Dear Readers, today I popped into Tate Modern for some culture, and in particular their exhibition ‘Capturing the Moment’, which looks at the relationship between painting and photography. And what a tricky relationship it is! The harrowing painting above, by Paula Rego, was inspired by a photograph from the Iraq War, showing a women fleeing with her baby in her arms and a small child by her side. Somehow the image of the rabbits, normally depicted as such innocent and docile creatures, intensifies the terror, for me at least. It seems to suggest that war makes animals of us all, as it so often does.
Not everything is so stressful though (fortunately). What about where the artist has made photographs out of paintings? The classic example is this photograph by Jeff Wall, called ‘A Sudden Gust of Wind’, and based on this woodcut by Hokusai (1760-1849).
It took Jeff Wall over 100 separate shots (in Vancouver on windy days) and a whole year to compose the photo below:
In both painting and photo, the direction of the leaves and pieces of paper draws your eye across the image from left to right. I rather like the playfulness of both painting and photo, and admire Wall’s persistence. I can just see him looking out of the window, or checking the weather forecast, to see if the wind was going to be in the right direction for a few photographs.
Another photograph based on a painting is this one, by Indian artist Pushpamala N. The original painting, from 1898, is a depiction by Velosco Salgado of Vasco de Gama’s arrival in India.
What Pushpamala N has done is to have the parts acted out by herself and her friends. For me, the photo shows a much more sceptical and unimpressed audience for de Gama: while the painting seems to show the Indian court as somewhat overawed, in the photo there’s much more balance. These are not ‘natives’ overawed by the appearance of a European.
Then there are the photographs of Andreas Gursky. The photo below, of a Montparnasse apartment block, had a run of only 5 prints, one of which sold for over $2m at Sotheby’s in 2013. It has the quality of an abstract painting, and the photo itself is enormous, so at least you get plenty of photo for your money.
Some paintings are based on photographs which have a troubling history. This painting, by Gerhard Richter, is based on a 1932 photo of the author sitting on his Aunt Marianne’s lap. Marianne, a schizophrenic, was later incarcerated in an asylum by the Nazis and forcibly sterilised. During the last months of the war she was deliberately starved to death, along with the other patients, and the 8,000 bodies were dumped into a mass grave. There was outrage recently when the photo was sold at auction and left Germany, to become part of a private collection. You have to wonder who would want a painting with such personal and national connections, but there we go.
As you might expect, film was a big influence on many artists. Of course there was Andy Warhol – his work seems almost banal now (to me at least) but at the time he, along with Richard Hamilton and David Hockney amongst others, were doing something fresh and new.
The David Hockney painting below sold for $90.3m in 2018, then the highest price paid at auction for a work by a living artist.
And finally, how about this last painting by Salman Toor, a gay Pakistani artist? It combines a lot of things that the exhibition has been talking about – the impact of photography and digital media on the artist and on our general consciousness. The family are sitting listening to the news. The father looks blank and numb, but his son, on the right, is naked, bleeding ink from what look like stigmata, bombarded with the images from the television, the mosque looming behind him. Toor has described the painting as a ‘‘queer self/family portrait in a conservative Islamic context’. For me, it speaks more widely about the effect of what we are seeing in media of all kinds and how it impacts us all, especially the young. Sometimes it feels like being bludgeoned over the head with a constant stream of troubling and disconcerting images.
So, the exhibition has had mixed reviews, 2 stars from Laura Cummings in The Guardian, 4 stars by Ben Luke in the Evening Standard. I think that both reviewers are right – it is a bit incoherent, as Cummings says, but it also has some outstanding paintings, including several Picassos, Bacon, Freud, Doig, Richter, Tuymans etc etc. Some of these are part of the Tate’s general collection (so at another time you could see them for free) but most are part of the collection of Taiwanese entrepreneur Philip Chen. However, I do note that the price of entry if you aren’t a Friend is £20, which is a lot of money. I don’t think that it’s the Tate’s best exhibition, but I did very much enjoy some of the works on offer.