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"Degas to Picasso: Painters, Sculptors and the Camera"
1999-10-02 until 2000-01-02
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
San Francisco, CA, USA United States of America

This major exhibition explores fourteen European artists at the dawn of the twentieth century and their complex relationship with photography. Degas to Picasso: Painters, Sculptors and the Camera presents a multifaceted vision of the artistic role of photography by examining the working processes of Pierre Bonnard, Constantin Brancusi, Edgar Degas, Paul Gauguin, Fernand Khnopff, Gustave Moreau, Alphonse Mucha, Edvard Munch, Pablo Picasso, Auguste Rodin, Medardo Rosso, Franz von Stuck, Félix Vallotton and Edouard Vuillard. Related prints by professional photographers, notably Edward Steichen and Eadweard Muybridge, will also be on view.

Dating from roughly 1885 to 1915, the 364 paintings, drawings, sculptures and photographs on view demonstrate the pervasive and diverse role of photography in the work and working processes of these significant artists. The works are organized into fourteen monographic chapters on individual artists. Rodins Eve, Balzac and his Burghers of Calais are juxtaposed with photographs by Bulloz, Haweis and Cole, Käsebier and Steichen; Degas experimentation with elaborate and by then old-fashioned photographic equipment demonstrates his exploration in this medium and the motifs and aesthetic issues that preoccupied him generally; and Alphonse Mucha is revealed not only as the premiere graphic artist of Art Nouveau, but as an avid and exacting photographer.

Other artists used photographs to spark their imagination or memory, as with Gauguins collection of colonial photographs and treasured postcards of Borubodur, precious simulacra of an elusive exotic ideal. Bonnards and Vuillards innumerable Kodak snapshots form a body of images that capture the texture and nuance of their day-to-day environment. Khnopff and Moreau are among those artists who sometimes meticulously reworked the photographic print, transforming it thereby into another work of art. At the turn of the century, Picassos interaction with photography ranged from the amateurs enthusiastic portraits of friends, to records of his painted works in progress, to the avid collectors assemblage of postcard images of works by Old Masters. The exhibition will include Picassos important Boy with a Pipe, 1905, and his Blue Period canvas Portrait of a Man (Blue Portrait), 1902-3, among other significant paintings, works on paper and photographs.

The impact of photography on three-dimensional arts and vice versa is examined through the work of Brancusi, Rosso and Rodin. For Brancusi and Rosso their own photographs were the means of staging and interpreting their sculpted oeuvre. Rosso altered the photographs of his sculpture by blurring them through emulsion, vibrating the apparatus during the exposure, abrading the print surface and cropping and annotating what could be seen as independent artworks. Rodin was never himself the photographer but commissioned work from an array of photographers, championing in particular the work of Edward Steichen.

While the role photography played in their creative processes varied greatly, many of these artists shared an aesthetic vision that marked a radical change in turn-of-the-century perceptions of reality. A common thread among those aligned with Symbolism emerged from the philosophies of Henri Bergson and Sigmund Freud, which toppled the notion of a perceivable, universal reality in favor of a subjective, spatially and temporally dependent view of the real world. Edvard Munchs Portrait of Nietzsche, 1907, The Crying Woman, 1906-07, and Bathing Men, 1904, are included with an array of highly sensitive self-portraits to reveal the breadth of Munchs exploration into the internal or unseen world. In addition, contemporary technological advancements such as x-ray, microscopic and time-sequenced photography revealed previously hidden details or levels beyond human perception. This view beneath the surface challenged the late-nineteenth-century notion that photography was predominantly a tool of Realism and Impressionism and paralleled the symbolist goal of expressing what is not immediately apparent: evoking ideas rather than representing reality, interpreting the world through a subjective lens.

Degas to Picasso also examines the complex notion of photography as an art form in an era when it was frequently dismissed -- even by some of the artists who used it so extensively -- as no more than a mechanical tool. Pictorialism sought to heighten the awareness of photography as an art form, yet some artists among the turn-of-the-century avant-garde decried the infringement of the reality-based medium on their creative, handmade works. Though many of the artists in this exhibition publicly abjured photography, each engaged in a highly creative dialogue with the medium. For Stuck and Khnopff, carefully staged photographs were more than mere models or records, but rather elements of highly complex fictions. Photographic self-portraits by Munch, Bonnard and Picasso are riveting results of psychological exploration. By emphasizing the subjective use of the camera, the artists in the exhibition acted as catalysts for the reception of photography as fine art.

This exhibition is organized by Dorothy Kosinski, the Dallas Museum of Arts Barbara Thomas Lemmon Curator of European Art. The San Francisco presentation is organized by Douglas R. Nickel, SFMOMA associate curator of photography.

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