Art has always had a problem with progress. Periods, styles, media, and school groups—at the museum they come and go, but beauty and truth live on. One likes to think so anyway, but the idea of progress still haunts modern art.
It definitely haunts an exhibition at the Met, covering the brief history of daguerreotypes, from 1839 to 1855. These early photographs appeared as a scientific advance, so momentous that its inventor hesitated to share their secret. They promised to transform art, but they served just as much as a scientific tool, a record of modern life, a gimmick, and a peep show. In twenty years, they had vanished all but completely, thanks to yet further progress of sorts. A handier invention, prints on paper, was to make photography a matter of everyday life.
Yet for a lost art, daguerreotypes can look eerily modern. Their show goes well with another kind of artistic dead end, manuscripts from the Italian Renaissance. Again at the Met, one sees their history before they gave way to still another endlessly reproducible medium, the modern book.
After well over a century, one still talks of Modernism and modernity as if they meant something. Art had its promises to keep, after all. Movement after movement proclaimed the future at hand. Art boasted of a new vision and, often, political change as well. Then, too, the avant-garde made those old notions of eternal beauty and truth highly suspect. The time had come to move on.
Modernism had its own suspicions about progress, however. Max Beckmann, for one, saw the dark side of politics. Alberto Giacometti made the inner life equally disturbing. Art turned its clock back to wilder models still, as with Jackson Pollock and his sketches after El Greco and his light-struck inventions. If one can trust Clement Greenberg, his generation also took a stand against the most modern of all cultures, kitsch.
Photography all but sums up Modernism's ambivalence to progress. Critics sometimes argue that modern art turned on the invention, but how? On the one hand, some have claimed, it made old-fashioned realism superfluous. It also, the story goes, accelerated a centuries-old trend toward unique styles and individual points of view. Painters had to pursue their own vision once anyone could churn out photographs. On the other hand, it helped artists play with the anonymity of reproductions—from Auguste Rodin's multiple casts and Kurt Schwitters's torn headlines to Robert Rauschenberg's appropriations in his silkscreens and combines.
Postmodern critics have has often slammed authenticity as "the avant-garde myth." That can means recovering Modernism from its public. It can mean debunking Modernism, a "return of the real" in art of the 1990s. It can mean a chance for photography to leave its artistic ghetto and join Postmodernism. If this sounds clichéd, as if no prints had existed before photographs, it may also have something to say. Besides, think of the origin of the word cliché.
Daguerreotypes, however, create a perplexing middle ground between the personal and the reproducible. They have the anonymity of images made by light and the perfect clarity of a scientific experiment. At the Met, one would have a hard time singling out any of its advocates for a particular style. Anonymity, however, need not deny uniqueness. Even a Romantic or Victorian had Jack the Ripper.
In many ways, the daguerreotype leaves things just as they were. It offers one more tool for painting, one more help, along with mirrors and the camera obscura, in engaging the world. It gives only a single image, a positive directly on a copper plate. It has an eerie luster and absence of life more like Surrealism than photorealism. Can all that explain why it anticipates art today?
Among the first images at the Met, one sees a still life—a plaster cast, a metal shield, and other museum objects. The selection shows off the medium's ability to capture detail and a variety of textures. It demonstrates the potential for recording the past and documenting a collection. It preserves the dream of objectivity, a certainty of belief in the real, once transient creatures like humans leave the picture. It preserves, too, the layers of artifice in an artist's vision. The cast appears to be taking part in some unstated drama, much like an academic, painted nude.
The same mix—of theater, science, documentation, objectivity, and art—troubles the medium for its entire, short life. Creators made incredible panoramas of Paris for public display, like a carnival attraction, or pornographic images for private consumption. They recorded cell cultures, as part of a scientific revolution. They hand-colored the product, to look more like art, in perhaps the true birth of color photography, well before Paul Outerbridge. They tracked working-class life and an abortive revolution, but they also staged scenes in which people and reproductions become hard to tell apart. A well-known painter, Baron Gros, took up the medium, but to record his travels as a diplomat.
Certainly the technology alone holds interest, and the Met does a fine job of explaining it, with an introductory video. The daguerreotype's precision is simply astounding. Even in vistas of Paris, a magnifying glass can pick out ceramic tiles, long since replaced by slate and metal. One can count the buttons on a military uniform from across the Seine. Still, no one would call this work photorealism. It looks way too spooky.
The silvery, metallic surface helps create an otherworldly sheen. So does the perfection with which it captures textures and reflections. So does the slight coloration, almost like flesh in lighter passages but bluer with overexposure. So, too, does the nature of a positive, which unlike a print from an intermediate reverses left and right. Parisians, no doubt accustomed to social divisions between Left and Right Bank, marveled at finding buildings in the wrong place. So do nearly empty landscapes, as if out of a horror movie.
The medium required exposures of several seconds, even in bright sunlight. By that time, passing people turn to blurs or vanish from sight. So who would sit still for a portrait, other than the almost lifelike skulls and skeletons in the exhibit's final room? The medium lacked the class for paying, upper-class portraiture, but it attracted writers and artists, including Eugène Delacroix, excited by the novelty. It drew on common laborers and the dispossessed, who slouch or stare or nowhere in particular. Remarkably, the medium offers the only photographic record of the 1848 worker's rebellion, with barricades that fittingly dissolve into yet another blur.
