Ernő Kállai’s “Reply to the Debate on My Article ‘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).

• • •

The statements in response to my article “Painting and Photography” are for the most part valuable contributions, entirely in keeping with the tendency of my own views.  I can almost unreservedly subscribe to the views expressed by Willi Baumeister, Burchartz, Grohmann, Kassák, Mondrian, and Georg Muche.  The only comment that I would make to Burchartz and Kassák is this: it was never my intention to engage in a comparative evaluation of painting and photography.  I am well aware of the full-fledged artistic potential of photography.  I say only that this potential differs in kind from that of painting.  [696] My article is an attempt to trace the source of this manifest and essential difference between painting and photography.  In so doing, I have deliberately avoided mentioning subjective elements or philosophical and psychological contexts.  Not that I intend to deny the essential capacity of these contexts to determine form.  It is clear from the outset that the very choice of material — pigment or light — springs from individual creative orientation (Moholy-Nagy!) But to discuss this prime psychological factor would have meant pursuing a broad and complex issue of intellectual history that ranges far beyond the limits of a single article.  It was simplest to approach the problem from the other side, and to consider it in terms of works of formal design that were already in existence.

What is the difference between a form in painting, which has passed through the subjective formative process, and a photograph? Here, too, I took a case in which there was a maximum of formal similarity.  What is the objective optical difference between a photograph of Nature and a painting of Nature, even where the latter attaches itself as closely as possible to objective appearances?

I concluded that this objective optical difference is, in the first place, a difference of facture, although course it can then be traced in many directions.  I confess that in the effort to show the tactile element in painterly facture as a vital quality that photography does not possess, I neglected to enlarge upon the essence of photographic facture, as defined by light.  In the process, I let slip a number of formulations that — if taken outside the context of the article as a whole — might have been interpreted as denying that photography possessed any facture at all.  This of course would be nonsense.  Even the sheer existence of a photograph — the fact that it has somehow been taken, produced, made — means that it possesses a facture.  On its surface, it necessarily bears the signs of its making.  What counts, however, is the specific nature of those signs: the difference between painterly and photographic facture.

Behne formulates this difference quite correctly: “brushwork facture on one side, light facture on the other.”  Essentially, this antithesis is what my whole article is about.  It underlies my train of thought as a kind of latent blueprint, and the article is really an expansion of this same formula.  It is true that I was somewhat one-sided in my development of this train of thought.  I presented as positive only the defining qualities of painterly facture, and when it came to photographic facture I contented myself with establishing the qualities that it lacks.  Even so, there remain plenty of passages in which stress is laid on the light-defined nature of photographic facture.  At all events, one thing is clear: that painterly facture, being brushwork facture, is a tactile facture.  I consider that this fact has decisive consequences for the visual definition of painting, its entirely specific ocular vitality.  None of which applies where the ground of the image is essentially different: that is, in the photographic facture of light.  It is not the material but the artist that “makes” the work: Mondrian’s statement is entirely right and requires no further comment.  But materials do have their living identities, and the artist’s creative work consists in creating form from and not against the identity in question.

As for Behne’s statement that facture is not an end in itself but simply a means of giving material substance to a vision: this is a truism, and it would not be easy to find anything to the contrary in my article.  Equally, however, facture is not some neutral factor that takes the same form irrespective of the painting materials and the style employed.  True enough, Leibl had his reasons for cutting up one or the other of his paintings even though — as always with him — it had a beautiful facture: i.e. it was beautifully crafted.  But in such cases he had failed to achieve a coherent whole not because of the beauty of the facture but simply because his pictorial conception had been insufficiently clear and well considered.

“Facture plus organization equals image.”  Behne’s formula is right, with the proviso that facture is not some chaotic raw material but is in itself organized material.  How [697] else could it prompt an organized notion of color and form? Facture organization plus color and form organization: this expansion of the equation, at least, is necessary in order to make Behne’s formula hold good.

