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Phillip Prodger / On Cézanne and Photography

Phillip Prodger / On Cézanne and Photography

One of the pleasures of a well-curated exhibition is that it can lead us to new ways of considering art from the past in the current creative environment. Recently, lens-based artist Julieta Schildknecht sat down with Phillip Prodger, Head of Photographs at the National Portrait Gallery, in a discussion inspired by the current exhibition of Cézanne Portraits at the Gallery.  While the exhibited portraits themselves are all paintings, the creative ideas that spark from Schildknecht and Prodger’s discussion of Cézanne’s oeuvre illuminate the essence of portraiture in all its genres, and we are delighted to be able to share this conversation and the thoughts it inspires. 

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Julieta Schildknecht: This interview is based on a very simple subject: we are at the National Portrait Gallery, a museum where many exhibitions and programmed events are related to photography. In the current exhibition Cézanne Portraits there is a huge billboard by the entrance. I wonder how do you feel about this big photograph with the great painter Cézanne?

Phillip Prodger: Do you mean the one by [Cézanne’s friend, Émile] Bernard?

JS: I mean the one with him and his friends (Lucien Pissarro, Camille Pissarro, Armand Guillaumin, Victor Vignon and Frédéric Cordey), it’s a group picture.

PP: The first thing I would say about these kinds of reproduced photographs when they are integrated into a painting show like Cézanne Portraits, is they are there not being treated as photographic works in their own right. They are there because people feel inspired by the paintings, and want to know the artist better. They provide context—how did the artist live, where did he live, how did he dress, whom did he know. Photographs like this can be very helpful to the visitor to begin to orientate themselves in the artist’s world. They exist on a different level than when we exhibit photographs as works of art. Their inclusion is an act of interpretation, and it becomes a question of what the details of the image can teach us. I think it is really interesting that you raise attention about how photographs are used in this way, because photographs often do have this dual role in museums. We exhibit them as distinct works, but they can also work in concert with other media as they do in this case with painting.

JS: The entire catalogue is filled with photographic references and allows viewers to compare what Cézanne painted and the pictures of the sitters he portrait.

PP: In portraiture there is always a question of likeness, and one thing that is wonderful and special about Cézanne is that he didn’t necessarily accept a literal definition. Likeness for him wasn’t necessarily a physiological map of a person’s features, but a reflection of character. In terms of his sense of perspective and the way in which he organised a composition, he would do that in such a way he found revealing and compelling for the viewer, but not necessarily in a mechanical way, or according to traditional western rules of perspective.

JS: Would you then say that some of his portraits were based on a picture, or no?

PP: We know that Cézanne used photographs as studies for some of his work. So yes, absolutely, he did.

JS: All the photographs, they all are attributed to an unknown author.

PP: Sometimes that simply means that someone in the family or a local photographer made the picture and didn’t sign it, or identify the maker. The owner understood where it had come from, but there was no written record, since it was a personal object.

JS: What do you think about the light, is there a parallel between the photographs and his paintings?

PP: I think you have to consider the times. Cézanne is working from the mid 19th century into the early 20th century and with the wide range of styles of photography that represents. Roughly 1887 is the moment when George Eastman famously released the Kodak camera and suddenly there is a rapid influx of what we now might call vernacular photography, made by people who were not trained to be photographers. Cézanne inhabited this world, in which a lot of the photographs were unattributed because photographs quickly became ubiquitous. This is rather different than in the beginning of the medium, when an operator had to be trained on how to make a negative and print themselves. Suddenly photographers were in a position where they could send things to a lab and everything gets done for them.

JS: If you have those pictures in the catalogue do you have the originals also as part of your archive here in the National Portrait Gallery?

PP: No, unfortunately, we do not have any photographs of Cézanne in the collection here at the National Portrait Gallery.

JS: Is it mainly English photography that you are collecting?

