Friday, 14 December 2007

Painting photographs

I've been to the exhibition The Painting of Modern Life at the Hayward Gallery. The theme is actually more restricted than the title: it’s about painting based on photographs -- mainly painting that copies photographs more or less closely but, as a rule, greatly enlarges them and sometimes changes the colour, as well as substituting painting, with brushmarks visible, for the photographic process.

There’s a video on the gallery site where you can see some of the images, sort of:

The photographic originals are not art photographs but are generally taken from the media or historical documents or personal collections of snaps. Sometimes the painted image we see has been through a succession of transformations in different media.

An image taken from life is already at one remove. If we come across a photograph of a torpedoed destroyer in a yellowing newspaper lining a drawer, we feel remote from the event but also aware that it happened, it was real, it caused the photograph which could not have happened otherwise. Now turn the photograph into a painting and we are more remote still – but the awareness that something, this, once happened persists.

That awareness survives everything that might contrive to drain the sense of reality out of any residue of the originating event. The image we see is and looks like a painting; we can see the paint, the work is much larger than an ordinary photograph and it’s displayed on an art gallery wall. More than that, it is (typically) beautiful, despite the horror or banality of the subject matter (car crash scene with bodies, artist’s mum standing in front of her car outside a suburban house).

How far the beauty was there from the start in the photograph is hard to tell (we aren’t shown the originals except for some tiny reproductions in the brochure); perhaps it was, if looked at with an artist’s eye, and perhaps that was partly and sometimes why the artist chose it. But I would say the painting also emphasises and enhances compositional qualities such as the relationship of tones and colours in different areas of the work, and in general makes the image feel quite different, and sometimes weirdly over-real and strange.

Sometimes the transformation happens despite what looks like an attempt to be absolutely faithful to the original; just doing it in paint and making it bigger and displaying it as art makes the difference. In other paintings the work of transformation is overt: Vija Celmin takes an official U.S. Navy photograph of civilian damage from the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor; it shows a car riddled with bullet holes, its tyres burst and the driver’s body slumped over the wheel, against a background with palms and other apparently damaged vehicles. In the painting (likewise monochrome), the background is reduced to vague swirls, the brushstrokes are broad and obvious and the body is reduced to a shape that is hardly recognisable. It unashamedly looks like a painting. As a pattern of paint on a surface with, at the same time, an allusion to an old car and some strange and unexplained holes that seem like bullet holes, it’s a beautiful thing that rewards contemplation. But still an actual shooting-up of cars at a particular moment, and a resulting state (car still there, driver dead) that lasted until it was cleared up, is there in the back of my consciousness.

Which is the lesson, that horrific reality can’t be wished away or what beauty it can be transformed into?

Perhaps the key difference between the paintings and the photographs is that in the paintings everything – every square millimetre -- has been chosen, everything has been put down by a conscious decision – even if it’s a decision to follow a specific set of rules quite mechanically – because a photograph doesn’t automatically dictate a fixed sequence of operations with a range of brushes and tubes of paint.

A camera just does its stuff mindlessly, but this mark is here and just so because that’s how the artist chosen to have it. Everything in the picture is significant or meant. So a particular spatial distribution of shapes and areas of colour and tone that happened to occur in some scene some day in front of a lens (I'm leaving out of account any manipulations with lens filters and darkroom jiggery-pokery) now, in the artist’s ‘copy’, invites or demands a quite different sort of appreciation, as a painting, a set of choices, a creation.

But, on top of that, and quite different, there’s the creepy awareness that it’s still a record of something that once really happened – and the relationship between that awareness and our aesthetic appreciation of oil on canvas, the order of composition and the luxury of the texture of paint, is complex and mysterious: I can’t say what it is but it’s there and fascinating and disturbing.

No photography by me was allowed in the gallery, but I could shoot out of the window:

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