The Painting of Modern Life, a new exhibition that opened this week at the Hayward Gallery in London, is ostensibly about the way that painters over the last 50 years have depicted everyday life, but it also tackles the medium’s complex and intriguing relationship with photography.
As each new trend emerges in art, painting is repeatedly decried as out-moded and no longer relevant as a means of depicting the contemporary world, with this habit beginning when photography became commonplace and appeared to initially render painting redundant. Yet a quick tour of the commercial galleries in any major city will reveal that the medium shows no sign of dying out. While a cynical take on this might be that a painting will always be easier to sell than an installation or video work, the Hayward show reveals that it still retains the capacity to surprise and even shock.
The exhibition is split into seven sections that tackle all aspects of modern life, from work and leisure to family and friends, and features work from some of the greatest painters of the last 50 years, placing works by Warhol and Gerhard Richter alongside more recent art stars such as Peter Doig, Luc Tuymans and Wilhelm Sasnal. In most the paintings here, photography has played a part, often as a direct source material. Some are painted versions of snatched tabloid moments rendered in paint, such as Elizabeth Peyton‘s depiction of Prince Harry at an Arsenal match, one of the first images to emerge of the Princes after Diana died, or Richard Hamilton‘s painting Swingeing London, which reinvents the famous shot of Mick Jagger handcuffed to Robert Fraser following his 1967 drugs bust.
In others, the provenance is less clear. Gerhard Richter’s Woman with Umbrella, a moving portrait of a distressed woman, is in fact based on a photograph of a grieving Jackie Kennedy but could easily be any ordinary passer-by. With its basis often in found imagery, Richter’s work presents a world that is recognisable yet blurred and slightly out of reach. “I did not take it [photography] as a subsititute for reality but as a crutch to help me get to reality,” a quote by him on the gallery wall explains.
Some of the paintings tackle the more horrific aspects of contemporary life, with Andy Warhol’s stark screenprints of car crashes and an empty electric chair remaining gruesomely fascinating 40 years on from their creation. Car crashes also appear in more recent works by Liu Xiaodong and Eberhard Havekost, while Vija Celmins‘ paintings depict imagery of war and politics. All are gripping and uncomfortably beautiful, despite their negative subject matter.
But perhaps the most poignant are the paintings that depict seemingly banal everyday scenes, of family and friends posing, often awkwardly, for a snapshot. As photographs these images might feel puny or throwaway but when enlarged and lovingly recreated in paint they become filled with pathos, proving that while photography is an essential component of the paintings here, it in no way reigns supreme.