PP: At the NPG, the exhibitions programme is slightly different from the collections programme. In the exhibitions programme we can show anything that enhances our understanding of portraiture by any artist from any time period, or indeed unknown artists if that was called for. The collection is based on a different set of rules, because it would be all but impossible to create a meaningful, comprehensive collection of portraits from every culture all over the world. The trustees decided very early on to narrow the focus, so that the rules now stipulate we collect for two reasons: if the sitter has made or is making a significant contribution to British society and culture, or secondarily if the work is of significance to the history of portraiture in this country. The National Portrait Gallery are designated the British National Collection of photographic portraiture.

JS: In the case of Cézanne, what is the link to Cézanne in the National Portrait Gallery?

PP: The National Portrait Gallery is an international centre for the understanding of portraiture. Even though Cézanne was not British and though we have no Cézanne’s in our collection, he was one of the towering influences of 19th and 20th century visual culture, and widely recognised as a key figure in the rise of Modernism.

JS: Impressionism?

PP: Post-impressionism. But whatever the time period or medium, we want visitors to the gallery to understand and begin to unpick the decisions that an artist makes when they are portraying another person. Often, it’s not just a question of reproducing what the sitter looks like, it’s about trying to capture elusive qualities of identity. This is equally true whether you are talking about Tudor painting, or contemporary photography. Cézanne was a fabulous example of that. He wasn’t necessarily looking for literal representations of people, although individuals are generally recognisable in the pictures. He strived to find ways of capturing mood and essence beyond literal representation.

JS: Which is so typical for photography, right? You get that essence as well…

PP: Certainly at this time in history, photographers were looking closely at this question of ‘essence’. Psychology as a discipline really comes of age during this time, with Sigmund Freud and others arguing for new ways of looking at personality and being. But there are technical things as well—the influx of vernacular photography unleashed by Kodak and others triggered a break in the photographic community, and the rise of what we call now Pictorialism. The Pictorialists explored dramatic visual effects, printing in vivid colours, using textured papers, and experimenting with unconventional lighting. They were also interested in representing mental states—something beyond what the camera sees. But it’s not just photography, other fields were changing rapidly too. In painting, you have the invention of new pigments and prepared paints in tubes which are portable and can be brought out in the field; in clothing and textiles the development of aniline dyes and new fabrics; and then of course the invention of electricity and the ability to light the studio artificially. Inevitably the look of things in that period changed quite a bit. For me as a person living in the 21st century, that period is especially exciting not just because of all the change it represents, but also because it’s the moment in history when things start to resemble the way we live now.

JS: When you speak of familiarity of effects or visual effects and we are brought back to the beginning of this kind of visual effect that Cézanne was constantly looking after either with the techniques he developed with the spatula or the many times he would use his brushes in different directions or mix the paint or inks he was using… Would you relate that back to photography in England and those colourful moments from photography especially with portraits? Because the English understanding of visual effect is different than the French.

PP: I think Cézanne was an incredibly inventive, extraordinary and original painter. But there is nothing completely new under the sun. Cézanne was very well educated, and he knew about other traditions. He wasn’t the first person to paint in non-linear perspective: that’s something one can see very clearly in Chinese ink brush painting, and of course Japanese wood block prints, which were greatly in fashion in mid-century. There are the lessons of Impressionism of course, with which Cézanne was intimately familiar, and in Britain, pioneering painters like Turner and Constable. Earlier in history, even in France you have ‘painterly’ painters like Fragonard who used some of the same techniques.

JS: When you see Constable do you have the same impression of seeing like a photograph?

PP: I think that there are two elements to photographic vision. One is compositional—the use of space. The other is time. To me, much of photography’s magic rests in this temporal element. No matter how hard you look at a photograph, no matter how much you appreciate it, the moment it represents is utterly unapproachable, and increasingly distant. With Cézanne, I feel that second element very strongly, that feeling of time being arrested, its passing being both mourned and celebrated. It is a quality that Constable shared at times, but in Constable I see it more in his drawings of nature. There is something about the immediacy of drawing that brought out the best in Constable, I think. But I have no doubt you could say the same about his paintings as well—the shimmer of light, the transcience of experience…

JS: Lets speak about 2017 and the desire of many contemporary photographers to bring that kind of flair (the search of time being arrested) into portraits. I mean its similarities.

PP: You mean that Cézanne accepted areas of optical aberration almost as part of a vocabulary of how he was painting?…

JS: Yes!

