Review: Phillips Collection show provides perspective to photos’ role in paintings

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.

Or, rather like science fiction on occasion anticipated actual scientific discovery, his basic aesthetic may have been ahead of the times. In many cases, it is difficult to be confident that the camera was the sole source of the visual innovations favored by the Nabis and closely related artists. They were philosophically committed to an aesthetic that looked with suspicion on the idea that the painting was a window on the world. Their work emphasized a certain flatness, pattern and color, and relied on psychological impression more than literal depiction.

Image in the eye, not the camera

The two major innovations in photography in the 1880s and ’90s — the widespread use of a photographic technique that allowed for faster image-making, including snapshots of the world in motion, and the rise of the amateur photographer — may have changed what the Nabis were looking for in a painting far earlier than it offered them concrete examples of the new photographic “reality.” Capturing the sudden moments of life in a drawing or painting could be the product of a determined act of imagination, just as imagining a scene from an impossibly high vantage was for artists centuries earlier.

The photograph is often credited with inspiring the odd borders seen in so many Nabis paintings. Why do we suddenly see the top of a woman’s head cropped off, or pairs of disembodied legs dangling in the side of an 1899 beach scene (not included in the exhibition) by Vallotton? It could be the influence of the camera, which relentlessly severs the image from its wider context. But it could also be the influence of the deep Nabis involvement with the world of decoration and design, which is barely discussed in this exhibition.

Consider a spectacular five-panel screen painted by Vuillard in 1911. Not included in the original version of this show at the Van Gogh Museum late last year, its addition to the Phillips installation is a brilliant choice because it demonstrates an alternative explanation for the strange cropping of the Nabis painting style. It shows a scene of the Place Vintimille in Paris, divided up across the five panels of the screen, rather like other Nabis images were divided up across the panes of a stained-glass window or the panels of a wall-size painting. The intuition that violent cropping of a design can increase its intensity may have come from photographs, but it may well have come from, or been reinforced, by Nabis work in basically decorative formats as well.

There is a tendency to think that using photographs to inform painting is a form of cheating, as if it were a cheap substitute for basic draftsmanship. That suspicion nagged the Nabis as much then as it does today. Only about 20 photographs by Vallotton are known to exist, though several of his paintings are clearly engaged with photographic images. In 1916, critics attacked his use of a photograph as design material for a figure in a large painting. Did he destroy or suppress his photo archives to avoid further criticism?

Even today, juxtaposing photographs and paintings invites the return of this old suspicion, enticing the audience to superficial epiphanies: There it is, that’s how he did it. Set aside that temptation, and the photographs speak with a much more powerful voice, in many cases as works approaching the status of art as much as the paintings. They are also full of fascinating data about the visual milieu in which these artists lived. The flat-patterning impulse that was alive and well long into the career of Henri Matisse had its origins in the riot of wallpaper and rugs, dangling tassels and decorated lampshades of the belle epoque.

The fascinating thing about the photograph used in the exhibition advertising, which shows not just a girl in a kimono, but a decorative screen, an oriental carpet, the carving of an elaborate picture frame and a sofa draped in some kind of woven rug, isn’t how much it looks like a nearby painting. Rather, it is how alien its visual confusion must have seemed to Breitner when he first saw it rendered in black and white, and how that alienation was transformed into the flat, almost abstract juxtapositions of pattern and design seen in the painting. The photograph gets him further, rather than closer to the real world, so far he’s almost in Japan (the art of which also deeply influenced the Nabis).

Curiously, this painting makes its subject, a 16-year-old hat seller named Geesje Kwak, look like a young woman, while photographs of the model make her look like a child, almost scandalously young to be in a studio with an artist who also took overtly pornographic pictures.

Missing point of view

If there’s a small flaw in the show, this choice of emphasis gets us close to it. A more overtly feminist perspective is needed, at least around the edges, to put some of the deeper and more pernicious changes introduced by the photographic revolution in context. In many cases, including a Bonnard photograph of a model taking her shirt off, the subjects seem weary and exploited. Photographic manuals at the time celebrated the power of the portable camera to capture images surreptitiously. As soon as the photographer “has been discovered,” read one contemporary text, “the most graceful or picturesque scenes disappear as though by magic.”

It wasn’t just painting that was changing. Reality itself was under threat, and women were particularly vulnerable. Cameras were altering the realm of privacy, as images of children on the potty and Vuillard’s mother, toothless and bald, reveal. For women, disclosing one’s body to the “insatiability of the photographic eye” wasn’t quite the same as modeling for the painter. It was more mechanical and invasive, and so much easier to reproduce and distribute.

If nothing else, one would like to know more about the pornographic tradition which seems to have influenced the conventional nakedness and lesbian scenes in Breitner’s more salacious images, mentioned in the catalogue but not discussed in the exhibition. That would help expand our understanding of the larger photographic mentality, how cameras were changing attitudes to memory, death, privacy and sex well before the Kodak revolution.

Snapshot: Painters and Photography, Bonnard to Vuillard

from Saturday to May 6 at the Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW. Call 202-387-2151 or visit www.phillipscollection.org.

Philip Kennicott is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Art and Architecture Critic of The Washington Post. He has been on staff at the Post since 1999, first as Classical Music Critic, then as Culture Critic.
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