The Painting of Modern Life

Various artists, including: Richard Artschwager, Vija Celmins, Peter Doig, Marlene Dumas, Richard Hamilton, Eberhard Havekost, David Hockney, Johannes Kahr, Malcolm Morley, Gerhard Richter, Luc Tuymans, Andy Warhol and Liu Xiaodong, Curated by Ralph Rugoff Hayward Gallery, London

When photography first came to prominence in the 19th century, it allegedly led narrative painter Paul Delaroche to proclaim, “from today, painting is dead.” From that moment onwards, painting has been sentenced to a thousand deaths, only to find itself resurrected and thriving within contemporary art practice. Had Delaroche foreseen the Hayward Gallery’s current show, The Painting of Modern Life, he might have declared instead that painting can no longer exist without photography.

This timely exhibition surveys how contemporary figurative painting has engaged with painting from photographs. Curated by the gallery’s recently appointed director Ralph Rugoff, it brings together over 100 works by 22 painters. Among the artists included are Gerhard Richter, Peter Doig, Liu Xiaodong and Marlene Dumas.

The title of the show is inspired by a famous essay written by Baudelaire, in which the poet called upon 19th-century painters to reject the exalted ideals of painting history and instead embrace the gritty realness of the world around them. Fast-forward about 100 years: according to the show’s introduction, the 60s generated a need for artists to revisit Baudelaire’s concerns, when abstraction established itself as the reigning new art form.

This show traces the vast possibilities of the camera and provokes the question: has the painting from photo become the essence of contemporary culture, or is it nothing more than a filter that mediates our perceptions of reality? The types of photography deployed are far-reaching, and range from newspaper front pages, advertisements and paparazzi shots to film stills, found images and amateur family portraits. The most compelling works on display here are by the artists Luc Tuymans and Gerhard Richter, who use the painted image to destabilize the authority of the camera by revealing its limits as a subject and as a mode of seeing.

The show begins with an exhilarating introductory room that showcases a group of key painters who grappled with the emerging power of mass media during the early 60s. The discerning combination of Andy Warhol, Gerhard Richter, Vija Celmins, Richard Artschwager and Malcolm Morley gives substance to the show’s thesis immediately. Richter’s Woman with Umbrella (1964) is by far the most poignant work. By using a wet brush to blur the painting’s finish, the artist enshrouds his female figure in a haunting mist that accentuates the anonymity implied by the title. Only after looking beyond the seductively ethereal surface of the canvas does one recognize the subject as Jacqueline Kennedy, grieving for her assassinated husband. After a rousing first room of pioneering artists, the exhibition begins to weaken under the weight of the uninspired thematic sections that divide the layout. Those well-known artworks are reproduced and selling to the world market by art reproduction company. They include “History and Politics,” “Leisure and Everyday Life,” “Work,” “Social Space,” “Modern Individuals” and “Family and Friends.” The decision to use the commonplace subjects of modern life as an organizing structure is disappointing, and these categories leave the viewer with a handful of banal terms that seem completely meaningless.

Yet by freeing the exhibition from the restraints of chronology, the more iconic works can be seen from a fresh perspective. The flail power of Warhol’s silkscreened lavender and green Big Electric Chair (1967) becomes apparent when hung in the same room as Marlene Dumas, Vija Clemins and Richard Hamilton. And Malcolm Morley’s photorealistic paintings, dating from the 60s, reassert his relevance to current art practice. His most alluring work is On Deck (1966), a scathing portrayal of passengers on a cruise ship basking in middle-class pleasures. The subject is taken from a travel brochure that he meticulously grids up, which brings a sense of the epic to the cliched aspirations depicted.

To a degree, this exhibition touches upon the changing face of photography over the decades. Nowhere is that more striking than in the work of Eberhard Havekost, who deploys the artifice of digital technology to give a grisly murder shot of a tourist’s body in a red sports car the high-octane finish of a glossy fashion magazine. For the most part, though, this show neglects to give an account of how photography has evolved, and whether this sets up new parameters for these artists to work within.

There are also instances when the curatorial decision to cover half a century of representational painting seems too ambitious in scope. The show overlays pop, photorealist, expressionist and conceptual works, and, as a result, one is confronted with a mishmash of incompatible stylistic tendencies that lose their potency when divorced from their context. It is the contemporary works that suffer here, as they tend to feel outdated: because they are not yet easily recognizable within a definitive art historical movement, the viewer relates them back to the early works they are hung alongside.

The most memorable of the contemporary pieces is Luc Tuymans’ Passenger (2001). Situated in one of the last rooms, it depicts a desolate, bleached-out everyman who seems consumed by the existential malaise of everyday living. However, the impact of this work is undercut by its inclusion in a conceptually rambling section called “Modern Individuals.” Within this grouping, one finds David Hockney’s 60s pop-inspired homoerotic shower scenes and, not too far off, Johannes Kahr’s 93’09” (1997), a hyper-realistic yet contrived translation of a still image taken from the film Taxi Driver (1976). These three paintings have little in common, and their choices of subject, as well as their approaches to painting, could not be more frustratingly disparate. Criticisms aside, The Painting of Modern Life offers an intellectually rigorous journey and attempts bravely to reposition a strand of painting within art history.