The Photographic Art of Frank Brangwyn | by John Wood

Since the invention of photography painters have often relied on photographs in the same way they rely on their own preliminary sketches. Ingres was secretive about it, Delacroix quite open– excited even–and Courbet particularly obvious and blatant in his use.1 Last year the Dallas Museum of Art even organized an exhibition, The Artist and the Camera: Degas to Picasso, which explored the way a number of major artists at the turn of the century used photography in both painting and sculpture. A painter’s or sculptor’s use of a camera is, then, not a remarkable fact in itself. But what is remarkable is when the photographs are powerful works of art in their own right, as in the case of Thomas Eakins’, José María Sert’s, Alphonse Mucha’s, Franz von Stuck’s, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s, and, of course, Man Ray’s.3 But even more remarkable than that is the discovery of an unknown archive of brilliant photographs by a major painter, a painter whose use of photography was hitherto unknown.


Paul Cava’s recovery of Frank Brangwyn’s photographs, many of which were directly used in the making of his paintings, is a cause for celebration to both photographic historians and historians of nineteenth and twentieth century British art. It is, in fact, probably a more significant event for the photographic world than it is for the world of painting. Despite the great power of Brangwyn’s lithographs and etchings and his vast popularity just a few generations ago, many of his paintings look like what we dismissively refer to as “illustration” today. His decorative subject matter is a part of the reason for this, but much of the reason, I would argue, has to do with his palette. Too often we look at him and think of N.C. Wyeth, who loved many of the color combinations that Brangwyn also loved. However, if we happen to look at a black and white reproduction of a Brangwyn painting, there is no such effect, and the most critical thing we can say is that Brangwyn looks busy, but no busier than a great many painters of his day looked.


It might well serve our art historical sense to remember how fickle our eyes are, especially when it comes to color and what is perceived as being “mere illustration.” It was not very long ago at all that we recovered the vision to see Alma-Tadema, Lord Leighton, Bouguereau, and nineteenth century academic art again–and that re-vision has been a revelation. It has, in fact, been such a revelation that it is even filtering down into the art schools and helping bring about a much needed renaissance in craftsmanship and technique. But that re-vision only came after we had recovered the vision to see the Pre-Raphaelites again. And one wonders had Bernard Berenson’s gaze not been set considerably before Raphael what glories of the Trecento and Quattrocento we might still be overlooking today.


However, the truth of the matter is that Frank Brangwyn’s art, which has delighted my eye since I first encountered him as a graduate student over thirty years ago, is out of favor today. These rediscovered photographs will, unfortunately, not be of as much interest to all the art world as they would have been at one time or as they most likely will be at some point in the future when eyes refocus upon and tastes swing back to Brangwyn’s vision. Fortunately, however, the art world is made up of more than just the historians of painting. The photography community is sure to be excited.


The discovery of Brangwyn’s work could not have come at a more propitious moment. The most avant-garde work in photography today has a decidedly derrière-garde look about it, both in subject matter and in technique. It clearly is about a return to beauty and humanistic values. One thinks of Tom Baril, Keith Carter, Toni Catany, Cy DeCosse, John Dugdale, Kelly Grider, Luis Gonzaléz Palma, John Metoyer, Sheila Metzner, Robert Parke Harrison, Vincent Serbin, Joyce Tenneson, and many others. Is theirs a retro look? Well, only if we’ve become so conditioned to ugliness in art that beauty seems a thing of the past. Sadly, of course, many of the art ideologues of the past half century did try to convince both students and a gullible public that beauty and technical mastery were passé, that nothing humanistic could have that “edge” needed to make it “relevant.” But philosopher, poet, art critic, and renaissance man Frederick Turner argues eloquently in The Culture of Hope that “Art should come from and speak to what is whole in human beings….Even when it deals, as it often should and must, with the terrifying, tragic, and grotesque, art should help heal the lesions within the self and the rifts in the self’s relation to the world.”4  What could ever more “relevant” than healing? What could body, heart, and soul ever need more than that? And as for “edges,” what is more honed to a fine, clear edge than beauty?


A critic in the Cambridge Journal of American Studies recently criticized me for the repeated use of the word “beauty” in my writing. While conceding, “It is good to have such information [as I provide] in the public domain,” he noted that “unfortunately it is presented from a perspective determinedly rooted in unexamined and unproblematised notions of the individual ‘artist,’ with much praise for the ‘beauty’ of this or that image, as if ‘beauty’ was a universally recognizable entity.” Yes, determinedly rooted but not in unexamined notions. I would argue that beauty is a universally recognizable entity. I admit to using an artistic vocabulary Aquinas and Giotto might have used, but I am not convinced that our understanding of art or how we respond to it has grown any more profound in the seven hundred years since Giotto completed the Arena frescos or Aquinas meditated on clarity and form. In the last fifty years, it has, if anything, grown shallow and frivolous as we have limited our responses and thinking about art primarily to its intellectual, theoretical, and conceptual dimensions and closed ourselves off from its roots, from its purest radical, its sensuality and passion, and the plenitude and fullness of its form.


