Ernő Kállai’s “Painting and Photography” (1927)

Translated from the German by David Britt.  From Between Two Worlds: A Sourcebook of

Central European Avant-Gardes, 1910-1930.  (The MIT Press.  Cambridge, MA: 2002).

• • •

I am glad to publish Kállai’s highly interesting article.  I also find, however, that I do not agree with him in every respect.  For this reason, and because the whole question of painting and photography is highly topical at the moment, I would like to open a debate in these pages.

— Moholy-Nagy

The reversion of painting to objective representation is often judged to be an imitation of nature and thus something that can be far more simply and perfectly done by photography.  Even that committed theorist of Neue Sachlichkeit [New Objectivity], Franz Roh, warns Post-Expressionism against lapsing into the superficial imitation of objects and thus causing “its significance to shrink, and the whole of painting to be overrun by those magnificent machines” (i.e., photography and film) “that give us such superlative results in terms of imitation.  “ In painting, says Roh, there is no place for the imitation of nature except as raw source material or as a subordinate part of the pictorial design.

Let us suppose for a moment that this is correct.  Where are we to draw the line? Where does form cease to be representation and become design? How are we to classify Dürer’s meticulous delineation of a lump of turf? Is Holbein’s portrait of the merchant Georg Gisze an imitation, or is it rather a work of supreme artistic design? In painting in general, is there a precise stylistic distinction between the outward and the internalized apprehension of nature; or is this distinction independent of period or style and purely dependent on personal commitment — and quality? In a study by Leibl — so faithful to nature in subject and substance, so full of atmosphere — there is more soul and also more design than in a hundred slapdash hangers-on of Expressionism.  The same can be said of a whole succession of the best paintings of Neue Sachlichkeit, which present slices of nature in purely perspectival terms, scrupulously avoiding any hint [685] of deliberate composition.  For all the sober exactitude with which they imitate the externals of nature, these paintings, too, are indubitably works of design.  Their rigorously object-bound representational form is creatively brought to life by a newly awakened love for the intimate and ultimate minutiae of the real.

If the living impulse of painterly design can still, to this day, reside in an attitude of reverent wonder in the face of the humblest manifestations of nature, it follows that we cannot regard imitation and design as irreconcilable opposites.  Nor will it do to confine the notion of imitation to the realm of photography, and that of design to painting.  Especially since photography has its own way of producing an effect that is — like painting — both representational and formally designed.  It needs only to find its master.

To our knowledge, some photographic representations — portraits, landscapes — owe their beauty to such subtle and delicate interventions in the mechanics and chemistry of their making that they demand to be assessed as works of formal design and craftsmanship on an elevated level of artistic culture.  This applies, in particular, to the photograms made by such artists as Man Ray, Moholy-Nagy, and Spaemann-Straub, which make the move from submission to the motif to total non-objectivity; they look like ghostly emanations of light.

The difference painting and photography thus has nothing to do with the spurious alternative between “imitation” and “formal design.”  On both sides, there are representations of nature that have been creatively brought to life — i.e., designed — and other formal designs divorced from any objective reference.  Nor is the crucial distinction that between manual and mechanical work.  The painter has the option of carrying regularity of form to the borderline of purely mathematical regularity, and making his facture approximate to a high polish or to the luster of enamel.  There are plenty of works of this kind (Mondrian, Malevich, Moholy-Nagy, Lissitzky, Buchheister et al.), which, despite their creators’ mechanistic posturing and theoretical denunciations of painting as an art, are nevertheless painting of outstanding quality.  And we have already referred to the wide scope for manual craftsmanship in photography.

These few considerations in themselves suffice to show that the ultimate distinction between painting and photography is not a matter of form.  More important than any formal consideration is the material difference: the painter’s materials on the one hand, and the photographer’s light-sensitive plates, films, and papers on the other.  In itself, this difference of substance is enough to distinguish even a perfect painted representation from a photograph of the same motif.  This is a more fundamental distinction than that between a bourgeois genre painting on the one hand and a Picasso, or a rigorously intellectual Old Master composition, on the other.  It continues to prevail, even where one side or the other attempts to equate painting and photography.  Even the boldest efforts in this direction fail to bridge the gap defined by the essential difference between the materials used to create the form: instead, they lose all truth to material, and for that sole reason become stylistically false.

