New York Photo Review
Volume 2 Issue 37 October 25 to 31, 2011

Making Caribbean Dance by Susanna Sloat
The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino
Soho Photo Gallery
Central Booking Magazine

PhotoSynthesis: Before Photography

 by Gericault. Source: morganlibrary.org
Theodore Gericault, “Scene of Combat: Battle of Prince Eugene, 1818”

A gem of a show at the Morgan library is on display to remind us what was required to capture a likeness before the advent of the camera. On loan from the Louvre, these drawings from the French Revolutionary period invite us to contemplate the tremendous shift in the concept of art and the artist that has taken place since the arrival of that second great revolution–-the Industrial one.

Names like Delacroix, Corot, David, Ingres, and Gericault exhibit the range of drawing styles that existed within the grand style of the Western tradition. Pen, ink, chalk, watercolor, and graphite were the most frequently used media, each demanding a level of commitment and concentration foreign to our fast food times.

Undoubtedly one of the catalysts in the radical redefinition of art that began mid 19th and culminated mid 20th century, the camera was, interestingly enough, both the child of the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution. With skill no longer necessary to acquire a breath-taking likeness, something else had to become important in fine art. But what? Over a hundred and fifty years later we are still reeling from that question. Every major modern art movement has offered its own answer. The Impressionists with their studies of light, the Cubists with their studies of space and form, the Futurists with their studies of motion, the Surrealists with their studies of the unconscious, and the Dadaists with their negation of it all. I could go on, but fundamentally all subsequent movements are restatements of these positions.

 by Prud�hom.
Pierre-Paul Prud’hon,”Portrait of Constance Meyer”

The certainty with which a Delacroix or a Gericault understood who he was and what he was doing is denied today’s artists who routinely undergo a crisis of identity at some point in their careers. Probably because photography almost immediately took over the practical aspects of painting and drawing, leaving the older media to its vaguer, more nebulous goals, photographers were and are less likely to suffer from such crise d’identite. Having a job to do—create a visiting card, a portrait, a record of a place or an event–-meant a photographer knew what he was doing, why, and for whom. But now that photography has edged its way into the fine art camp, photographers, too, must ask what they are doing and why. Any trip to one of today’s major galleries forces us to posit such a question. Nowadays it often seems that the critic’s first job is to ask upon seeing a body of work: What is this artist doing? Why is he or she doing it? Is it important enough to do in the first place?

Moreover, no artist I have ever met was entirely sure of the real function and ultimate value of their own work, though most were thoroughly convinced they had to do it, nonetheless. Art today, it seems, is in some sense a far riskier adventure than it was for Delacroix.

Perhaps this was why it is so refreshing to visit the Morgan, to admire these artists with their dazzling displays of skill and their total self-confidence. To revisit for an afternoon a world of art technically complex, yet conceptually straightforward and simple, before heading towards Chelsea with its quintessentially modern dilemmas.

by Barbara confino

Barbara Confino is an artist and writer whose work is housed in such collections as The Bibliotheque Nationale de France and the British Museum. Her graphic history, The Genetic Wars, can be viewed at www.thegeneticwars.com. Her writings on art and culture have been published in ArtsCanada and The Village Voice among other publications. She is currently associate editor for The New York Photo Review.
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The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino
Making Caribbean Dance by Susanna Sloat
Central Booking Magazine
Soho Photo Gallery