Willi Baumeister’s, Adolf Behne’s, Max Burchartz’s, Will Grohmann’s, Wassily Kandinsky’s, Lajos Kassák’s, László Moholy-Nagy’s, Piet Mondrian’s, and Georg Muche’s “Debate on Ernő Kállai’s 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).

• • •


Rousseau painted a landscape that includes telegraph poles with white insulators.  No painterly eye had previously found any use for such devices.  He, however, was free of sentimentality, a realist, and more of a truth-lover than any of his fellow landscapists.  His paintings even looked rather like photographs; and yet at the same time they were more abstract.

Quantitatively speaking, his work contained a great deal of naturalism and very little abstraction; qualitatively, however, the abstraction was highly intense.  Meanwhile, the painters of the movement known as Synthetism were moving toward abstraction.  They eschewed the imitation of Nature and proclaimed the autonomous truth of form, of the artist’s means, and of his materials.  Photography-as-formal-design and Neo-Naturalism are both attempts to achieve the same combination as Rousseau, with a large quantitative element of Naturalism and a small but intense element of Abstraction.  Of the two, it is photography that succeeds in this.  So-called Sachlichkeit does not achieve the proportions indicated.  The productions of Sachlichkeit remain vague configurations.   Their literary and sociopolitical value remains acknowledged.


Kállai compares a landscape by Courbet with a landscape photograph picked at random, and finds — quite correctly — that there is a difference.  He defines that difference as follows: the landscape by Courbet has a facture, and the photograph has none.  He then generalizes this (in itself disputable) assertion as follows: painting and photography differ essentially and by definition in that one possesses facture and [690] the other does not.  This leads him to the conclusion that Constructivist painting, which lays very little emphasis on facture (not really true, by the way), is in danger of turning into photography — an accusation that has hitherto been leveled only at crass Naturalists.

Kállai has his methodology wrong.  The Courbet landscape has not only facture but also a frame; that is to say, it is also — crucially — the organization of a two-dimensional surface.  The randomly chosen landscape photograph is not.  (Where it exhibits traces of organization, these stem from the same source as Courbet’s organization, and thus have nothing to do with photography as such).  If Kállai wants to take a Courbet (manual) facture plus organization) as one term of his comparison, his other term ought to be a work that is mechanical facture plus organization.  (For photography does have a facture; it is just that this is technical rather than handcrafted, just as a machine-made metal beaker has a facture that bears no traces of the individual craftsman’s hand).  Kállai himself discusses one approximation to “mechanical facture plus order,” namely photomontage; and here he is obliged to admit that it contains “a residue of contradiction.”  (The presence of such a residue seems entirely understandable, since photography is still working toward an organizational law of its own).

If Kállai intends to disregard the element of organization in photography, he must do the same in painting in order to draw a viable comparison.  In which case, he ought to formulate the antithesis as follows: brushwork facture on one side, light facture on the other.  If he did so, he might come to different conclusions.

The most striking feature of Kállai’s article is his enthusiasm for individual craftsmanship with the brush.  An enthusiasm that impels him to elevate facture to the status of an end in itself.  Kállai points to Leibl, whose wondrous craftsmanship is indeed a delight to observe.  But what is it that makes a good facture? The less virtuosity there is in it — the less it becomes an end in itself — and the more it serves the needs of the whole, the better.  What Leibl thought of his own facture may be seen from the fact that he cut up many of his most technically perfect paintings as soon as he realized that the beauty of the facture had made him lose sight of the whole, the image.

Logically, Kállai’s inflated conception of the importance of facture leads to the following conclusions: a photograph of a Mondrian painting belongs together with an amateur photograph of Wannasee bathing beach, since both lack facture; the Mondrian itself belongs together with a photograph overpainted in oils by Arthur Fischer Studio, Berlin, since both possess facture.


Thanks to the achievements of the exponents of “elementary formal design,” the significance and the value of photo-technical representation have become widely known.

Today no defense of those techniques is any longer necessary, the attacks are falling silent.  New attempts are made daily — with varying degrees of success — to exploit all the technical possibilities that exist in this area.

As elsewhere, the frequency with which these attempts are made will promote the ability to discern value and skill from slavish ineptitude.

The question whether photo-technical options are superior or inferior to “painting” is a false one, insofar as it implies a principled value judgment.  It is impossible to judge the comparative values of a stove and a phonograph.

There are wide areas of formal design in which photography is superior to painting, but there are also some things that only painting can do.

The acquisition of a new and valuable means of formal design is a gain.

