Feb/Mar 2012

Time Reframed

A glimpse into the private photo collections of great Post-Impressionist artists

Shelley Rice


Click to enlarge

Édouard Vuillard, Lucy Hessel, Marcelle Reiss, and Pierre Aron at Vasouy, 1904, gelatin silver print, 3 1/2 x 3 1/2".

In her introduction to this volume, curator and author Elizabeth Easton argues that the invention and early use of amateur cameras is relevant to the twenty-first century because the technological changes experienced by people using the Kodak around 1900 parallel those that are upending modes of communication in the digital age. Instantaneous, portable, cheap, and easy to use, the Kodak camera allowed everyone to become an image maker, in the process blurring the distinctions between artists and their public—a distinction that is being further eroded today. Easton’s book accompanies a traveling exhibition (on view at the Phillips Collection in Washington this spring) and examines the relationship between the paintings and the amateur photos of the Nabis and other artists of the Post-Impressionist era. The book showcases essays by writers and curators Todd Gustavson, Michel Frizot, and Clément Chéroux, which explain and explore the technical shifts of that fin de siècle moment in Europe and America. Their technological descriptions, and discussions of the photographically illustrated magazines that flourished after the invention of the halftone process in 1880, make Snapshot more than just an exhibition catalogue: Its authors interrogate the relationship between this new visual culture and the visual creations of the artists who lived within it.

There are no easy ways to summarize this relationship, and to their credit, the writers here—those already mentioned as well as Anne McCauley, Françoise Heilbrun, Hans Rooseboom, Saskia Ooms, Eliza Rathbone, Ellen W. Lee, and Katia Poletti—don’t attempt to supply any. The mysteries of influence and vision are always complex and rarely resolvable. To quote Chéroux: “Seldom are the effects of photography on painting direct and complete; rather, they tend to be diffuse and multifaceted.” Easton’s volume examines these “multifaceted effects” on the painters Pierre Bonnard, George Hendrik Breitner, Maurice Denis, Henri Evenepoel, Henri Rivière, Félix Vallotton, and Édouard Vuillard. This is done through scholarly texts on individual artists and many beautiful, lavishly produced pictures—juxtapositions of these artists’ paintings and their amateur photographs, many of which are coming out of archives for the first time. On that level, this book is a treasure trove: Children and pets, wives and mistresses, beach scenes and urban forays abound, as the private lives of these artists are exposed to the light of day. At the time, these playful family photographs stayed in cabinets and albums, and sometimes suggested an idea for a painting, but just as often were simply recordings of an aspect of life that was, until then, a onetime occurrence. Perhaps this possibility—that one could freeze a quotidian activity by snapping the shutter, and then endlessly revisit it—was what most intrigued these artists.

Their contemporary Proust, who was also obsessed with memory, wrote that photography was an “encounter extended”: Its magic was in “prolong[ing] the pleasure of an actual moment” by capturing the light rays shining on another time and place and making them available for contemplation later. Yet in Proust, memories—of people, places, and events—served as temporal milestones within the mind’s flowing narrative. Time was porous in his work, and his mental images were often called up involuntarily, by sights or smells that superimposed the sensory experience of the past upon the present. But photographs, visual souvenirs that exist as physical rather than perceptual traces, allow one to contemplate a prior experience dispassionately in hindsight—noticing a button on a dress, a stranger in a crowd, or an odd expression that didn’t imprint itself on the initial experience. Not simply revisions, photographs are instead, as Roland Barthes said, “counter-memories”—expanded, rethought, and reexperienced within the temporal web of the present.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the personal images of these great artists often follow very conventional photographic patterns, those determined not only by the limitations of their cameras but also by the commercial magazines then published to promote lives of leisure, sport, and fun. Artists then, like artists now, were still amateurs when it came to new technologies. Visual acumen in one medium does not necessarily translate into another. Frizot’s contribution, an enlightening essay titled “The New Truths of the Snapshot,” includes discussions of and illustrations from popular magazines like L’instantané and Illustrated American, which provided both visual models and written instructions on how to depict a day at the seaside or a bicycle trip in the country—models that were familiar to the artists.

