Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 23, 2013
Elizabeth W. Easton, ed. Snapshot: Painters and Photography, Bonnard to Vuillard Exh. cat. New Haven, Amsterdam, Washington, DC, and Indianapolis: Yale University Press in association with Van Gogh Museum, Phillips Collection, and Indianapolis Museum of Art, 2011. 248 pp.; 285 color ills. Cloth $50.00 (9780300172362)
Exhibition schedule: Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, October 14, 2011–January 8, 2012; Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, February 4–May 6, 2012; Indianapolis Museum of Art, June 8–September 2, 2012
Henri Rivière. The Eiffel Tower: Painter on a knotted rope along a vertical girder, below an intersection of girders (1889). Gelatin silver print. 4 3/4 x 3 1/2 in. Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Gift of Mme Bernard Granet and her children and Mlle Solange Granet, 1981. Réunion des Musées Nationaux/Art Resource, NY. © 2013 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.

The development of photography over the course of the nineteenth century was a development of vision. For the first time, a person, via a mechanical device, could transcribe reality, freeze it, as it were, into an external, two-dimensional image. Thus, rather than providing an objective recording of reality, photography presented viewers with a new way of seeing reality. The manner in which artists utilized this new vision is the subject of Snapshot: Painters and Photography, Bonnard to Vuillard, an exhibition curated by Elizabeth W. Easton, Edwin Becker, Eliza Rathbone, and Ellen W. Lee. It features an impressive array of “snapshot” or instantanée photographs taken by seven painters and printmakers: Pierre Bonnard, Édouard Vuillard, Maurice Denis, Félix Vallotton, Henri Rivière, Henri Evenepoel, and George Hendrik Breitner. Traveling from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam to the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, to the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA), paintings, prints, books, photographs, and even cameras are organized into an impressive and illuminating display that encourages both an intimate biographical view of these artists and a more visual, experimental one.

At the IMA, the exhibition begins with a wall devoted to the brief biographies of the seven artists and an accompanying portrait of each. The center of the room features a display case containing examples of the actual cameras—primarily portable Kodaks—that the artists used to create their pictures. The presence of the physical objects immediately casts a foreignness onto the exhibition. Not a foreignness in terms of a European exoticism, but a foreignness generated by the temporal and cultural gap separating today’s era of the ubiquitous photograph from the exhibition’s era that marked the beginning of photography’s democratization. The leather and wood structures with their arrows for aiming a lens located at the level of a person’s navel evoke a very different physical reality for the photographer than the reality of the digital or even point-and-shoot cameras of today. The viewer then steps into this different realm of photography, a different realm of vision, as the text on the walls switches to the history of photography, with particular attention devoted to the development and use of the snapshot photograph. Even the instructional booklet for the Kodak snapshot camera is reproduced on a wall, highlighting George Eastman’s own clear, direct language that emphasized the ease of a reinvented photographic process.

The next room features a neatly arranged selection of works by the artists in the exhibition. The room’s function is twofold: it is simultaneously a synecdoche for the rest of the exhibition, which then unfurls spaces devoted to each of the seven artists in turn, and the generator of meaning for the exhibition itself. This is where the reasoning occurs for the inclusion of these seven artists over the multitude of artists working in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. After all, with Paul Gauguin, Alfred Sisley, and Paul Cézanne among others operating simultaneously, the 1890s was an extremely fruitful moment in artistic experimentation and in photography. The question of why these artists were chosen is answered by the first room and, more explicitly, by the opening essays of the catalogue itself: in short, they displayed a similar artistic sensibility and attitude of experimentation. The artists were interested in what they could see with the snapshot camera and how they could see it. As Clément Chéroux rightly points out in his catalogue essay on amateur photography, none of these artists were professional photographers or even amateurs in the connoisseurial sense of the term; they were dilettantes more interested in the photographic outcome than the photographic process (45). These artists are thus united by their vision, their artistic sensibility as it were, which exists as a sort of sentiment that filters through all of their output, from the private photographs of mistresses and children to their exhibited works.

This second room beautifully walks a delicate line. In offering museumgoers private images and more publicly exhibited artworks that inform rather than mimic each other, the exhibition mitigates the desire to read biography into these artworks. It also prevents the impulse to read or search for the photographs in the paintings. Intimate biography is thus balanced with visual analysis; in fact, most gallery cards, while revealing the identities and relationships of the photographed figures, focus on the visual structure of the images themselves. The remaining spaces of the exhibition tease out and develop these visions, artist by artist.

