Sunday, October 28, 2012

Art and Photography in London

In the light of an up and coming exhibition at the National Gallery London - "Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present", I came across this article entitled “The Camera comes of Age” from The Independent by Adrian Hamilton published on Saturday 27 October 2012. Both events mirror what I was lecturing about on 21st October 2012 at the MIPP Convention 2012. This article take us on a virtual tour through a good number of notable exhibitions set in illustrious galleries in London which stress the medium as a fine art and sheds light on various photographers who earned a name in the field.

The Camera comes of Age

Next week the National Gallery mounts its first major photography show. It's a decisive moment that marks the medium's overdue acceptance as fine art


Saturday 27 October 2012

Of all the great art galleries in the world, the National Gallery in London has proved one of the last to either embrace photography as a branch of art or as a fit subject for exhibition. Which makes its first proper show of the relationship between photography and the Old Masters, opening next week, something of an occasion. It joins, by coincidence, a veritable host of other photographic exhibitions at the present, Davidson, Eggleston and others from the Sixties and Seventies at the Barbican, William Klein and Daido Moriyama at Tate Modern and Hiroshi Sugimoto at Pace in London, with Henri Cartier-Bresson and Ansel Adams to follow at Somerset House and the Maritime Museum, next month. Rarely can an audience be quite as well provided for as London at the moment.

The National Gallery may be late on the scene but its timing could hardly be bettered. With photography increasingly recognised as an art in its own right, prints from the original negatives by well-known photographers regularly sell for £5,000 or £10,000 each. When limited-number prints from big names such as Richard Avedon are concerned, the sums leap to as much as £500,000 and, in the case of the German photographer Andreas Gursky, between £3m and £4m, as museums compete with modern-art collectors for the privilege of owning iconic images of our time.

Photography has always vied with painting for a position as a fine art in itself. What the National Gallery is now seizing on – quite rightly – is the development in the last decades of an art photography which deliberately looks back to the high art of the past and the Victorian pioneers of photography as its model. Large in scale, often monumental in intent, the works now form a genre all of their own. Placing them side by side with their forebears makes a wonderful exhibition.

Why art photography should have developed in this way is an open question. It has a lot to do with advances in technology which have enabled artist photographers to size up their deep single shots into life-scale and to control the colour and the textures in printing. The best photographers have always taken care of the printing process but we now have a generation that uses technology as painters have traditionally used the brush, to refine, to elaborate and to deepen the effect. It goes deeper than this, however. Over the last 30 years, and even more in the aftermath of 9/11 and the midst of recession, there is a retreat from post-Modernism, with its obsession for irony, jokes and a multi-faceted approach to art, to something much more detached and classical. Just as many artists after the wars of the last century stepped back to a kind of cool abstraction, so many artists today are searching for a kind of melancholic sobriety, a sense of the frozen moment which photography is uniquely able to provide.

Which is where photography entered in the first place. From early on the young discipline saw itself as a form of art and contender with paintings for seriousness. The major figures of the Victorian period – Julia Margaret Cameron, Roger Fenton, Oscar Gustave Rejlander, Gustave Le Gray and the others represented in the National Gallery show alongside their painting models and their modern imitators – quite consciously sought not just the dignity of art but its moral thrust. Cameron, in particular, during the late 1860s and early 1870s walked hand-in-hand with the Pre-Raphaelites and the art of her time in an effort to combine realistic detail with ethereal sentiment. Place her portraits, as the exhibition does, side by side with the paintings of George Frederic Watts and you see precisely the same purpose.

So with the still lives of Roger Fenton and other photographers of the mid-19th century, which aim to replicate both the glowing realism of 17th-century painters but also their indications of decay and the fragility of beauty. Look at the seascapes of Gustav Le Gray from the 1850s and you see an artist reaching out to portray the sublime in the way that Turner was doing.
With nudes, of course, the realism became a problem. While photographers such as Rejlander bathed their photos in the aura of classical statues and the painting of Ingres and Botticelli, the photograph gave the female form a living reality which shocked some and excited others. Art and pornography merged in a way that even the most erotic works of Velazquez and Goya could never have.

