Light and canvas. Photography and painting in the 19th century

10 May 2018 – 9 September 2018 

The major special exhibition examines the complex relationship between painting and photography. With the “birth of photography” in 1839, the question quickly arose of whether the new medium would support or compete with the traditional and well-regarded art form of painting. 

Artists lived from their commissions, and the greater their skill, the more in demand their work was. Portraits, above all, ensured that many artists were able to make ends meet. On the one hand, photography could be used as a memory aid for depicting physiognomies or poses, and reduced the protracted sitting times of the models. On the other hand, however, in photography, a technology had been developed that anyone could use, without visiting the academy or possessing any artistic talent. Why, then, commission a costly artist? 

The influence of photographic methods on painting, and on our habits of seeing, is striking, as the exhibition shows in the 240 or so items – paintings, early photographs and daguerreotypes. In addition to selected examples of portraiture, nudes and outstanding depictions of nature will be on show. They cover the period from 1839 to 1914, from the inception of photography to the moment it became fully recognised as an art form. 

The exhibition poses questions relating to causes and effects, the advantages and disadvantages of the respective medium and the authenticity of the rendition, and considers how the image of the artist changed: could a photographer also be called an artist? Today, photography is booming and many people always have a camera to hand in their smartphone. An early “selfie” from 1909/10 is therefore fascinating – back then still an individual’s personal testimonial and a bit of creative fun, today a ever-present mass phenomenon.

In addition to addressing these fundamental themes in cultural history, the exhibition throws new light on the GNM’s paintings from the late 19th century, many of which have been in storage for many years and previously could not be seen.

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