The similarity in artistic sentiment that ties these artists together is, in part, due to the adhesion of four of them (Vuillard, Bonnard, Denis, and Vallotton) to the Nabis group, which rebelled against the French Academic style in favor of surface decoration and religious mystery. Still, all seven were concerned with new ways of rendering form, composition, and space, and they employed the camera to backlight and silhouette shapes, crop and construct asymmetrical compositions, and create spatially ambiguous zones where forms seem to be crushed or merge together. Although many of these photographs were not shown during the artists’ lifetimes and a significant portion of them are intimate images of quotidian family life and vacations (such as Denis’s and Evenepoel’s photographs), the attention to the visual qualities of the small snapshots is apparent. At times the link between the photographs and the painted or printed work is obvious; that Rivière used his photographs of the Eiffel Tower’s infrastructure to create a part of the print series Thirty-Six Views of the Eiffel Tower (1888–1902) is undeniable, especially when the plates are placed adjacent to the gelatin silver prints.

Most of the time, however, the influence of photography on painting and printmaking—and vice versa—is much more obtuse, appearing in the form of lighting, composition, and cropping. The blurred contours and dappled light of Bonnard’s tender photographs of his muse Marthe de Méligny seem to find not an equivalence but rather an incarnation in the thick daubs of paint in works such as Afternoon in the Garden (1891). Denis is revealed as surprisingly intimate, with images of family and holidays that, through elements such as the monumental arm of his wife offering his child a bunch of grapes (1890) and the darkened silhouettes of his daughters in an arcade in Bologna (1907), still visually resonate in his frozen, classicizing processions. The starkly contrasted forms in Vallotton’s photographs come through in his paintings as masses of color, shadows, and light carefully picked out in near graphic detail in works like La visite, effet de lampe (1899–1900).

By highlighting visual and thematic affinities between media, however, the exhibition casts the artists in individualistic terms at the expense of placing them in a broader artistic context. A sufficient understanding of the milieu in which these artists operated and the theories at play and at stake in their exhibited works is noticeably absent, turning the artists into private people whose connection with the art world seems near businesslike. While several of the artists knew each other, had similar artistic interests and an eye toward formal experimentation, the emphasis of the exhibition is on their individual output rather than inscribing them into a larger art-historical context. The Nabis are mentioned and briefly explained, as is Evenepoel’s teacher, the painter Gustave Moreau, but the impact of these Symbolist influences is not fully fleshed out. In her introduction to the catalogue, Easton acknowledges the apparent conflict between the belief in a subjective art that did not focus on conveying external realities and a process that sought to do just that. Yet she does not examine this inconsistency further in the catalogue. Symbolist thought and religious practice heavily influenced the Nabis; Camille Mauclair wrote in his preface to the fourth Exposition des peintres impressionistes et symbolistes that the aim of art was “manifesting human consciousness before nature” and that the artist had light at his disposal to achieve this goal (Camille Mauclair, preface to Quatrième Exposition des peintres impressionistes et symbolistes, April–May 1893, 3; cited in Michelle Facos, Symbolist Art in Context, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009, 173). Mauclair’s emphasis on light would seem an open invitation to connect the photographic process to the Symbolist milieu that the artists inhabited. Indeed, the very emphasis this exhibition places on formal qualities might fortify this connection by enhancing the relationship between flatness and decoration (which G. Albert Aurier lists as the fifth and greatest element of Symbolist art). This would effectively transfer meaning to the surface, as Reinhold Heller sees in the works of other artists of the period, including Gauguin and Edgar Degas (“Concerning Symbolism and the Structure of Surface,” Art Journal 45, no. 2 [Summer 1985]: 146–53).

Although these larger theoretical discussions are missing from both the exhibition and the catalogue, Snapshot: Painters and Photography, Bonnard to Vuillard remains a simultaneously ambitious and subtle exhibition. With an interdisciplinary team of renowned scholars sifting through a massive amount of material, it proffers the snapshots and professional artwork of seven artists while deftly balancing biographical and formalist methodologies. In the end, the exhibition and its associated catalogue enact photography’s revolution. They form a snapshot, albeit a carefully composed one, for it is ultimately the vision of these curators that has created new ways of seeing the work of these artists.

Katie Larson
PhD candidate, Department of the History of Art, Indiana University Bloomington