Painter Edvard Munch said, "The camera will never compete with the brush and the palette until such time as photographs can be taken in heaven or hell." To him the camera was clinical, confined to here and now. It was, and still is, objective. A camera can't feel sorrow, joy, or rage. It doesn't feel at all; it's a machine devoid of emotions, unlike an artist. Despite his dismissal of the camera, Munch sometimes used photographs. To him, they were tools, not art themselves.
Like Munch, many artists working during the beginning of photography used black-and-white images. Some would lie, hiding their collections and camera equipment only to have them discovered after their deaths. Others admitted using photography, but maintained it was no more influential than the particular brush they wielded or the clay they used. Even those artists never told the true effect photography had on their art. Now the Dallas Museum of Art explores the influence of the camera on Munch and 13 of his contemporaries with Degas to Picasso: Painters, Sculptors, and the Camera, an exhibit matching paintings and sculptures with the photographs behind them. The collection, which is on display through May 7, was organized by the DMA but began its three-city tour at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Degas to Picasso: Painters, Sculptors, and the Camera begins with the stop-action and motion studies of early photographer Eadweard Muybridge. His photographs revealed that horses lift all four legs in the air when galloping and showed how a man moves as he runs. Muybridge also showed how a dancer's skirt shapes in the wind, how her toes point in a pirouette, and how her hair swirls as she descends, which gave Edgar Degas' obsession with ballerinas a new shape. His dancers no longer posed on stage; they moved with energy. He photographed them rehearsing and performing and used the pictures for his pastels.
The most striking example of the camera's effect, however, is the work of Gustave Moreau. Though the photographs are credited to his assistant Henri Rupp, their effect is undeniable. Next to the large painting "Jason and the Argonauts" hang almost a dozen photographs, each of a different model posing as Jason or one of the sailors. Moreau may have changed the faces, the hair, and sometimes the expression, but the bodies and poses are exact duplicates of those in the photographs. Fernand Khnopff also did this, only he used his sister instead of hired models. Franz von Stück and his wife Mary photographed each other as well as models for his paintings. They also had a large collection of family snapshots, often with the couple in elaborate costumes.
Paul Gauguin collected photographs from exotic countries, redoing the black-and-white scenes in the vivid colors his mind imagined for places such as Tahiti. Pablo Picasso also collected photographs of foreign lands. His large collection included photographs of famous works of art and photographs he took of his art, friends, self, and home. Photography's influence may be hidden in his abstract or cubist work, but his Blue Period series may be a result of experiments with cyanotype photography.
The sculptors of the period used photography differently than the painters. Auguste Rodin saw it as a great marketing tool, and used photographs of his sculptures to market his artwork and as souvenirs. Medardo Rosso photographed his grotesque wax sculptures so collectors would know the best way to display his work.
Alphonse Mucha, who inspired Art Noveau, also never considered his photographs art. Actresses such as Sarah Bernhardt posed for the graphic designer, who made posters and playbills for them. He also photographed models for his other design work. What he considered holiday snapshots of Russia were actually precursors of art photography. His eye for design lent his photography an artistic framing and emotion -- exactly the kind of expression that Munch though photography's objective eye could never achieve.
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