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Home HRArt and auctions Capturing the Moment: Tate Modern shows how painting and photography have converged in modern masterpieces

Capturing the Moment: Tate Modern shows how painting and photography have converged in modern masterpieces

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Admiring David Hockney’s 1972 Portrait of an Artist.

Capturing the Moment: Tate Modern shows how painting and photography have converged in modern masterpieces

Andy Warhol exulted in the relationship between advertising, artistic expression, and the celebrity culture that started in the 1960s. Pablo Picasso’s anti-war mural Guernica was “like an immersive photograph” according to Dora Maar who documented its creation. Certain of David Hockney’s works stemmed from photos and in recent years he was mesmerised by the i-Pad. Paula Rego based one of her starkest bursts of anger, War, on a newspaper photograph of bomb explosion victims in Iraq. Francis Bacon had an eye to published photos of pontiffs as over many years he painted a series, some of which were dubbed “the screaming popes” because of the twisted figures’ mouths.

Self Portrait 1966-7. By Andy Warhol.

Since photography leapt into the everyday life of much of humankind a century ago, it has interpenetrated with contemporary art. Photography was suddenly surprising everyone with its impetuous and intimate view of the world.  Its arrival changed the course of painting forever, argue the Tate Modern curators of Capturing the Moment, which brings into focus the dynamic relationship between the two mediums, via some of the most notable artworks of recent times. The two forms endlessly shape each other.

The link between the paintbrush and the lens burst onto the scene with the birth of the technique of modern photography nearly 200 years ago. It was a painter – of theatre sets – who invented the first photographic device for everyday use. Louis Daguerre, a physicist who had been searching for a way to make a fixed impression of the images visible in his camera obscura (a wooden box with a lens casting an image onto a frosted sheet of glass) found the solution was exposing an iodised silver plate to mercury vapour and common salt. The daguerreotype was born.

In the words of Malcolm Daniel of the Department of Photographs at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in a website essay: “From the moment of its birth, photography had a dual character – as a medium of artistic expression and as a powerful scientific tool—and Daguerre promoted his invention on both fronts.”

Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California, 1936. Photo by Dorothea Lange.

It has been said that photography is the best picture of the world we have got, and these days fine camerawork is prominently exhibited in many galleries, but the immense depth of emotion and spirit created by mixers of the paint palette is hard to match.

Andy Warhol (1928-1987) knew all about the power of the media – he was an advertising illustrator and graphic artist before becoming a sought-after pop artist and celebrity. His works go straight to the relationship between artistic expression, advertising, and megastar culture. Painting, silk-screening, photography, film, and sculpture: he experimented with them all.

His series of self-portraits such as a quadruple image in 1966-67, were a response to just one selected photograph, and this repetitive pattern was to become globally familiar through his appropriation of depictions of Marilyn Monroe, Mao Tse Tung and a Campbell’s Soup can. The silkscreened surface and dense colour soften the facial features but stop short of dissolving them.

Study for a Pope VI, 1961. By Francis Bacon.

A newspaper photo of civilians killed and injured in a bomb blast during the Iraq war shocked Paula Rego (1935-2022) into producing with pastels rather than paint the bluntly titled War published in 2003. Why pastels? The choice was significant – she said: “When you draw you can push your pencil or your pastel—everything is much more violent. Painting is much more lyrical. That’s why I took up pastel and haven’t given it up.”

In a War the figures have mask-like rabbit heads. a mother seemingly frozen in fear carries a baby, as a girl screams. A disfigured toy on the ground intensifies the horror. As elsewhere with Rego, the figures bring out the subversive and psychologically troubling traditions of folk and fairy tales with their themes of violence and sexuality. Rego called her models of textile, papier-mâché, and other materials, dollies: creatures she had been making since the 1960s, treating them for the canvas as if they were people.

Buste de Femme, 1938. By Pablo Picasso.

The sitter for Picasso’s Buste de Femme (head of a woman) from 1938 was the photographer and artist Dora Maar (1906-97), important for her surrealist montages, street photography and later for her painting. She met Picasso (1881-1973) in 1935 and he went on to paint her many times.  She was commissioned by an art journal to document the progress of Picasso’s vast oil painting Guernica which memorialised the April 1937 aerial bombing of the Basque town of Guernica by German and Italian forces on behalf of the Spanish Nationalists under General Franco. Dora observed that Guernica was “like an immersive photograph… absolutely modern.” Photography influenced Picasso in many ways, from documenting his artworks to experimental techniques, some taught to him by Dora.

