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Painting with Light at Tate Britain

May 31, 2016

Arts | by Harry Seymour


A little more pizazz needed for an exhibition all about flash…

Beata Beatrix
Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1828 – 1882Beata Beatrix c. 1864-70 Oil paint on canvas 864 x 660 mm Tate. Presented by Georgiana Baroness Mount-Temple in memory of her husband, Francis, Baron Mount-Temple 1889

The Tate Britain’s first exhibition celebrating the birth of photography and its consequential impact on British art of the Victorian and Edwardian era quite frankly lacks the pizzazz needed to make it flash. With the curators adopting a comparative approach, juxtaposing original photographs and oil paintings in a simplistic these two works depict the same subject matter kind of way, little is left to the imagination. Passing through gallery after gallery of nice but not outstanding works, glimpsing at overly academic text panels and lengthy labels as you peruse, leaves you feeling, truth be told, a little underwhelmed. However, that is not to say there are not moments of pure brilliance – just make sure you don’t drift off into a distant daydream of lunch or a cold drink, or you’ll miss them.

John Singer Sargent 1856-1925 Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose 1885-86 Oil paint on canvas 1740 x 1537 mm Tate. Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1887
John Singer Sargent 1856-1925 Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose 1885-86 Oil paint on canvas 1740 x 1537 mm Tate. Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1887

Opening with an exploration of the working relationship between pioneering photographers David Octavius Hill (1802 – 70) and Robert Adamson (1821-48), the exhibition gets off to a slow start. While the dawn of photography was an incredibly exciting and experiential period in British art, Adamson’s early exhibited photographs are, well, just a little boring. We are presented with view after panoramic view of Edinburgh, captured from the top of Calton Hill. Clearly indebted to JMW Turner’s watercolours depicting the same spot, painted a few decades before, the series of photographs does little to spark the imagination. It’s a shame, for at no point in the exhibition, let a lone at the beginning, are we encouraged to contemplate just how radically innovative this new art form was in the early-nineteenth century. A missed opportunity in my book, given the omnipresence of photography in every shape and form today. Whisk through the second and third gallery, in which the pre-Raphaelites are introduced into the mix, and head straight for the gallery entitled ‘Tableaux’.

Thomas Armstrong (1832-1911) The Hay Field 1869 Oil on canvas 1137 x 1572 mm Victoria and Albert Museum. Bequeathed by Mrs Ellen Coltart, 1917
Thomas Armstrong (1832-1911) The Hay Field 1869 Oil on canvas 1137 x 1572 mm Victoria and Albert Museum. Bequeathed by Mrs Ellen Coltart, 1917

Finally, here, the exhibition picks up pace as a few stellar works take centre stage. The emphasis in this room is on the translation of literary traditions in both exhibited mediums. Parallels can be drawn between photographic and painted compositions thanks to the respective artists’ use of similar props, stage-settings and model muses. The Lady of Shallot, Dante and Beatrice and Mariana, a character from one of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poems, make multiple appearances, yet The Passing of Arthur, 1874, by Julia Margaret Cameron, is a one-off and well and truly worth a glance. Further highlights of the remaining galleries include Cameron’s Call, I Follow, I Follow, Let Me Die, 1870-75, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Proserpine, 1874. The combination of contrasting colours, in particular her vermillion lips with the turquoise blue of her swaddling fabric dress, her steadfast gaze and curiously configured hands, render this portrait truly hypnotic and easily one of the most engaging in the exhibition.

As you follow the suite of the exhibition from one gallery to the next, you can’t help but think that the curators could have done so much more with a subject matter that is in fact compelling if presented in the right way. With the dialogue between photographers and artists going from strength to strength, alighting on their mutual historic influences and symbiosis is just not enough. One further grating irk, is the exhibition’s claim to celebrate female photographers. Given only 6 out of the 30 represented photographers are women, I’m not entirely convinced. It may heave been better to abandon this claim altogether to focus on the art of photography and its aesthetic more specifically. The exhibition is whimsical and interesting enough but why they didn’t leave the academic waffle behind to explore the poetry of light – the supposed focus of the exhibition – more imaginatively, is beyond me.

By Lucy Scovell

Painting with Light – Art and Photography from the Pre-Raphaelites to the Modern Age, at Tate Britain, 11 May – 25 September 2016.