The salient achievement of the “elementary formal designers” has been to reassert the value of rational reflection as a requirement in all formal design; the danger, [691] perhaps, is that if we eliminate one highly obvious defect by overemphasizing its opposite, this will lead to a new defect.  The largely unconscious urge toward uninhibited expressive movement is suppressed, or even openly denounced.  But a full life is impossible without it; it demands to be taken into account even in “elementary formal design.”

The advocacy of “facture” is a reflection of the crisis generated by the absence of this aspect of formal design work, as a closer study of photographic technique and facture reveals, it is photographic processes that reveal to us the ultimate and subtlest refinements of facture.  Look at microphotographs of, say, handwriting samples: it is here that new areas lie open for elementary formal design.


If the means of communication employed in the making of an artwork are irrelevant, and only the outcome counts, it follows that, however different their respective starting and finishing points, there remains a small area of overlap in which art and photography are one and the same.  This does not mean, of course, that creative and reproductive art are identical, especially as the area of photography in question — the photogram — is ultimately no more than the end product of a prior process of creative formal design.  Its artistic effect depends on composition, differential exposures, and an intuitive use of chance as a substitute for the values of facture.  So-called artistic photography rules itself out of the debate, since the most it can do, with the exercise of the utmost ingenuity, is to emulate the subjectively tinged representation achieved by the free use of hand and eye.  (Impressionist landscape and portrait photographs).  Clearly, this can on occasion be worth more than certain academic formulations; equally clearly, by descending to this level we are moving away from the fundamental issue and entering the realm of taste and fashion.

For the artistic public at large, the demand for representational imagery is amply satisfied by photographs that emulate works of art; reproductions make up 80 per cent of the art that it lives with, and it has no feeling for facture values.  For that public, it is as natural to equate painting with photography as to equate art with Nature; inundated with photographs, it tends more and more to verify art by comparison with optical reproductive technology, thus moving farther and farther away from art itself.  It will judge the photogram to be just as arbitrary as abstract art; and so the future prospects of painting and photography will lie in the hands of the minority who can recognize freedom of formal design in whatever disguise, and who can see the representational image for what it is: technology.


In issues of “Painting and Photography,” much remains unclear — understandably so, given the newness and unfamiliarity of the issues themselves.  Only the vastly accelerated tempo of our age could have made issues of this kind — “Painting or Film?” is another — possible and debatable.  In the brief space available to me, I would like to approach this extremely complex issue from a single viewpoint: the viewpoint on which Mr.  Kállai concentrates.

Mr. Kállai asserts: “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.”  To this it may surely be said that the kinetic force of, for instance, an “easel painting” does not reside in the immobility of that painting, on the wall or elsewhere, but in its “emanation” over a period of time: how it affects a human being, the “experience” of it in time.  Today, what really concerns us above all is the theoretical question of how to assess this time element within a painting.  The distinction between painting (or, to be more precise, “easel painting”) and film, as posited by Mr. Kállai, requires [692] to be understood in strictly relative terms: in essence, the use of “time” in both is the same.

I cannot resist adding another observation.  Today, more than ever, the distraught gaze of “Westerners” is often (perhaps too often) turned towards the “East.  “ Not infrequently, they look in that direction in the hope of finding “salvation.  “ In my opinion, we who live in “Western” countries would do well to take to heart one typical characteristic of the “East”: the capacity for concentration, which is connected first and foremost with forces in stasis.

Just so long as we pose our questions exclusively in terms of “either/or,” we shall not escape from the psychology of yesterday.  What gain is there for humankind, in which we all take such an interest nowadays, if it divides itself into two groups, “static” and “kinetic,” who refuse to have anything to do with each other?

Please do not come to me with the answer that the stagecoach was superseded by the express train, and that the express train will soon be superseded by the airplane.  In every illustrated magazine — and also, not infrequently, on the streets — we see people on foot.  These people do not walk everywhere.  Sometimes they go by train.  It all depends.  It depends on the purpose, and the means of locomotion appropriate to that purpose.

I consider one-sidedness of all kinds to be dangerous.  And a consistent policy of hopping on one leg will inevitably cripple the other leg.

Nature, however, takes good care of man, and has provided him with two eyes, so that his view can be not only shallow but also deep.