However smooth and polished the facture of a drawing or a painting may be, it nevertheless causes the design to be perceived not just as a union of related forms and colors — with or without spatial illusion — but also, and simultaneously, as a physical substance with a tension and consistency of its own.  Old Master paintings elide all traces of the manual craftsmanship that went into their making; nevertheless, their facture is redolent of a material consummation: the sensuous delight of creating substantial objecthood.  The same goes for many of the paintings of Neue Sachlichkeit.  Not even the oleograph-like smoothness of some of these works can prevent the facture from conveying itself as a fully material, tangible vehicle of the pictorial image.

Photography is not capable of this degree of materiality and objecthood.  It creates imitations of reality that can be dazzlingly clear and distinct; but the emotional substrate, defined in real and material terms, is exiguous, indeed almost insubstantial.  It extends no farther than the faint breath that mists the photosensitive coating on the plate or film, and the enamel-like gloss or toned texture of the printing paper.  At both stages in the process, negative and positive, there is no facture: no optically perceptible tension between the substance of the image and the image itself.  Nature’s face is reduced to a formula of minimal substance: a light-image.  Whether or not the gradations of light in photography, which for the time being are restricted to light and shade, eventually expand to include color, is beside the point.  Even a color photograph can never be anything but a light-image of nature, neutral in terms of substance.  It may match — or even excel — the immediacy of the effect of reality that painting can produce.  But to bring that effect to life, to orchestrate it through facture, is beyond its powers.

The involvement of facture in all the effects produced by painting has momentous consequences for the specific essence of the art and its laws of pictorial design.  The subtlest visual values of a composition crucially depend on the tactile values of the facture: that is, on the substance, quantity, plastic structure, and surface texture of the artist’s application of material.  This is why, in itself, the replacement of these tactile values by the texture of paper and photomechanical printing so detracts from the quality of reproductions, however closely they may approximate to their originals in optical terms.

In the first place, all facture is the residue of psychic impulses.  The materials used may vary widely: mosaic or mural painting, thick or fluid paint, drawing on paper or on a printing plate.  The facture may be subdued and evened out, as in the various forms of Sachlichkeit, or loose and fragmented, as in subjective and ego-based productions.   Such disparities do not affect the underlying essence of all facture: that it is a palpable and organic embodiment, a living focus, of sensibility.

This quality of facture means that even the most elevated spiritual visions in painting are grounded in our substantial sense of reality: incorporated, so to speak, within our existence.  Hence the great and exhilarating tension between the — at times — crude tactility of the materials used and the spiritual intention that they embody.  In this tension resides the specific creative power, the true beauty of all painting.  By contrast, the absence of facture puts even the most exact photographic image of Nature beyond the reach of our substantial sense of reality.  However tellingly the photograph may reproduce the appearance of the real, this appearance remains insubstantial and weightless, like a reflection in glass or water.  A crucial distinction: painting is able to combine the crudest material means with the most refined spirituality of vision; the means employed by photography possess the utmost physical refinement, and it can nevertheless convey notions of the crudest realism.

The most sparing and pellucid application of color to the support — as in watercolor, for instance — is enough to demarcate and define the material reality of even the most audacious spatial illusions: that is, to localize them in material terms.  The optical power of the image, fanning out into illusory depths of space, condenses in the facture into dense, literal foreground presence.  Tight and loose factures have, in this respect, precisely the same effect: they liberate the illusion while simultaneously binding it into a web of real, material connections.  It is these material connotations that make the paint surface of the image into something more than a window on an illusory world.  However fine and smooth the facture, these connotations harden the image surface into a specific and literal dimension of tactile values, thus giving us — even in optical terms — a sense of that surface as a field of tension in its own right, brimming with life.

