The first room in the Tate’s Painting with Light exhibition is dedicated to photographs and corresponding paintings by Robert Adamson and David Octavius Hill; unsurprisingly a lot of their subjects are familiar to me; views of Edinburgh from Calton Hill or from the castle. Hill’s picture of the founding of the Free Church of Scotland was based on photographs of individual subjects combined in the depiction of a single assembly. In the painting the light falls equally on each figure, each of whom looks rather like they have been cut out and overlaid above their neighbours. Much of the exhibition dwells on the debate as to whether the accuracy of photography ended realist painting and opened the path of abstraction instead, but in reality much of the exhibition shows the two mirroring one another. Ruskin and other Pre-Raphaelites used photographs to record architectural details that would later be painted. Photographic replicas of paintings like The Death of Chatterton spawn court cases. Julia Margaret Cameron and William Peach Robinson’s Arthurian photographs precisely mirror their Victorian counterparts. Comparisons of portraits of the same female subject by Julia Margaret Cameron and Watts favour watts for his elimination of background in favour of the subject whereas Cameron is theatrical in her setting, but her portrait of him succeeds against his own self portrait for the same reasons. When it comes to Whistler’s indistinct nocturnes of Atkinson Grimshaw’s gaslight paintings, photography keeps space with equally numinous photographs of urban scenes by Alvin Langdon Coburn.
The following weekend, I go to the Wallace Collection. From my previous visit years ago, I recall the Vernet and Delaroche paintings, the medieval Europe and Oriental armouries and above all The Laughing Cavalier. The Hals masterpiece still sounds out amidst the surrounding ranks of Rembrandts, for its vibrancy and sense of joie de vivre. I’d forgotten how much of an oddity it is; it feels a lot more like the Frick Collection or the Musée Jacquemart-André than most London museums. Most of the rooms feel like a time capsule from rococo Paris, with Sevres porcelain and Boulle marquetry displayed throughout. Other things that leap out; Limoges enamel work, allegorical Poussin paintings, maiolica ceramics, a mythological scene from Titian and a room filled with Canalettos. The next weekend, I go to Waddesdon Manor. I’d forgotten the tower room filled with Bakst’s paintings of the Sleeping beauty and items like the Indian elephant clock automata.
I finally got to see the Ben Wheatley film of High-Rise the other night. The novel’s themes of tower block class war degenerating into butchery and violence seem prescient at a time when oligarchic skyscrapers rise in Western cities as their banlieue breed fanatics and terrorists. This is as it should be; for a novel written in the seventies, Ballard’s work always operates implicitly as science fiction. Which makes the setting of the novel at the time it was written something of an oddity as the film effectively turns into a period drama of a future that never happened in quite that form. Unlike Cronenberg’s film version of Crash, it also imparts to the film a certain kitsch or even comic aspect absent from the novel, a sort of version of Abigail’s Party with added killings, which sits oddly alongside a novel concerned with the death of affect. Ballardian surrealism is rendered as English eccentricity.