The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Photography Murdered Painting, Right?
It’s inevitable. Whenever someone tries to recount or evoke photography’s impact on visual culture when Daguerreotypes were introduced in 1839, a statement attributed to the French history painter, Paul Delaroche (1797-1859), gets dusted off for re-use. “From today,” Delaroche supposedly intoned—and whether he spoke excitedly or portentously, we’ll never know—“Painting is dead!” In either case, his announcement of a game-change, whenever it’s trotted and printed out, ends with an exclamation mark, to underscore photography’s meteoric impact on conventional representational imaging.
Of course, painting didn’t die, even if the medium seemed to have taken a direct hit. In France, for example, as photographic images spread over the years, so did Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Cubism, and Surrealism. Photography, one might argue, didn’t murder painting; it shook things up by creating new options and opportunities.
Flash forward to California in the mid 1960s, when John Baldessari—now recognized as one of the most original artists and influential educations of his generation—looked back at paintings he had done in the previous decade and couldn’t reconcile them with the reality of the his everyday world and life. He began to incorporate photographic images into his art works and, “pretty soon,” Baldessari says in the piece he’s done for click! photography changes everything, “I was using photography almost exclusively in my work. But it wasn’t photography that I was interested in, but what art might be, and how photography could give me a quick way to implement my ideas.”
Photography proved itself to be so useful that on July 24, 1970, after giving away some of his early paintings and setting aside the remaining few that still interested him, Baldessari took the bulk of what was left to a local crematorium, where they were incinerated. (Look for more photographs of the event embedded in an interview with Baldessari, that was published in the catalog for his recent retrospective, Pure Beauty, at the Tate Modern in London).
One could argue that, in Baldessari’s case, photography killed painting, yet again. And once more, something good came from it, not unlike what happens when some forested areas catch fire, burn to the ground, but then support a surprisingly vital and second growth. “People used to think I was anti-painting,” Baldesssari says, “I wasn’t. I’ve just always thought that art should be more than painting.” And, it turns out, he thinks that photography needs to be questioned and set free of its own constraints, too. Click here for details.