Through the lens of history

Like that of parent and child over a lifetime, the relationship between painting and photography has been one of evolving dependency. At first, photography was slavishly imitative: Julia Margaret Cameron posed her models like Renaissance Madonnas, Alfred Steiglitz’s misty city­scapes echoed Whistler’s nocturnes. Then the young medium broke away to develop its own identity with the golden documentary age of Cartier-Bresson, August Sander, Walker Evans, Robert Capa. By the 1960s, roles were reversing: painters such as Andy Warhol and Gerhard Richter needed, used and aped photographic sources, as they continue to do today – Luc Tuymans, Peter Doig.

Meanwhile, in terms of gallery presence, prices, monumentality of display and, crucially, postmodern reference and irony, photography caught up with painting, whose language it now appropriates and distorts with supreme conceptual confidence. Among Jeff Wall’s works, “Picture for Women” answers Manet's “A Bar at the Folies-Bergère” and “A Sudden Gust of Wind” reprises Hokusai. A current show at London’s Pace Gallery demonstrates a dialogue between Hiroshi Sugimoto's seascapes and Mark Rothko.

Photography, as museums are learning, has pulling power. Within the past year, Degas at the Royal Academy, Munch at Tate Modern, and Snapshot, centred on Bonnard and Vuillard, at Washington’s Phillips Collection, each sexed up interpretations of hallowed painters by arguing for the camera’s pertinence to their work.

Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present is the National Gallery’s first venture in this direction, and the most maddeningly flawed show of 2012. An intriguing if overambitious idea – to illustrate how 19th-century photographers on the one hand, and late 20th- and 21st-century practitioners on the other, respond to historic painting – is only half-realised. Curatorial timidity, and a wilful disregard for what constitutes quality in recent and contemporary work, squander the opportunity to explore how and why photography became a serious fine-art medium in the past three decades.

The National Gallery is on familiar territory in the Victorian era, and tells the story of early photography comfortably. Gustav Le Gray’s seascapes have the brooding quality of mid-19th-century Romantic paintings. Roger Fenton drew on his training as a painter to determine the formal structure of pioneering Crimean war images. Portraits by Cameron and Oscar Gustave Rejlander recreate the tight compositions, tonal gradations and dramatic contrasts of light and shade of Old Masters, with results ranging from the theatrical (Cameron’s “Iago”, juxtaposed here with an Italianate Van Dyck) to the saccharine depictions of infants (Cameron’s fairytale “Kate Keown” and cherub in “I wait”), which were inevitable extremes of expression in an era that invented the notion of childhood. Thus photography played its part in determining the sensibility of the age.

For intellectual coherence and significance, an exhibition of this scope must focus on the 20th- and 21st-century artists who similarly produced defining images. Almost none are here. No Robert Mapplethorpe, though which photographer more closely referenced the classical form to subversive effect? No Candida Höfer, whose chief subject, the art gallery as psychological and political space, ideally fits the show’s theme. Andreas Gursky, Cindy Sherman – who hold records for the most expensive photographs ever sold – and Turner Prize-winning Wolfgang Tillmans, Gregory Crewdson, Sugimoto, all artists who consider painting deeply, are absent; so is obsessive experimenter with the camera David Hockney.

Thomas Gainsborough’s ‘Mr and Mrs Andrews’ (c1750)

The seminal Jeff Wall is represented by a single work, not his best: “The Destroyed Room”, depicting a trashed bedroom whose planes, forms and colours imitate Delacroix's “The Death of Sardanapalus”. Thomas Struth's celebratory/mournful 2012 Jubilee photograph of the Queen and Prince Phillip would have starred in the dull section on aristocratic likenesses but is not in the show.

Martin Parr’s ‘Signs of the Times, England’ (1991)

In a bewildering, only vaguely thematic hang of mostly forgettable pictures, just three juxtapositions of old and new stand out. Israeli Ori Gersht's light jet print “Blow Up”, depicting flowers frozen with liquid nitrogen, is an energetic revision of a Fantin-Latour still life of delphiniums, lilies and roses. Gersht hid small explosive charges in the flowers; when detonated, the petals shattered into icy shards. Captured by a high speed digital camera, Gersht's red and white bomb-bouquet muses on the aestheticisation of violence.

Martin Parr’s “Signs of the Times, England”, showing a well-heeled young couple in an impeccably appointed modern home, wonderfully teases out the satiric potential inherent in Gainsborough’s “Mr and Mrs Andrews”. Gainsborough’s painting may be a celebration of class, financial security and status, or a mockery of a wealthy couple whose haughty expressions, stilted demeanour and brutal accoutrements (the gun) are at odds with the natural landscape occupying most of the composition. Parr similarly establishes uneasiness: perfecting an apparently flattering mise-en-scène, he delays his shot until the sitters become self-conscious.

The other contemporary star here is Luc Delahaye, whose thoughtful war photographs are juxtaposed with Roger Fenton’s. Indeed, the pair could be seen to bookend the genre, since Delahaye announces a withdrawal from photojournalism – he was formerly with Newsweek – as over-emotive and too unsubtle for the contradictory truths of many international conflicts. In the two-metre “US Bombing on Taliban Positions”, the vast Afghan plain envelops, pulls us in – but there is nothing to see but an empty field and billowing black smoke: the devastating instantaneousness of 21st-century warfare.

In works by Parr, Gerscht and Delahaye, a story begins to emerge about current photography’s interest in ambivalence – its rejection, conceptually, technically, visually, of ideas of a fixed truth. Sadly, artists of their gravitas and complexity are overwhelmed here by an array of fashionable trivia. Maisie Broadhead’s vapid, store-window tat parody of a Simon Vouet Madonna with a baby dangling a home-made necklace (Broadhead began as a jewellery designer) alongside an engraving of Raphael's “Sistine Madonna” must be the crassest placement in National Gallery history.

‘Seduced by Art, Photography Past and Present’, National Gallery, London, to January 20; CaixaForum Barcelona, February 21-May 19; CaixaForum Madrid June 19-September 15

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