The main strength of this book is that it acknowledges these sources as historical context, but does not seek to generalize or to presume influences. Each of these artists is seen in all the complexity of his visual expression, and the essays track the evolution of the shifting relationships between various expressive media. Nothing is taken for granted: Sometimes the photographs influence paintings or illustrations, sometimes the paintings reflect photographs, and sometimes there is no connection whatsoever. These artists created both radical and beautiful pictures, as well as formulaic, stereotypical ones. Denis’s pictures of his children, for instance, are lovely, but the youthful activities they describe—skipping rope, playing with a stick on the beach, or paddling in the sea—were common magazine subjects. The personal and the collective began to merge here; the invention of the Kodak coincided with the early stages of mass media, and popular publications created an ideal image of modern life as surely as social media and celebrity culture do now.

What is striking about the juxtaposition of the paintings and photographs on these pages is how similar they can be in subject matter. Both often depict scenes from private life: loved ones, domestic interiors, and la vie quotidienne. Vuillard’s mother and love interests are seen in rooms filled with patterned fabrics, or kitchens and bedrooms—closed and often claustrophobic spaces that frame and trap these women, enclosing them within the male gaze, regardless of medium. Vuillard’s companion Lucy Hessel was photographed in a frilly white hat and flowing robe, sewing (as was the artist’s mother in paintings from the 1890s) on one of their outings to Vasouy. She is seen in profile in this photograph, smiling and evidently comfortable, and she doesn’t acknowledge the camera. Her upper torso is framed by a curtain at the right of the photo, as her lower body flows sinuously toward the left and bottom of the frame. Vuillard snapped the photo from a low angle; she is almost flush with the picture plane, which seems to move her into our proximity as well. The two children facing us and smiling on the other side of Lucy were, in 1904, engaging her and the artist. In 2012, we are drawn into the conversation—we become participants in this private space, by virtue of the point of view arrested in time by Vuillard.

Vuillard’s intimate image of his muse, a woman he constantly photographed and painted during the first four decades of the twentieth century, is exemplary of an aesthetic that runs through Snapshot. This Post-Impressionist era was evidently a time when life was visualized close up—whether that meant the intimacy of the family, the privacy of the boudoir, or, on a mechanical level, the technical possibilities of a Kodak lens. In that sense, the seamlessness of this historical moment—the congruence of its images, and its conventions and inventions—is made clear in Easton’s book. Certain formal characteristics of snapshots (optical distortions, fragmentation, the effects of light and shadow or high and low angles) are evident in the paintings, and perhaps were either suggested or reinforced by the artists’ use of these new tools. But the similarities are not definitive, and in fact are deceptive, within the pages of the book. Seen juxtaposed in a room (which they are in the exhibition upon which the book is based), these disparate objects make strange bedfellows, because we are really comparing tiny silver prints taken from cameras that used the first roll film with larger, heavily handworked oil paintings, often in vibrant colors.

These artists were aware of the shifting relationships between their photos and their paintings. Kodaks were to Bonnard and Vuillard what gadgets like iPhones and iPads are to us: useful toys that beckon us (often unaware) into a new world of space, time, and vision. Painters of this fin de siècle moment—most often men with extended aesthetic education in established schools or studios of Europe—did not confuse their holidays with their work (even when, for instance in the case of Denis’s beach pictures or Bonnard’s extraordinary nudes, photographic studies were used as sketches for illustrations or paintings).

Painting had, from their point of view, “the advantage of being hand-made.” Studies of color, perspective, and line; layers of paint and carefully crafted viewpoints; visual adjustments that allowed details to harmonize with the formal structure of overall compositional design—these could not be replaced by a machine that instantaneously registered light in space. But beneath the painters’ public complacency about the fixed hierarchies of expression and handicraft was a nagging, sometimes privately acknowledged, suspicion that these tiny light drawings might one day render what they valued most completely obsolete. Vuillard gave voice to this concern when he remarked in his journal of 1896, “It is clear that the ‘Good’ and the ‘Beautiful’ have passed out of fashion—as the ‘True,’ photography has shown us its nature and limitations: registering phenomena as a pure effect of their existence, requiring as little Man as possible.” In perceiving what James Agee later called the “cruel radiance of what is,” Man was transformed into a viewer/receptor rather than a maker.

