Exhibitions Missing Links

The Spectator, November 10, 2012 | Go to article overview

Exhibitions Missing Links


Andrew Lambirth Seduced by Art: Photography Past & Present National Gallery, until 20 January 2013 Richard Hamilton: The Late Works National Gallery, until 13 January 2013 Rose Hilton: New Paintings Messum's, 8 Cork Street, W1, until 17 November The primary experience of looking at painting is the crucial encounter between a painted surface and the human eye. Nothing is quite like it, and this unique experience cannot be replaced or replicated by looking at a painting in printed reproduction or on a computer screen. This may be a truism but it is worth emphasising once again in an age that relies increasingly on mediated experience, and lives - almost literally - by the screen. It is a truth brought into especial prominence by the concatenation of three exhibitions currently showing in London.

Photography does not require the same intimate experience of viewing. A reprographic medium, it appears (in these days of high-quality printing) without significant distortion in books and catalogues, and the photography enthusiast need scarcely stray from his armchair to enjoy the fruits of his chosen medium. The principal aspect of photography that cannot be adequately conveyed in book form is scale, which is why so many contemporary photographers elect to work on a gigantic format. That and back lighting (presenting the image on a lightbox) are the two main technical aspects of photography today difficult to communicate through catalogue reproduction. It's hardly a surprise, therefore, to find a large photo on a lightbox in the first room of the National Gallery's new Sainsbury Wing exhibition.

This is by Jeff Wall, one of the international stars of contemporary photography and no mean snapper - certainly a lot more interesting than Thomas Struth or Tom Hunter. His work is hung near a not particularly inspiring copy by Frederic Villot of Delacroix's great painting 'The Death of Sardanapalus'. Also in this room is a beautiful large almost abstract photograph by Sarah Jones called 'The Drawing Studio (I)'. This is hung at right angles to an oil study for 'The Romans of the Decadence' by Thomas Couture. At once several points are raised: hanging paintings with photos is supposed to demonstrate the strong links between them, and to emphasise that contemporary photographers keep going back to great art for inspiration. It is also intended to show that photography is an art form on an equal footing with painting - but notice that there are very few great paintings here. In fact, there are only 17 paintings in this exhibition, of which perhaps three are of the highest quality, as against some 90 photos. Close comparison between painting and photography is actually not encouraged - for the obvious reason that photography can't support it.

In Room 2, there's the first great painting: Gainsborough's 'Mr and Mrs Andrews', laughably juxtaposed with a Martin Parr double portrait. There are some good things in here, including 'Iago' by Julia Margaret Cameron, one of the distinguished pioneers of photography and always worth looking at.

Room 3 concentrates on the figure, and aims to catch the eye with Richard Learoyd's 'Man with Octopus Tattoo II', the chief publicity image for the exhibition. To the left on the end wall hangs one of Rineka Dijkstra's disturbing bathing-suited children. …

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