PP: I’m sure there is something to that.

JS: But there are certain photographers who are trying to photograph in a pictorial way and they are contemporary photographers

PP: If we think of visual art as a whole, those kinds of things that you are describing, flare and the glinting of light in a very particular way or an article of clothing or a watch or something like that, these things enter the visual vocabulary at that time. However, it’s worth remembering that in order for something to enter the lexicon of visual communication you not only have to have an artist producing work a certain way, you also have to have an audience ready to receive it. The kinds of things you are describing are things that people would already recognise from photographs in the late 19th century and they would understand them. The same applies to our current time.

JS: Today, in our time, people are looking for originality in visual communication. At that time, did photography represent a threat to painting?

PP: I am not sure I would accept originality was something all painters were trying to achieve. Certainly, within the Salon tradition there were unwritten rules about how original one could be, before an artist was considered to have gone too far. This is the whole idea behind the Salon des Refusés. That somehow those artists had transgressed the normal rules of painterly behaviour, and were therefore unfit for exhibition. And yet they won the day ultimately, because critics and audiences eventually embraced that material. Each of the post-impressionists, including Paul Cézanne, had a very distinctive style. We can discuss what that meant economically, and how the art market developed during that time. But I think a photographer in the late 19th century, certainly a so-called ‘fine art’ photographer, faced many of the same problems in terms of defining a personal style, developing a clientele and finding a niche to protect themselves from competitors.

JS: Right now when everyone is producing selfies every other second, I tried to find Cézanne’s self-portraits, but there are not many.

PP: I have a friend who judged a photographic contest recently. I asked him if he could choose one word to sum up the entries he saw what would it be? He didn’t hesitate: ‘narcissism’, he said. And I think he meant that in the most positive way, since he was enthusiastic about the experience, and some of the great work that he saw. But for one reason or another, culturally we live at a time when people want to evaluate themselves and find context for their own experiences. There is a really wonderful and growing tradition in that. At its best, it is open, honest, and revealing. Photography has never been more egalitarian and empowering, and it doesn’t matter who you are, what your sexual identity is, your race and ethnicity, whether or not you have a physical disability, young or old, rich or poor, you can put yourself into the frame. That’s a very powerful thing. It is a very democratising time, almost like the Kodak revolution of the 1880s on all over again.

JS: Was Cézanne doing this as well? It says in the exhibition that around the 1860s Cézanne stopped painting family and friends and went after other people to portray. From a photographer’s perspective was he in search of himself?

PP: On some level, all thoughtful portraitists are in search of themselves, aren’t they? Whether they are photographers or painters, they are looking for understanding in someone else. At the same time, they are also trying to explore and discover something essential and meaningful about that other person. It is a profound form of interaction.

JS: A mirror, perhaps?

PP: Maybe a mirror in a sense, but in a limited sense.

JS: So you are mirroring (reflecting) the light of a focused object to project light on the film.

PP: True, but there is another tradition in photography which is much more plastic and malleable. You don’t necessarily have to receive what the camera gives you as the final result. The artist can get involved in altering and manipulating a photograph after the negative or digital capture has been produced. There are things one can do in camera, too. The Pictorialists went so far as stretching silk stockings over their lenses, and creating lenses that were intentionally made with aberrations in them because they were interested in certain kinds of optical effects. They are ‘mirrors’ in a sense that a machine was used to make them, but they’re not unaffected. You could say they are funhouse mirrors.

JS: Which of the portraits that are in the exhibition is your favourite one?

PP: I am not sure I could choose just one picture. To me, what is wonderful about Cézanne’s paintings is that they are not heroic they are not in a sense celebratory. So in that sense, to pull one out seems a little disingenuous. They were not made to please the sitter or to create a narrative. They feel honest to me. It is an honesty that one sees in many great photographs as well.

JS: Thank you so much Phillip.

PP: Thank you Julieta.

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Cézanne Portraits continues at The National Portrait Gallery until 11 February 2018.

With thanks to Julieta Schildknecht and Phillip Prodger for this interview, which was made at The National Portrait Gallery on 2nd of November 2017.