“Seduced By Art”, at The National Gallery.
For the first time in more than a hundred and fifty years, the National Gallery has put on a large exhibition devoted to photography. The result is a show that intrigues, beguiles and disappoints in roughly equal measure.
“Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present” opens with an enigmatic selection of photographs inspired by Eugene Delacroix’s flushed, inflamed depiction of rape, murder and solipsistic obsession, The Death of Sardanapalus, of 1827 – itself meagrely represented by a small copy in oils, lent by the Louvre. Beside this ghost of the original hang Jeff Wall’s light-boxed Cibachrome, Destroyed Room, of 1978, which reconceives Delacroix’s mayhem as the aftermath of a teenager’s self-destructive rampage through their own bedroom; Tom Hunter’s Death of Coltelli, of 2009, in which a half-naked girl in a Hackney bedsit adopts the pose of one of Sardanapalus’s doomed consorts; and Sarah Jones’s The Drawing Studio, of 2008, the image of a dirty mattress draped with a purple sheet in a paint-spattered room. From the outset, photographers are cast as parasites feeding on the meatily substantial body of Old Master painting – a little mystifying, given that the strident rhetoric of the exhibition frames photographs as works of art in their own right.
The rest is grouped according to the genres of old-fashioned artistic theory. There is a room of portraits, containing some extremely ordinary photographic portraits as well as one or two genuinely arresting pictures – most notably, Craigie Horsfeld’s large-scale, hypnotisingly intense picture of a man with a beard, Hernando Gomez, Calle Serrano, Madrid, of 2006, a homage to Velazquez printed on rough-toothed watercolour paper that gives the inks a subtlety of tone not often encountered in photographs. There is a room devoted to the human figure, in which Richard...