If we desire to pursue the affinities and disparities between painting and photography beyond the level of technique and outward appearance, we must attend to the true essences of both phenomena.  Once we accept that painting is the supreme achievement and distinctive expression of human cultural evolution, and that photography, born of the new age of industrial civilization, is primarily a technical achievement and a strictly material process — and the distinction between painting and photography is plain; it becomes pointless to praise one at the expense of the other.  Painting is the art of the cultured individual.  From a certain point onward, photography too can be a productive representation, but its claim to exactitude and objectivity means that it can never become an art in the classic sense of that term.  This fundamental principle means that no valid conclusion can be drawn from a comparison between the two.  The two phenomena have only one thing in common: both derive from, and are an objectivization of, the sense of sight.  But the one dies where the life of the other begins.  The perfection of the one is defined by the precise and skillful human creative faculty; that of the other by the evolution of technology.  The painter paints what he sees, and the photographer fixes what his camera sees.  When painting seeks to give an exact image of a thing, it ceases to be art; whereas the perfection of photography consists in providing an exact mirror image of the things photographed.  It follows that, as an illustrative art, painting falls far short of the precision obtainable with photography.  Looking at a portrait by Holbein or Picasso, we see at once that the painters’ individual subjectivity has composed or discomposed the given subject; with a photograph no such variations can exist, unless as a result of a deliberate technical trick.  The eye of the painter has subjective visual capacity; the lens of the camera is objective visual capacity.  In our age, in which we pursue collectivity and constructive rigor, the camera’s objective vision and anti-psychological essence mean that photography is ranked more highly than painting: not only more highly than the naturalistic painting of the past but also more highly than the much-publicized new painting that goes by the name of Neue Sachlichkeit [New Objectvity].  I cannot here enter into a discussion of the basic fallacies of Neue [693] Sachlichkeit.  But the fact is that, by comparison with the recording capacity of the camera, this is painting rejuvenated with monkey glands, which does nothing but make a great deal of trouble for individuals who might well have found a better use for their talents.  Even if we look on painting not as something illustrative but as an absolute, we can see that the productive tendency within photography — pure formal creation with light, pursued not with an artistic intention but as objective representation — is in no way inferior.

I repeat: any direct comparison between painting and photography is inadmissible, both in technical and psychological terms.

Painting as art is the expression of culture; photography is a representative of [industrial] civilization.  And, by contrast with absolute painting, the light-and-shade compositions of productive photography show, raised to a higher power, the precise purity and aesthetic magnificence of productive creation.

[From a German translation by Eman Fedja Freiberg of a Hungarian original.]


The nature of the productive process shows itself in the finished object.  Its way of showing itself is what we call facture.  It would be wrong to apply the name of facture only to the tangible outer surface, just because the manual techniques of the past mostly involved some form of tactile value.

It is precisely because for me facture is not the same as tactile value that the problem as defined in Ernő Kállai’s article means nothing to me.  I see it as a disguised attempt to rescue manual, representational painting.

Not that there is anything wrong with representation, it is a form of communication that reaches millions.  Today optical representation can be achieved with unprecedented accuracy by photography and film.  Manual processes cannot compare with these techniques.  Not even — indeed least of all — by virtue of their facture values.  For, as soon as facture becomes an end in itself, it is ornament.

This is not to say that the contemporary form of abstract — that is, nonrepresentational — painting sets a binding precedent for all times to come.  For the time being, it remains much less than that: an intensive quest for the biologically based elements of an optical expression that will mirror us more plainly and more honestly than an oft-regurgitated expressive form.

Likewise photography: this too must be applied — and this is still only an aspiration — in its primal truth.  The fanatical zeal with which people in every section of society are taking photographs indicates that in future the illiterate will be the person who lacks expertise in photography, in time to come, photography will be a school subject, as the ABCs and the multiplication tables now are.  All the wishes of today’s photographic gourmets will be taken for granted, if not carried out automatically.

Furthermore — all prejudices aside — photography justifies its existence as something more than a reproductive technique; it has already led to productive achievements.  In its resources of light and shade, it teaches us refinement in our use of means.  Through a chemical process, the subtlest gradations of tone appear within a homogeneous layer.  The coarse-grained pigment vanishes, and the result is light facture.

This black-and-white effect in the light-sensitive coating — even in the absence of representation (photograms) — has led to a wealth of excellent results, the same will inevitably happen in color.  The achievements of the color chemists and the discoveries of the physicists — the use of polarization, interference phenomena, and subtractive mixtures of light — will supplant our medieval painting methods.

This does not mean that the manual activity of painting is to be condemned, whether now or in the future.  Having “inspired” earlier ages, it may well serve as a pedagogic instrument for the development of inwardness.  But there is no particular merit in [694] recognizing or rediscovering a form of expression that derives from biological factors and is therefore a foregone conclusion, the personal evolution of an individual who gradually and creatively rediscovers forms of optical expression that existed in the past cannot become a compulsory activity for those who have evolved beyond that point, or indeed for people in general.

