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The photographic world has spent a good chunk of its existence trying to gain acceptance as fine art. At its inception just a couple of centuries ago, practitioners seemed especially rabid about foisting photography into the art world, imitating master oil painters and classical sculptors with a vengeance. When the medium became both popularized and mechanized enough for Kodak to introduce its first “box camera” in 1888, dedicated photographers dreaded the fine art world would become even more dismissive of their efforts. In response, they attempted to elevate their work by including clear references to the leading art movements of the day, such as Impressionism, Symbolism and Arts & Crafts. Their images became romantic and atmospheric, with soft-focus and lyrical composition, gaining them the rather ungenerous moniker of “Pictorialists”. They created landscapes and portraits with metaphorical, literary and spiritual themes utilizing primarily two printing methods: platinum, still employed today for its subtle differentiation of gray tones, and gum bichromate, a time-consuming and tricky process known for its deeper and darker tones. In celebration of its recent acquisition of four major photographs related to F. Holland Day, leader of the Boston Pictorialist movement, the MFA, Boston is presenting “Truth and Beauty: Pictorialist Photography” in the Herb Ritts Gallery through February 22, 2015.
I have to admit that I approached the Pictorialist exhibit with some trepidation. After all, who wants to see a show of “wannabes” and their derivative work? It promised none of dynamism of the Photo-secessionist movement in the MFA exhibit down the hall (For my review of “Photo-Eye: Avant-Garde Photography in Europe”, see: https://whatwillyouremember.com/is-everything-old-new-again/).
But I was wrong. The photographs in the Pictorialist exhibit are texturally rich and sensuously beautiful. I found their appeal magnetic, especially the portraits. The centerpiece of the exhibit, “The Last Seven Words” (see detail in Featured Image at top), is seven platinum prints by F. Holland Day in the original, custom-made frame, in which he posed himself as Christ on the cross in an ambitious endeavor, not to mention pretty audacious and controversial in 1898 . Despite the obvious melodrama, the prints are beautifully rendered, demonstrating both tonal and emotional range. We actually learn quite a bit about Day in this exhibit: that his photographs “advocated for the male nude, a daring subject for artists of his time”, that he enjoyed waxing theatrical, as in a portrait by Edward Steichen (above) and that he was a fearless champion of literary allusions, as in a print from his “Nubia” series, in which he boldly features African-Americans in heroic guises. Quite the radical.
Among other treats, there is a nice range of portraits by Gertrude Kasebier, one of New York City’s premier society photographers. While her professional family portraits have the inventive look of a John Singer Sargent painting, her personal work leans toward lyrical representations of biblical and mother-child themes. But she also explored darker subjects: the portrayal of her daughter in “The Visitor” (above), has an ominous feeling with “Symbolist resonance”.
And then there is the very non-Weston, Edward Weston photograph, one of his earliest nudes, portrayed in the soft Pictorialist style that he soon left behind for more sharply focused horizons. This study is nonetheless a sensuous masterpiece, featuring a direct gaze and overtly sexual tone that he also abandoned in his later work.
Many more captivating portraits are on display – not to mention the nearly equal number of landscape and architectural studies – by such leading photographers of the day as Alfred Stieglitz, Alvin Langdon Coburn and Frederick H. Evans. So I could go on and, while all this talk may be enriching, it doesn’t do the photographs justice. To really appreciate their impact, you should go stand in front of them and let yourself be mesmerized.
For more information about this exhibit, go to: http://www.mfa.org/exhibitions/truth-and-beauty
Feature image: F. Holland Day, The Seven Last Words (detail), 1898. Photographs, seven platinum prints in original frame. Barbara M. Marshall Fund, Frank B. Bemis Fund, Otis Norcross Fund, William E. Nickerson Fund, Lucy Dalbiac Luard Fund, and funds by exchange from a Gift of James Lawrence, Dorothy Mackenzie and John E. Lawrence, and funds donated by Michael and Elizabeth Marcus, Charles W. Millard III, and Scott Nathan and Laura DeBonis.(courtesy of MFA, Boston)