The Art History Newsletter

Snapped Shut

by | 26 April 2012 | Modern, Photography

The term “snapshot” predates the invention of photography. From 1808, the term has meant “a quick or hurried shot taken without deliberate aim, esp. one at a rising bird or quickly moving animal.” It is strange to think that this hunting term for a spontaneous and haphazard reaction would ever be associated with the Nabis – those “prophets” of Modernism gathered around Maurice Denis’ assertion that a picture is essentially a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order. Nevertheless this is the evidence presented by “Snapshot: Painters and Photography, Bonnard to Vuillard” currently on view at the Phillips Collection; the exhibition provides yet another opportunity to consider the technological mediation of perception and the fraught relationship between painting and photography.

Rooted in the discovery of thousands of snapshots in Edouard Vuillard’s family archive, the exhibition shows Pierre Bonnard, Maurice Denis, Henri Rivière Félix Vallotton as well as Dutch painter George Hendrik Breitner and Belgian Henri Evenepoel to have been swept up in the craze for handheld cameras that seized the United States and Europe after the invention of the Kodak by George Eastman in 1888. By pairing over 200 of these photographs with 70 paintings, prints and drawings, “Snapshot” forces us to see the work of these artists through their respective engagements with photography.

Though visually exhausting, the sheer number of photos in the show conveys the explosion of images brought by the Kodak, and makes palpable the atmosphere of technological novelty. Aimed at cultivating a mass amateur market, Kodak cameras became a phenomenon in the 1890s by making everyday life a subject for photography. Marketed with the slogan “you press the button, we do the rest”, the Kodak freed consumers of the need for technical or aesthetic aptitude. Within reach of the middle-class consumer, the box cameras came loaded with a 100-exposure roll, and could be sent to a processing facility where the negatives were developed, the camera reloaded and mailed back to the owner. Indeed these devices seemed designed to prevent deliberate composition: held at the waist, the operator could only approximate the frame and focus through a distant viewfinder. As Clément Chéroux argues in the catalogue, the Nabis were not among the amateurs of the fin de siècle who formed photo-clubs and considered photography a hobby. Rather, these were photo-dilettantes who engaged in visual notetaking of daily life and social gatherings, comparable to today’s Facebook mobile uploads.

This artlessness would seem to place the snapshot at an almost inconceivable distance from the virtuosic manipulation of pigment and surface texture that, giving rise to indeterminate spatial and psychological scenarios, creates an almost synaesthetic effect in the paintings of Bonnard and Vuillard. However by highlighting the snapshot’s contingencies of space, cropping, shadow and depth of field, as well as the intimate subject matter brought into view, we are given the sense that around century’s end photography had permeated these painters’ visual awareness in subtle and elusive ways. For instance Nude in an Interior (c. 1935) is a shimmering image of Marthe at her bath that displays Bonnard’s anguishing ability to emanate light from within his paintings. It bears a resemblance to the photograph of Marthe in a similar pose and setting hanging next to it, and we think that we have arrived at the source. However the snapshot, Marthe in the Bathtub, Vernouillet, was taken in 1910, and predates the painting by twenty-five years. In the case of Bonnard, who lost interest in photography in 1916, the snapshot seems to have been a brief preoccupation with questionable authority over the chromatic and spatial investigations that he sustained into the middle of the last century.

Relationships between painted and photographic images are conjured and troubled throughout the exhibition. Vuillard’s Child Playing: Annette in Front of a Wooden Chair (1900) is emblematic of his signature conflation of the subject’s absorptive experience with a patterned interior. Its relation to the strikingly similar snapshot hanging next to it of a boy sitting in a room draped with correspondingly decorative arabesques seems clear, but the photograph was taken by Evenopoel – the Belgian who was included in the exhibition because of his thematic and stylistic convergence with the Nabis.

The final room presents the highlight of the exhibition: a suite of paintings by Vuillard paired with snapshots from the cache discovered in his family archive. Even here, the relationship between his camerawork and painted interiors is mostly a matter of conjecture. In a series of lively snapshots Misia Natanson – wife of Revue blanche editor Thalée Natanson– mugs for and returns Vuillard’s plainly infatuated gaze. However, in the corresponding painting, In Front of the Tapestry: Misia and Thalée Natanson, Rue St. Florentin (1899), her face is obscured and turned away from view. Thalée’s hand likewise covers his face, and the two figures merge into a muted decorative scheme that belies the emotionally fraught scenario. The famous Interior with Mother and Sister of the Artist (1893) creates a spatial and psychological claustrophobia that is echoed in the surrounding snapshots of Vuillard’s family apartment, yet the painting predates Vuillard’s engagement with photography by two years. Can it be argued that photography affected Vuillard’s painting before he owned a camera?

The Nabis are often associated with a hermetic retreat from the disruptions of modern life into an aesthetics of bourgeois interiority. Recently, T.J. Clark has held up this aestheticism as an alternative to the 20th century’s legacy of avant-garde negation. By conjuring “a sense of what the aesthetic existence keeps at bay”, Clark writes “Bonnard’s art, in its privacy and privation, internalizes the disaster of the twentieth century in a way that all forms of ‘modern’ fellow-travelling – even the noblest and most well-meaning – to my mind fail to do. Retreat and dream, in other words, are a necessary moment of the art of the last hundred years.” However the comparison that “Snapshot” solicits with the circulation of images in present-day forms of social media suggests that, beginning with the Kodak, this aestheticist retreat was becoming less and less possible, and that one could not return to a form of painting that was unaware of photography. The snapshot, as Douglas Nickel writes, changed “the way people regarded their own histories…the way lives were lived became entangled in the way lives were represented. A modern society of the spectacle was taking shape.”

Could these artists have been aware of the historical implications of this vast expansion of image production at the end of the 19th century? The tension in “Snapshot” between handmade and mechanical images gives a sense that the stakes for art were becoming clear. Though they thrilled to the snapshot in life, the ambivalence of the Nabis’ painted response anticipates Walter Benjamin’s judgment of 1931: “the amateur who returns home with great piles of artistic shots is in fact no more appealing a figure than the hunter who comes back with quantities of game that is useless to anyone but the merchant. And the day does indeed seem to be at hand when there will be more illustrated magazines than game merchants. So much for the snapshot.”