One of the most resonant pictures in the Tate Modern show was taken by the socially progressive photographer Dorothea Lange (1895-1965). It is entitled Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California, from 1936, exhibited here as a gelatin silver print from around 1950. Nipomo is a small town with a strong Native American heritage. Lange took the photo while working for the Resettlement Administration, a government agency which wanted to show the hardship suffered by white US farm workers in the Great Depression and raise public support for the policies of the Roosevelt administration. Such photos were named after the ‘type’ of person featured in them, rather than the individual. who here has been described as a Madonna-like figure. Migrant Mother was reproduced in newspapers across the US as the defining image of the rural poor.

War, 2003. By Paula Rego.

Lange took seven exposures of the unhappy woman, 32-year-old Florence Owens Thompson, with various combinations of her seven children, which to some people made her look a Madonna-like figure. When Florence – of Cherokee heritage – was identified in 1978, she said: “I wish she hadn’t taken my picture… (Lange) didn’t ask my name. She said she wouldn’t sell the pictures. She said she’d send me a copy. She never did.” Today, many would question the ethics of photographic representation, and what happens when an individual is made to represent a multitude, the Tate curators say. In a 1952 essay, written jointly with her son Daniel Dixon, Dorothea wrote: “Bad as it is, the world is potentially full of good photographs. But to be good, photographs have to be full of the world.”

From 1968 to 1977, David Hockney made a sequence of large double portraits of friends and acquaintances in enclosed settings, capturing their intimate and often complex relationships. His Portrait of an Artist (Pool with two figures) dating from 1972, acrylic on canvas, is based on photos which Hockney took in preparation. Hockney was fascinated by depictions of water, glass and transparency, and the contrast between flatness and depth, fluidity and stillness. The composition shows Hockney’s then boyfriend, artist Peter Schlesinger, looking down at Hockney’s assistant, John St Clair, swimming underwater.

Puerto Rican Boys on 108th Street, 1955. By Alice Neel.

In his unsettling characterisations, Francis Bacon responded to photographic source materials. He worked on his pope paintings, some of them inspired by Velázquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X, for 20 years. In the later works in the series, Bacon made reference to photographs of the living pontiff, Pope Pius XII, who was alleged to have appeased the Nazis. His Study for a Pope VI from 1961 is an example of how he transformed the photographic resource, to such an extent that because of the facial expressions, some of the results were known as the “screaming popes.”

Alice Neel (1900-1984), who lived mostly in Manhattan, painted from life but as a kind of unsparing photographer. In 1938, Neel and her companion Jose Santiago moved from Greenwich Village to 107th Street, then known because of its Latino population as Spanish Harlem. “You know what I thought I’d find there?” she later said. “More truth, there was more truth in Spanish Harlem.” She often painted friends, neighbours, and their children in the area. Neel’s interest in representation of masculinity is reflected in Puerto Rican Boys on 108th Street. The two boys pose confidently, their identical stances suggesting both the assertiveness of adults and the vulnerability of children. The oil on canvas is from 1955.

Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), 1972. By David Hockney.

Tate lays out other ways in which artists have blurred the boundaries between painting and photography, creating new forms of art, such as Pauline Boty’s pop paintings, the photorealist works of Gerhard Richter, and Andreas Gursky’s large-scale panoramic photographs. The influence also runs in the opposite direction, with what are described as “strikingly painterly photographs.” Some painters incorporate collaged photographic images, and recent canvases begin to chronicle how digital media is reshaping the way painters work.

The exhibition is in collaboration with the YAGEO Foundation of Taiwan. The foundation was established in 1999 by the Taiwanese electronic components billionaire, collector, and philanthropist Pierre Chen. The exhibition is a rare opportunity to see extraordinary works from the Foundation’s collection.

Captions in detail:

Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), 1972. David Hockney. YAGEO Foundation Collection, Taiwan. © David Hockney. Photo: Art Gallery of New South Wales/Jenni Carter.

Self Portrait 1966-7. By Andy Warhol. YAGEO Foundation Collection, Taiwan © 2023. The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc/ licensed by DACS, London.

Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California, 1936, printed c 1950. By Dorothea Lange, Tate Photo: Tate (Jai Monaghan).

Study for a Pope VI, 1961. By Francis Bacon, YAGEO Foundation Collection, Taiwan. © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. DACS.

Buste de Femme, 1938. Pablo Picasso. YAGEO Foundation, Taiwan. © Succession Picasso. DACS, London 2023

War, 2003. By Paula Rego.  © Paula Rego. Image © Tate (Oliver Cowling).

Puerto Rican Boys on 108th Street, 1955. By Alice Neel, Tate © The estate of Alice Neel.  Photo: Tate.

Capturing the Moment is at Tate Modern until January 28, 2024.

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