When photography met the visual arts: slice of history at M HKA


A new exhibition in Antwerp traces how creative photography broke into the visual arts scene in Belgium

All photos, big and small

Even though From Broodthaers to Braeckman: Photography in the Visual Arts in Belgium is titled with two alliterating household names, the focus of the new exhibition at the M HKA museum in Antwerp lies, at least partly, elsewhere.

Lecturer and curator Liesbeth Decan, whose doctoral research and recent book Conceptual, Surrealist, Pictorial: Photo-based Art in Belgium form the historical backbone of the show, starts with the institutional setting in which photography found its way into Belgium’s visual arts scene.

The way in which the developing contemporary art landscape gradually admitted photography is illustrated by a timeline featuring galleries, museums and other exhibition spaces, and a selection of magazines and book publications. This institutional focus is echoed in the first section of the exhibition, dedicated to Photoconceptualism.

Following their affinity with surrealism and conceptual strategies, pioneering multimedia artists Marcel Broodthaers, Jacques Charlier and Jef Geys were all – each in his own way – very aware of the institutional context in which they presented their art. Their use of photography “unshackled” the medium from its strictly pictorial aspirations, be it as a documentary portrait or in the mode of classic art photography.

Turning the lens

Broodthaers was born in Brussels in 1924, and died in Germany in 1976. A retrospective of his work has recently travelled from the Museum of Modern Art in New York to Madrid’s Reina Sofia national museum, where it is currently on show.

The first work in the M HKA exhibition is his “Portrait of Maria Gilissen with Tripod”. The 1967 photo shows the artist’s widow holding a camera with a tripod, while an actual physical tripod is placed in front of the canvas.

In the same room, a wall is almost entirely covered with All Black-and-White Photographs until 1998, which collects minuscule reproductions of thousands of black-and-white photographs Geys made over a 40-year period.

The photographer aimed his camera at the art world itself, portraying people gathering at exhibition openings

In 1998, these contact prints were also presented in a hefty tome of 500 pages, and later as a nearly 36-hour film. Oddly enough these monumental presentations stress the miniscule act of photographs as a personal inventory, a collection of daily impressions.

Only a few steps away, Charlier takes up an equally impressive surface area with Photographs of Openings (1975). In this series, the photographer aimed his camera at the art world itself, portraying people gathering at exhibition openings. Some of the subjects might recognise themselves from earlier visits.

For all their – fairly mild – critique of the art scene and its documentary value, a significant number of the photos are difficult to see, either because they are mounted too high up on the wall or because the reflection of a spotlight hinders a clear view.

On to Venice

Either way, the first section of the exhibition emphasises the act of collecting and showing photographs in a museum rather than the photographs themselves. This changes, to an extent, in the latter part of the exhibition, in which artists adopt more conceptual strategies.

In the series Forcing the Body to Fit Inside the Photo Frame from 1946, Jacques Lizène playfully interrogates his own role as photographer. The black-and-white photos of a 1970s tennis court on which Philippe Van Snick drew lines with a marker recall the minimalist compositions of painter Raoul De Keyser.

The exhibition’s final chapters even explicitly refer to painting, with “Red Nude”, taken in 1983 by Lili Dujourie, or even have a sculptural dimension, with “MM Lola” from the same year, in which Liliane Vertessen adds neon lights to her self-portraits.

These works continue to explore the limits of photography, but along different routes in comparison to their conceptual predecessors. The exhibition’s other namesake, Dirk Braeckman, whose intriguing grey-toned photos stemming from unconventional developing methods are a highlight wherever they are on display, has repeatedly stressed the physical aspect of creating photos. He works with images as images, not as vehicles of some concept or narrative.

The overview in M HKA halts in the early 1990s, but with Braeckman’s recent appointment as featured artist of next year’s Belgian pavilion at the Biennale in Venice, you can’t but realise that photographers have come a long way.

Until 8 January, M HKA, Leuvenstraat 32, Antwerp

Photo: Dirk Braeckman’s “Self Portrait n.35”
©Zeno X Gallery