With a historic acquisition The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston stages its first Pictorialist photography show in decades.
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In 1898, Boston-based photographer, publisher, and aesthete F. Holland Day began creating photographs that had religious themes. He called them “sacred studies.” Not unlike the Catholic scenes he sought to recreate, Day’s images married elements of flamboyant pageantry with ascetic pathos. He created arresting prints of himself as a gaunt, shrouded Christ, some shot as dramatic close-range portraits, others with his body appearing nearly lifeless while suspended on a large wooden cross. This series was so in line with the aesthetic of the church that members of the clergy were known to keep resized versions of the photos in their offices. However, this exploration of iconic spiritual imagery was not an exploration of personal spirituality. It was a concentrated effort to imbue his photographs with the majesty and gravity of the themes found in Old Master paintings, of which he was a collector. His images aspired to be high art and became some of the most important works of the Pictorialist photography movement, which was at its height between 1885 and 1915.
At the turn of the 20th century, photography was still a fledgling medium, considered more of a technical advancement than an art form. Its egalitarian nature didn’t help—unlike those who were blessed with the ability to use a brush or a chisel with precision and grace, couldn’t anyone pick up a camera and click? Painting had, over a very long period of time, developed a dialect and a set of standards for its own importance. Devotional imagery, for instance, as it had been commissioned by the church for centuries, relied to a certain extent on spectacle and its own sense of artistic Creationism. A motif in a painting, even if it represented something that existed in reality, had to be created from scratch, whereas the scene inside the frame of a photograph was simply a recording of what was or had been there. For early photography, truth was its burden.
Pictorialism, as a theoretical movement—the first one centered around photography—sought to merge the technical possibilities of the camera with the traditional themes and aesthetics of painting, drawing, and engraving. Often employing a soft, almost Impressionist-like focus and printed in a range of grays, browns, and blues with the platinum and gum bichromate processes, Pictorialist images were designed to blend the artist’s imagination with visual reality. More than anything, though, the movement sought to carve out photography’s place in the pantheon of fine art, a pursuit which may seem ridiculous to the contemporary viewer but which was essential a hundred years ago.
Last year the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston purchased The Seven Last Words (1898) by F. Holland Day from the Norwood Historical Society in Norwood, Mass. The piece is a series of seven platinum prints depicting Day as Christ and set in a frame of the artist’s own design. Each print represents one of the last phrases spoken by Christ before his death. There are two other known versions of this work. One is in the Met but does not have a frame designed by Day, and one is owned by a private collector and has an altered frame. In general, work by Day is extremely rare. A fire destroyed most of his studio in the early 20th century, and after that, the artist gave much of his remaining collection, including pieces of his own work and pieces by friends, to the Library of Congress. He kept only four works for himself. The MFA now proudly owns those and is looking to show them off. Because a recent exhibition at the Addison Gallery in Andover, Mass., focused on Day’s role as an eccentric promoter and creator of the arts in late 19th-century New England, the MFA decided to forgo a Day solo show. Instead the museum opted for an exhibition about Pictorialism, the movement for which Day was a central figure.
“Truth and Beauty: Pictorialist Photography” (the title is a nod to Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn) will run at the museum from April 17 through February 16, 2015. The show will include about 50 photographs and will highlight the museum’s collection, which it has been amassing for years (Incidentally, in 1924, Alfred Stieglitz donated 27 pieces of his work to the MFA, making it one of the first museums to collect photography). Anne Havinga, the MFA’s Estrellita and Yousuf Karsh Senior Curator of Photographs, notes that the show will have a wide breadth. “It will explore many of the themes of the moment,” she says. “There will be Symbolism, religious themes, people, landscapes and urbanscapes, some early photographs of urban grit with an emphasis on tone, seen through smoke and lights. There’s a group of pictures that are about intimate moments, and then there’s a section about reading—because the Arts & Crafts movement made all of these angled nooks for reading.” The MFA photography collection “is known for many things,” says Havinga, citing its collection of Modernist photography, “but we like to show what happened before that.” This grouping of images is pivotal to photographic history. “It took a long time to accept photography as an art form, but Pictorialism advanced it,” she says. “The next stage is not about soft focus and atmosphere; instead they wanted high contrast and sharp lines and a different kind of truth, but they couldn’t have done that without this movement.”
The central figures of this movement are all present here, including Day’s rival Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, Alvin Langdon Coburn, and Clarence H. White. Among the non-Day-related works is Rudolph Eickemeyer’s The Lily Pond (1916). The toned gelatin silver print captures a windswept, slightly overgrown pond that would be right at home next to a Sally Mann landscape. George H. Seeley’s Apple Tree and House (1914) is a platinum and gum bichromate combination print that explores the Tonalist nature of daytime light and shade.
Included in the museum’s acquisition, and also on view, are three portraits of Day. The Solitude of F. Holland Day is a platinum print made by Steichen in 1901. It features a reclining, contemplative Day in a black velvet smock, matching hat, and pearl ring. Clarence H. White’s portrait F. Holland Day and an African Model, shot a year later, shows the photographer posed in profile in a floor-length robe, with the image of a male model he used for his photographs receding faintly into the background. The portrait by James Craig Annan is a dark platinum and gum bichromate combination print. Day, who gave out cotton and wool sailor-suit sets to each of his guests at his house in Maine, had a flair for dressing up, and incidentally posed for many prominent photographers and friends. His jaunts in front of the lens leave a healthy visual record of an artist who, although influential in his own time, fell into obscurity during the 20th century—due in large part to the loss of his archives in his studio fire and a feud with Stieglitz that made him shrink from the art scene later in his life.
Despite the photographic eye candy, the arguable highlight of the exhibition is not, technically speaking, on view. “In this acquisition, we got the crown of thorns that he wore in the photographs,” says Havinga, referring to Day’s Seven Last Words. “I just really wanted to keep the crown of thorns together with the picture. It has two-inch-long thorns—I think it’s hawthorn branch, but I’m not certain. To me, having that brings the act of making the picture to life.” When asked if the crown will be viewable, the curator noted that it is too delicate.
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