A piece in Art News caught my eye this morning, regarding two exhibitions in Hartford that will no doubt appeal to those of you who love photography, as well as those who love painting. American photographer James Welling has assembled a group of photographs he has taken that are related to the work of the great American realist painter Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009), and they are being shown in juxtaposition with an exhibition of Wyeth’s paintings at the Wadsworth Atheneum. Both shows run until July 22nd, though I want to focus particularly on how Welling’s creativity as demonstrated in his show, was in part fostered by his study of Wyeth’s own creative output, and how this is a not-uncommon feature of the arts.
Some of Welling’s photographs depict locations which will be familiar to fellow admirers of Wyeth, such as the old farmhouse that appears in the distance of Wyeth’s iconic painting, “Christina’s World”, which is probably his best-known work. Other photographs are not directly related to a specific painting, but rather represent elements or passages that are thematically reflective of Wyeth’s way of looking at his environment. Welling therefore is not simply trying to record for posterity a particular place, but rather to show Wyeth’s influence on his own artistic process, and how he has taken that example and gone off in his own direction.
We see this pattern of reference, variation, and creation in many areas of artistic output. For example, the mid-19th century French composer Charles Gounod took the early 18th century composer Johann Sebastian Bach’s 1st Prelude from the “Well-Tempered Clavier”, and improvised his version of the “Ave Maria” to be sung over the top of it. Similarly Picasso studied Velázquez’ masterpiece, the enigmatic “Las Meninas” of 1656 which is now in The Prado in Madrid, and in 1957 produced a series of paintings disassembling it which now fill the “Las Meninas Room” at the Picasso Museum in Barcelona.
One aspect of Welling’s work that viewers will find particularly interesting is not only its documentation of the places Wyeth saw and how they have and have not changed over time, but also the fact that Wyeth did not always paint exactly what his eye saw. In “Christina’s World”, Wyeth rearranged the farm buildings from where they stood in real life, in order to make his composition more pleasing. This a technique used by many artists over the centuries to bring balance to their pictures.
As it happens, this is something that photographers have done from the beginning of the development of their craft as well, and long before the invention of tools like Photoshop to make such manipulation easier. Yesterday in fact, I had a conversation with a senior magazine researcher about the influence of Samuel F.B. Morse on American Civil War photographer Mathew Brady. Morse is probably better-known to my readers as the man credited with inventing the telegraph and Morse code, yet he was also a talented and formally-educated painter. As was common among all academicians of his time, Morse spent a great deal of time observing, sketching, taking life drawing classes, and re-arranging objects to create his compositions.
Brady studied painting with Morse in New York prior to the Civil War, who himself had studied classical composition in Europe and was admitted to the Royal Academy in London. It is not a surprise, therefore, to learn that in many of the battlefield photographs attributed to Brady and his studio, the elements of the images were moved around or re-positioned in order to make a more compelling final product. For example, men who had died face-down were turned over, or their eyes and mouths might be closed. Artillery or vehicles were rearranged to create a balanced composition, even though as a result it would not be an accurate record for the military brass of how their soldiers had used or left these items.
In some ways the egalitarian nature of photography, as compared to the seemingly elitist nature of painting, has led to the idea in some quarters that painting realistic subjects is irrelevant. For example over the weekend I was watching a report about a new show on abstract portraiture opening at an art foundation in Paris, in which the curator of the exhibition opined that the main reason portraiture changed was the advent of the photographic camera. When a camera could quickly and more cheaply capture the image of an individual, he reasoned, the need for realistic painting evaporated.
Yet this rather flippant assertion overlooks the genius of what great art has always been, if my bluntness will be forgiven, regardless of the medium employed, and that is the fact that you yourself cannot produce it. Anyone can sit down at a piano and plunk out “Heart and Soul” given a little instruction; a scant few of us could sit down and employ the technically complicated leaping and bounding required for the Tchaikovsky 1st Piano Concerto with anything approaching competency. Similarly, anyone can take a photograph, but not anyone can produce a competent one, let alone a great one. The relative ease of photography as a process does not mean that all photographers are capable of producing great images: there has to be an artistic eye, and an understanding of light and composition.
In this case of course, Mr. Welling is indeed a great photographer, not just your Dad taking snapshots of your 8th birthday party. He is someone who has had the way he looks at his environment shaped by great painters like Wyeth. In this he is a part of a tradition which includes predecessors like Morse and Brady, Bach and Gounod, and so on, where creative minds from different generations or even from different centuries employ both observation and their own unique creative skills to come up with something wonderful.