Reciprocity: Painters and Photography

Book Review

  • Snapshot: Painters and Photography, Bonnard to Vuillard

  • Edited by Elizabeth W. Easton; with contributions by Clément Chéroux, Michel Frizot, Todd Gustavson, Françoise Heilbrun, Ellen W. Lee, Anne McCauley, Saskia Ooms, Katia Poletti, Eliza Rathbone, and Hans Rooseboom
  • 234 pp, 248 illustrations
  • Yale University Press, 2011
  • $50

While the traveling exhibition “Snapshot: Painters and Photography, Bonnard to Vuillard,” recently completed its international tour, the accompanying catalogue offers readers the chance to view a rare selection of paintings, photographs and prints by seven post-Impressionist artists who established their reputations at the end of the 19th century. The catalogue reveals strong connections between the traditional fine arts and the exciting new technology of photography, but by focusing on the humble snapshot (instantané photographique), the book presents new and unexpected perspectives on the subject.

The impact of photography on the development of Impressionism has been much discussed in recent years, with books and exhibitions devoted to the work of Whistler, Degas, Caillebotte and others who incorporated photographic ways of seeing into their art. But remarkably, evidence of any direct relationship was not brought to light until the 1960s. And it was not until the 1980s that art historians began to advance credible ideas about photography’s ties to the visual arts.

As a graduate student at that time, Elizabeth Easton, the editor and curator of “Snapshot,” began looking into specific links between photography and the Nabis, the group of avant-garde Parisian artists formed in the early 1890s. It became Ms. Easton’s “resolute desire” to connect snapshot photography to the art of the post-Impressionists.

In the course of her doctoral research, Ms. Easton was given access to the Edouard Vuillard family archive where she was shown two envelopes filled with photographs, “unorganized and undocumented.” These photographs would provide the spark for the “Snapshot” exhibition.

Henri Evenepoel, Self-Portrait in Three-Way Mirror (1898), modern gelatin silver print from original negative (2011), 3.8 x 5 cm. Royal Museums of Fine Arts in Belgium, Brussels, Archives of Contemporary Art in Belgium. (Illustration from Snapshot: Painters and Photography, Bonnard to Vuillard.)

Henri Evenepoel, Self-Portrait in Three-Way Mirror (1898), modern gelatin silver print from original negative (2011), 3.8 x 5 cm. Royal Museums of Fine Arts in Belgium, Brussels, Archives of Contemporary Art in Belgium. (Illustration from Snapshot: Painters and Photography, Bonnard to Vuillard.)

At the Musée D’Orsay in Paris, Ms. Easton collaborated with Françoise Heilbrun, head curator of photography, to bring the project to life. After sifting through more than 10,000 photographic prints in the museum and other photographic collections, Easton and Heilbrun chose the seven artists featured in the catalogue: Nabis painters Pierre Bonnard, Maurice Denis, Félix Vallotton and Edouard Vuillard, as well as the painter and printmaker Henri Rivière, Dutch artist George Breitner and the Belgian Henri Evenepoel.

Each of these artists receives a chapter written by a scholar sensitive to their working methods, and each essay is illustrated with both paintings and photographs to allow for careful comparisons. Photographic enlargements are rich in detail and tone, and are more than faithful to the originals.

In addition to the artists’ profiles, there are five early chapters that provide historical background. Todd Gustavson, the curator of technology at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, details the technological revolution behind the cultural one in his essay “Innovative Devices: George Eastman and the Handheld Camera.” Michel Frizot, research director of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris, explains the visual confusion (and excitement) that snapshots created for the general public.

The chapter “A Sense of Context: Amateur Photography in the Late Nineteenth Century” by Clément Cheroux, curator of the photographic collection at the Centre Pompidou, traces the profound transformation brought about by the camera, when the word “amateur,” once reserved for sophisticated autodidacts, was applied to a burgeoning new group of camera enthusiasts.

