In the latter half of the 20th century, photography became enmeshed with fine art. Photographs went up on museum walls next to works that responded to the form, such as Andy Warhol’s Pop-Art silkscreens and Richard Estes’ photo-realist paintings.
When photography was entering the popular landscape about 50 years earlier, however, artists were more discreet about their debt to the camera. But they used the new tool avidly, as the Phillips Collection’s “Snapshot: Painters and Photography, Bonnard to Vuillard” reveals. The exhibition, on view through May 6, features paintings, prints and photos by seven European artists, including Pierre Bonnard, Edouard Vuillard and such lesser-known figures as Henri Evenepoel.
“They shared the photographs only with each other,” says Phillips chief curator Eliza Rathbone. “They never presented them. And some of them deliberately did not talk about their photography with anybody else.
“It’s more than almost anybody has ever seen together before,” she says of the many photos in the show. The array took curator Elizabeth Easton eight years to assemble and was organized by the Phillips with Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum and the Indianapolis Museum of Art. It also includes crucial pieces from Paris’ Musee d’Orsay.
The show compares photos with related artworks, showing clear influences. “The camera led them to see things differently from how they saw as draftsmen and painters,” Rathbone suggests. “The camera has a way of framing a view. These cropped views are seen in paintings as well, in ways that feel photographic.”
The show conjures a world that did yet rely on electric illumination. “We’ve lost touch with what that was like,” Rathbone notes. “How you went to the window, how you used daylight to sew, to read. And the way it comes into a room, and makes a pattern on a curtain.”
Rathbone cautions that “Snapshots” does not simply illustrate the ways artists used photography as a tool in making art. She hopes viewers will see the photos as artworks in themselves.
“We wanted to go beyond the idea that the artists took a photograph and ‘used’ it to make a painting,” she says. “There’s so much more to see in these photographs than just that.”
Spotlight: “Snapshot” also features examples of early cameras used by 19th-century artists. Today, Kodak and Polaroid are leaving the film business entirely, and Kodak will also discontinue making digital cameras. Meanwhile, the paintbrush industry remains small but viable.The Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW; to May 6, Tue.-Sat., 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (Thu. till 8:30 p.m.), Sun. 11 a.m.-6 p.m., $10; 202-387-2151. (Dupont Circle)