TATE BRITAIN CURATOR DR. CAROL JACOBI SPEAKS WITH ANN HAREZLAK ON ‘PAINTING WITH LIGHT’
What is the impetus or background for this major project, connecting painting and photography over 75 years? Examining this relationship is a large undertaking, even in Britain alone.
The exhibition was overdue and the interdisciplinary brief of my post at Tate Britain was a wonderful opportunity to explore the impact of a new way of making pictures on the other arts after 1839. Of course painters and photographers were curious about each other’s work. In the early years they shared training, models and the opportunities and demands of wide new audiences and markets. More importantly they shared the search for a modern art, and a modern beauty, that suited their changing times.
Does this exhibition utilise a dialogue on the technical innovations of photographic histories to ultimately highlight the great photographers who advanced and shaped the medium – often neglected as contemporaries?
Any show featuring historic photography is a special chance to see sensitive works of art which can only be exhibited occasionally. My co-curator Hope Kingsley and I determined to display some of the photographic studies Robert Adamson and David Octavius Hill made for his multi-figure Disruption Portrait for the first time outside Scotland. The studies became world famous as some of the most beautiful and earliest examples of photography but the picture that began the partnership, and contains small images of Hill, Adamson and their studio assistant Jesse Mann, is not normally on public view.
It was important to represent the swift technical transformations over the period. They produced such different effects, from the seconds slowly accumulated in the shadows of a salted paper print, in the opening room, to the shorter instants caught in later albumen prints and the etching-like beauty of platinum prints and photogravures. Photogravures were reproduced in books and journals and circulated all over the world. One such is Zaida Ben Yusuf’s The Odor of Pomegranates, internationally famous during its day, a kind of ‘before’ to the ‘after’ of Rossetti’s Proserpine. We decided to end with the jewel- like autochromes, the first colour photography invented in the first decade of the twentieth century which looked at painting as one inspiration.
Why is it important to show works by John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, JAM Whistler, John Singer Sargent and others alongside photographs by pivotal early photographers now? Or why has this not been shown before?
Research has been dispersed in different fields but when the work which scholars have been doing is brought together the influences and networks are clear from Hill and Adamson’s 1840s Edinburgh to the fine de siècle circle of Oscar Wilde. It was especially important to make the most of the chance to hang the photographs and paintings together.
In the first part of the show we see the search for realism and relevance to modern life that transformed mid-nineteenth century arts and literature; John Ruskin and many Pre-Raphaelite artists engaged with photography. For example, Roger Fenton trained as a painter and associated with the circle and John Brett incorporated photography into his extreme Pre-Raphaelite way of looking. Writers, painters and photographers saw a new poetry in detail: the patterns of shadows, a story told by a shabby shoe, eons written in a seam of rock.
From the 1860s, the Arts and Crafts movement encouraged a convergence of the arts. In particular, ‘Aesthetic’ artists turned towards feeling and imagination and explored more enchanting and enigmatic styles. The room devoted to poets, painters and photographers of the Holland Park set brings together for the first time Rossetti’s Beata Beatrix and Julia Margaret Cameron’s Follow, I Follow. JAM Whistler was an inspiration to Pictorialist photographers and we have included views of the Thames and of Venice. At the moment when it became technically possible for photographers to make really natural images they went in a different direction, transforming nature with subjective effects such as selective focus, glare and silhouette.
As the exhibition has been open for a few months, what has been the response and public engagement?
Extraordinary, social media has been so enthusiastic. The exhibition has established the rewards of hanging paintings and photographs in conversation and seeing each through the eyes of the other, more than best frenemies.
Painting with Light: Art and Photography from the Pre-Raphaelites to the Modern Age is curated by Dr Carol Jacobi, Curator of British Art 1850-1915 at Tate Britain, and Dr Hope Kingsley, Curator, Education and Collections, Wilson Centre for Photography, with Tim Batchelor, Assistant Curator at Tate Britain. The exhibition is accompanied by a concise book, Painting with Light: Art and Photography from the Pre-Raphaelites to the Modern Age.