According to Todd Gustavson, the major turning point for photography was George Eastman’s invention of a flexible dry emulsion film that eliminated the need for a studio and darkroom in the production of photographic prints. Eastman then developed the iconic portable camera that he would call the “Kodak.” By 1900 Eastman’s little leather-bound box had over 250,000 enthusiastic users in France alone. (Tacita Dean would document the last days of one of Kodak’s factory in Chalon-sur-Saône in her 2006 works, Kodak and Noir et Blanc.) By handling the film development and printing for his customers, Eastman obviated the need for any technical expertise in the production of photographs.

In 1897 the Kodak Pocket Camera Series was introduced and took this accessibility still further. With its collapsible lens and slim profile, it could slide into a pocket to be transported on foot or by bicycle (another remarkable 19th-century invention). Its “quick” exposure times (1/25th of a second) meant whole new views of the world became possible. Rigid studio poses were no longer necessary. The action of children tumbling through frames could be frozen in motion; nuanced expressions and gestures could be recorded for the first time. Young men in particular clambered for the device to capture private images. It seems that no one was immune to the wonders of the Kodak.

Artists piled in, too. Academic studios with their models arranged in “natural” motion were abandoned for the reality of the streets and the intimacy of the home. Locomotion studies like those of Eadweard Muybridge caught the awkward interstices of action that, to 19th-century eyes appeared unnatural. In his essay on “The New Truths of the Snapshot” Michel Frizot observes, “instantaneous photography opened up possibilities; it opened the eyes to an “invisible” form of reality and gave a fixed shape to things that changed shape constantly. By doing so, it provoked astonishment, and this astonishment at the ‘photographic’ transposed back into painting was surely the bust spur to creativity.”

The subject matter of the photos is familiar to this day—babies and girlfriends, vacations, prized possessions and proud portraits. The delight that accompanied the sharing and viewing of snapshots seemed to overcome any desire to copy directly from photographic prints—or perhaps the artists simply concealed or discarded these efforts. The evidence is scant.

George Hendrik Breitner, Girl in a Kimono (Geesje Kwak) in the Studio of the Artist on the Lauriergracht (1893), gelatin silver print. Netherlands Institute for Art History, The Hague.

George Hendrik Breitner, Girl in a Kimono (Geesje Kwak) in the Studio of the Artist on the Lauriergracht (1893), gelatin silver print. Netherlands Institute for Art History, The Hague.

The book shows that all seven of the artists did use photography in their work, albeit sparingly or even secretly. (Vallotton may have destroyed most of his photo collection in response to a complaint that he copied an image from a magazine.) Artistic integrity was at stake.

But the facts show that the camera did indeed affect the paintings, drawings and prints of the time: “rather than transferring photographic motifs onto canvas, these amateurs seemed to consider certain formal characteristics that are specifically photographic: optical distortion, the flattening of the image, fragmentation, effects of light and contrast, and high and low angles.” Compositions produced without a viewfinder forced a random aesthetic unique to the age. (After 1895, a circular reflecting viewfinder provided a dim image of the scene, but it would require some expertise to use.)

In turn, trained artists imposed a certain structure on the snapshot. Painting offered its unique, visceral capabilities—color, composition, texture, shadow/chiaroscuro, contre-jour. Lithography, etching and woodcut provided strong graphic alternatives to the atmospheric subtleties of the diminutive photographic print. Such techniques were explored accidentally or on purpose in the instantanés.

The Snapshot catalogue leaves little doubt about the reciprocal influences of fine art and technology, but the personal approach that each artist used is at the heart of each profile in the book. Maurice Denis, as one of the founders of the Nabis group and its articulate spokesman, was able to consider a wider purpose:

Art is not simply a visual sensation that we receive, a photograph, however sophisticated, of nature. No, it is a creation of the mind, for which nature is the springboard.

Denis produced paintings as well as lithographs, book illustrations and set designs during this time. He owned three Kodaks in succession, taking many photos of his first wife Marthe and their seven children. (Marthe made some of the prints herself at home and assembled them in albums to preserve family memories.) Over 2,500 prints including professional enlargements and over 1,000 negatives survive today.