The “fateful issue,” in my opinion, is not “painting or film?” but the grasping of visual formal creativity from every angle that has a contemporary justification: in other words, photography and film, as well as abstract painting and the play of colored light.

The new generation, which has not so much to discard as we have — sentiment and tradition — will turn this issue, thus formulated, to its advantage.


Although I am largely in agreement with Mr. Kállai’s interesting remarks on “painting and photography,” it seems to me necessary to avoid losing sight of the fact that “the artist” and not “the medium” creates the work of art.

Certainly, the medium is of great importance, and is closely tied up with the plastic expression of a work; but it is the artist who decides on its essence: that the work is purely plastic and not imitative.

Nonetheless, it seems to me that the character of photography is imitative rather than plastic.  Photography in the usual sense of the word is the appropriate medium for the reproduction of objective reality, and all art is creation.

But at present it is difficult to define the evolution of photography — such efforts have already been made in the realm of pure plastic creation that there is no limit to what we can expect of photography.  It is perfectly possible that the technique of photography will change, as the technique of painting has changed; and the comparisons and observations made by Mr. Ernő Kállai may well help us to reach that change.


The human eye is able to perceive 400 trillion variations between 400 and 800 trillion vibrations per second, as a phenomenon of light and color.

The photochemical material used in photography has a far wider range of response.  This wider range can be communicated to the eye, but only if it is transposed into the range to which the eye is receptive, in this respect, the “magnificent machine” that is the camera cannot enrich our optical impressions.  There is no getting away from the polarity of black and white or from the outer limits represented by red and violet.  The superior functionality of the photographic process cannot be passed on to the eye.

But within these limitations the image instantaneously captured by the camera appears to the human observer as a phenomenon that he would never have known without the camera.  Photography goes far beyond the manual reproductive techniques of drawing and painting, which are executed through the sense of touch, the presence of a highly efficient reproductive medium — the camera — heightens the effect and mechanizes the method.  The division of the photosensitive surface into areas of light and dark is extraordinarily rich in the subtlest nuances.  Either in a camera-less photogram or in a photograph, these wonderfully contrived transitions can give rise to effects that make the craft manipulations of painting and drawing appear clumsy.


Painting is a primitive handicraft: true.  But it encompasses and masters all of the material color/light phenomena that the eye is capable of perceiving.  Additionally, the close association between the senses of sight and touch during the production process makes it possible to feel and spontaneously use the subjective phenomena that take place in the eye.  The eye is the organ that generates the impression of light and color.  The most sublimated values, which are those most important in the creation of a durably effective formal design — complementary and simultaneous contrasts — are captured by the primitive handicraft.  To the camera they are undetectable.

Photography and painting thus differ in artistic value as widely as they do in method, instruments, and materials.  Only the effect is similar, and this leads to controversy: “painting? — photography!” “Photography? — painting!”

Now for the essential:

As a reproductive technique, painting is inadequate by comparison with photography.  The painted picture derives its justification solely from values that are artistic in nature.  As a means to artistic form, painting remains as ideal as ever it was, because the relationship between intention and representation is so eminently “right” in terms of the proportionate interaction of sight and touch.  The interposition of the camera and the elimination of the sense of touch remove this salutary tension, thus improving the mechanical effect and detracting from the subjective, creative idea.  The blend of chance and intention, of automatic physicochemical processes and creative purpose, is no longer as it should be.  The formula for creative achievement is no longer right.  Additionally, both photograph and photogram presuppose the existence of an object that has in some way already been designed or shaped.  The photograph and the photogram are secondary forms, involving a considerable surprise element.  Enthusiasm for photography should not lead to an overestimate of the value of photographic effects.

However, one thing makes photography especially valuable: the capability of an objective apprehension of nature.  This magnificent achievement on the camera’s part is of the utmost importance, particularly for scientific and technological research, in perception via the camera, subjectivity is eliminated.  Photography, practiced in a deliberately non-artistic, precise, and illusion-free manner, is the true Neue Sachlichkeit in painting, Neue Sachlichkeit is a petit-bourgeois reaction against the courageous evolution that has taken place in painting from Impressionism to pure, abstract formal creation.  In painting there can be no Sachlichkeit, no objective interpretation of nature, since this supposed objectivity is always the objectivity of the subjective.

[Originally published as “Diskussionsbeitrag zu Kállai’s Artikel ‘Malerei und Photographie,”’ in Internationale revue i-10 no. 6 (1927)]


~ by Ross Wolfe on October 21, 2010.

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