The relationship between photographs and painting has been periodically close – as with Warhol, or Bacon, or the 1970s photorealist painters in America – and more remote, as with abstract expressionism or minimalism. One only has to look at some of the exhibitions currently at London’s public galleries to see artists for whom it has been important: Degas’ drawings and paintings of dancers at the Royal Academy seen in the context of experiments with film and photographs; Gerhard Richter’s retrospective at Tate Modern, which shows how extensively he used photographs as the basis of his paintings; Tacita Dean’s video installation in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern, which pays homage to 16mm film – the same kind of flexible, transparent “roll film” that, well over a century ago, enabled George Eastman to produce his first successful amateur camera, the Kodak.
By the time it arrived on the market in 1888, painters, particularly in France, were well aware of the threat photography posed to verisimilitude in art. Impressionism, symbolism, expressionism, abstraction would all be attempts to find new ways to convey the sensibility of a subject, rather than just to replicate it. But until the 1880s, photographic composition had been limited by unwieldy equipment: large view cameras with hard-to-focus lenses and fragile glass-plate negatives required models to hold a pose for several seconds. The Kodak, however, could capture an image in 1/25 of a second. This near-instantaneous reproduction of a tiny moment of time changed forever the way we all – and artists in particular – viewed the human figure in motion.
The early relationship between the snapshot and the painting is celebrated in a new exhibition, long in preparation, which has just opened at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. “Snapshot” concentrates on a small group of painters, the most prominent of whom – Pierre Bonnard, Edouard Vuillard, Maurice Denis and Félix Vallotton – belonged to the Nabis, a band of post-impressionists, who wanted to move art forward (“nabi” means “prophet” in Hebrew and Arabic) by imbuing their paintings with a semi-mystical meaning. Influenced by Gauguin and symbolism, they were also keen to integrate art and ordinary life. Alongside their photographs and paintings, the show includes three of their lesser-known contemporaries: George Hendrik Breitner, a Dutchman, who studied at The Hague in the late 1870s and was a friend of Van Gogh; Henri Evenepoel, born in France to Belgian parents, who spent his adulthood in Paris and north Africa, before dying of typhoid in 1899 at the age of 27, and Henri Rivière – slightly distinct from the rest of the group in that he was a self-taught printmaker, whose lithographs were popular with schools and less wealthy collectors.
All seven were keen amateur photographers, though it is unlikely that any of them would have considered their tiny snapshots important at the time. In most cases their photographs were unknown to the public familiar with their paintings, and have been discovered by scholars and curators in the decades after their deaths. Françoise Heilbrun at the Musée D’Orsay, who discovered the importance of Bonnard’s photographs, and Elizabeth Easton, working in Vuillard’s archive in the 1980s, are two of several scholars who have contributed essays to the new exhibition catalogue.
All these artists were keen to experiment with this new toy, but what the exhibition makes clear is that they did not immediately see it as an alternative to a sketchbook. They used it, as we all do, to make instant keepsakes of family, friends and lovers. The camera and its little prints (early ones measured only 1in x 1.5in, but grew to 2.25in x 3.25in) offered a speed and an intimacy that could never be obtained with charcoal and a sketchpad. Nevertheless, as Clément Chéroux, curator of photographs at the Centre Pompidou, writes in his catalogue essay, for these painters, “looking at their photographic images was more meaningful than making them”. In other words, although the photographs may have been taken without a deliberate intention to create a painting from the subject, it was afterwards, when the artists came to study them, that an idea for a painting or a drawing might emerge. There is plenty of evidence in the exhibition of the ways in which photographs influenced these artists; in suggesting more dynamic compositions that borrowed the framing, cropping, casual gestures and sense of intimacy from snapshots, they were able to imbue their paintings with a significantly stronger sense of the essential qualities of real life.
‘Snapshot: Painter/Photographers from Bonnard to Vuillard’, edited by Elizabeth W. Easton, is published by Yale University Press in association with The Phillips Collection, £35
The exhibition is at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, until January 8 2012. Then touring to Phillips Collection, Washington D.C., February 4-May 6 2012, and Indianapolis Museum of Art, June 8-September 2 2012