Photography, a technological marvel, was long considered an artistic stepchild. Today we think of the medium as having been an art form from the beginning. Few paintings or prints are as flat-out beautiful as W.H. Fox Talbot’s calotypes, which are some of the earliest photographs. Yet half a century and more after its invention, few regarded photography as a fine art. The way in which talented and ambitious photographers actively sought to change that attitude is the burden of “Truth and Beauty: Pictorialist Photography.” It runs through Feb. 16 at the Museum of Fine Arts.
The occasion for the show is the museum’s acquisition last year of four photographs by F. Holland Day, a leading figure in Pictorialist photography. The Pictorialists, who flourished on both sides of the Atlantic between in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, promoted the acceptance of photography as a fine art. In effect, they attached a coda to the old saying “If you can’t beat them, join them”: “The way to join them is to copy them.” Pictorialist photographers took motifs and subject matter from the fine art tradition (such as religious and mythological themes) and imitated the look of etchings and other print media through a reliance on soft focus, atmospherics, and other self-consciously poetical effects.
Pictorialism overlapped with Impressionism, Symbolism, art for art’s sake, and the era of artistic decadence. This was the time of Aubrey Beardsley’s Yellow Book and the verbal lushness of W.B. Yeats’s early poetry. (The show includes Frederick H. Evans’s great portrait of Beardsley, with those astonishing elongated-scissor fingers, and Alvin Langdon Coburn’s of the young Yeats.) However paradoxically, the Pictorialists managed to be both highly contemporary in style and utterly anachronistic.
Day is a case in point. His “Seven Last Words of Christ,” from 1898, is a series of close-up portraits — or rather self-portraits, as Day assumes the role of the Messiah. Subject matter and style make it an unashamed artistic throwback, having more in common with Baroque altarpieces than anything in the late 19th century. Yet in its investigation of personality, reliance on the camera’s objectivity, and unmistakable homoeroticism, “Seven Last Words” is also of its time. Edward Steichen’s 1901 portrait of Day, in which he’s made to look like the subject of a Rembrandt self-portrait, just seems like a throwback.
The 43 works in “Truth and Beauty” range in date from 1886 to 1934. Most fall between 1895 and 1910. Curator Anne Havinga’s hanging of the show is unobtrusively canny. Right away she emphasizes the tension between past and present. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, who would later found the Whitney Museum of American Art, wears a bracingly angular outfit designed by Léon Bakst, of Ballets Russes fame, in a photograph by Baron Adolf De Meyer. Adjacent is Gertrude Käsebier’s “The Gerson Sisters,” wherein the sitters’ dresses are monuments to flounce. Both pictures are Pictorialist in appearance, yet so notably different in content.
Havinga has hung a wall of portraits and character studies, another of photographs related to religion and mythology. Käsebier’s “The Manger” rates almost as high on the “sheesh!” scale (which is like the Richter scale, only with eye-rolling) as Clarence H. White’s “Youth in the Woods (Pan).” Some of the finest images in the show, and sturdiest, figure in a wall of architectural studies. There’s Coburn’s “Brighton Pier” and “St. Paul’s Cathedral” and Evans’s “In the Attics: Kelmscott Manor.” The photograph of St. Paul’s relates to the religious wall (Havinga has a gift for visual and thematic chiming). So does the Evans, actually, which has an interior glow that evokes spiritual illumination.
Was Pictorialism ambitious and exalted – or pretentious and arty? “Arty” was not a term the Pictorialists would have been familiar with, of course. But it’s in part because of the style of their images and the values the images embody that the term now exists. A century later, much of Pictorialism can seem to flirt with camp. Soon enough, the fight to establish photography’s aesthetic bona fides went in a very different direction: crisp and precise in appearance, everyday or even daring in subject matter, engaging with the present rather than swooning over the past. Yet as a style, Pictorialism was capable of wondrous things. “Truth and Beauty” boasts — the verb is deserved — such small miracles as Coburn’s St. Paul’s, Evans’s Kelmscott, George H. Seeley’s “Apple Tree and House,” and Alfred Stieglitz’s “The Hand of Man.” The Stieglitz shows a locomotive (with a very atmospheric plume of steam) amid a railyard. Photography, the child of technology, here achieves art, and of a very high order, not by aping other art, but by celebrating technology.