For the past 6 years, every year, we have received an exceptional exhibition report from Sweden!
They are signed Tintin Törncrantz, probably the greatest Swedish photographic critic.
The precedents were on Guy Bourdin, Vivian Maier, Margaret Watkins.
This year we received two.
Impressive, Tintin will tell us that he worked on each of them for a month in a state of almost trance!
Read them, you will understand.
The pictorialists were arguably the first artists to use photography to create images drawn from the imagination … Because pictorial photographs are often strikingly beautiful, it is easy to forget that they were made with camera, lens, and sensitive paper.
– Phillip Prodger, Impressionist Camera: Pictorial Photography in Europe, 1888–1918
His father wears his war wound like a crown, and Jesus wants to go to Venus. When the Saviour of the World rematerialised in New Orleans in 2005, on a grossly overpainted shoddy walnut panel with an aura of next-to-zero excellence, the painting went for less than 10,000 bucks.
However, after being “restored” to an ignominious “Leonardo” (or “da Vinci” as many of these untaught experts call the old master), it was pumped up by the chicanery and confusion of the art world and further boosted by “the egos and the dreams of academics” – a quote from art historian Martin Kemp in Danish documentary filmmaker Andreas Koefoed’s impressive The Lost Leonardo (2021) – all in all the wild bunch that turned an inadequate Renaissance painting into Leonardo’s forever departed Salvator Mundi and, accordingly, generated a record sale for an artwork on November 15, 2017 at Christie’s in New York when the Saudi crown prince snatched Lot 9 B for 450,312,500 dollars as a power piece for the yacht. This of course is how all the great shams are packaged, marketed and sold – as a Warhol Factory writer once reckoned, “Art is what you can get away with.”
And now for something completely different. “The film has its own reality. The film says what it wants to say. The film is another judge,” voiced the very different Roger Ballen when he interrupted the boring press conference at Fotografiska in Stockholm in March 2014 and, on the spur of the moment, began to fill up cartoon balloons of spoken-word brilliance to describe his art photography. This space upstairs had just been cleared of the pictures taken by a Swedish actor-celeb, following his interminable television series Everyone’s a Photographer (including a mandatory episode on “The Male Gaze”) on state broadcaster SVT, and the one thing that this first exhibition of the year proved was that the world is full of shutterbugs.
“It is profoundly regrettable that the millions who click little cameras all over the globe take no interest in the production of the image they have blindly caused to exist in the film. Between the pressing of the button and the first sight of a print there is a hiatus in which nothing of themselves appears, beyond perhaps a little mild expectancy. This kind of procedure is not photography at all, it is mere camera handling. The true photographer’s excitement, commencing at the exposure, remains latent but certain, until he feels the thrills of development. It continues through the printing, and survives in the enjoyment of the picture he has coaxed out, in accordance with his personal taste and judgement. To skip all this is to miss one of the rarest pleasures of life,” argued Frederick Colin Tilney in The Principles of Photographic Pictorialism.
Tilney, who was as old-school in his own artmaking as he was forward-thinking in his sheer understanding of the substance and the value of photography as a new art form, wrote in his book – published in 1930 during the advanced stages of this time-honoured movement that had been going on since almost the mid-1800s – that Pictorialism’s “continuous output of excellent pictures artistically contrived and skilfully manipulated is the leading sign of the times”.
The pictorialist’s volitional authority over the whole photographic process was a requisite for creating images that would manifest the alterations of the hand, the aesthetic purpose and (though more like a murmur) the intangible mind of the creator, who, by using a “simple” mechanical apparatus, a recording tool, could generate artistic prints that were absolutely out of this world. The pictorialists were the boats against the current who beat on in society in order to give credence to photography with quality and beauty and not a little innovation. And yet, enabling themselves to be carried away into the past was by all odds their thing.
What the pictorialists framed with their cameras for immediate treatments were the flawless and fanciful things that seemed to happen to those with the proficiency to every now and then stop the world to get off. “From their point of view, what was needed was aesthetic reform of the whole society,” explains Mary Warner Marien in Photography: A Cultural History. “Pictorialism valued the symbolic control over industry [yet] helped foster the photographic industry, as commercial manufacturers produced soft-focus lenses and textured photographic papers for amateur use.” In effect, Pictorialism was a retrograde movement assigned to sail photography into the future.
