Friday, April 6, 2012

Art and Photography

Yesterday I took a positive step to further my understanding of the art world, I bought an annual pass to the 5 major Munich art museums.  This was not overly expensive, I'll need to visit about 10 times to get value from the investment.  What it does is give me freedom to visit whenever and as often as I wish.  Munich has some of the great art collections in Europe, the 5 museums covering art from the 15th century onward, with traditional and avant garde well represented. Clearly there is a bias towards German artists, but the scope is pretty global.

My rationale for this is to deepen my understanding and exposure to non-photographic work with a view to letting this slowly seep into my own photographic practice.  My recent study of Andreas Gursky deepened a suspicion that much modern Art photography is influenced by all of the other visual arts.  To someone better educated in photographic art this is probably not rocket science, but for me it is pretty new ground.  To date almost all of my historical reference has been to photographers, however, it is noticeable that many of the greats of photography either worked alongside other artists or were themselves notable artists.  Man Ray was well know as a painter and Alfred Stieglitz spent the better part of his life in the company of one of America's greatest artists.

I have to admit that I am not at sure where this will take me or indeed how much value I will get out of the endeavor, but at the very least I will be able to spend many an afternoon enjoying the study of real works of art versus material in books.  I have a further motivation, photography is permitted in all of Munich's museums, making for good opportunities to study peoples interactions with art and one another - I plan to use this as a source for material in the upcoming Social Documentary course.

Yesterday I visited parts of the modern art exhibit at the Pinakothek der Moderne and the studied some late 19th century work at the Neue Pinakothek.  My interest was in the degree of realism within modern art work and in particular the use of colour.  More and more I see discussion about sharpness, colour accuracy, detail, being applied to cameras and photographs, the sense being that the technology will somehow make the photograph and that we must strive for 100% accuracy in our rendition of the world.  This applies very strongly to landscape or at least representations of the environment we live in, and yet it is all ultimately very subjective.  The correct colour is a matter of taste and even if there was an absolute standard, the prerogative of art is to interpret the world and present it shaped by the mind of the artist.  Simply reproducing a world is an act of recording not art.

From recent reading it is clear that around 100-150 years ago the art world experienced a significant change in direction and motivation.  For 100's of years painters had been seeking to reproduce the world they saw as accurately as possible, the discovery of perspective being a major step.  However, suddenly rather than becoming more detailed and more representative art became "fuzzy", artists were changing from painting what they saw to painting what they felt.  Van Gogh is possibly the best example of this, his paintings are emotional responses to the landscape, we can see what he is painting, but it is far from a literal description.  I believe that photography was a major influence in this process, perhaps an enabler of the new art.  With a photograph able to "accurately" describe a scene, what more was a painter to do to better this.  The response was a deeper study of colour and again the emotional impact of the scene.  As photographers we obsess with accuracy, perhaps we took over this mantle from the painters and struggle to let it go.

Anyway, enough of the theoretical ramblings, while walking around the galleries I used my camera to record some paintings that illustrate my feelings about this transition.

This painting from 1860 by Johann Wilhelm Schirmer is typical of art just before this transition:

When I saw this I immediately thought about landscape photography, this painting is an accurate view of stormy skies on a sunlit landscape, the kind of scene that would have us reaching for our grad filters.  It is moody, full of depth and the colour rendition is fine, he clearly got his White Balance right.  However, within 40 years all changed, the Impressionists threw away the rule book, then the neo-impressionists started to play with perception of colour through pointillism, the work of Paul Signac below showing how colour impression can be built from combinations of colour.  The scene is still recognizable, but the treatment is radically different

Another few years and the colours ramp up, the experiments of the impressionists in accurately representing colour are dropped and an expression of colour is delivered.

I included the first of these, partly because it is an example of an artist painting what he experiences, but also as it is one of the few cheerful paintings I have seen by Edvard Munch (not that I have seen very many).  The second by August Macke takes the colours much further, however, representation is still there.  This is a personal favorite, I love the interplay of colour and form in this painting.  One of Macke's contemporaries in the Blaue Reiter group (very active in Munich) was Franz Marc.

In this painting by Marc, realism is gone, expressionism is what it is all about, the colours are magnificent.  However with Marc I can still make out what is there, the following by Willem de Koonig has passed into pure abstraction, but still a very beautiful sensuous painting.

The last work that caught my attention also escaped my memory of the artist, however, here almost all form has been lost, this is an exploration of colour.

What I have tried to show here through my experience of art yesterday is the progressive movement of painted work away from a literal representation of the world into pure abstract expressionism, a movement that paralleled the increasing sophistication of photography.  As a photography student I am encouraged to search for accurate rendition of what I see, as a painting student I would expect a very different motivation.  Should photographers care about accuracy and sharpness or should we also be looking for an expression of our inner feelings and understanding of the contemporary world.  And if we did, how would that express as a photograph?  Once more food for thought.  This has been something of a brain dump of recent thoughts, I hope it made sense.

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