Is Beauty Old-Fashioned?
When EXIT – Image and Culture asked for permission to reproduce an image from this site in their upcoming issue Pictorialism, I happily obliged. Only when I received a complimentary issue did I understand the significance of this publication. In addition to being beautifully designed and printed, the entire issue (175 pages) is devoted to Pictorialism and its ‘reheating’. In her introduction, editor Rosa Olivares points out that while the Pictorialism of the late 1800’s was the avant-garde of the time “shaking the very foundations of the visual arts establishment,” today many consider it anachronistic or old-fashioned. But recently “Ever more young artists are inclined to take up this type of photography, in spite of fashions … And it is not just a matter of the reconceptualisation of the tableau vivant … but also the recovery of a certain type of beauty still alive among us.”
The journal includes a dozen articles by photographers, historians and critics as well as beautiful examples of both traditional and contemporary pictorial photographs like those of Desiree Dolron, Jeff Bark and Anoek Steketee.
Read “Is Beauty Old-Fashioned?” by Rosa Olivares
Is Beauty Old-Fashioned? Rosa Olivares
Beyond any theoretical or constructive consideration, when we think of pictorial photography we think of beauty. The fact that the picture is a faker construction than a Vuitton handbag sold in China does not affect us, nor do we stop to consider that the light is unnatural, the idea is usually based on a scene borrowed from pictorial tradition (and therefore Pictorialist), and still less that this practice is (though it may be more fitting to say was) an offence against the fundamental principles of the birth of photography. We like its beauty, those white women’s cadaverous languid, bodies, actually about to expire. We love those now virtually impossible landscapes. After all, we find it irresistible to get a glimpse of a world different from that in which we live, one that appears to be free of the problems we experience on this other side of reality, one in which everything is designed to seem pleasant to us. Quite the opposite of contemporary photography, which is so concerned with transmitting ideas, concepts, situations that inevitably lead us to question all sorts of issues and, of course, to take responsibility for them; so obsessed with non-beauty, with offering us the cruel, vulgar, ugly part of reality, perhaps even reality itself and without a doubt, part of ourselves. No, in pictorial photography none of this is so. Beauty, order, stillness takes precedence over any other quality. That is, falsehood triumphs. But, how do we associate falsehood and beauty? Maybe this is because every beautiful thing entails something irremediably false, especially these days when beauty seems to be a laboratory formula. Appearance, as we have always known, does not cease to be an individualised staging for a global dramatisation of existence. In any case, let us be happy and oblivious for a little while and delight in essentially beautiful pictures. Not to worry, there are no side effects. It seems as though beauty has been expelled from the world of contemporary art. Today, to say of a work of art that it is lovely, beautiful or pretty, is to denigrate it rather than to commend it. And if everything beautiful seems anachronistic, that is: of another era, old-fashioned, then, is beauty old-fashioned? What the idea of beauty actually contains has changed a lot in a short time, perhaps too quickly, much more than our own tastes, to be sure, for otherwise it would be hard to understand how a trend such as photographic Pictorialism could have survived beyond 1920, when this movement fell into decline and virtually disappeared. However, it must be remembered here, though the following essays explain in more detail, that pictorial photography came into being around 1880 and it was the authentic avant-garde of the time, shaking the very foundations of the visual arts establishment. The dream of those Victorian photographers was that photography would be accepted as a serious art form, on the same level as other existing practices. It is hard to see how its followers can now be slated as old-fashioned and working against photography’s autonomy. It is true that those who are bent on untimely pursuits of once avant-garde trends that are clearly in decline can become simple pastiches, pathetic imitations of themselves, and this undoubtedly happened in the late 1970s, when the worst practitioners of Pictorialism proliferated. Nevertheless, we are currently witnessing a pictorial reheating. Ever more young artists are inclined to take up this type of photography, in spite of fashions and quite possibly bolstered by a market that knows how to place value on and exploit those products that maintain traditional elements, and are thus more easily accepted by the well-off bourgeoisie. And it is not just a matter of the reconceptualisation of the tableau vivant by artists ranging from Jeff Wall to thousands of young photographers who insist on constructing unlikely settings, but also the recovery of a certain type of beauty still alive among us. It is a matter of a reconsideration of the body, a still complacent vision of landscape, a sophistication of interiors in an effort to imbue the commonplace with sensuality and pleasure, to make the strange attractive and mysterious. A reconstruction of some pictures made to be enjoyed, to be contemplated with self-absorption, merely for the sake of pleasure-seeking.One theme for reflection that we can develop when contemplating these Pictorialist pictures is the hybridisation that, since the emergence of photography, has been taking place in the world of visual arts: painting influences photography, design and fashion influence photography, painting and photography influence film, film influences photography, photography influences painting, film influences painting,… and then video was born. The origin of the idea that everything works as a source, as a seed, as a starting point can be seen clearly in Pictorialism. This is something that has been essential for the current evolution of art and that nevertheless disqualifies many of those who practice it, as was the particular case of Pictorialism.It goes without saying, and in the following pictures it is plain to see, that the 21st century Pictorialists are not the same as those of the 19th century. They are certainly much more daring, more exuberant and also more mysterious, for their frames of reference are much more varied. They are influenced by cinema that did not exist then, as well as much more elaborate literature, and they have exceedingly more refined technical expertise and, possibly, a more versed taste. Also a much more sharpened perverseness. They are artists who have begun their careers at a time when photography is undoubtedly another art form, one free of complexes. They have found a real market that could not even be dreamt of before. In this situation they decide to look backwards or, at least, to look another way. And it is the body that most attracts that gaze, the body within certain canons of beauty and self-complacence that are surprising in any other contemporary art media; they are steeped in the contemplation of the apparently insignificant, in impossible scenes, in strange settings. They let time pass before their eyes while they contemplate the river flowing before them.In conclusion, they do not seem to be living at the same time or in the same place as the photographers that usually fill these and other pages of publications on contemporary art. And then we realise that a female nude, clearly resembling those of the late Renaissance, looks obscene to us, in a society in which sex and nudity is everywhere, this women, who in her solitude lies down naked, leaves us with a bizarre sensation of discomfort. And it is not the exquisite, languid nude lacking in morbid fascination, but the real nude, the real body. That way of looking at intimacy, solitude, beauty, the construction of spaces for the slowest pleasure, gives rise to this photography that can lose track of time because it is developed outside it in an everlastingly absolute and irreversible way. The difference between the historical Pictorialists and the modern-day Pictorialists lies in the fact that the former were considered avant-garde, innovative and ground-breaking, whereas the latter are somewhat anachronistic aestheticists exploring territories that do not interest the more radical creators. It may be that what they have in common is that both those of yesterday and today are viewed as unworthy by the critics and the established models, by the school that every age defines as model.Translated by Dena Ellen Cowan