Review: Painting with Light, Tate Britain ‘Illuminating’

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Tate Britain has picked an intriguing subject for its latest exhibition – the mutual sharing of ideas and influences between early photography art pioneers, and artists in Britain in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

That there was this deep and dynamic relationship between the photographers and painters is clearly proven in this well-curated show that hangs photos and canvases alongside, to demonstrate the extent and depth of the sharing of ideas – and that this sharing of ideas flowed both ways.

For example, Roger Fenton’s photo of a young Egyptian girl delicately balancing a water urn on her head bears more than a striking similarity to Frederick Goodall’s The Song of the Nubian Slave painted a few years later (and the two men shared a mutual friend). Whereas Rossetti’s famous Proserpine, 1874, of the Empress of Hades cradling her forbidden pomegranate clearly influences Zaida Ben-Yusuf’s depiction of the same theme in her photographs of 1899 (both below).

Proserpine (566x1280)

And this intriguing and complex relationship is explored through such a wide range of subjects, including depiction of landscapes, rural life, and city scenes, through to studio shots, tableaux and portraits. A particularly fascinating room was the gallery focused on the influence and popularity of Chinese and Japanese design in British society, with Alvin Langdon Coburn’s small yet beautiful photos of Elsie ‘Toodles’ Thomas in her Chinese gown situated alongside John Singer Sargent’s much loved Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose of the two girls playing with Japanese lanterns.

The exhibition certainly sets out to cover a lot. And there are some big draws on show – a rarely seen Royal photograph album is included in the exhibits, which shows Queen Victoria’s grandchildren recreating famous paintings from the time; and the huge Disruption Painting by David Octavius Hill is on show outside of Scotland for the first time on over a century – yet, the highlights of the show are the photography pioneers, the unfamiliar names such as Lady Hawarden and Minna Keene, as well as the wonderful Julia Margaret Cameron.

Their work is, understandably, smaller and less crisp in preservation than the large paintings, but it is interesting to see these early photographers play with effects and composition, toy with soft focus and changes in lighting, testing out the possibilities of this new medium.

The exhibition is a little uneven in places – I found those rooms on tableaux (with the wonderful Julia Margaret Cameron) and studio work more exciting than those rooms focused on capturing atmosphere and effects in urban and rural landscapes.

Painting With Light Images

This is certainly an intriguing and elegant exhibition that benefits from close attention. It’s not an exhibition that shouts or makes waves. It’s not one you’ll necessarily be telling all your friends about. So, with that in mind, this might not be a ‘must-see’ for everyone. Certainly there is enough to fascinate those curious to know more about early photography. But here’s the rub – admission is £18, which has to be the highest admission fee I’ve seen at Tate (Modern or Britain).

It’s a significant outlay. Compare that to current Tate shows such as Conceptual Art on the floor above, which is £12. And the two huge shows at Tate Modern – Performing for the Camera and Mona Hatoum, which are vast – twice the size of Painting with Light – yet admission is £16.

Does this constitute value for money? Well, as ever, it depends on your interests (and disposable income). I enjoyed and I found it illuminating. Hopefully you would too. But bear in mind this isn’t a show that’s going to ‘Wow’ you in a major way. It’s far more understated and informative.

See more pictures from the exhibition on my Facebook page.

Tate Britain, London to September 25, 2016
Admission: £18 (concessions available)

Image Credits:
1. Julia Margaret Cameron 1815-1879 Call, I Follow, I Follow, Let Me Die 1867 Photograph, carbon print on paper 372 x 266 mm © Royal Photographic Society/National Media Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

2. Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1828-1882, Proserpine 1874 Oil paint on canvas 1251 x 610 mm © Tate. Presented by W. Graham Robertson 1940

3. Zaida Ben-Yusuf 1869-1933, The Odor of Pomegranates 1899, published 1901 Photogravure on paper 194 x 108 mm © Tate

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