They shared the anti-industrial sentiments of the Arts and Crafts movement and their loathing of the mass-produced and the cheap – as William Morris put it in his 1894 essay “How I Became a Socialist”: “Apart from the desire to produce beautiful things, the leading passion of my life has been and is hatred of modern civilisation” – but photography was of course a medium for the present times, and it was in fact the greatest talents among the masses of amateurs who altered Pictorialism with a less moody (less “coal cellar” as George Bernard Shaw would call it) and a more contemporary frame of mind and who, in the 1920s, endorsed the language of straight photography and its modern forms of abstraction.
The original template for the pictorialists was the painted picture, and their objective was to rival the painted picture’s significance through mimicking. In The Artistic Side of Photography in Theory and Practice (1910), Arthur James Anderson articulated his and many others’ view that pictorialists must make use of the “forces of light and chemistry” to produce something better than that: “Photography is a new Art that must be clothed in a new garment of her own – a garment to be fashioned with much careful thought, and not in a garment that was fashioned for painting.”
Although Pictorialism relied on a considerable quantity of sources, it was still a movement that went round and round in its own self-referential loop of recurring subjects and themes: the landscapes are picturesque or rural impressions taken from a darker gallery of paintings; the cities are marked by quiescence and its architecture by a sense of mourning (and the viewer is purposely left without a sense of where and when); people (when they appear in the images) are portrayed according to older notions of beauty and further condensed to generality (such as thespian characters). And yet there is a polytonality to both the salon-quality of the prints and to the core ideas of humanity that these pictured people represent, for they are indeed earlier versions of “us”.
“Clearly, pictorial photography was an art for the masses, a sort of technological folk art,” argues Christian Peterson in After the Photo-Secession: American Pictorial Photography, 1910–1955. Agreed, Pictorialism’s storeroom had something for everyone: medieval castles, Victorian chimneys, anonymous workers, peculiar children, women as ephemeral generators of make-believe, Romanticism, Symbolism, Japanism, fancy-dress play, velvet-morning nudes (mind that Paradise was for the blessed, not for the sex-obsessed), the biblically quaint, street vendors, Shakespeare, Milton of course, Keats and Shelley, sylphs, sprites, satyrs … And everything was rare and ideal and must be kept out of daylight.
Baudelaire suggested in his “Éloge du maquillage” (“Praise of Cosmetics”) essay of 1863 that “All that is beautiful and noble is the result of reason and calculation. Crime, the taste for which the human animal draws from the womb of his mother, is natural in its origins. Virtue, on the contrary, is artificial and supernatural, since gods and prophets were necessary in every epoch and every nation to teach virtue to bestial humanity, and man alone would have been powerless to discover it. Evil is done effortlessly and naturally by fate, the good is always the product of some art.”
It is remarkable that the pictorialists’ special sensibility and withered flowers never have been linked to the shared and sophisticated ailment of the French and British Decadents of the 1890s, the maladie fin de siècle: “Decadents command our attention by their determination to transform their lives into works of art, to create the meaning of life in private vision in order to resist a civilisation intent on debasing the imagination and thus making man less human,” writes Karl Beckson in his Aesthetes and Decadents anthology. “The artist, too, must proceed from nature to a transcendental reality in order to invest his art with spiritual beauty.”
Anna Tellgren who is in charge of photography at Moderna Museet in Stockholm calls In Lady Barclay’s Salon – Art and Photography Around 1900 “an exhibition that I have been dreaming of doing for quite some time”: “The idea is a little bit that painting and photography should meet here because the pictorialists were very inspired by painting and knowledgeable about what was going on during the period. First of all, I didn’t want to do a thematic presentation and combine the photographers and the motifs. And I think that the painting is so strong that I was worried that it would exhaust the photography. My hope is that you move from photography into painting and back to photography, and that you will perceive these relationships yourself, especially the various recurring topics and themes.”
Lady B’s Salon is a deadly good show if you excuse a number of things. Equipped with 274 photographs, this exhibition is a great manual for what Pictorialism was all about. Experiencing the almost spiritual materiality of these resplendent prints for real is quite a treat (and yes, they do come with this thing called aura). However, why distrust the power of Pictorialism with thirty paintings? (They are all first-rate per se and fastidiously chosen from the vaults of nearby Nationalmuseum, but still.) And why is it that when the Moderna shows photography in their most prestigious rooms at (upstairs) ground level, it is always front-seat bores like Cindy Sherman and Wolfgang Tillmans? It is pretty revealing that this material of solid historic photography was not even seen as worthy of a catalogue.
