The German artist Gerhard Richter, explores the complex relationship between painting and photography through his work. Richter constructs photo-paintings from photographs found in newspapers, magazines, family albums and sometimes even pornographic material. Richter amasses this found imagery into an archive know as the Atlas. The Atlas began its construction in 1961 and collects imagery dating back to 1945. By moving to West Germany to escape the oppression of East Germany’s post-war, communist regime, the Atlas can be considered very much as a post-war visual archive, whereby the historical context for its construction is fundamental.
Richter’s photo-paintings translate archived photographs into painted reproductions. The paintings often use a grisaille palette as Richter’s soft, photographic blur technique invariably sweeps the canvas. Photo-paintings, through their nature, “challenge the presumption that painting was incapable of addressing traumatic history,”1 as well as exploring “the capacities and limits of painting… its relationship to photography…and how we can think about its material status.” 2
So, to explore the relationship between painting and photography on a single plane, photo-paintings firstly juxtapose the two visual mediums simply by being, “painting[s] of photography.” 2 Richter clarifies that he isn’t concerned with “trying to imitate a photograph,” instead, he is “trying to make one.”3 He adds, “if I disregard the assumption that a photograph is a piece of paper exposed to light, then, I am practicing photography by other means: I’m not producing paintings that remind you of a photograph but producing photographs.”4 The notion that the photo-paintings should be considered as photographs, is amplified when considering how Richter works as an “automatic recording device or transcription machine, mimicking the mechanical apparatus – strictly speaking that of the enlarger…”5 The disregard for the materiality of the photo-paintings, as well as their mechanical production process, allows them to enter into the realm of, and sustain a closer affiliation to photographic practice than painting practice, despite their painted exteriors. This fortuitous relationship that the photo-paintings have with photography, illustrates the possibility of constituting an image either as a painting or a photograph, not on the merit of its materiality, but by its production process and how similar this is to either traditional painting, or photographic practice. Richter’s photo-paintings also highlight the possibility of allowing a visual medium itself, i.e photography, to become a subject of an artwork, rather than just a vehicle to portray a concept.
Similar to Richter, yet in relation to a different visual medium, Manet, the nineteenth century French painter, makes “reference to the material properties of the space on which he paints,”6 making the spectator become very aware of the physical and material properties of his paintings, allowing the medium of painting to become a subject of the work.
Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergère 7 provides an example of this idea, proving particularly striking when viewed in the Courtauld Gallery where it is currently being exhibited. Manet actively flattens the painting by using the barmaid’s reflection to create a “double negation”8 of depth. The mirror depicted in the background of the painting gives the illusion of depth, but simultaneously conceals any further pictorial information from the spectator, making them very aware of the material nature of the painting as a 2D, shallow plane. Additionally, this painting implies an internal light source from the two lamps positioned on the pillars behind the bar, however, it becomes evident that they are not lamps, but reflections of lamps. Therefore, “the light sources pay themselves the luxury of being represented in the picture, while in reality they come from nowhere but outside the picture in the space in front of it.”9 The light source ‘in’ the painting is therefore external to the picture plane, forcing the spectator to look outside of, and realise the restraints of the canvas in order for it to be tracked. This process of being aware of the limitations of the picture plane on which the painting exists, notifies the spectator of its 2D, rectangular nature. Therefore, instead of masking the flat, rectangular nature of the canvas and the external lighting of the gallery, Manet’s painting’s actively encourage the spectator’s awareness of all of these traits, making painting as a process, very much a subject of the painting.
Manet is therefore an artist who emphasises the materiality of his paintings, to make painting the subject of the work. Richter then develops these ideas in the twentieth century by disregarding the materiality of his paintings, to make photography the subject, and arguably, medium of his work.
The adjacent image documents the transition of these ideas into my own exploratory work. The painting depicts a found photograph from my own archive, that has been collaged and blurred. Both of these manipulation techniques have been employed to reference the mediums of painting and photography as subjects of my work, as well as mediums through which the work has been developed and executed. The soft, photographic blur acts as a reference to photographic practice whereby the blur is a result of camera movement during the moment of exposure when capturing an amateur snapshot. The photograph itself has been collaged to flatten the painting. Reconstituting the image on continuous, flat, single toned plane, eliminates any realistic perspective, scale, and depth. Flattening the painting in this way makes the spectator very aware of its physical 2D nature, making the medium’s materiality a subject of the work. Collage also fragments the image from a logical composition, into a dispersed, awkward arrangement. To create coherency in the work, and to link image areas together, the spectator, rather than being consigned to one prescribed viewing position like that in traditional painting, is actively encouraged to navigate and be mobile around the work. This physical movement means that the spectator naturally, inescapably encounters the edges, corners and surface of the canvas, again allowing the work’s materiality, to become a subject, at the forefront of the piece.
1 & 2. Godfrey, M., 2011. Gerhard Richter: Panorama. [online] London: Tate Modern. Available at: <http://www.tate.org.uk/ modern/exhibitions/gerhardrichter/roomintro.shtm> [Accessed 10 October 2011].
3. Cazeaux, C., 1999. Synaesthesia and Epistemology in Abstract Painting. British Journal of Aesthetics, 39(3), pp. 241- 251
4, 5, 6 & 7. Costello, D., 2008. On the very idea of a specific medium: Michael Fried and Stanley Cavell on Painting and Photography as arts. Critical Inquiry, 34(2), pp.274-312.
8, 10 & 11. Foucault, M., 2009. Manet and the Object of Painting. London: Tate Publishing.
9. Manet, E 1882. ‘A Bar at the Folies-–Bergère’. [Oil on Canvas]
‘Untitled’ Oil on canvas, by Abigail Moore