Shape of Light: 100 years of Photography and Abstract Art at TATE Modern. A fascinating look at the relationship between painted art and photography and the evolution of abstract art.

I think it must be part of the human condition that when new technologies, media or ideas come along, people can’t help seeing what can be done with it and finding ways to push it into new directions.  For example, when the internal combustion engine was invented and it was possible to drive around in a ‘horseless carriage’ what happened….? clever engineers looked for ways of making those carriages go really fast and started racing them.  Formula 1 is seriously exciting. We really don’t have to travel at such speed but it’s very thrilling seeing it made possible.


I’m sure it must have been the same with photography in the early years of the last century.  We’re used to seeing early photographs which mainly feature people, places and objects. It’s all pretty figurative. Then artists and disrupters got hold of their box brownies, or whatever cameras were being developed, and started seeing the world through that lens and capturing abstract images.  So which came first- abstract art or abstract photography?  This show at TATE Modern cleverly pulls together examples of paintings which have metaphorically ‘let go’ of convention by plunging into abstraction and shows how the shock of what was new in painted art and sculpture was matched by a similar shock emanating from the hands of inspired photographers.  We start off with a room filled with a mix of interesting abstract oil paintings by artists such as Kandinsky, , Mondrian and  George Braques.  They’ve been neatly paired with Vortographs, a great selection by Alvin Langdon Coburn (1882 – 1966) which feature interesting compositions in photographic form which echo the artists’ work.

And so the exhibition evolves. It’s fascinating to see the evolution of photographers such as Brassai and Man Ray who looked at surface and texture of objects and saw, within the random and abstracted shapes, what we most definitely call art.  You only have to look at Instagram feeds these days to see that we’re still fascinated by cracked floor tiles, peeling paint, tree bark and random arrangements of pebbles.  We all have an eye for these things but it must have been very exciting in the 1920s to be capturing such images with an artist’s sensitivity.  Then there’s the process of photography itself. It was intriguing to see how photosensitive paper and various ways of developing pictures can be harnessed, corrupted and adapted to create images which, quite simply, have never been seen before and yet are, most definitely art.

The show brings us right up to date with examples of work by young, contemporary artist/photographers. Barbara Kasten (born 1936) spoke about her photogenic painting and her large piced from 1978 which is a photograph, print and oil on mural paper stretched on canvas. (The featured image on this post)

It was interesting to hear Antony Cairns (born 1980) talk about the way he creates images printed in ink on Kindle screens which have been removed from the  handset and preserves photographic images which otherwise might just fade away.  And Maya Rochat (born 1985) has used a mix of photography, mixed media and constantly moving images to create a site-specific display of work called A Rock is a River.

Simon Baker, the lead curator for this show explained that the relationship between art and photography is important and that photographs should most definitely exist within the history of art. TATE is well known for integrating photographs into shows of painted work or other media, expressing a broad sweep of art.

A very interesting show for anyone interested in photography, or the way this medium is part of art history.  At TATE Modern from 2nd May – 14th October 2018.  #ShapeOfLight

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