The Painting of Modern Life

curated by Ralph Rugoff

The Painting of Modern Life explores the relationship that exists between painting and photography today. The exhibition brings together the paintings by twenty-two artists from the early 1960s onwards. All of the paintings exhibited here were inspired by photography and explore themes of contemporary existence – politics and history, work, leisure and everyday life, social space, family and friends, and modern individuals. The birth of photography in the mid-1800s played an important role in the shift from academic history painting towards the description of the real world in which the artists and their public lived. In his essay The Painter of Modern Life, which appeared in Le Figaro in 1863, Charles Baudelaire wrote, “The lover of universal life enters into the crowd as if into an immense reservoir of electricity.” The French poet urged the modern painter to take the fleeting and changing life of the city as his subject matter.

In the nineteenth century – at the birth of an era that later came to be known as the ‘age of spectacle’, when the world was only just beginning to be flooded with photographic images – artists celebrated in their paintings the ‘instantaneousness of life’ captured by the photograph. By the early 1960s, around 100 years after Baudelaire’s essay was published, an entire generation of artists looked towards photographic imagery to reinvent a form of painting that represented contemporary life. Artists revealed through their art an awareness and understanding of life in a society flooded by vast numbers of photographs and photographic reproductions. “Cinema, television, magazines, newspapers immersed the artist in a total environment and this new visual ambience was photographic,” declared the British artist Richard Hamilton in 1969, reminiscing on the decade. “Somehow it didn’t seem necessary to hold on to that older tradition of direct contact with the world. Magazines, or any visual intermediary, could as well provide a stimulus for making pictures.” In the late 1950s and early 1960s, in reaction to Abstraction, which had dominated painting for decades, painters such as Hamilton, Andy Warhol, Gerhard Richter and Michelangelo Pistoletto began to expose the photographic sources of their works, expressing a new awareness of visual culture in a rapidly changing society. “By using photographic sources,” writes Ralph Rugoff, curator of the exhibition, “artists tacitly acknowledged that it no longer made sense to isolate the making of pictures from the dizzying plenitude of mechanically reproduced images, and to varying degrees their work explored how this ubiquitous medium was altering our ways of seeing.” With the reworking of scale, focus and texture, artists aimed to distance us from overly Rivoli familiar images and provide us with an opportunity to reassess their significance. Seen now not simply as a prompt or aide-mémoire, photography was both the subject and object of paintings, which became translations from one medium to another. In the late 1970s Martin Kippenberger investigated a new relationship between photography in the everyday and art. Recognizing that we inhabit a world saturated with images, during his stay in Florence in 1976 he painted one canvas a day from postcards, newspaper images and snapshots, taking a casual and seemingly arbitrary approach. “The stupidest things suddenly turned into something quite individual,” he said, “always get to the heart of the matter, to things that are so close that you wouldn’t think of them.” The exhibition continues with more recent works by contemporary artists such as Franz Gertsch, Elizabeth Peyton, Marlene Dumas, Peter Doig, Wilhelm Sasnal and Luc Tuymans. Recently, more and more artists choose to paint from photographic images found in the media, from the Internet or from snapshots taken with cameras or cell phones. However, the “mechanical” camera vision made manifest in the works of the 1960s is of a little interest to these painters. They explore the possibilities of paint and the effects that painting from photographs has on subjectivity, expanding the notion of the “painterly”. To focus on painting in the context of a society overflowing with digital images suggests the failure of photography to represent the complexity of contemporary life. These artists extend time within an image by copying and painting it, pausing and slowing down the flux of imagery of our times by painting life’s fleeting moments and using mechanically or digitally produced images in highly personal ways. Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev

This exhibition is curated by Ralph Rugoff, Director of The Hayward and was organized by The Hayward, Southbank Centre, London