This shift is perhaps the great lesson of Easton’s book, and the real, pressing reason to archive and exhibit the amateur photographs that have recently surfaced into art-world consciousness. When the Metropolitan Museum in New York showed the photographs of Edgar Degas, in the highly touted and bloated exhibition of 1999 that promised more aesthetic virtue than it delivered, the curators opened the floodgates for amateur photography, prompting institutions and estates to dust off thousands of pictures that had been stored in attics and basements, closets and albums. But this development also made demands on scholars who work with vernacular, personal, and documentary imagery, forcing us to ask what value these images might have—and how their inclusion in collections might alter the nature of museums, as well as of research. Why should we look at snapshots by artists, especially since in many cases they have limited aesthetic value and only peripheral relationships to famous and extraordinary paintings? Do we need to know what famous men’s children, mistresses, and vacations looked like in 1907? Or is there something else we may learn from these visual troves, something that can reveal a new way of looking that was coming into being at a historical juncture that is so seminal to our own?

In fact, what Snapshot teaches us is that it is the differences, and not the similarities, between these paintings and photographs that hold the key to the relevance of their comparison. When Vuillard voiced the objection quoted above, about the obsolescence of the Beautiful and its replacement by the True, he was echoing complaints made by artists and writers such as Charles Baudelaire and Félix Nadar by the 1850s. Early on in photography’s history, artists understood that their efforts to explain and shape reality were going to be undermined by photography’s ability to render it. Global meanings arising from reflection and the reordering of visual information by hand were replaced by transient fragments, cut loose from time and space, which didn’t flow into coherent stories. Stepping down from master narratives and into the flux and maelstrom of time, photographers (even those trained as painters) were negotiating unknown territory.

Without knowing the significance of the events flashing before their eyes, these artists decided to freeze them, save them, and extend them into the future. For them, this was often a sentimental or formal choice, or one based simply on joy and amusement. For us, on the other hand, their gesture means something different. As John Berger wrote in 1982, “the private photograph is treated and valued today as if it were the materialization of that glimpse through the window which looked across history towards that which was outside time.” And now, so many years later, we stare into the eyes of Emma and Bé Hermsen, two girls sitting in a darkened room photographed by Breitner circa 1905—and we gasp with wonder at the immediacy of their presence. These sitters were not posing for history; this was not a formal portrait, and the weight of culture was not yet on their young shoulders. But they still mesmerize us when we recognize that we are seeing rays of light that shined across their faces over a century ago. No amount of schooling at the École des Beaux-Arts could prepare these artists for that simple and shocking revelation.

In his Intimate Journals, Baudelaire mused that “there are moments of existence at which Time and Duration are more profound, and the Sense of Being is enormously quickened.” This lesson—the complex and variable nature of time—may be what artists gleaned from the advent of photography, and what we glean from perusing Easton’s new book. In “To a Passerby,” Baudelaire described a chance encounter on an urban street whose intensity arrested time, freezing the hustle and bustle of city life, and revealing a glimpse of eternity. Many of the photographs in Snapshot, for instance those by Rivière and Evenepoel, also depict cities. People stroll in Paris or Florence or Amsterdam; they enter public buildings and move across crowded sidewalks and streets, rendered motionless by a Kodak camera as they rush through the relentless traffic of the nineteenth century’s great metropolises. However modest the origins of these images, they, too, inadvertently reveal Baudelaire’s eternity—the new and modern form of timelessness that speaks across the years. Ultimately, Vuillard was incorrect when he said that photography required “as little Man as possible.” His error was in not understanding that photography enforces Barthes’s “death of the author.” There is less of Vuillard, but so much more of Man—that hero of modern life who has managed, with tiny pictures, to break what Berger called “the monopoly which history today has over time.”

Shelley Rice is an arts professor at New York University. She is the author of Parisian Views (MIT Press, 1997). In 2009, she was named a Chevalier in the Order of Arts and Letters in France.

Evangeline

March 24, 2013
10:53 am

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