The human imagination perceives form in nature as beauty and translates its perception of that form into art. But Nature, beauty, and even art are, of course, the very terms the aesthetic anarchists seek to undermine. Fortunately they have their opponents, such as Turner and philosopher Nino Langiulli, who also argues that beauty is a universally recognizable entity and whose recent work even challenges the “banal…meaningless and false” platitude that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”5


There is nothing more avant-garde in contemporary photography than its beauty, and Frank Brangwyn’s work looks as radical and fresh in 2001 as it did in 1901–probably even fresher and more radical. Today it presents a vision clearly at odds with much of the last half century of visual art but a humane vision we are seeing more and more expressed in the arts of our moment, especially in music and in photography.6


Again and again we see Brangwyn working with those great, eternal themes that are the storehouse of human experience and, therefore, of art, themes we have returned to for millennia because they are the Hippocrene itself, the very font of the Muses. Motherhood, that most archetypal of melodies played out in all our lives, appears and reappears continually in his photographs. And so do love and sex. We see a great many men and women in the most casual and natural of poses but radiating a potent and obvious eroticism, just as we often find them within our own experience both to our distraction and occasionally to our disaster. Brangwyn, wise artist that he was, obviously knew this, for he even photographed Cupid, symbol of the problem itself, ready to fire his arrow.


Brangwyn’s work is impressive not merely because of his use of humanity’s most essential of themes but also because of his handling of individual subjects, such as the nude, which he captures in the full and sensuous beauty of its form–undistorted, ungrotesqued, and unlike so many nudes of the past half century. His presentation of people at work and in the ordinary exercise of their lives is equally impressive. The majority of his photographs are suggestive of some photographic amalgam of Julia Margaret Cameron, Clarence White, F. Holland Day, and Gertrude Käsebier, but if the entire archive is studied, one begins to notice images that resonate with Alfred Stieglitz’s and A.L. Coburn’s–work between Stieglitz’s “Terminal” (1893) and Coburn’s New York album (1910). These photographs of Brangwyn’s are, like theirs, filled with urban imagery, striking geometry, angularity, radical cropping, and unusual focus. We see huge angled buckets empty their contents into angled carts, wagons carry seemingly decapitated passengers, and crowds in which the foreground figures drift into blurs. Looking at these photographs and Brangwyn’s handling of technique and imagery, there is no doubt that he could have also had a career in the pages of Camera Work.


His photographs were, of course, not designed for publication anywhere, much less in Camera Work. They were–to him, though not to us–secondary to their function as aides in the creation of his paintings. And that they were! It is in fact a bit jarring at times to realize the purposes to which Brangwyn put this imagery. The beautiful little Cupid posed with bow and arrow appears in a frieze entitled “The Introduction of European Civilization into the Country of the Red Indian,” a work painted for the London offices of the Canadian National Grand Trunk Railway. Many of the beautiful allegorical-looking women and children decorate the Missouri State Capitol. The handsome and clearly eroticized laborer holding a piece of pottery does more appropriately make his way–with a little adaptation–to the “Potters” panel painted for the English Room at the 1905 Venice Exhibition. The powerful figure carrying the bag on his back went directly into “Modern Commerce,” a panel Brangwyn painted in 1906 for the Royal Exchange. The boy with his arm outstretched beside the basket, and the father playfully holding the apple before his child, again with a little adaptation, both appeared in the 1909 “Fruits of Industry” originally intended for the decoration of the banqueting hall of London’s Company of skin merchants.7


But as I said, Brangwyn’s primary interest in these photographs is not even of secondary interest to us today. At best it is only amusing and anecdotal–red Indians and skin merchants! Our eyes see them differently. The passage of time changes context, often alters the way a work of art is seen, and allows us to create a new context for it. Paul Outerbridge’s or Piet Zwart’s advertising photographs or Charles Sheeler’s industrial work or Charles Jones’ horticultural images barely suggest their original contexts to us today–nor would we want them to because we are too stunned by their beauty to think they were made to sell shirt collars or record a gardener’s prized picks. Our eyes allow us to appreciate them differently from the way their makers did, just as we appreciate Shaker furniture, African masks, Tibetan sculpture, Edward Taylor’s poetry, folk art, outsider religious art, the church music that geniuses such as Bach often had to crank out weekly as part of their jobs, and so many other amazing and brilliant products of the human imagination.


The allure and meaning of such works lie in the fact that regardless of why they were made, they touch us profoundly and have risen to the level of deeply moving works of art. Art can be both an original intention as well as the child of time and the future’s eye. Time’s passage creates art as surely as artists intentionally create it because time can enlarge the eye’s ability to perceive art, as it does in the case of these amazing photographs by Frank Brangwyn. Time’s passage has, in fact, so enlarged our ability to see these works that we are awed by their beauty, their humanity, and their radical modernity. That passage also insists that Frank Brangwyn’s name be added to the masters of photographic history.