London’s Tate Modern blurs lines between painting and photography

An exhibition designed to showcase how both mediums interact captures something of the moment but at times can seem irrelevant.

'Capturing the Moment' at Tate Modern 2023
Jai Monaghan
'Capturing the Moment' at Tate Modern 2023

London’s Tate Modern blurs lines between painting and photography

When photography was invented in the 19th century, some painters saw a threat.

They thought traditional portraits would lose their value, since they required long hours to be completed, whereas a photograph would only take a few minutes and give more accurate results.

The French artists were particularly concerned about the impact of the emerging medium on how their work would be received.

It pushed them to innovate. Impressionists developed a style designed to capture a particular place and a particular moment. They outwitted nascent photography, which was unable to capture the same unique sense of place.

When photography was invented, some painters saw a threat ... Portraits required long hours to be completed; a photograph would only take a few minutes and gave more accurate results.

As that changed, and the capabilities of the camera started catching up, traditional artists once more faced the challenge of remaining relevant. Even if this approach required combining photography with their work.

It was a move that radically altered both artforms. London's Tate Modern is showcasing the connection and effect of this crossover, in an exhibition running until January called Capturing the Moment.

Larina Fernandes/Tate
'Capturing the Moment' at Tate Modern 2023

Some of the text alongside the exhibits can seem oversimplified, or can come across as sarcastic. One reads: "While photographers are struggling with their cameras, the artists are painting with their colors on canvas".

Screening Warhol

Above these labels, the art on display shows how new types of expression blurred the boundaries between photography and painting. It includes works by Pablo Picasso, amazing photographs taken by Hiroshi Sugimoto, photorealistic paintings by Gerhard Richter from the 1960s and 1980s, some photographs created by Andreas Gursky, and a collection of Andy Warhol's silkscreen paintings.

Warhol is an ideal example of the theme: Was he truly a genuine painter, since he actually converted photographs into silkscreen paintings.

The exhibition sets up a dialogue between the most prominent painters and photographers of the modern age. It shows how the camera's lens and the painter's brush could depict a specific time, place, and emotion, each in their own fashion.

But it has been criticised for relying heavily on the collection of Taiwanese businessman Pierre Chen, provided through his Yageo Corporation. This meant some art critics did not regard the exhibition as a serious event.

Others considered the parallel projection of the conceived progress of modern paintings and photography to be oftentimes distorted and oversimplified.

Others considered the parallel projection of the conceived progress of modern paintings and photography to be oftentimes distorted and oversimplified.

But the opinions of critics shouldn't always be taken too seriously, and it is noteworthy that most exhibitions based on juxtaposition resort to similar techniques.

They were used in 2021 to 2022, when one exhibition was held in Paris for both Picasso and Rodin. The double-exhibition was simply a chance to display a considerable part of the works made by both artists in order to attract additional tourists to the French capital.

And Pierre Chen is a genuine art connoisseur who appreciates both paintings and photography, and has a huge art collection, so why not expose a considerable part of it to encourage further artistic creativity?

Playing Hockney

British painter David Hockney might be one of the artists who succeeded the most in creating paintings that look so much like photographs. For over two decades he became immersed in the painting of natural themes that had a clear photographic background.

Sometimes the difference between the painting and its original photograph is hardly detectable, as in Hockney's famous paintings of 1960s Californian swimming pools. This makes him one of the most important pioneers of pop art.

Art Gallery of New South Wales/Jenni Carter
David Hockney, Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), 1972. YAGEO Foundation Collection, Taiwan.

On the other hand, Hiroshi Sugimoto is brilliant at creating photographs that hardly look any different than paintings, making observers seriously wonder whether they belonged to this or that genre.

The exhibition also contains some portraits by Lucian Freud, who was famous for making personal portraits so small they could fit in your palm, including one such portrait of the late Queen Elizabeth II.

Richter scale

The four paintings by Richter are probably the surprise of the exhibition. Although he is known for being an abstract artist, these works belong to an era when he was a realist painter, up till 1983, and they resemble photographs, albeit with a clear promise of an abstract inclination.

Larina Fernandes/Tate
'Capturing the Moment' at Tate Modern 2023 showing Gerhard Richter's Two Candles (1982)

The organizers of the exhibition were probably limited to some extent by their reliance on one source for art objects, namely the collection of Pierre Chen. This made some of the displayed paintings and photographs seem a bit irrelevant.

However, the happy surprise for me as an Arab at the exhibition was to see a portrait of the late astounding Iraqi poet Badr Shakir al-Sayyab, which was painted by the Syrian artist Marwan Kassab-Bachi.

It was not the first time that I found paintings by the late Kassab-Bachi on show at international exhibitions. It was quite obvious, though, that he depicted Al-Sayyab in such a manner that breaks the boundaries between painting and photography.

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