" than he was viewing in his surrounding world that we are still indebted to him in terms of interpretation of subject matter. He stared and stared at his subject matter, but then he in essence produced metaphors about the nature he was looking at; he was "a total sensualist. His art is all about sensations", said Philip Conisbee, curator at The National Gallery, who put together an exhibition of Cezanne's work in 2006.
Beyond Cezanne, of course, the art world turns to Cubism, abstraction and any number of other forms of presenting emotion directly andurgently, leaving behind any remote reference to a virtual reality of the world. Photography's invention as a "liberation from reality" indeed, for a time, ensured that artists used a very different language to convey aspects of their world. Georges Braque was one such artist.
After Piet Mondrian's early experiments with Cubism, his path led to works that have become iconic.
As the 20th century advanced, artists strayed further and further away from their surrounding reality, totally divorced from it by photography's invention - whether the artists were conscious of this fact or not. But then, of course, the pendulum began to swing back the other way as perhaps, artists began to run out of ways to express themselves that were truly new and different abstractions. So photography comes back into play, manipulated and used in new and sophisticated ways to depict realities. Richard Estes, Chuck Close, Audrey Flack and many others, especially in the United States, have worked in amazing ways that also built on Edward Hopper's reclusive reality that had been a more lonely stream of 20th century art in America..
And so the circle is closed and artists once more have recognised the potential of photography in making art. Indeed there are many artists who predicate their depiction of the world around them on photographs, even, in some cases, to tracing images onto canvas. Nonetheless, even their interpretations of reality have been influenced by the long deviations in art-making, away from the need to copy reality. We are all heir to what has gone before us.
I have been reading the recently-published, fascinating biography, Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: the Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis, by Timothy Egan. There is much to think about, particularly about Curtis' lifework recording the vestiges of the American Indians' lives, but also about his approach to photography and art.
Curtis started out with a very limited education, but that did not prevent him becoming an outstanding and very famous photographer by the turn of the 20th century.
This amazing photograph was one of the first that Curtis took of an American Indian, the last surviving daughter of Chief Seattle, who lived in a waterfront shack in Seattle, the desperate remnant of a once-proud tribe.
According to Tim Egan, Curtis devoted great energies, first to studying pictures of the great art of the world - portraits, landscapes, all forms of painting - and then to translating his insights to the medium of photography. His understanding of light, context, simplicity of composition, intensity of approach show an artistry that became one of his hallmarks throughout his life in photography.
The other lesson that is clear from Curtis' work is that he created so many wonderful images because he knew his subjects well. Whether it was Mount Rainier, the Hopi Indians, the Navajo or any other Indian tribe he recorded, he made it his business to find out as much as possible about the subject. He knew what aspects to emphasise, what was important to record, how to bring out the beauty, the essence or the historical, human or physical significance of the subject.
In other words, he followed the wisdom of all successful artists, in all media - know your subject so that you can depict it in the best and most meaningful way.
Recently, I seem to have been seeing more and more allusions to artists who make or have made considered efforts to make art that in some way fights back against the all-pervasive influence of photography.
By 1819, Turner had already begun to move away from paintings that were faithful reproductions of the world around him after a visit to Venice.
He continued, however, to make careful studies of clouds, of storms and waves, for instance, which were the underpinnings of many of his paintings. His interest was far more directed towards capturing his vision of things, rather than reproducing the exact likeness of the world around him. It was thus a way of rebutting the influence of photography's slavish capturing of appearances.
Ever since the invention of photography, there has been this tug of war between "fine art" and photographs, a contest that de facto seems to be have won in large part by photography. One ironic measure of this in our parlous economic times is the number of photography exhibitions in museums which has greatly increased in recent years. One suspects that costs of mounting and insuring such exhibitions might be a consideration. The prices of photographs is also climbing steadily for many historic works as well as contemporary prints.
Photographs have also become the drawing book of preference for many artists, as opposed to actually drawing scenes or objects that will be later incorporated into a work of art. Many artists go as far as simply reproducing the contents of a photograph, ideally one that they have taken themselves as opposed to using someone else's and thus infringing on copyright. There is always a danger in using a photo for art - if the artist is not already very familiar with the object or scene, having drawn or painted it before many a time, a photograph can be a fickle friend. The camera lens cannot "see" all that the human an eye can see, so a great deal of information is missing that might help in creating a work of art. Added to that, a work of art based too heavily on a photograph tends to have a frozen look, airless and static. Somehow, the image has not been processed through the artist's eyes-brain-hand in the same way as it would have been if drawn or painted from life.
Every artist today has to decide just what role photos should play in the production of his or her art. Whether the art is realistic, abstract or in between, photography can be a useful tool or a demanding taskmaster. Each of us has a interesting choice to make.