One hundred thousand photographic works of art have been accumulated at Moderna Museet since its opening in the late 1950s. “There was a man named Helmer Bäckström and he is very important for the collection,” explains Tellgren. “Bäckström was professor of photography at the Royal Institute of Technology. He was a photography-collector, he was a photo historian – one of our first – but he was also a photographer. And in 1965, the Swedish state bought his photo-historical collection. And it is, along with a few others, the cornerstone of our fantastic photography collection. He photographed in a pictorialist spirit and was friends with the other photographers. He was also very active in the Photographic Society which was the Swedish equivalent of the international clubs. I think it is delightful to be able to highlight him as a photographer, especially his nature studies are very nice.” Bäckström could likewise capture the painterly drama of his hometown Stockholm with the pictorialist’s dare for composition.
Sarita Enriqueta Barclay was a society lady who lived in Stockholm during the years that her British diplomat husband was the Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to His Majesty the King of Sweden (1919–24), and her involvement in this show is just as strong as Gertrude Stein’s life partner’s authoring of The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas (1933). The curator admits that “Lady Barclay’s salon is a bit made up, we mostly use the title as a concept and a thought” but that aside, Barclay appears like a fake sheik in the dexterous Henry Goodwin’s 1921 portrait of her ladyship. “Since Henry B Goodwin is the big name in Swedish Pictorialism, he has spread out in two rooms. He peaked from 1920 and onwards, and in 1921 he was invited to New York by Condé Nast,” says Anna Tellgren.
“Goodwin can almost singlehandedly represent Pictorialism in Sweden, and he was an exciting photographer with an exciting turbulent life. He was born in Germany and went to Sweden to become a lecturer in German at Uppsala University. He had to return to Sweden for some reason after he went to England to continue his career there. In 1914 he established himself as a photographer in Stockholm and became very successful. Many of the famous people of the time were portrayed in his studio. He exhibited, he wrote a lot, and it was Goodwin who established the concept of ‘pictorial photography’. The soft focus is evident in his photography and the colours range from brown to grey, and red and orange, depending on how he worked with the tonality. Goodwin published several books, including his famous and beautiful book about Stockholm from 1917. And we have some fantastic views among the Stockholm pictures he took. You recognize our city, but you can also see that a lot has happened since then.”
Pictorialism was international at heart and several names in the Moderna show have more than a ring of “abroad” about them. Julia Margaret Cameron’s portrait of the anonymous Mrs Keene as The Mountain Nymph, Sweet Liberty is as enchantingly beautiful as it gets. It was made in 1866, during her rather short tenure with photography when Cameron lived on the Isle of Wight in two apartment buildings that she linked together with a tower. It is hard to define what exactly Cameron captured with her camera and which resulted in her pioneering out-of-focus portraiture that would approach another kind of keenness, a basic holiness at the core of human nature. Tennyson’s wife Emily said that Cameron put her spirit into people.
“Clothing, occupation, class, personality – all these things are transitory and accidental; they did not interest Cameron. She refused to be influenced by mere circumstance,” writes Phyllis Rose in Julia Margaret Cameron’s Women. “Cameron’s response to beauty, eradicating class as it did, was so extreme as to constitute an almost political statement. Her tableaux are parables of radical democracy, or, seen from a slightly different angle, real-life fairy tales.”
Other “abroad” names are Waldemar Eide, whose dusky masterpiece Early Morning (Sea View) – with its hushed and sempiternal atmosphere and those brooding boats in the belly of Stavanger – is twelve years in advance of Michel Carné’s Le quai des brumes (Port of Shadows) from 1938, still a time before noirs were called noirs in film; Gertrude Stanton Käsebier’s three portraits from the early 1900s and Alvin Langdon Coburn’s four London pictures, all from the first years of the 1900s, are still very fresh compositions; and the movable ladies in the portraits of Dora Kallmus/Madame d’Ora are two superb pieces of image-making with the structuring and everything else.
The twenty-three pictures by Berlin photographer Nicola Perscheid are many too many because he really isn’t that special (though Tellgren assures that his “workshop” in Stockholm in October 1913 substantially influenced the Swedish pictorialists). Perscheid was one of numerous well-known professionals who remonstrated against the overuse of manipulative methods that seemed to disregard the mechanical yet soulful nature of photography. With the prowess in printmaking that followed the invention of the gum bichromate process (mid-1890s) and the oil process (1904), much of the pictures’ tonalism came to life by the hand of the photographer who would subtract details from the print and add ink and pigment as a way to create these shadowy pieces intended for the museums.
In the October 1904 issue of The Amateur Photographer, Frederick Colin Tilney favourably described that “It was this vista of potence that has excited the hopes and curiosity of the majority of pictorial photographers; who are eager at all times to break down the barriers separating the mechanical and immutable from the artistic and volitional.” While a good deal of the pictorialists were a little bit too eager to persuade the rest of the world – and on second thought themselves – about photography’s advantages, many also developed a snobbier sort of artistry as a way to distance themselves from a new vast class of zealous amateur photographers who adored what they found in the imagery and the fellowship that Pictorialism provided.
