CURRENT EXHIBITIONS AT THE ART GALLERY OF ONTARIO
Photography Collection 1840s – 1880s (April 29 – August 31, 2017)
Free Black North (April 29 – August 20, 2017)
Mark Lewis: Canada (April 13 – December 10, 2017)
Review by Leo Hsu
Visitors entering Photography Collection 1840s – 1880s at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto are greeted by a familiar face: Gustave Le Gray’s photograph of Aimé Millet’s drawing of Leonardo da Vinci’s painting Mona Lisa is matted under an ornate Louis XV frame that hangs from a panel on a freestanding plinth. It’s smaller than the original painting, and its warm tones are monochromatic but my feeling of recognition on seeing it was immediate and unequivocal; this was obviously Mona Lisa even as it obviously was not. Da Vinci’s and Millet’s names are inscribed over La Giaconda’s right elbow (“Leonard De Vinci, Pinxit, Aime Millet, Del, 1848”) and Le Gray’s signature flourishes at the bottom of the print.
Photography was celebrated at its invention for its utility in making faithful reproductions – its applications for archaeology and astronomy were noted early on – but representing the subtle tones of color in a painting presented a challenge in the mid 19th century. Where a photographic process could not adequately copy the original, it could render Millet’s drawing. The propagation of the image of Mona Lisa contributed to the painting’s fame; reproductions allowed art historians to study paintings without seeing the actual works in person. Further, they permitted historian and the public to imagine the corpus of existing work as a meaningful archive beyond any specific collection.
Placing Le Gray’s photograph at the entrance to the gallery is a playful provocation; in fact each of the three photography-related exhibits currently up at The Art Gallery of Ontario thoughtfully invites audiences to consider how photography sits in an art museum, recognizing the significance of photography as visual culture as well as art. Photography Collection 1840s -1880s, Free Black North, and Mark Lewis: Canada take focus off of photography as a modernist, formal art medium, and ask audiences to consider their relationship to the image, and the roles that photography has played in the service of colonialism and empire. While these kinds of critiques are not new, these three seemingly unrelated exhibitions address them to powerful effect.
On the other side of the panel on which Le Gray’s Mona Lisa hangs is the only print in this gallery that was made explicitly as a work of art, Julia Margaret Cameron’s portrait Beatrice (1866). Cameron’s niece Mary Winslop modeled as Beatrice Cenci, the photograph based closely on Guido Reni’s c.1600 painting (which was the basis for many renderings of Beatrice, Reni supposedly having witnessed his subject as she was taken to be executed, or, controversially, perhaps he didn’t). Putting these back to back - which is on the back of which? - is a reminder that copying and reference are central to the history of Western art, where icons and motifs form language and works of art become subjects in themselves. The pairing of the Mona Lisa with Beatrice, with one foot in tradition and one foot in a new paradigm of visual information, speaks to the concerns that Walter Benjamin would raise in the 1930s, when he argued in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936)” that the mass reproducibility of photography and film would disrupt traditional power relations. Though photographs (and in two different senses, “copies”, ) we can experience the aura of both Mona Lisa and Beatrice when we see them today. They are treasured as unique objects - even their 18th century frames are noted on the title cards. Yet they aren’t truly traditional either; they are hybrids, and a reminder that photographs have often been made for one set of reasons and later valued for another.
Everything else in the room was made, in its time, as a reproducible - a commodity, or in the service of some function that required it to be copied. Their display permits us to recognize each reproduction as a unique object that has travelled its own course through the world. The curators have made a point of providing the context in which each of these images would circulate - there are books, albums, portfolios, cabinets. And while we may read an aesthetic awareness into images that were first anthropological or geographical in function, it would be a far step, following Rosalind Krauss’s essay “Photography’s Discursive Spaces (1982)” to assume that the photographers considered themselves artists.
