Posters advertising the Phillips Collection’s large and intriguing exhibition, “Snapshot: Painters and Photography, Bonnard to Vuillard,” invite the prospective audience to misread much of what is subtle and compelling about this show. Juxtaposing a photograph and painting by the Dutch artist George Hendrik Breitner, both showing a young woman wrapped in a kimono on a sumptuous sofa, this teaser suggests exactly the simple-minded reading that the curators have worked assiduously to avoid: Painters of the late 1890s used cameras to help them make paintings.
The details are far more complicated and interesting. After 1888, when George Eastman introduced the first practical hand-held camera suitable for amateurs, photography played an increasingly large role in how people looked at the world. Painters, including those known as the Nabis (a group which numbered Edouard Vuillard, Pierre Bonnard, Maurice Denis and Felix Vallotton among its members), embraced the camera for many of the same reasons as ordinary people. They liked to take pictures of their family and friends, snapshots of vacation and travel, mementos of their daily walks through the city and countryside, and sometimes erotic images of the women they desired.
And, occasionally, they made images that became the basis of paintings, as Breitner clearly did when he photographed the young woman in a kimono. But what this exhibition argues is in fact the very opposite of what the Breitner example implies: that although the Nabis and their contemporaries participated fully in what Susan Sontag has called “the insatiability of the photographing eye,” the number of paintings directly based on photographs is actually relatively small. Vuillard, for example, made nearly 2,000 photographs (not discovered until decades after his death in 1940), but based only a few of the paintings on specific photographs. Bonnard, who made hundreds of photographs before losing interest in the medium around 1916, seems to have used them as models for some of his more overtly erotic book illustrations around 1900-02, but this too is more the exception than the rule.
Rather, the Nabis painters used photography to expand the parameters of how they saw. In some cases, a photograph might prompt a painting. But far more interesting is the larger influence of the lens and the photographic print on painting in general. Often, it was the “bad” photograph that opened up visual possibilities. Vuillard’s circa 1900 “The Lady at the Window” shows the silhouette of a woman’s face, darkened by the kind of backlighting all too common in photographs when the subject is standing between the light source and the camera. Paintings that use surreal close-ups, blurred objects in the foreground, walking figures who loom violently into the frame of a picture all seem to be based on photographic accidents.
But in several cases, it isn’t easy to give photographs the credit for visual invention. The plate and pan seen in the foreground of Vuillard’s weirdly distorted painting “The Kitchen” look as if they had accidently fallen into the extreme foreground of a carelessly made photograph. But the painting, and others with similar seemingly “photographic” distortions, dates from before Vuillard took up photography, around 1895. Perhaps Vuillard had seen the work of other amateur photographers, or perhaps his sense of what makes a good painting had been subconsciously influenced by earlier generations of photography.