“Pictorialism optimistically decreed everyone a potential artist, a claim based on the belief that everyone possessed natural instincts for beauty. Most individuals simply needed encouragement and technical training in order to physically produce a work of art,” apprises Christian Peterson in After the Photo-Secession: American Pictorial Photography, 1910–1955. “Women entered the pictorial ranks in droves, helping to further diversify the movement. Because pictorial imagery was accessible, idealised, and escapist, it was popular among the general public, who flocked to countless exhibitions of pictorial photographs.”
Since this is Stockholm, Sweden, where all the museum gatekeepers today are females, you are barraged by the same indispensable déjà-poo about women being marginalised and victims of all kinds of injustices – and this from the very people who rejected Margaret Watkins because it would have been too much of an effort for them to learn about a woman in photography who was so much better than the men in her day. In the folder to In Lady Barclay’s Salon – Art and Photography Around 1900 we get the regular woke juice about Swedish women receiving the right to vote in 1921, while the curator leaves out the fact that all men had to wait three further years for that privilege. “When talking about early photography, there were many female photographers. It became a female profession quite early on,” says Anna Tellgren. “But during this period, the female photographers disappeared and I have really struggled to find some examples. It is as if this network of dinners and clubs did not really welcome women. The female photographers who existed have not received as much attention in the history of photography.”
Another important matter that was thoughtfully debated in the pictorialist circles was about the need to emphasise the camera’s function as an eye–I-personality with a spiritual vision. “The camera has an eye which sees what the human eye can only see by means of added optical apparatus or by piecemeal scrutiny. In the opinion of the good artist this is a fault, because the artist’s work is answerable only to normal human standards,” Tilney disputed in his 1930 book. “Photography cannot rise to the occasion in this way. Its correctness is stiff and unbending and therefore utterly unlike human vision, which is a composite thing of compromise, adaptation, and constant evaluation. But it is this composite vision that gives us all our experiences and all our delights, and it is to us the real truth – the truth of observation and experience. The best thing pictorial photography can do therefore is to emulate that vision-truth and discard its technical truth whenever it contradicts.”
In 1890 when the British photographer George Davidson originated one of Pictorialism’s finest pieces, The Onion Field – somewhat reflected in Lady B’s Salon by Goodwin’s The Garden Patch. A Completed Corner (Indigenous Plants), 1919 – the Photographic Society of Great Britain presented its landmark Pall Mall Exhibition, and one who visited the show that autumn was writer and photographer Peter Henry Emerson: “On entering the exhibition the first impression is one of joyful surprise. Purple and black gloss have given way to black and white and brown, in short the general appearance of the exhibition is more like an exhibition of etchings or engravings than any photographic exhibition we have ever seen.”
When Alfred Stieglitz returned to the United States that year, he “found that photography as I understood it hardly existed; that an instrument had been put on the market shortly before called the Kodak and that the slogan sent out to advertisers read, ‘You press the button and we do the rest.’ The idea sickened one.” The Kodak box camera was introduced in 1888. When the Brownie arrived twelve years later it cost one dollar, and after the one hundred frames of the roll film had been used up you sent in the whole camera to the Kodak plant in Rochester. Kodak was fundamental in fashioning photography’s mass appeal and consequently in photography’s advancement as a new medium.
In 1902, in order to express his disregard for the snapshot values he saw all around him in American photography and to, more importantly, create a whole new rank of immaculate photographs that were art without trickery, Stieglitz established his insular Photo-Secession group – a “pivotal juncture”, as described by Michael Griffin in On the Margins of Art Worlds, whose members “strove to set more rigorous aesthetic standards for pictorial photography, worked to forge closer ties to the established fine-art world, and hoped finally to confirm photography’s status as a fine-art medium. The Photo-Secession in the United States followed similar defections from the venerable photographic societies of Vienna, Paris, Hamburg, and London and was tied to an international circle of Secessionists organised through the Linked Ring of London and the Photo-Club de Paris.”
The Photo-Secession lasted for eight years before the master’s tempers and demands for artistic purity became impossible for the others. Stieglitz was of course also the originator of Camera Work and edited its fifty issues from 1903 to 1917, and as Caroline Blinder notes in The Oxford Critical and Cultural History of Modernist Magazines, Volume II, “the early volumes of Camera Work appear, at times, as antagonistic defences of the pictorialist ethic, as though pictorialism, rather than an offshoot of photographic practice, was at the very heart of it”. However, at the end of the decade both Camera Work and the “291” Gallery on Fifth Avenue – which Stieglitz managed together with Edward Steichen until the demise of the magazine – saw a complete change of direction when all the new art from Paris rose to prominence in the US.
