The Painting with Light Exhibition at Tate Britain, London
Tate Britain’s first exhibition celebrating the birth of photography and its consequential impact on British art of the Victorian and Edwardian eras 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 - two works depict the same subject matter - kind of way, little is left to the imagination. Passing through gallery after gallery of pleasant 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 coffee, or you’ll miss them.
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, 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. Hurry through the second and third gallery in which the pre-Raphaelites are introduced into the mix and head straight for the gallery entitled ‘Tableaux’.
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 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 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 could be compelling if presented in the right way. With the dialogue between photographers and artists going from strength to strength, I fear that 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 have 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.
Written by Lucy Scovell, contributor to Arteviste.