Several of Denis’ images reflect the stylistic tendencies of the Nabis: rich, dappled patterns of light and dark, surface textures that appear woven, flat areas of tone, and cropped figures that echo Japanese prints. In her essay on Denis, Saskia Ooms writes, “with his daring compositions, off-center framing, close-ups, radical cropping, and inventive perspective, Maurice Denis pushed the boundaries of amateur photography and therefore can be considered a forerunner of the avant-garde photographers of the 1920s and 1930s.” Although Denis used many of these photos as “sketches” for his paintings, he criticized such activity in his writings, and by 1919 he had abandoned photography completely.

Pierre Bonnard also experimented with Nabis decorative themes, and devoted much time to creating moody and erotic narrative images of his lover Maria (Marthe). Writing about Bonnard’s nude photographs, Anne McCauley points out “What is striking about [Bonnard’s] tiny (1-1/2 x 2 inch) contact prints… is how bad they are.” The photographs he made of Marthe in their unkempt apartment and in the garden of their country house were amateur efforts, but as his sensitivity and skills improved, he began to understand photography’s possibilities. Nonetheless, he also abandoned the camera by 1916.

Vuillard’s photographic archive contains almost 2,000 images produced over several decades; some were meant as studies for paintings, some reinforced compositions and pictorial experiments completed years before, but many, according to Elizabeth Easton, have “no equivalent in paint.” A Vuillard expert, Elizabeth Easton finds these photos the most intriguing: Vuillard repeats “the same subject matter—his intimate circle… in ways that give no hint of his artistic output.”

George Hendrik Breitner, Girl in Red Kimono (Geesje Kwak) (1893-1895), oil on canvas, 51,5 x 76 cm. Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam.

George Hendrik Breitner, Girl in Red Kimono (Geesje Kwak) (1893-1895), oil on canvas, 51,5 x 76 cm. Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam.

Although only 20 of Félix Vallotton’s photographs survive, they attest to his novel understanding of photography’s potential. Katia Poletti writes that “he abandoned relief, perspective, details, and any conformity to reality in favor of flat surfaces and arabesques.” He would gather images from various angles and settings and combine them in painted canvases that appear two dimensional. In many the figures are turned away and reduced to puzzle-like blocks of color, solidly modern in feel.

Henri Rivière was a technically accomplished printmaker, moving easily from lithography to etching to woodblock. He saw early on that scenes filtered through the small lens of a Kodak could suggest the flattened perspectives of the Japanese woodblock prints he avidly collected. His series Thirty-Six Views of the Eiffel Tower echoes Hokusai’s famous series Thirty- Six Views of the Mount Fuji, but also offers a brand new view of Paris as thrilling as scaling the tower along with him and his Kodak.

George Breitner, whose diverse work appears in two chapters of the book, devoted 25 years to his photography, focusing first on capturing city scenes in his native Amsterdam. He made many studies with the camera and would allow all kinds of visual “accidents” to occur in the frames— people in motion, blurring, softened silhouettes, dramatic (even cinematic) perspectives. He also spent much time staging photos of intimate sexual encounters with black-stockinged models. Trained and sustained as a painter, his photos would not be known until 1961.

Until his early death at 27, Henri Evenpoel was perhaps the most promising as an artist-photographer. Eliza Rathbone writes that “critics extolled him for his spontaneity and for his innate gifts as a colorist—a born painter in immediate possession of an intense means of expression.” The camera expanded these expressive gifts and provided the compositional material for many of his vibrant paintings. The black and white photo of a boy (André Devis) dressed in a starched white collar, holding a notched cane and standing on an unfolded
newspaper (to define his shoes against a dark background?) surely contributed to the painted portrait titled Albert Devis, but it also reflects a personal aesthetic that would have been impossible to conceive of, with or without a photograph—stark and compelling.

Ironically the young Evenepoel also understood the sense of loss inherent in a photograph: “I savor them with the slightly sad joy of reflecting that all this good time is past.”

Like a snapshot, this catalogue captures a fugitive moment in the history of art— one in which attitudes were in motion, and experiment led to exhilarating instability. It also adds to a growing body of scholarship on the simple snapshot’s relationship to traditional forms of art making. This relationship recurs with each generation of transformative technology, from airplanes to iPhones, and redefines the visual standards of that age.

Ultimately the book is less about any particular medium, but about how these technical achievements compel new ways to see the world.

Share:Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestShare on LinkedInEmail this to someonePrint this page