Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present
The National Gallery
31 October 2012 – 20 January 2013
Where does photography fall in the tradition of art history? How does it draw on past themes and practices? Where does it belong in the cannon of art history? These are the questions that the National Gallery’s first major show of photography, Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present, seeks to answer. Broken down into six rooms – setting the scene, portraits, the figure, tableaux, still life, and landscape – the show explores the tradition of photography through genre, juxtaposing contemporary and early photography with old master works in order to illustrate the development of photography as an art form in relation to the traditions of art history. The organisation of the rooms, while a bit reductive in scope for the complex images represented, does provide a framework for the viewer to organise the many pictures. There are indeed many pictures, numbered starting with the first photo in the first room through to the last photo in the last room, there is no doubt a carefully orchestrated path. Of course following the numbered order of the photos is optional, but with such heavily scripted text, introduction panels, and subtle combinations of images, without the order the show risks becoming a disconnected mix of photographs and paintings.
Despite the heavy handed narrative, there are some very beautiful and astute pairings in the show, such as the comparison of a Martin Parr photograph and the iconic Mr and Mrs Andrews by Thomas Gainsborough in the portraiture room. But what was most striking, especially in light of our current show of Nick Knight’s Flora, was the still life room. The tradition of still lifes has long been an evolving art form. At the SHOWstudio Shop, Nick Knight has transformed the floral still life with his botanical images in Flora and his rose photo/paintings. Seduced by Art provides a nice analogue to our show, presenting the opportunity to explore a survey of this evolving tradition, culminating in the contemporary work of artists such as Sam Taylor-Wood, Ori Gersht, and Sarah Jones.
Overall, I left the show feeling not so much that I understood the origins of photography in old master paintings, but rather that I had experienced a narrative of images that highlight the ways in which art forms develop and react to one another. Perhaps it is the title of the show that is misleading, as it could be better framed as a show about reoccurring visual and thematic motifs throughout periods of art history, rather than a comparative show between photography and old master work. I do recommend the show, keeping in mind that it is a very specific and controlled narrative story about the history of art; it is a rare opportunity to see so many works of art from a range of time periods presented together.
The exhbition is accompanied by a beautiful catalogue featuring interviews with contemporary photgraphers Tina Barney, Richard Billingham, Maisie Broadhead, Rineke Dijkstra, Sarah Jones and Richard Learoyd. Photos © The National Gallery, London.
Reported by Megan N Liberty