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.

Women Photographers: whose world?

“Photography by women is a loaded subject, replete with every issue that has plagued or glorified the sex, from its sacrifices and confusions, to its sensing powers and sense of destiny.” So the introductory essay to this new volume begins. A lavish and costly hardback, it is the second book of this title to be published by Virago. The first, ‘Women Photographers’, subtitled ‘The Other Observers 1900 to the Present’, produced in 1986 and written by Val Williams, was about British photography. The new book, with images selected by Constance Sullivan, who compiles and edits photographic books in America, has an essay by Eugenia Parry Janis, an American art historian.

Yet the two could not be more dissimilar. The new book is a cornucopia of visual gems. However, the supporting material is not sufficiently contextual. The text of Val Williams’ book, though superbly enlightening, has limited images; they are disappointing in their choice, reproduction and absence of colour. The new book purports to be world-wide in scope, yet has an obtrusive North American bias in selection, text and sources which is bound to worry many readers.

Here are 200 large images, with 35 in colour and 165 in tritone reproduced from original cyanotypes, albumen, silver, platinum, palladium and colour prints. Arranged chronologically and sequenced visually between 1850 and 1989, there are some 73 photographers represented. Of these there are: one Italian, one Canadian, two Mexican, three French, four German, six British, and 56 American.

America has dominated the photography scene since the 1920’s. There are many reasons for this, including a strong photographic tradition, healthy art market, consistently brilliant light, a truly surreal environment, comparatively greater wealth and education. But the conclusion of the book reveals a contemporary scene–the last decade–entirely composed of 28 American photographers and no-one else.

Women Photographers begins with the usual (British) pioneers: Anna Atkins, Lady Filmer, Lady Hawarden and Julia Margaret Cameron, with the addition of the little-known Lucy Fleming, active in the 1860’s. It opens with a hand-coloured daguerreotype of 1850 by the French photographer Maria Chambefort. The equally little-known American, Louise Deshong Woodbridge, who worked in the 1890’s, is introduced.

One of the chief difficulties in a book of this kind is selecting prints by major celebrities, where it is necessary to show their genius without their most hackneyed images. Those of Gertrude Kasebier and Julia Margaret Cameron do this well. There are some of Anne Brigman’s mysterious works from the 1920’s, two very boring prints by Frances Benjamin Johnston, Jessie Tarbox Beal’s New York tenements of uncertain date, Doris Ulmann’s people in the Deep South (including a lake baptism where the water’s stillness is other-worldly), Laura Gilpin’s landscapes and Margaret Watkins’ domestic still-lives.

The noted Imogen Cunningham is represented by six nude studies, one of her calla lillies and ‘Snake in Bucket’. A Dorothea Lange nude is followed by the work of Tina Modotti and then a breathtaking Consuelo Kanaga close-up face of a black girl sniffing a white flower in bright sunlight which is heavy with mood and texture. Then come Alma Lavenson’s fragments, Margaret Bourke-White’s industrial work, the European cityscapes of Ilse Bing, Marjorie Content’s aerial shots, Florence Henri’s portraits and photomontages, ‘The Smoker’ by ‘Studio Ringl and Pit’ (of whom we are told nothing) and the art and documentary work of Lee Miller.

Lotte Jacobi’s portraits are followed by two of the best by Madame Yevonde: the Goddess Medusa and the sultry Flo Lambert. Margrethe Mather, Berenice Abbott and Lucia Moholy’s revealing portraits from the 1930’s, Wanda Wultz’s stunning cat/self portrait, the photomontages of Hannah Hoch and Alice Lex-Nerlinger are followed by Lotte Beese’s Bauhaus work and an Ellen Auerbach interior. Aenne Biermann’s elegant montage ‘Portrait mit Champs Elysees’ of 1929 also makes a propitious book cover, with a woman’s face on top of an inverted shot of the Champs Elysees.

Berenice Abbott’s New York shots appear with Germaine Krull’s cityscapes and nudes and Eudora Welty’s scenes from the South. Marion Post Wolcott, Dorothea Lange and Margaret Bourke-White’s images of the desolation during the slump years are followed by more New York scenes by Helen Levitt and Lisette Model from the ’40’s and ’50’s. Then come Diane Arbus’s shots of freaky people and the Mexican photographer, Graciela Iturbide’s equally bizarre and incongrous shots of women and monsters.

The final section comprises what Constance Sullivan describes as “important and emerging photographers”, the 28 Americans. Of their images, some are stunning, such as the still-lives by Jan Groover, the portraits by Annie Leibovitz and Maude Schuyler Clay (especially that of William Eggleston with a gun), Debbie Fleming Caffery’s haunting images, Sally Mann’s suburban life of the ’80’s, Ruth Thorne Thomsen’s ‘Expeditions’, Laurie Simmons’ underwater stills, Lois Conner’s shots in China and Linda Connor’s in India and Cindy Sherman’s latest self-portrait. And although the remainder contains such notables as Nan Goldin and Sandy Skoglund, with her ubiquitious ‘Radioactive Cats’, they do not add greatly to the collection.


“This book (a fiction of sorts),” states Sullivan in the Preface, “attempts to explore the questions, concerns and considerations raised in looking at a selection of photographs by women.” “A single quality”, she continues later, persistently asserts itself in these compelling images. The arresting gaze and ardent contact with which each photographer captures her subjects imbues the pictures with a sensation of intimacy. While reflecting a personal point of view I hope my selection conveys the power of that vision.” I believe that while the selection does convey the power of that vision it does not sufficiently “explore the questions”. Perhaps the problem is simply that, with such an important subject as women’s photography, it is hard to accept one person’s “personal point of view”. We prefer such decision-making from a consensus, despite a collective’s tendency to produce a less cohesive whole.

The accompanying essay, ‘Her Geometry’, has some useful insights but it is chiefly refined reflection lacking solid facts. It does little to illuminate the uncomfortable mix of fantasy-art-image with death-in-full-colour reportage; the important documentary work of Susan Meiselas and Mary Ellen Mark especially needs a context. Instead, the author infuriatingly refers to photographs not reproduced and discusses one image for two out of the seventeen pages of the essay, whilst most images are ignored.


Whilst it is especially pleasing to see the status awarded to Madame Yevonde, her equally innovative contemporary portraitist, Dorothy Wilding, is not included. Then neither are Louise Dahl-Wolfe, Sarah Moon, Alice Springs, Gisele Freund, Olivia Parker, Rosamund Wolff Purcell, Deborah Turbeville, Inge Morath, Toni Frissell, Alice Boughton, Joan Lyons, Ruth Orkin, Lillian Bassman, Genevieve Naylor, Diane Keaton, Sheila Metzner, Ruth Bernard, Fay Godwin, or any of the Farm Security Administration pictures.

Despite its palpable bias and conspicuous omissions, Women Photographers is still a very valuable source book for artists. The concerned reproduction quality enhances the images and the selection reveals no disparity in subject matter between male and female practitioners, despite the confines of the latter. It also conveys a sense of continuity from vintage prints to contemporary colour work, possibly compensating for some neglected and obscured careers along the way.