‘Capturing the Moment’ at Tate Modern review

‘Capturing the Moment’ at Tate Modern review

The problem with doing an exhibition about art in the age of photography is that all art for over 150 years has been made in the age of photography. You could literally whack in anything made in the twentieth century and say ‘see? This was made while cameras were a thing’.

Which is what the Tate’s done. Sure, they could have just concentrated on painters whose work has a tight, necessary relationship with photography. But they haven’t. This big exhibition starts with Francis Bacon, who painted from photographs, hung next to Lucian Freud, who didn’t. There’s Dorothea Lange’s iconic ‘Migrant Mother’, which is a photo, opposite Alice Neel’s lovely portrait of two little Puerto Rican kids, which isn’t.

It gives you an immediate headache. They’ve set up the premise so that anything fits it, and ‘photography has changed how we see the world, so all paintings are influenced by photography’ is a batshit approach to curation. What has George Condo’s frantic, neurotic Pop abstraction or Georg Baselitz’s upside-down portraiture got to do with photography? Nothing, but here they are anyway.

There are huge photographs by modern giants of the medium like Thomas Struth, Candida Höfer and Andreas Gursky. They capture vast housing estates, ornate libraries, hushed cathedrals. They are jaw-dropping, detailed, beautiful things. But if you’re including them because it’s photography made in the age of painting then holy moly, this show just got even messier.

It gives you an immediate headache.

Eventually, the exhibition finds its focus by looking at painters who actually work off photographic source material. It’s such a rich topic, so full of interesting ideas, you wish they’d just done it from the start. Marlene Dumas’ shocking, unnerving, grotesque painting of Ulrike Meinhof – dead and garroted on the cover of a German newspaper – is staggeringly good (though, for some reason, it’s shown under another Dumas work based on a goddamn painting). Peter Doig’s vast, eerie ‘Canoe Lake’ is based on a still from a horror film. Hockney’s gorgeous, cool, sensual pool scene is based on preparatory photos. Warhol, Hamilton and Rauschenberg screenprint photos onto the canvas, Michael Armitage paints images from the news. Yes, you could argue that painting off movie stills, or TV news imagery, is a totally separate thing to painting off photography but honestly you just have to give them the leeway here or you’ll have an aneurysm.

In these gorgeous paintings, photography is presented not just as a source of material and inspiration, but as something that shapes and defines the way the world is portrayed. We see in 2D, flattened, pixelated, awkward perspective because that’s the view photography gives us. We’re made, manipulated, by the camera. That’s the theme, that’s the idea, and in this one room it clicks.

But then in the last room they decide to look at ‘art in the digital age’ and your eye really starts twitching. We’ve somehow just managed to take in the whole history of modern painting, photography and now digital media in just eight rooms. It’s exhaustingly nonsensical.

The thing is, does an exhibition have to make sense? Does it have to be cohesive? Does it have to take you on a ‘journey’ and tell a story? Or is it enough to just chuck a bunch of great artworks in a gallery and hope for the best?

If you want to see stunning works by Doig, Freud, Dumas Richter and Höfer, you’re in luck, that’s all here. But as a snapshot of art and its meaning in the age of photography, it’s all too blurry, the flash is too bright and you’ll be saying ‘ew no, delete that, seriously, delete it’.

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