I visited Seduced by Art a while ago, not expecting too much of it. Indeed, many critics already expressed their lukewarm opinions: Jonathan Jones has his doubts, Richard Dorment is a bit more positive, Jackie Wullschlager suspects “curatorial timidity”… Troika Editions gave a good review of reviews in the issue 160 of its newsletter.
Marine Cabos, on today’s Journal de la Photographie, is one of the positive critiques of this exhibition, along with Laura Cumming. They underline what it is trying to demonstrate: to people who disregard photography as an art form, it shows that photography is rooted in the history of art (of painting, that is).
And indeed, the exhibition makes only one simple point, namely that art photography mimicks painting, gets its inspiration from it, and follows the same creative processes and the same themes.
I was not convinced by the choice of the thematic organisation. The different sections follow the classical hierarchy of painting in the old days, namely with landscape and still-life being at the bottom of the scale and historic scenes or human figures higher up. These thematic divisions do not seem right for photography. They also flatten and void of its complexity the history of painting itself.
It cannot be denied that there has been a struggle and conversation between painting and photography from the early years of the invention of the medium, but there is more layers and subtlety to it than is shown by this exhibition. What about the input that photography, after the technical breakthroughs of the 1880s, gave to the depiction of human or animal movement? What about the proposition of Pictorialism to produce photographs that were as worked upon by the artist’s hand as traditional pictures? What about the links between modernist photography and abstract painting?
The choice of artists is also a question for debate. Julia Margaret Cameron, beloved by the British, has only been constructed into this grand master of photography in the first half of the twentieth century. The use of her work in Seduced by Art is overwhelming and devoid of distance.
Finally, the real question is: is this show’s argument worth making today? The question of the tensions between photography and art has become a topos of the discourse around photography that obscures any other thought. The originality of photography and its medium specificity are disregarded. Its capacity to stand independently as a medium of expression is not helped by this kind of forceful demonstration. To which public is it aimed and for which purposes?
Nevertheless, I wandered through this exhibition enjoying beautiful images and took advantage of this opportunity to discover artists I did not know well before, like Jorma Puranen, Ori Gersht or Maisie Broadhead, among others.
Seduced By Art | Photography Past and Present | 31 October 2012 – 20 January 2013 | National Gallery, London