Unreal Nature

January 5, 2018

Mnemography

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:26 am

… “A photo is already a little tableau, although it is not yet completely that. This character is irritating … “

This is from the essay ‘Between the Fine Arts and the Media (The German Example: Gerhard Ricther)’ by Jean-François Chevrier (1992) found in Gerhard Richter: Atlas: The Reader (2012):

… [Richter’s] first priority was to set himself apart from photorealism, then triumphant in the United States. At the year’s end [1972], the magazine Art in America published a special issue in which Robert Bechtle — considered the leader of the movement on the West coast — enumerated the requisite conditions for a proper use of photography: “There’s a lot of danger there. The danger of making finished photographs, for one. I have to be careful that they are really lousy photographs that will allow the completion to take place in the painting.

[line break added] If the photograph is too good and can stand as a finished work of art all by itself, there is no reason to make a painting from it. I also feel I must avoid a too candid type of photography: it’s very easy for that quality to creep in when using a 35mm camera.” Richter, who risked being taken for a pioneering photorealist, sought at all costs to avoid any such association.

… [Richter] distinguished two reasons [behind his use of photography]. One is traditional, the one Matisse once gave to explain his recourse to photography as a tool for portraiture. “Photography,” Richter said, “keeps you from stylizing, from seeing ‘falsely,’ from giving an overly personal interpretation to the subject.” The other explanation, which he actually offered first, is rather more original: “A photo is already a little tableau, although it is not yet completely that. This character is irritating and pushes you to want to transform it definitively into a painting.”

[line break added] The painting, in short, fulfills the photographic tableau. But this fulfillment has nothing to do with Bechtle’s “completion.” Indeed, Richter had already declared in the course of a preceding interview, published in the catalogue of the Venice Biennale: “I do not wish to imitate a photograph: I want to make one.” To this he added: “I am making photos with different means and not pictures which resemble a photograph.”

[ … ]

… one must look to the decade of the 1850s, marked by a debate on realism which the disputes over photography’s status as an art intensified. At just this time, the idea emerged that painting must be more a mnemography [the writing of memory] than a description. This was at least partially a response to the challenge of photography. In its extreme descriptive precision, the mechanical image fulfilled the mimetic function assigned to pictorial representation. Replacing manual limitation (and its uncertainties) with flawless reproduction, it exposed ‘incorrect’ elements of style in even the most respected masters of the academic tradition.

[line break added] But photography is not only the exact reproduction of an image (comparable to a reflection in a mirror): it is also the fixing, the recording of this image, which is another thing altogether. This capacity for recording is what makes photography a mnemotechnics, allowing for the constitution of archives, public and private. In the 1850s, it enabled exactitude of reproduction to take a step into the background, and aptness of justesse (as distinct from exactness) to come to the fore, along with speed of notation.

… In 1859 [Delacroix] did remark the difference between an overly exact reproduction and an image well-served by “the very imperfection of the process.” … “The most gripping photographs are those where the very imperfection of the process toward absolute rendering leaves certain gaps, certain resting places for the eye, which allow it to alight on but a very small number of objects.”

… After the appearance of photorealism, with which Richter’s work risked being conflated, the model of photographic reproduction as the antithesis of pictorial style became even more clearly insufficient.

… it is precisely the refusal of realistic or literal description — as achieved by photographic reproduction — that characterizes the romantic position of Delacroix in 1859 and leads him to formulate an aesthetic of photography founded on “the imperfection of the process,” inconformity with a mnemotechnic definition of artistic representation. Delacroix does not refuse photography, or at least he does not simply reject it.

[line break added] In 1859, as at decade’s outset (when he was a founding member of the Société héliographique), he accepts its challenge. But this challenge is double. On one side, that of reproduction, photography finally amounts to a countermodel, a foil above all. On the other side, that of recording, it is very precisely a mnemotechnics with which the painter must openly vie, and which he must transform, fulfill, even transcend, in a mnemography.

My most recent previous post from this book is here.

-Julie

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