The Van Gogh Museum is once again proud to present another great and revealing exhibition in its side wing on the Museumsquare in Amsterdam. Unveiling old photographs made with instant Kodak cameras in the late years of the 19th century in relation to paintings made by both famous painters and painters yet unknown to a mass audience, the museum has found a new angle of looking at photography and paintings through the (photographic) eye of the artists of those days.
A considerable number of photographs were now revealed to a large audience as before they had never been shown to anyone but family members of those that used photography as a tool and an artistic medium avant la lettre. The painters George H. Breitner, Pierre Bonnard, Maurice Denis, Henri Evenpoel, Henri Riviere, Felix Valloton and Eduard Vuillard latched onto this new way of study and expression.
Researcher and guest curator Elisabeth W. Easton was more than surprised to see such large numbers of photographs stacked away on attics in France or in the Royal libraries in Belgium as part of the heritage of many an artist living at the turn of the century. Some people even were able to relate to the posing models or subjects in person. People we can now study on photographs that we knew before as oil on canvas in the later so invaluable paintings. Great and very personal accounts of models that were in fact grandmothers and grandfathers of those who today still own the black and white negatives and prints. Gathering all the paintings that portray those in the picture- sometimes painters themselves like for example Matisse in his studio-was just the second phase of the massive undertaking and research. In short: The exhibition is a feast for those who love photographic and fine arts.
Interaction between two artforms.
Although not all photographs led to paintings we can still see today, some of them have a striking resemblance with the real paintings we know. The term ”snapshot” which was chosen as the title of the exhibition however was not the generic way that these artists used their simple but highly effective Kodak devices. They did every now and then experiment with them but in general the term snapshot – like we use it today – would be inappropriate. In these days styling and making layers within a photograph – like in paintings- were still important factors. In that respect a certain direction is always visible in these photographs as the medium itself was not an art form yet, but were often used as studies for..paintings or sculptures. In some occasions that led to truly interesting ” snapshots” taken on extreme height in the Eiffel tower for example, where before no ”pictures” could be taken as that would take too much time from the maker and should have been considered too dangerous an undertaking to draw traditional images on the spot. The instant camera with the Kodak slogan: ”just press the button and we”ĺl do the rest” was at the start of something we call mass media communication today.
Moreover I think this exhibitions leads us to the question what the quality of an instant in life really is. As technique in reproduction and the making of digital images has brought us to a highly sufficient and speedy kind of culture in which quality is made, consumed and subsequently disregarded in minutes, the stories that lie behind these pioneers of art photography are still safely harboured in the hearts and minds of those who have actually witnessed and shared time with these artists. Their recollections and factual collection is brought together with these fine works which will certainly touch a large audience worldwide and make all rethink the validity and possible quality of pure documentation of everyday life. Snapshots should be seen as carriers of the moment and for that matter be considered highly valuable. It is a pity that the company that introduced the snapshot camera is bound to extinct. Its legacy will hopefully not.
The exhibition Snapshots, painters and photography 1888-1915 has 200 photos, 60 paintings, prints and drawings by seven artists in perfect display.
Van Gogh Museum : 14th October 2011 to 8th of January 2012.
The exhibition will travel to Washington and Indianapolis in 2012.