The room is dominated on one side by a display of a custom cabinet gifted to the participating countries in the first world’s fair, the 1851 Great Exhibition of Works of Industry of All Nations held at London’s Crystal Palace. I imagine the cabinet and its mammoth volumes cataloguing the displays at the Exhibition crated up and loaded onto ships, transported from England to foreign capitals, seeding this particular idea of a visual photographic encyclopedia as an invaluable object, full of reproductions and yet with its own aura, unique and powerful. Nearby a handmade multi-sided wood portrait display is an example of a rustic “tramp art” aesthetic. Samuel Morse’s commercial and expeditionary photographs and Linnaeus Tripe’s commissioned surveys display aesthetic rigor, but how were these sensibilities perceived by those who commissioned their work? An ambrotype of a chalk drawing of Charlotte Bronte in a case, the AGO’s first photography acquisition, was probably produced to meet public demand for photographs of famous people.
The other dominant display in the room is a wall of ethnographic portraits by Jacques-Phillipe Potteau commissioned by France’s Museum of Natural History. The pictures were made in Paris of sitters, from Africa and Asia, who were mostly staff in the French embassies of their home countries. In the tradition of “racial-type” photographs, these catalogs of ethnicities were made to support the idea that different races had different essential characteristics. The diplomats and cooks of diplomatic missions in Paris were photographed in their traditional clothing to present themselves as being outside of modernity.
In the adjacent gallery, the images in Free Black North contrast in every respect with Potteau’s ethnographic studies. Where Potteau’s sitters were represented following a Western notion of who they were, presented as subjects to be examined by a Western public, the portraits of free Blacks in Ontario in the 1800’s were made for private enjoyment. Refugees from the United States via the underground railroad and their descendants, these personal images show people at ease. The subject-photographer dynamics are evident, showing a range of moods that speak to individual personalities. A man with a cigar looks confidently into the camera, and a young boy with boots looks a bit unsure. In a studio portrait of “Man standing and Two Women in Striped Dresses,” the women hold still for the long exposure with even gazes but the man betrays the slightest hint of a smile, which he must have held for just as long. Free Black North is joyful in its presentation of rarely seen images of Black North Americans in the 19th century on their own terms but is not without its bittersweet turn; the names of the individuals in these photographs are largely lost.
Down the hall we move to the 21st century, and a reflection on Canada’s 150th anniversary of confederation. In each of Mark Lewis’ three 2017 silent video pieces the viewer moves with the camera. In Canada a young woman walks and reads Richard Ford’s novel Canada aloud and though we can’t hear her, we are right alongside her, the camera’ slightest shakes drawing attention to our proxy observer. Valley meanders via drone through over the lower Don River trail where the river turns towards the harbor; it’s a silent accompaniment to Joni Mitchell’s "A Case of You", speaking of difficult but inescapable relationships. In Things Seen, a woman emerges from the lake and sits down on the sand as we circle her. She rises as she becomes aware of us and while we are invited by the photographer to look, we are forced away by the subject. These pieces contemplate the role of looking in claiming territory. Lewis asks how space is inhabited, and by whom. He makes the audiences complicit in the acts of looking and taking, whether we are surveilling a man living in an abandoned bridge or sitting on the shoulder of a woman in a park.
Lewis’ is the only contemporary work on display, though, and notably there is no contemporary still photography that was produced self-consciously as “art” in all three exhibits. The 20th century is completely absent, the historical and contemporary endpoints inviting us to rethink what photography might be without the contours of the last hundred years. Lewis’ pieces act as a response to the forms of survey in the 1840s; the views taken are unstable, and taken without comfort. Free Black Canadians are made visible today but the exhibit is a reminder of the preceding invisibility that makes this show remarkable; not unlike the reproduction of the Mona Lisa, they allow us to visualize a subject that had previously been inaccessible. The pieces in Photography Collection 1840-1880 foreground the physical persistence of even reproducible objects, and how photography’s adoption and applications were complicated by overlapping purposes and intentions. Individually and collectively, these three shows are thoughtful and expansive, looking back to look forwards, and looking at how we look.
Walter Benjamin "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, Hannah Arendt, ed. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World (1968).
Rosalind Krauss “Photography’s Discursive Spaces” in Art Journal, Vol. 42, No. 4, (Winter, 1982), pp. 311-319.