And it was the truth of the real which took photography away from art in the last century to pursue its own courses in the photojournalism made possible by the 35mm camera, in the avenues opened up by magnification and skewed viewpoint and in the colour film introduced in the 1930s. For most of the 20th century, photography didn't vie with painting or refer back to it. It felt it was itself the art of modernity with no need for a backward or even a sideways look.
The radical thing about the contemporary photographers assembled by the National Gallery is not just that they look backwards to the traditions of painting and early photography for their models, but they do it by glorying in the realism which makes photography unique. Their works ranges from the masters of the monumental such as the Canadian Jeff Wall and the German Thomas Struth to the more intimate studies of bathers of Rineke Dijkstra from Holland and the exploding still lives of Ori Gersht from Israel.

Wall famously showed his life-sized narrative picture The Destroyed Room, based on Delacroix's The Death of Sardanapalus in the form of a negative, back-lit, in a gallery window in 1978. Struth makes his pictures as large but they are of scenes in which the people are dwarfed by the space so that the viewer both looks on and in. Sarah Jones enlarges her pictures of flowers to three or four times life-size so that every detail is shown and the whole given huge presence. Dijkstra sharpens the detail of her life-size pictures of bathers by using fill-in flash photography. Richard Learoyd employs plain, neutral backgrounds and suffused lighting to give his figures sculptural presences.

Magnification on this scale has the effect of bringing the viewer directly into the picture as much a participant as an observer. It encompasses the viewer as she or he stands before it. The heightened realism only adds to the effect. Where painters had to work up their paintings in layers and in meticulous detail, the photographer has realism at his or her instant disposal. The drawback of having to complete in a single shot rather than being able, like a painter, to keep returning to the canvas, is turned to advantage. The subject is caught in a moment that, properly composed, communicates something beyond the face or the landscape that is presented. They become faces in your face, impossible not to be gripped by.

The National Gallery exhibition is only part of the story, of course. Where the contemporary artists in its survey of "photography past and present" are bent on bettering the photographic process by imitating painting, other artists are bent on bettering the painting process by drawing in photography. The history of contemporary art, indeed, could be written in the way in which painters, following the lead of Gerhard Richter and the example of the Pop Artists, have incorporated photography into their creative process and how photographers, learning from modern painters, have pushed their craft away from realism into the realms of abstraction. Photography and painting, which seemed to go their separate ways through most of the last century, are now, thanks to Richard Hamilton, Gerhard Richter, David Hockney and many others, now merging.

Anyone interested in the uses of digital photography in art and the possibilities opened up by inkjet printing need only slip within the National Gallery to the Sunley Room to see the late Richard Hamilton works, in which the artist both pays homage to the past masters and grapples with the challenge posed by the realism of modern reproductive technology. What fascinated Hamilton, as it has intrigued Hockney, is the extent to which digital enables the painter to compose and sketch graphic work and, in the printing, to achieve hyper-realistic effects of colour.

Go to almost any show of a contemporary artist and what you are likely to see is he or she adopting the technology of photography, and often its language, to express their conceptual art. At Dulwich Art Gallery, the contemporary artist Clive Head has installed across one wall of a room of Nicolas Poussins, a large scale painting of a rail terminus. Part of his From Victoria to Arcadia, it is a painting of the most precise detail but also of unnerving space, a narrative of passengers and anonymity based on photographs of Victoria tube station but composed and painted with a traditional eye.

It has been colour as much as anything that has really brought art and photography together. In the era of black-and-white, the photographer reigned supreme in his own field. Ansel Adams, whose photographs of water and the sea go on display at London's Maritime Museum next month, showed that photography could achieve in detail and in depth the sense of the sublime in nature which painters had so long sought, and in its own way do it better. With faster film and lighter cameras, photography became the means of commenting on the human condition and on events in a way which painting seemed too contrived to compete. The photographers on display at the Barbican's current show of pictures of the 1960s and 1970s barely gave traditional art a passing glance as they sought composition in what Cartier Bresson called the "decisive moment".