Behne points to a conclusion that, in his view, I ought to have drawn from my own supposedly inflated valuation of facture and manual craft.  According to Behne, it would be logical to conclude from my remarks that a painting by Mondrian belongs to the same category as a kitsch photograph overpainted in oils, since both possess facture.  Behne supposes that this is a reductio ad absurdum of an erroneous statement in my article.  On close inspection the apparently paradoxical pairing of Mondrian with a kitsch overpainting turns out to be a statement of the obvious: misapplied, perhaps, but in itself entirely truthful.  Why should Mondrian and the kitsch overpainting not belong together? The connection would be nonsensical only in the absence of any discrimination between quality and trash.  Behne supposes me to assert that Mondrian and the kitsch painter belong together because both possess facture, which is supposedly my principal criterion.  Criterion or no criterion, this is beside the point.  All images with a brushwork facture do indeed belong to painting, regardless of their merit or lack of it.  The same goes for stylistic variations.  What the most disparate stylistic epochs have in common — so that even artists as infinitely dissimilar Duccio and Kandinsky can both be described as painters — may be left on one side for the moment; but, here as in the former case, brushwork facture is basic to both.  According to Behne, my excessive concentration on facture points to the conclusion that a photographic reproduction of a Mondrian and an amateur snapshot from Wannsee beach belong together, since both are lacking in facture.  This thrust, too, misses its mark.  Of course all photographs belong together, whatever they may show.  All photographs are light images.  All photographs have the common quality of light facture.  That a photographic reproduction of a Mondrian differs in subject matter from a direct photograph of real life: this knotty proposition is, I fancy, outside the scope of our problem.

The inherent light facture of a reproduction must be distinguished from the painterly facture that has been illusionistically imitated by photographic means.  If this illusion of the materiality of the object reproduced were to be accepted as facture, then photographic facture would of course be superior to all the tactile values of painting.  But we are concerned not with the objective and literal ability of photographic light facture to mirror reality but with the distinction between the formal design possibilities of such facture and those of painterly facture.

The tactile values of painterly facture endow it with the capacity of exerting a material, expressive power of its own, which serves to multiply, as it were, all other pictorial factors, whether representational or nonobjective.  These tactile values are the unifying physical factor that maximizes the surface tension of the painting.  Above all, the tangible, literal deposit of material represents the process of creative realization in the form that is basic to painting.  The light facture of photography cannot contribute to formal design in this sense.  Its possibilities are of a different kind.  It would be wrong to allow an emotional love of the manual craft of painting to lead us to ignore the artistic possibilities of photography.  Any such “enthusiasm” is foreign to my nature.

Equally inappropriate, however, is the doctrinaire technomania that rejects hand craftsmanship, lock, stock, and barrel.  Craftsmanship is a means: an aid to the creative confrontation between man and Nature, man and spirit.  Photography cannot replace, let alone “progressively improve on,” the specific creative possibilities of the manual craft of painting.  At the same time, however, photography is well suited to become the medium that gives formal expression to a new emotional experience of the world, especially in the form of motion pictures.  This was what I meant by my remarks on film at the end of my article.  The spiritual and artistic potential of painting is not in question.  Kandinsky’s remarks on this subject suggest to me that he has misunderstood my [698] article.  I spoke of painting’s lack of social influence and the enormous popularity of film.  This significant and far-reaching difference in effect between the two art forms is of course obvious to any impartial observer.  At the same time, the whole art of film is still in its infancy, and it is also virtually defenseless against the vilest commercial speculations.

By comparison with the categorical difference that separates light facture, with its various formal design possibilities — those of film above all — from painting, the contest between representational and abstract painting, so keenly fought by partisans on both sides, dwindles into insignificance.  As long as painting remains formal design by means of brushwork facture or tactile facture, even its most extreme contrasts are no more than divergences, not differences of kind.  From easel painting to mosaic and mural fresco, from the academic traditionalists to the exponents of Absolute Painting and Constructivism, all painters should form a common front.  That which is truly, fundamentally new stands on the other side and bears the names of photography and film.

[Originally published as “Antwort,” in Internationale revue i-10 (1927)]

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~ by Ross Wolfe on October 21, 2010.

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