The force of this optical tension can of course vary quite considerably.  In the first place, it depends on the tactile values of the facture.  The more contrast of relief there is in a particular facture, and the more openly it reveals the creative excitement that went [687] into its making, the more we strongly we perceive its inherent optical vitality within the work as a whole.  This optical vitality of the paint surface also depends partly on the degree of illusory depth within the image.  In painting, the visual center of gravity may be shifted away from the surface into an imaginary spatial depth.  In reality, however, such effects of spatial illusion are anchored within the facture; and this suffices to make us aware — at least at some points — of the surface as the secret support of these illusory depths.  At those points, a perceptible pictorial tension arises; the illusion stands out from the material substrate of its making.  The more this tension extends across the whole image, the more inherent optical vitality there appears to be in the surface as such.  This corresponds to the degree to which the limit of illusory depth in the image advances toward the viewer and thus approximates to the actual two dimensions of the surface.  The closer this approximation, the more manifest the presence of the surface, with all its tensions — and the more it is transformed from a subordinate material configuration into the optical plane on which everything within the image exerts its effect.  By contrast with illusionistic painting, which set out to conceal the very existence of a surface as far as possible, the aim pursued by all available land disparate) means in painting today is to consolidate the literal, impermeable, foreground presence of that surface: to fit it as perfectly as possible into the framework of its two dimensions.  This restricts, but it does not flatten: it makes for the utmost concentration of meaning and increase of tension.  It can be achieved only by gathering all the forces within the painting onto a single plane of from that is not merely optical appearance but tangible substance.  Only the materiality and consequent plastic quality of facture can maximize the tension and contrast between the delimited inner field of the painting and its real-world setting.  The optical force of resistance that the surface of an image can exert against the creation of illusionistic depth and against flattening extensions ultimately depends on the degree to which that surface is reinforced — concreted, as it were — by its facture.  This immediately becomes evident as soon as one begins to draw comparisons between paintings and stylistically similar photographs.

Some photographs seek to confer a two-dimensional structure on their pictorial space.  They narrow down the natural vision, working with interlaced diagonals that collide with the edges of the image, or with parallel lines that extend straight across the visual field to echo the vertical or horizontal edges of the image.  But, the more strenuous the effort to construct the composition in flat layers and bring it into a structural relationship with the picture plane, the more we realize that all this is in vain, because photography has no facture in to create such stratified relationships.  The faint breath of the photosensitive coating and the texture of the paper offer no resistance to the image structure; they give it no purchase.  The plane of photographic design is an immaculate, permeable mirror surface, in which all formations and tonal gradations can appear without encountering resistance, only to lose all firm relationship with the picture surface by virtue of that very lack of resistance.  Such is the absolute optical neutrality of the constituent photographic materials that even an extreme photographic close-up appears to extend indefinitely into depth behind the surface.  Invariably, between the immediate photographic foreground and the surface of the image, there intervenes the impalpable (matte or glossy) apparition of an intervening space full of air.  The surface itself affords no place for a photographic gestalt.  Optical union with this surface is possible only at the cost of a total blurring and dissolution of form.  The photographic image surface has just one application: as an unresisting medium through which to look at spatial emanations of light.  By the very nature of its material, there can be no consistency or tension in its optical appearance.  This is why all attempts to make that appearance seem to hold its image content in tension are so empty and ineffectual.  They are in conflict with the formal potential of the material, and thus stylistically wrong.