“American pictorialism after 1910 was multifaceted and artistically adventuresome,” writes Christian Peterson. “Unlike the Photo-Secession photographers and their limited aesthetic stance, many later pictorialists openly embraced modernism and commercialism, in addition to traditional pictorial beauty. Camera clubs and pictorial salons accepted and championed photographs that were abstract, humorous, surreal, picturesque, avant-garde, and campy. Few other photographic movements accommodated such a variety of successful genres.”
Two members of the Photo-Secession are featured in Lady B’s Salon. Aside from Käsebier, there is fine nocturnal portrait by Steichen showing British theatre practitioner Edward Gordon Craig in which his shadow plays the lead. The portrayal of Craig, hunched in a black cloak, like a phantom of the past who can see the future, are six years ahead of Robert Wiene’s Weimar classic The Cabinet of Dr Caligari of 1919 (with its painted shadows and distorted visuals) in which the somnambulistic Cesare, who’s a dummy, bears the blame for the doctor’s murderous escapades.
“Sweden was on the fringes of the pictorialist movement,” says Tellgren, “but there were some exciting photographers who really started to discuss and pick up what was happening on the continent. And one of the first pictorialists was Herman Hamnqvist, who wrote lots of articles, and he is perhaps most interesting as an introducer than a photographer, but we have some fine examples of what he did. He had a studio in Stockholm but he also worked with landscape photography.” One such image is View from Värmland (ca 1910), and the gate – a quiet post at a rainy trail through the woods – that a common photographer would have left us with untouched is a portal to another world in Hamnqvist’s imprint.
Some other Swedish camera artists in the show are Ferdinand Flodin – and who doesn’t love his reversed portrait(s) of Ariel (ca 1925) whose smile still cracks through the old pictorialist glum, and his View from My Window over Skeppsholmen, Stockholm (1929), and the pictorial drama of the Borgholm Castle Ruin (1922), and of course his portrait of Jenny Hasselqvist, the star danseuse from the Ballets Suédois (also 1922). It is very easy to enjoy the silence and the beauty in Ture Sellman’s photography (he was also an architect) and Gösta Hübinette’s fantastic mid-1920s pictures from Rome (this is past and future photography) and his many trees, full of wisdom, life and bereavement.
“In one of these ‘pots’ as we call them, there is a photographer named Uno Falkengren who had an interesting and partly secretive life,” says Tellgren. “He was a homosexual and managed [department store] NK’s photo studio, and was also active in Berlin and has taken some of the gayest portraits of the time.” Indeed, the spark in Falkengren’s writ-large portraits is a cabaret of sorts. The majority of those portrayed in Lady B’s Salon are unsurprisingly so women – take a look at their faces and bodies and souls, and the exceptional level of tenderness and discernment that has been recorded in gelatin by all these male artists. Then pay attention to what Lytton Strachey wrote in his preface to Eminent Victorians in 1918: “Human beings are too important to be treated as mere symptoms of the past. They have a value which is independent of any temporal process – which is eternal, and must be felt for its own sake.”
Photography went through a lot of things from the 1880s when the dry plate made it possible for larger crowds than chemistry wizards to take photographs – to John Charles Van Dyke’s conclusion in What Is Art? (1910): “What matters it the kinds of material that falls to the artist hand? If he is an artist he can fashion it into the form of art; if he is not an artist he can do as little with one material as the other” – to 1940, when MoMA at long last inaugurated its Department of Photography. Clarke Graham has a good point in his book The Photograph, that “one of the many paradoxes at the centre of the medium is the extent to which an infinite number of photographs and of photographers has been dominated by a limited canon of images and practitioners […] Their work, and the assumptions it reflects, are basic to what we mean by a photograph.”
In the TV special Memories of MASH (1991), Alan Alda fondly tells the story about his boots that he took over from a young man who had returned alive from the Vietnam War, and that he wore these boots for the eleven years that MASH was filmed around the Santa Monica Mountains. Pictorialism’s urgency to show the whole world that it was Art made it sometimes look as if it was just walking back and forth in the same kind of boots. But the paths made in time was a better history on humanity based on what we quite didn’t know about ourselves and what we absolutely didn’t know about photography.
In Lady Barclay’s Salon – Art and Photography Around 1900 at Moderna Museet in Stockholm, June 19, 2021–January 9, 2022.
First published in The Stockholm Review