As the techniques of exposure and printing improved, so photographers became more "arty" themselves. Just a few hundred yards along Piccadilly from the National Gallery's show you can see the seascapes of Hiroshi Sugimoto – to me the finest art photographer of our day – hung alongside Mark Rothko's late dark abstracts at Pace's new Mayfair Gallery. While at one in horizontal composition, they are quite different in texture. Where Rothko works in paint, building it up layer by layer to achieve his effects, Sugimoto is all about light and exposure. Rothko encloses his pictures firmly within the frame, Sugimoto's studies of the sea's horizon seem to extend way beyond the frame into infinity. Both are alike in their ambition to make their separate forms reach beyond representation into the absolute.

At the opposite end of the spectrum of scale, Daido Moriyama, on show at Tate Modern with William Klein, blows up the close-ups of tights and lips to create works of abstract force but human and erotic resonance. What the painter has to do with imagination, the photographer can do by the magnification of detail. Ansel Adams did it with trees, contemporary photographers do it with the stuff of urban life.

Colour, introduced to film in the Thirties, changed things, as an exhibition due next month at Somerset House hopes to show. For purists such as Cartier Bresson it was a dilution of the realism of black and white photography. But for painters it took photography into the glossy surfaces and hectic pace of the new consumer world. With it, photography joined advertising, colour magazines, flashy billboards and brightly-coloured plastic. It was the world in which the old distinctions between genres had no place. All could be used as one in the portrayal of life.

And yet there remains something distinct about photography, in its realism and in its relationship with the viewer. Go to any exhibition and you will see people, young and old, responding without self-consciousness to the picture before them. There's something about the reality of photographs that needs no explanation. Which is why so many painters are now incorporating it into their works.

Friday, October 26, 2012

MIPP Convention 2012

On the 21st of October 2012, I addressed a lecture to a good number of professional photographers who attended the MIPP Convention 2012. The lecture was entitled Art and Photography: Art and its co-relation with photography 1836-1970

An abstract of the lecture follows:

In the second half of the 19th century, artists were introduced to a new medium which many believed was to become their main competitor. Photography affected in a adverse manner artists who at the time were earning a living out of producing pictorial portraits and fine art scenery. Contrarily, avant-garde 19th century artists (Manet, Eakins and Monet) and successively major exponents of Modern Art (Picasso, Duchamp and Warhol) considered photography as a new medium of expression which helped them to create and enhance their artistic spirit in an innovative way. Was photography in competition with the artistic sector or else it was moving in a parallel direction? In what ways did artists utilise such medium and to what extent it helped them discover new artistic ways of expression?

The lecture resulted to be a fruitful experience in which several issues were discussed on Art and photography. It was stressed the importance of photography as being a form of art. In fact the lecture dealt with the element of having artists making use of photography for didactic purposes (Thomas Eakins) and also utilizing such an art form to extend their vision and artistic production (Manet and Picasso). In return, Photography, as a branch of learning, was later to benefit and to escalate the realm of fine art.

Finally, I would like to thank the Malta Institute of Professional Photography for once again granting me the opportunity to lecture and present to the audience an interesting subject, which I hope it generate artistic conscience and sparked inspiration in each and everyone who was present.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Teachers work 53 hours per week on average

Survey: Teachers work 53 hours per week on average
This was written by Francie Alexander, chief academic officer for Scholastic, Inc. She has has taught at all levels, was a district reading consultant for Pre-K through high school, and has authored numerous professional articles for educators and dozens of books for children.
Teaching is a much talked about yet often misunderstood profession. Educators frequently hear well-meaning comments from parents and friends like “It must be so sweet to spend your days with children” or “How wonderful to be done for the day by three o’clock.” Are they serious?
Teaching is joyous, but it is also hard work! It is fast-paced, multi-faceted, and complex. I should know. I spent many years as a teacher and it is the hardest and most satisfying work I’ve ever done.
A new report from Scholastic and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, called Primary Sources: America’s Teachers on the Teaching Profession, finally quantifies just how hard teachers work: 10 hours and 40 minutes a day on average. That’s a 53-hour work week!