After which, it goes without saying that, since a photographic image cannot be structurally connected to the surface of its support, there can be no structural design in a photograph.  Of course, photography — cinematography apart — is just as immobile as painting.  But that immobility cannot be tautened and expressively emphasized through an interactive system of tensions.  In painting structural tensions, like all the other tensions within the image, are validated by the material bonding and hardening conferred by facture.  This facture imbues the image — even an entirely naturalistic image — with a material presence that gives special weight and lasting optical balance to its illusory world.  By comparison with such naturalistic images in painting, all photographic compositions appear to hang passively in space, with no tension, however rich they may be in structural connections and interconnections of form.  A Baroque ceiling painting, or a free-floating construction painted by Lissitzky or Moholy-Nagy, will always exist within the realm of gravitational forces and counterforces; in an earthbound photographic landscape, by contrast, the optical balance reflects not the tensions of an encounter between opposites — not a conflict — but a foregone conclusion.  And this is solely because of the lack of facture, the lack of literal, material articulation and weighting of form.

The extent of the possibilities of facture has recently been illustrated in Cubism and kindred phenomena.  Picasso, Braque, and Willi Baumeister, among others, take the greatest pains with their facture, making it into a composition of the most diverse tactile values (rough and smooth, sealed and porous, projecting, and receding) and indeed into a structure composed of the most disparate materials (oil, paper, graphite, plaster, etc.).  This articulation through facture serves to emphasize the component areas, already defined by color and form, which are layered to form the image as a whole.  The Russians Tatlin, Pevsner, Rozanova, and Altman, among others, turn facture almost into an end in itself.  They aim to make the image resonate to the full in terms of its literal, material consistency; and to this facturel realism they subordinate all other effects.  The resulting works, though uniform and monochrome, are full of vitality.  Effects emerge that could never be achieved in photography, with its total absence of facture.

There have been attempts to give photography the livelier look of a facture by the use of grainy paper and ingenious printing methods, and in particular to make it resemble the painting of Rembrandt and of the Impressionists.  But such subterfuges only make the void behind the sham even more obvious.  A more successful expedient has been to assemble photographic fragments into compositions (Heartfield, Grosz, Hausmann, Moholy-Nagy, Hanna Höch, Citroën, among others).  Some powerful effects have been achieved with this technique, especially along Futurist and Dadaist lines.  These photographic collages undoubtedly achieve a high degree of surface and structural tension.  But, even here, there is a residue of contradiction between the photographic nullity of the fragmentary component surfaces and the overall effect achieved through a literal, material articulation that consists of a surface layer of cut and pasted photographs.   Such photomontages are a hybrid between painting and photography.

The attainment of physical objecthood through facture; the visual and tactile values of that facture; the surface tension created by facture; and the expressive value of virtual physical forces: all are beyond the reach of photography.  In all of these respects, painting has nothing to fear from photography, irrespective of the degree to which the painting is either composed or confined to the imitation of nature.  The only danger here is for photography itself, whenever it attempts to imitate pictorial effects that are exclusive to painting.

The defining limit represented by facture also imposes certain limitations on painting.  There are limits beyond which the illusory representation of translucent layers of color, uninterrupted vistas of pictorial depth, and freedom from gravity deprives painting of [689] all the tension created by materiality: the facture remains present, but the dematerialization of visual values deprives it of its conclusive effect.  Constructivists, in their effort to transform painting into the expression of a purely technological, rational, dynamic state of mind and spirit, have sometimes overstepped the material-defined limits of their art.  The attempt to eliminate material — and thus surface and structural — tensions from painting leads straight into the domain of photography.  This kind of free-floating immateriality can be achieved only through light emanations, and specifically through the nonobjective light-forms of photography.  And those forms manifestly point toward the transition to movement.  They divest the visual image of its materiality, and in return for this loss of creative vitality they achieve the miraculous, vital plus of motion: the moving image of light, the film.  This is where photography presents the greatest potential threat to painting.  Painting or Film: such is the fateful question that confronts the optical creation of form in our time.  This alternative defines the historic turning point in our mental existence.  We stand on the watershed between a static culture that has lost all its social influence and a new, kinetic formulation of our own world-view: one that already has an unprecedented power to address a mass sensibility.

[Originally published as “Malerei und Photographie,” in Internationale revue i-10 no. 5 (1927)]


~ by Ross Wolfe on October 21, 2010.

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