Indecent Exposure; by Hanging Photographs with Paintings, This Provocative and Unfocused Show Seeks to Give Them Equal Status -- but It Fails to Prove That Photography Is Art

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Byline: Brian Sewell

EXHIBITION OF THE WEEK SEDUCED BY ART: PHOTOGRAPHY PAST AND PRESENT National Gallery, WC2 HE National Gallery's winter exhibition is devoted to photography.

TFor the next 11 weeks, the building fondly dubbed The Nation's Mantelpiece will hang in its misbegotten basement, not great paintings on panel, canvas and sheets of copper, not historic works in the ancestral media of oil and tempera, not the meticulous business of three hairs of miniver in the Eyckian brush nor the heavy laying-on of hogs' bristles in the hands of Rembrandt, not treasures pillaged years ago from palaces and churches, but photographs, flat, smooth, glistening and lubricous of surface, by photographers familiar, if recognised at all, only to drifters through the Turner Prize, Tate Modern, the bleakly extravagant premises of affluent dealers in contemporary art and the collections of the even wealthier fools who buy from them.

The exhibition is, its protagonists declare, a provocative investigation of photography's enlistment of the ancient traditions of painting (and, less frequently, of sculpture) to justify this upstart's assumption that it is a form of art. Foolishly, they have given it the title 'Seduced by Art", using the term in its loose romantic sense -- as might a chicklit writer -- rather than as debauched, corrupted, raped; but in the corruption here at work it is the photographer who is the rapist, stealing the virtue of Gainsborough and Goya, Delacroix and Ingres, the National Gallery his procurer in this distasteful business.

The gallery has, it seems, "specially commissioned for the exhibition" new photographs to compete with old paintings, but that it should feel compelled to do so surely indicates that there must have been too little evidence to lend importance to the link, and thus that it is a point hardly worth the demonstrating in an exhibition. If the underlying thesis is that photography must be acknowledged as an art of pictorial legitimacy equal to that of painting, yet, in order to support it, photographers must be let loose in the gallery, there to be inspired into rivalry with the old masters, then the thesis must be very weak and the curators should not have been allowed to engineer the evidence. To turn the thesis on its head, however, and prove that painters with no imagination are readily seduced by photography (and even use it as a form of underpainting, even of easy collaboration), then the visitor to the National Gallery has only to wander upstairs and examine the spurious paintings of Richard Hamilton (and why are these, pray, in Trafalgar Square rather than any of the too many Tates?), or go next door to the National Portrait Gallery where, annually, ghastly portraits based on photographs are jubilantly exhibited as art. I must declare my hand. For the photographer as recording angel I have profound respect; without him in Belsen I would, as a boy, perhaps never quite have understood why we had fought the Second World War; without him in Spain I would never, later travelling there, have discovered the depths of self-destruction plumbed by Spaniards in the Civil War; without him I might not have formed quite the views I held of wars in Vietnam and the broken Yugoslavia, nor the views I hold now of Iraq and Afghanistan. Without the photographer, what could I have known of the volcano, the tsunami, the nuclear disaster and the melting Arctic ice? And looking back more than a long century, what could I have known of Venice, Rome and Florence in the later 19th century as the Grand Tour petered out, without the curled brown photographs of Alinari brought back by the middle classes instead of painted townscapes by Canaletto and his ilk? What would I have known of Imperial Chinese tortures and executions without the similar brown photographs displayed by Mme Tussaud when I was a boy? As for photography equalling, even exceeding, art, I will admit to one moment when I know that it happened -- in the work of those photographers who accompanied Scott and Shackleton in the Antarctic, men who in those then unique circumstances had eyes to see that with the coolly calculated technology of their clumsy cameras, they could enhance the ice and snow, the darkness and the light, even the numbing chill of the deep distant south, in ways far beyond the dramatic romanticism of Caspar David Friedrich and Frederick Church, and the dabbing of the Impressionists, their near contemporaries. …