August 29, 2020

Do contemporary fine art painters work from photographs?

This blog follows on from   Do fine art painters paint from photographs

Previously  I focused on artists from the Impressionist period, so now I am going to look at the use of photography is a more contemporary context. 

Photography from its very inception has been used as an aid by many artists to help with composition, colour etc. I have become fascinated by the use of photography in the work of artists who not only embrace it as part of their practice, but in some cases it ends up being a part of the final outcome of their work.

Francis Bacon

The first artist I am looking at is the painter Francis Bacon.

Perhaps best know for his portraits portraying  wounded and traumatised humanity post war. Bacon drew inspiration from Surrealism, photography and the old masters. Never having been filmed in his studio, the painter’s process only came to light after his death in 1992. 

“[ A ] Richard Avedon – Francis Bacon, Paris, 4-11-79” by Cea. is licensed under CC BY 2.0

In his studio the evidence of his use of photography was abundant, with a kind of pre-painting practice that saw him tear and piece back together, crease, paint and draw onto photographs. This helped in the process of abstraction and distortion of the portraits.

In his studio the evidence of his use of photography was abundant, with a kind of pre-painting practice that saw him tear and piece back together, crease, paint and draw onto photographs. This helped in the process of abstraction and distortion of the portraits.

“[ B ] Francis Bacon – Three Studies for a Self-Portrait (1967)” by Cea. is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Many of the images came from photographic prints and magazine reproductions, but there were also several portraits of Bacon himself by famous photographers. Scattered amongst the photographs were reproductions of works by many famous artists such as Rembrant and Velasquez with copies of Eadweard Muybridge’s studies of movement seeming to have a particularly marked influence on Bacon’s work.  This can be seen very clearly when you compare  Two Wrestlers  by Muybridge and Bacon’s Two Figures 1953. Bacon would often visit the Victoria and Albert museum to view the original Muybridge plates.

In August 1998, Bacon’s heir John Edwards, donated the contents of the artists studio to the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin. The studio had remained untouched since Bacon’s death in 1992, and it was decided to preserve the contents for posterity. They also removed  and reinstalled the walls, ceiling and door of the studio. It took a team of archaeologists, art historians, conservators and curators to oversea the relocation of the studio to Dublin.

Edwards commented that “a little corner of South Kensington moved to his birthplace. Boxes of papers, books, photos, rotted curtains – all in Dublin. I think it would have made him roar with laughter”.

In 2001 the relocated studio was opened to the public, this included a full computerised database, the first of its kind to catalogue an artists studio. Other categories include the artist’s correspondence, magazines, newspapers and vinyl records. His studio is now on permanent display at Dublin’s Hugh Lane Gallery

Gerhard Richter

One of my favourite painters who has a very strong relationship with photography is Gerhard Richter. 

Richter well known for his squeegee paintings, has had an ongoing relationship with photography and has used images from newspapers, magazines and family photographs as source material for his paintings.

Richter has a very comprehensive website which you can access here  Here you can see the overpainted photographs together with many other experimental pieces such as the Sinbad and Aladdin series. In these we see Richter lay paint out on a surface and then interrupt it with a rush. He then went on to lay a piece of glass on the top, pressing down evenly, covering the surface of the glass  to produce his image. Is this image not more accurate and representational than any photograph? For it is in fact, at the same time as being an image of paint, it is the actual thing itself.

Photograph with painted and scratched surface. 2009 Angela Edwards

One of my favourite quotes from Richter which points out the obvious and yet not obvious distinction between a painting and photography.

Photography has almost no reality; it is almost 100 percent picture. And painting always has reality: you can touch the paint; it has presence; but it always yields a picture. . . . I once took some small photographs and then smeared them with paint.That partly resolved the problem and its really good – better than anything I could say on the subject. (lazwick, 2003:p28)

The photographs to which Richter is referring (his over painted photographs) brilliantly show the juxtaposition by forcing the two mediums together.This has the effect of making the so called real (the photograph) unreal and the paint real.

Ranging in style from the hyper real as seen in the painting ‘Betty’ to the abstract Richter seems to always be striving to create a painterly photographic process.

In this painting ‘Women Descending the stairs’, he seems to draw inspiration from the Women descending by Duchamp. Which in turn bears a resemblance again to the photography of Muybridge and his look at humans and animals in motion.