These numbers are indicative of teachers’ dedication to the profession and their willingness to go above and beyond to meet students’ needs. It never was, and certainly isn’t now, a bell-to-bell job.
The 7.5 hours in the classroom are just the starting point. On average, teachers are at school an additional 90 minutes beyond the school day for mentoring, providing after-school help for students, attending staff meetings and collaborating with peers. Teachers then spend another 95 minutes at home grading, preparing classroom activities, and doing other job-related tasks. The workday is even longer for teachers who advise extracurricular clubs and coach sports —11 hours and 20 minutes, on average. As one Kentucky teacher surveyed put it, “Our work is never done. We take grading home, stay late, answer phone calls constantly, and lay awake thinking about how to change things to meet student needs.”
The 10,000 teachers surveyed in Primary Sources 2012 convey a very real portrait of the challenges and joys of the teaching profession. They share their thoughtful, nuanced views on both their daily practice and critical issues at the heart of education reform. Here are some more key findings:
* Teachers are seeing the effects of joblessness and a difficult economy on their students’ families and in the classroom. Fifty six percent of teachers who have been teaching in the same school for five years or more are seeing more students living in poverty, and 49% are seeing more students coming to school hungry.
* Teachers welcome and are even eager for more frequent evaluation of their practice. Again and again, teachers spoke of the need for feedback on their practice in order to become the best teachers they can be. Plus, they are open to hearing from a variety of sources including principals, peers and parents - and students!
* Challenges facing students are significant and growing. 46 percent of veteran teachers say they are seeing fewer students prepared for challenging work than when they began teaching in their current schools. The percentage of children who struggle with reading and math is increasing at all socio-economic levels.
* The majority of teachers are satisfied in their jobs: Eighty nine percent of teachers are either very satisfied or satisfied in their jobs. They also share their reasons for satisfaction and for frustration, and identified the kinds of resources teachers need to be as successful as they can be.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Hilary Spiteri on Malta l-Lejla - NET tv re.: Academic Artistic Training in early British Malta

Recently, I was invited for an interview regarding my latest publication during the popular afternoon TV show Malta l-Lejla.

Stephanie Spiteri (conductor) hosts this daily early evening magazine show which is balanced between being informative and educational, inquisitive and fun. Daily interviews with people making the news or people less in the limelight, people from our past, people with something interesting to say. 

I was invited for this fourth edition which tackles various aspects of Maltese life and touch on topics which will surely allow our viewers to relax and watch, watch and learn, learn and do! The show is aired daily from Monday to Friday between 17:00-18:45 on NET TV.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Artists and Optics Lecture by Hilary Spiteri

In January 2012 I had the opportunity to address the Malta Institute of Professional Photography members during a lecture entitled 'Artists and Optics -  photography techniques employed by artists 300 years before the advent of photography'.   

The lecture turned out to be a very positive one in which the very first photography techniques employed by artists 300 years before the Deguerrian practices of photography were discussed.

The lecture was held at Corinthia Hotel, St Georges Bay, St Julians Malta on the 4th of January 2012 at 20:00.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Academic Artistic Training in early British Malta - The Sunday Times review by Kenneth Zammit Tabona

With the decision taken by the government to move the national art collection back to Auberge d’italie from what is still popularly known as Admiralty House in South Street comes the publication of Hilary Spiteri’s Academic Artistic Training in Early British Malta.

This is an erudite tome that required a humongous amount of research to complete and which casts a revelatory light on a period that was initially obscured in historical turmoil and later absorbed in the great British ideal as laid down by the visionary Prince Consort.

What comes out loud and clear is what a debt of gratitude we owe to Canon (later Bishop) Francesco Saverio Caruana who was, besides Malta’s premier patriot, hailed as Malta’s Maecenas and who founded and directed the School of Design within the ambit of Malta’s re- established university in 1803 after the disagreeable Napoleonic interlude, which flourished till Caruana’s installation as Bishop of Malta in 1822.

Born in 1759 into a wealthy Żebbuġ family with strong aristocratic connections, Francesco Saverio was a great patron of the arts and was the prime political mastermind during the turbulent period which saw the final days and expulsion of the Order of Malta, the Napoleonic aberration and the insurrection of the Maltese against it. He was also the chief negotiator who facilitated the transition of Malta from a semimonastic sovereign principality to becoming a jewel in the British King’s crown.

Much has been written about Mgr Caruana, who still remains a controversial figure in Maltese history depending which end of the political lens one observes him from.

To have received an accolade from the notoriously difficult and abrasive Governor Thomas Maitland, is enough to show that this statesman brought peace to Malta at a time when Europe was in conflagration.

