Modern Novels often Contrast the Photographer and Painter
IT TOOK A WHILE for photography in the nineteenth century to be called “art,” putting it in head-to-head competition with painting. But when that moment came, the art world changed. This theme of painting v. photography has provide great plot twists—and philosophic reflection—in some novels about art and artists.
Surprisingly, when the French Impressionists first challenged the academic painting tradition in Europe in 1874, their rebel exhibit was held in a photography studio. At that time, photos were not seen as alternatives to paintings. Impressionists were mesmerized by the new technology. Many of them—like Pissarro—were pro-technology and pro-science, as in the new scientific study of the effect of colors.
In Irving Stone’s novel on Pissarro (Depths of Glory, 1985), the founding Impressionist holds that photography can never replace a real “picture,” that is, a painting. They are two different creatures. In one scene, Pissarro says to Vincent Van Gogh: “The reflection of reality in a mirror, if it could be caught, would not be a picture at all, it would be no more than a photograph.”
A mere photograph!
Still, photos began to spell the doom of much painted portraiture. Later, mass reproduction of artworks changed the very status of “masterpieces.” Today, photos continue to undermine the sale of original art. Four modern novels explore these effects with three different emphases (anti-photo, pro-photo, and the economics of photography).
The French author Michel Houellebecq’s novel, The Map and the Territory (2010) is many elegant things, but in its character, Jed—who wavers between high success in both photography and painting—it provides a delightful jab against the camera and its advocates.
To wit: “For a long time photographers had exasperated Jed, especially the great photographers, with their claim to reveal in their snapshots the truth of their models. They didn't reveal anything at all, just placed themselves in front of you and switched on the motor of the camera to take hundreds of random snapshots while chuckling, and later chose the least bad of the lot; that's how they proceeded, without exception, all those so-called great photographers.”
Jed knew of what he spoke, since in this story, he becomes an internationally known photographer for his angled images of Micheline Maps.
Contrary to Jed’s cynicism, the heroine in Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers (2013) thinks photography is the greatest art. She is Reno, a photography major who recently graduated from a college art department. While she allegedly “draws”—making lines in snow with skies and lines in dirt with motorcycle tires—she documents her conceptual art with a movie camera. Indeed, central to the plot, her trip to Europe to photo-document motorcycle-speed-as-art takes her into the world of 1970s riots and terrorist kidnappings in Rome and Milan, Italy.
Pity not Reno, however. Pity Kingdom Swann, a fictional artist who suffered the photo revolution. Swan is a British portraitist of the old school. He also excelled in old school paintings of the “heroic nude,” a tradition that drew upon stories from mythology, the Bible, and ancient history. This is the setting for the 1990 novel by British writer Miles Gibson, titled Kingdom Swann.
As one character in the Victorian story says: “A painting emulates but a photograph stimulates. That’s the difference. It’s magic. It’s witchcraft. It’s stealing from life.” And so it was that Swann began to do staged photos for clients dressed as heroic figures, and, eventually—under the guidance a mischievous marketer—as naked heroic figures. Unbeknownst to the guileless Swann, his partner is cropping the photos and selling them on the side as Victorian pornography.
Gibson, the author, has a libertine intent in writing this erotic novel. The plot shows how Victorian prudes give Swann nothing but trouble. Speaking of libertine, the novel allowed the BBC television staff to do a 2001 movie featuring lots of naked women.
What Swann discovered, of course, is that replication of images can make more money than a single, time-consuming, painting.
This had been the ideological insight of such European art critics as Walter Benjamin, a Marxist thinker. He wrote on how the “fetish” or “magic” or “aura” of a single artwork is changed by mass production imagery. On the good side, this puts a masterpiece in Everyman’s grasp; on the bad, it leads to the further commodification of art, a Marxist no-no. Both these good and bad outcomes are fairly obvious to common sense. But Benjamin plumbed all the subtle implications. (See his essay, “The Work of Art in the age of Mechanical Reproduction,” 1936).
And so does Katherine Weber’s exquisite short novel The Music Lesson (1999), a title that refers to a fictional Vermeer painting that is stolen by an IRA splinter group in a ransom caper. Patricia Dolan is the woman holding the painting in an isolated village in Ireland. As an art historian, she is forced to think deeply about the picture’s effect on her. Deeper still, a replication of the real Vermeer was used to pull off the theft, pointing out the difference between images and reality, the novel suggests.
Dolan even quotes Benjamin: “What mattered was their [i.e. masterpieces] existence, not their being on view.” This was the aura. Since prehistoric times, a painting is “first and foremost, an instrument of magic.”
The Vermeer certainly has a magical effect on the heroine, who reflects on this personal impact across the novel’s narrative. The see-saw between real and imitation becomes a principle that drives the plot: the thieves use a fake to steal the real, and Dolan in turn uses another fake—a product of mass “mechanical reproduction”—to recover the real. As Weber says in her comments on the novel, the story is about the dynamics between perception and reality, a topic that the battle between paintings and photos has surely complicated.