Interview with Carol Jacobi, Curator British Art, Painting with Light, Tate Britain, London

Interview with Carol Jacobi, Curator British Art, Painting with Light, Tate Britain, London

Tate Britain, London, hosts the first major exhibition to celebrate the spirited conversation between early photography and British art. Opening on 11 May, the show will bring together photographs and paintings from the Pre-Raphaelite, Aesthetic and British Impressionist movements. Spanning 75 years across the Victorian and Edwardian ages, the exhibition opens with the experimental beginnings of photography in dialogue with painters such as J.M.W. Turner and concludes with its flowering as an independent international art form. Pieces by John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, JAM Whistler, John Singer Sargent, John William Waterhouse and others, will be displayed alongside photographs by pivotal figures such as Julia Margaret Cameron. We speak to Carol Jacobi, Curator British Art, 1850 – 1915 at Tate Britain about the upcoming showcase and its investigation into the connections between two diverse mediums.

A: What can visitors look forward to seeing in Tate Britain’s upcoming exhibition Painting with Light?
CJ: 90 pairings of paintings and photographs, never together before, reveal how vital they were to each other, and how together they redefined beauty, and art itself. John Ruskin declared, “The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something and tell what it saw.” Painters, photographers and writers, too, found a new poetry in details previously overlooked –William Fox Talbot’s Thistle-down, the worn shoes of John Everett Millais’ The Woodman’s Daughter’s. Hill and Adamson’s photograph of David Octavius Hill in the doorway of their studio captures thousands of finger prints around the brass bell, telling a story of all those who had called.

Painters and photographers evolved especially a poetry of light, shadow and movement that looked towards impressionism, most strikingly on show is Peter Emerson and Thomas Goodall’s collaboration on painted and photographed rural views , such as the sun-filled Setting the Bownet. For the circle of James McNeil Whistler, beautiful colour and composition transformed work-a-day details, even the city. We see his iconic nocturnes alongside exquisitely smoky London landscapes by our first art photographers, including Alvin Langdon Coburn’s Regent’s Canal.

A: The works on display span a timescale of 75 years. How have the mediums of painting and photography evolved and influenced each other during this time?
The 19th century saw a breathless rate of change in technology of all kinds and artists were alert and curious about these. For example, photographers and painters conversed with scientists, painters exploited new pigments and photographers made use of increasingly sensitive lenses and plates. The exhibition features some of the first experiments which photographers made with colour when it was introduced in 1907, including John Cymon Warburg’s Girl with a Parasol.

Photography sprang into the art-scene at a moment when painting was also seeking naturalism, and of course they influenced each other. They shared subjects, models and ideas; and used each other’s work to see new things. John Brett, for example, made use of photographs to help perfect his pristine Pre-Raphaelitism [Martens and Brett’s Glacier of Rosenlaui]. As art turned towards Aestheticism, a preoccupation with moving, mysterious and beautiful effects, painters and photographers began to manipulate their mediums towards anti-naturalism, instead. We see this in the title and look of Minna Keene’s dappled and dreamy Decorative Study – Pomegranates.

A: This showcase provides an insight into many pivotal works in painting and photography. What would you describe is the highlight of the exhibition?
For me, painter/photographer David Octavius Hill, although almost the earliest figure, is the most extraordinary. The largest painting in the show is Hill’s enormous Disruption Portrait, whose ambition to immortalise 457 rebels prompted him to befriend Robert Adamson, and gave rise to some of the first, great portrait photographs. Bringing this treasure of Scottish art away from Edinburgh and displaying it with the photographs for the first time, has been a major challenge for our conservation and exhibition teams.

Equally I would like to choose the smallest painting in the show, Hill’s In Memoriam, which is no bigger than a postcard. Its expansive view is based on his and Adamson’s Turner-esque Edinburgh panoramas, the first of their kind. In the foreground his easel and Adamson’s camera stand outside their studio and refer to days past with his friend and his daughter, both of whom he had lost.

A: Painting with Light will also celebrate the role of women photographers. In your opinion, how important are female artists to the evolution of photography over the last century?
Women‘s art and science tends to slip from sight. Many responded to the opportunities offered by the camera and their work is coming back into view; six of 30 photographers in the show are women. Women were conspicuous within the international Pictorialist movement, including Ziada Ben-Yusuf, whose Odour of Pomegranates features with Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Proserpine on the poster. In progressive circles such as the Edinburgh world of Hill and Adamson, or the Holland Park set of Julia Margaret Cameron, women excelled in many fields: Jesse Mann, the studio assistant of Hill and Adamson, is represented for the first time in public in this exhibition, in Two Women in Bonnets, and we also include an image of their friend Elizabeth Rigby (Lady Eastlake), an early writer on art and photography.

Julia Margaret Cameron transformed photography and was influential on peers such as Tennyson and Rossetti, and on younger men and woman photographers such as Evelyn Myers. Cameron’s The Princess presents modern young women enacting Tennyson’s tale of female emancipation and education.

A: Through this show, Tate will explore key moments in painting and photography up until the Modern Age. How do these mediums, and specific pieces in the show, continue to inspire contemporary artists?
In many ways: the poetry of the unexpected, awkward natural detail continues to activate modern photographs by Keith Arnatt, Zarina Bhimji and many others, and to find their way into painting via photography, the ‘modern bodies’ of Jenny Saville, for example.  Photographers continue to manipulate the medium towards anti-naturalistic effects, e.g. John Hilliard, and some photographers revive the special ‘look’ of nineteenth century techniques. Thomas Joshua Cooper works in the tradition of Pictorialist ‘made’ photographs.

Art continues to inspire photographers such as Thomas Struth. Henry Wallis’ famous painting Death of Chatterton recreated by James Robinson in the 1860s, has been re-interpreted on a grand scale by Sam Taylor Wood and Yinka Shonibare. [Sam Taylor-Johnson, Soliloquy II, 1998; Yinka Shonibare, Fake Death Picture (The Death of Chatterton – Henry Wallis), 2011]. The intersection of art, photography and theatre continues in the twentieth century. Fred Holland Day is as at home in Tate Modern’s current exhibition Performing for the Camera as with his Aesthetic contemporaries in Painting with Light.

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1. Minna Keene, Decorative Study No. 1, Pomegranates 1906. Carbon Print. © Royal Photographic Society / National Media Museum/ Science & Society Picture Library.