His elevation to Bishop of Malta in 1822 marked the beginnings of the accords between Church and State which, believe it or not, are extant even today. His biography was written by his great nephew the Count of Beberrua, Vincenzo Caruana Gatto and is a primary source of reference in Spiteri’s treatise.

This tome proves two diametrically unrelated theories: one that art is interderivative and that nothing can exist in isolation. Trying to prove otherwise reminds me of those stories of babies raised by wolves ( not Romulus and Remus, of course) who in their post- pubescence had to learn the rudiments of being and acting like a human being.

Therefore, the history and development of art is like case law; dependent on previous experience whatever anyone says.

The other theory is that art and politics are and will always be inextricably linked. In Malta this is amply proved by the establishment of that august institution which still exists today: the Society for Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, which though it may sound anachronistic today, represented at its foundation in 1852 the latest in modern academia in accordance with the theories devised by Albert of Saxe- Coburg and Gotha, husband of Queen Victoria and universally known as the Prince Consort.

It is indeed intriguing to note that the society was set up a year after the great exhibition in London which was by all accounts epochmaking at many levels and which established the British Empire as the primus inter pares of European states.

The remote outpost of Malta was indeed blessed to have been included in the prince’s intellectually sound plans. It is interesting to note that this was before the opening of the Suez Canal – an event that transformed the economic history of Malta forever, turning a hitherto fossilised and still ecclesiastical ruling class into a dynamic mix with the newly established plutocratic tycoons who established great fortunes in their dealings across the Mediterranean form Gibraltar to Alexandria.

Visually the book’s impact is minimal and has no pretensions to being what can be termed a coffee table type feast of design and colour. What it does have is a wealth of drawings mistily by Raffaele Caruana that are found in the five portfolios consisting of 440 works found in the reserve collection of the National Museum of Fine Arts.

I was also intrigued that the plaster casts we have all gazed and studied at the School of Art, which was set up in 1926, has the same plaster casts that were purchased by Francesco Saverio Caruana for his School of Design; this is providential, as towards the middle of the 19th century it became increasingly difficult to use live models as Roman Catholic bigotry and Victorian prurience joined forces to eventually make this impossible.

Although the casts replicate great works of art like the Apollo of the Belvedere and a number of Parthenon friezes, to mention but a few, there is absolutely no comparison – and believe me I know first- hand – to the real thing.

No matter how artfully lights are placed a plaster cast remains what it is and can never ever remotely replace the real thing. Yet for decades upon decades Maltese artists had to make do.

As Sandro Debono, senior curator of the National Museum of Fine Arts, points out in his foreword, Spiteri is the latest in the growing number of researchers whose interest in the National Collection has enriched our knowledge of the history of art in Malta.

Again, with the reestablishment of the History of Art Department at the University as late as 1988 by Fr Peter Serracino Inglott, the former rector, and Mario Buhagiar who still today is the head of the department, the study of our creative history has been under scrutiny for the past 23 years.

I well remember two great books which only a couple of decades ago set the trend and changed local bibliography forever; one was the same Buhagiar’s The Iconography of the Maltese Islands and the other was Nicholas de Piro’s The International Dictionary of Artists who Painted Malta.

These books laid the foundation stone for the vibrant art scene that thrives in Malta today; one which I hope will continue to flourish and place Malta on the international artistic map as a unique island with a unique history, if and when the powers that be understand the need to have a museum of Modern and Contemporary Art besides the extant Fine Arts one.

Only then will we be able to fully appreciate the artistic activity of this small but spunky island population, which despite all odds tries its best on many counts to disprove Aesop’s fable of the frog and the cow, and more often than not manages to do so.

Saturday, December 31, 2011

ARTISTS AND OPTICS - Lecture by Hilary Spiteri


photography techniques employed by artists 300 years before the advent of photography

Hilary Spiteri will be holding a lecture entitled Artists and Optics where he will be discussing the very first photography techniques employed by artists 300 years before the Deguerrian practices of photography.

The lecture will be held at Corinthia Hotel, St Georges Bay, St Julians Malta on the 4th of January 2012 at 20:00.

The lecture is open to the general public.