Turn-of-the-century European artists made major efforts to unearth the meaning of the new technique of photography and explore its potential roles in the art world. Just as they do with technology today, artists then found ways of applying the new medium in their paintings and sculptures. They used the remarkable opportunity the camera gave them to investigate their themes more intensely or to photograph their own works as a way of seeing them in a new light. Artists were generally enthusiastic about the capacity of photography to reveal what was hidden to the naked eye; X-ray photographs, action photographs and double exposure all helped them in their efforts to capture the images they wanted.
Degas to Picasso: Painters, Sculptors, and the Camera brings together works in a broad spectrum of media, with more than 350 paintings, drawings, sculptures, works on paper and photographs dating from 1860 to 1940. Included are works by prominent and influential artists such as Edgar Degas, Paul Gauguin, Pablo Picasso, Auguste Rodin, Edvard Munch, Gustave Moreau, Constantin Brancusi, Edouard Vuillard, Pierre Bonnard, and Alphonse Mucha, as well as important but less widely-recognized artists including Medardo Rosso, Fernand Khnopff, Franz von Stuck, and Félix Vallotton. The works selected show how differently artists reacted to, and made use of, the new medium. The exhibition also includes vintage prints by the period's professional photographers, notably Edward Steichen and Eadweard Muybridge, as well as popular photography of the day, such as picture postcards and snapshots.
While the role photography played in their creative processes varied greatly, many of these artists shared an aesthetic vision that differed from those of previous art movements and marked a radical change in the turn-of-the-century perception of reality. A common thread among those aligned with the symbolist movement emerged from the philosophies of Henri Bergson and Sigmund Freud, which toppled the notion of a perceivable, universal reality in favor of a subjective, more personal view of reality. This sparked symbolist artists, and those influenced by their ideas, to shed light on the mental and inner psychic realm that cannot be revealed by simply mimicking nature. The technique of photography provided the perfect metaphor for revealing details overlooked by the human eye, bringing to light precisely that which lies hidden from view.
The evolution of photography in this symbolist period had a fascinating and often unrecognized impact on artists, even those, such as Edgar Degas, not typically associated with the Symbolist movement. Degas experimented with elaborate and by then old-fashioned photographic equipment, exploring in this medium the motifs and aesthetic issues that preoccupied him generally. His portraits of sitters, at times in almost total darkness, reveal a search for something within their personalities that could not be seen in the light of day. The exhibition also demonstrates that, besides being a pioneering graphic artist of the Art Nouveau movement, Alphonse Mucha was also a prolific and very demanding photographer. Fernand Khnopff and Gustave Moreau were two of a number of artists who sometimes meticulously reworked photographic reproductions to transform them into new works of art. In the early 20th century, Picasso's involvement with photography ranged from his amateur portraits of friends, to photographs of his works in progress and a collection of postcard images reproducing works by many old masters.
Other artists included in the exhibition used photography to stimulate imagination or memory, something that can be seen clearly in the works of Paul Gauguin. Gauguin's Tahitian paintings were frequently inspired by postcards and other photographic images from exotic sources—such as the relief carvings from the Temple at Borobudur, Java or the Parthenon frieze from Athens—which he later carried with him on his journeys to the South Seas. Bonnard and Vuillard's innumerable Kodak snapshots form a body of images that capture the texture and subtleties of their day-to-day environment, revealing a thematic and formal consistency with their respective paintings. Edvard Munch used photography to capture an intense picture of the inner psychic terrain, strikingly illustrated in an array of his evocative and disturbing photographic self-portraits.
The impact of photography on sculpture-and vice-versa-can be seen in the works of Constantin Brancusi, Medardo Rosso and Auguste Rodin. Brancusi and Rosso used their own photographs as a means of controlling the interpretation of the works. Rodin never took photographs of his work himself, but commissioned images from an array of photographers, in particular Edward Steichen, whose works gave highly-charged new meanings to Rodin's sculptures.
The exhibition also analyzes the complex notion of photography as an art form at a time when it was frequently seen as a simple mechanical tool, even by the artists who made such prolific use of the medium. Despite the fact that many of the artists included in this exhibition publicly criticized photography, they all kept up a highly creative dialogue with it. The carefully elaborated photographs of Franz von Stuck and Fernand Khnopff, more than mere models or representations, are in fact highly complex imaginary artifacts. Other works, such as the photo self-portraits of Edvard Munch, Pierre Bonnard and Pablo Picasso, are the result of a process of introspection and psychological self-examination. By emphasizing the subjective use of the camera, the artists included in this exhibition ensured that photography would come to be seen as an art in itself.
Degas to Picasso: Painters, Sculptors, and the Camera is organized by the Dallas Museum of Art and curated by Dorothy Kosinski, the DMA's Barbara Thomas Lemmon Curator of European Art.