The surreal images and the down-to-earth subject matter anticipate two key currents of modern art. Yet so does the confusion of science and artifice, life and death. Shots may lack the staginess of photographers like Lewis Carroll and Julia Margaret Cameron, but they look no less fantastic. In my favorite image, a sculpture leans over a girl as she and a friend look at pictures. A photograph of a reproduction eying a person examining a reproduction—Postmodernism has nothing on this one. Suitably enough, the photographer remains unknown.
The anonymity of daguerreotypes also sheds light on the relationship between technique and style. Of course, they differ. An artist may have plenty of technique and no style at all—or the other way around. Still, one has to study how a medium and an artist's processes and purposes influence each other. Oil painting developed to match the transparency seen only in watercolor, and in turn it gave painters a more direct encounter with vision.
Daguerreotypes have a special fascination in that the relationship amounts almost to a one-way street. They arose in response to artistic traditions, including oil painting, printing, and the camera obscura. Yet they took ten years of chemical experiments by Daguerre and his colleague, Niéphore Niépce. They look like nothing else, and then they vanished for commercial rather than stylistic reasons. Photographers had to haul around a big box and heavy equipment, and they could not turn out paper copies for photograph albums. Had photography stayed that way, one would not have to sit through nearly so many baby and wedding pictures.
Manuscript illumination in Italy suffered a similar dead end. One might say that they became at once too small and too large. On the one hand, fine art went public. With the growth of cities and with cathedrals as public spaces, art needed more consistently to serve as the focus of ritual and devotion. With the growth of religious wars, empires, and more wealthy patrons, top artists had something big to say.
Conversely, books started to get more private. Large single volumes made sense for a center of learning, like a university or a religious center. They made sense, too, when several voices could meet around a book of music in song and ceremony. Once individuals need some book learning for business, however, and once Protestant churches start packing people into pews, it only makes sense to apply movable type to artistic insight and prayer.
A show at the Metropolitan carries manuscripts in Italy from around 1270 until they, too, fade out less than three hundred years later. Naturally they, too, seem at once familiar from art history and a bit out of touch with the art around them.
Several years ago, the Met made grand claims for Italian manuscripts. An exhibition called them the hidden history of the Renaissance. History books had always traced the origins of the Northern Renaissance to French manuscript painting and breakthroughs in Italian art such as that of Fra Filippo Lippi or even Cimabue long before to architecture and sculpture. The Met was out to challenge all that. It made little sense. This time, the Met simply brings together the collection of Robert Lehman, its well-known donor, and it pays off with an intimate look at an intimate medium.
The show teaches one to see a manuscript page not as a frame for images but as an entire work. The decorative border, musical notation, text, and painted image all must work together, but they can challenge one another, too. In some cases, the staff lines cross right through letters, as if art and music could delete meaning. A page must work as one in content, too. Saints abound, to go with books to help celebrate a saint's day. King David, the Old Testament's best-selling songwriter, naturally puts in plenty of appearances.
The book and the user also must work together. Historians have come to see Renaissance paintings quite generally in terms of site and function—in chapels and as altarpieces, in private homes and as private possessions. With a book— made to hold or to share, in reading or in song—the relationship to users gets closer still.
That closeness places some late Medieval manuscripts on the cutting edge. Because they do not serve as icons, saints do not have to stare out. Artists can create more fluid scenes, with figures more at ease and with less uniformly gold backgrounds. They keep the heritage of Giotto and Duccio, the key innovators around 1300, alive during a largely stagnant half century. Duccio himself may contribute a page. The light tones and ink lines can help to explain the delicacy of a panel painter like Fra Angelico a century later.
By 1400, all that progress is history. Faces look blander than in panel painting, the poses and shadows arbitrary and formless. Bodies stand apart from even the most naturalistic of background landscapes. The margins and the initial letters isolate them such that they never do attain much drama, much less monumentality. In this cramped, unreal world, why not celebrate All Saint's Day by squeezing in all of the saints?
These very drawbacks, however, contribute to some lovely, expressive images. The scale of books gives one reason. Unlike altars, painted for men of means, they could reach out a wider audience, with the awkward informality of folk art. Lorenzo Monaco, one of the few big names on display, depicts the Last Judgment not as global cataclysm, but as the personal awakenings of a three heads from their parched, native soil. The depth of water-based color helps, too. The Met arranges pages not chronologically but by region, and one can see the contrasts among Florentine pastel lyricism, the heavy colors and faces of Lombardy, Ferrara's earth tones and busier patterning, and Bologna's bright, primary hues.
Most of all, the initial letters enter into almost every composition. A saint rests her hand on the crossbar of an A. The arch of a P morphs into the shelter for a nativity. The central stroke of an M divides the curious sweetness of Judas's kiss from the denser crowd of Roman soldiers. Fittingly, in an art that gave way to reproduction and movable type, one remembers most the alphabet.
"The Dawn of Photography: French Daguerreotypes, 1839-1855" ran at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through January 4, 2004, and "Treasures of a Last Art: Italian Manuscript Painting of the Middles Ages and Renaissance" through February 1.