The good news about Seduced By Art is that it is the first major photography show mounted by the National Gallery. New approaches are being explored, and modern moods. The bad news is that the show itself is a mess: incoherent, under-whelming, and sent all over the place by hit and hope curatorial thinking.
Let me give you an immediate example. In the National Gallery’s 19th century rooms there’s a marvellous portrait by Ingres of Madame Moitessier, a plump 19th century beauty in a floral dress who fixes us with a knowing half-smile and dangles her fingers from her cheek, enticingly. It’s a come-on portrait, by a male artist flirting cunningly with his audience. Next to it, as part of Seduced, there now hangs a grey photograph, taken by Richard Learoyd in 2008, of a thin woman in a floral blouse designed by Mary Quant. This second woman crosses her arms across her chest and looks past us glumly into the middle distance.
Here, therefore, are two very different women: one from 1856, the other from 2008; one plump, the other skinny; one who tillates us, the other who ignores us. The only thing they have in common is that both are wearing flowery tops. In this display that is reason enough to bring them together in a game of curatorial Snap. If I had sent in a photograph of my wife in her sunflower dress it would have been just as relevant.
Seduced is supposed to be an examination of photography’s relationship to the old masters. Instead, it is largely a string of vague coincidences in which things from the present are hung next to things from the past, and the juxtapositions are held to be revelatory. The confused curatorial mind responsible for this blundering has been brought in from outside the National Gallery. Someone called Hope Kingsley, who works for an institution called the Wilson Centre for Photography, has taken the curatorial lead here, and successfully guides the display into a series of dead ends.
The pairing of ‘Madame Moitessier’ with ‘Jasmijn in Mary Quant’ is one of three ‘interventions’ in the main galleries, none of which work. In the Constable room, Richard Billingham has compared his hard, insensitive, glary photograph of a field in the New Forest with Constable’s gorgeous portrayal of England in the sun in The Cornfield. Oh dear. I was reminded of Lloyd Benson’s famous put down of Dan Qayle in the 1988 presidential debate: ‘Senator, you’re no John F. Kennedy’.
The game of snap continues in the main display which blunders about the basements of the Sainsbury Wing. That journey begins with a selection of recent photographs inspired by Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus, from 1827. The massive Delacroix, 13 feet by 16 feet, one of the most famous paintings in the Louvre, shows the last king of Assyria reclining cold-heartedly on a big red bed while a succession of struggling sex-slaves is brought before him and told to die with their master in the final fire that Sardanapalus has planned for himself. It’s a huge painting about a huge moment of human drama. In response, Jeff Wall has photographed a red room in which the furniture has been trashed. Tom Hunter shows us a nude slumped on a hotel bed. And Sarah Jones gives us a grubby mattress in a painting studio. All three responses are mildly interesting, but no more than that. Molehills are imitating mountains.
Instead of a chronological investigation of the relationship between art and photography, which might have been useful, this display lurches from epoch to epoch, and theme to theme, along a route seemingly planned by the tossing of a dart. As with so much contemporary curating, nothing concrete is proposed, nothing solid is discovered, and the words ‘so what?’ keep springing to mind. In the room devoted to portraiture, Maud Sulter’s self-portrait from 1989, in which she presents herself as Calliope, the muse of epic poetry, has borrowed its pose from Nadar’s 1864 portrait of Sarah Bernhardt. Thus modern narcissism is comparing itself with 19th century image-building. So what?
Julia Margaret Cameron, a recurring 19th century presence in the show, derived her moody photographic aesthetic from a study of the tremulous Victorian portraiture of G.F.Watts, and her work keeps returning to the display to make the same point. So what?
The traditional art genres, portraiture, landscape, still life, each get a section to themselves. The room devoted to the nude begins with that marvellous and familiar Rineke Dijkstra image of a timid Polish girl on a Baltic beach adopting a nervous version of Botticelli’s famous pose for Venus. However, the relevant Botticelli is so minutely reproduced many will miss the comparison.
Meanwhile, and this really is pushing it, a nude backview of a chap with an octopus tattooed on his back, by Richard Learoyd again, claims descent from the famous Roman statue of Laoccon in which a father and his sons struggle heroically with the coils of a giant python. Thus the tentacles of an octopus are being compared with the body of a snake. A bowl of spaghetti would have made the same point.
This so-whatishness reaches some sort of a climax in the section dealing with set-piece figure scenes, or tableaux. Ludicrously, Horace Vernet’s Battle of Jemappes, an early scene from the French Revolution, has been paired with Luc Delahaye’s 2001 landscape of a field in Afghanistan after the Americans have bombed the Taliban. Both pictures are about wars. Both feature clouds of smoke. So what?
The real tragedy here is that an excellent opportunity has being squandered. Somewhere within this mess a tribute is being paid to the pioneering role played in the history of photography by Elizabeth Rigby, the wife of the National Gallery’s first director, Charles Eastlake. Rigby seems to have been a genuinely important patron, but the show approaches her so obliquely we can barely make her out.
Some of the contributions from the contemporary photographers are impressive. I particularly enjoyed Maisie Broadhead’s recreation in a speeded-up time-lapse of David Octavius Hill’s 1845 portrait of Rigby adopting the pose of a melancholic. It’s clever and funny. But the surrounding event detours too often into off-the-peg, right-on agendas – a feminist agenda, an identity agenda, an anti-patriarchal agenda – while avoiding the most important agenda of all, which is to come to some worthwhile conclusions about the relationship between photography and art.