Gustave Caillebotte – An Impressionist and Photography

Sunday Times announced ‘Gustave Caillebotte. An Impressionist and Photography’ one of the best books 2012. I think we can go further and say that it’s one of the best books ever written on Impressionism. As much as I liked ‘Gustave Caillebotte. Neue Perspektiven des Impressionismus’ with many insightful analyses and slow contemplation of Caillebotte’s amazing canvases, I think the second book by Karin Sagner (and in this case Max Hollein as co-editor) throws yet a new light on the subject. The volume has been published conjointly with an extensive exhibition at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt (15 October 2012 – 20 January 2013), which acquainted German viewers with Gustave Caillebotte’s work (the artist was previously much less popular than his French fellow impressionists).

‘Indeed, Caillebotte’s paintings, by dint of their radical and today very modern-looking compositions, reveal the close connection between painting and photography in the formation of a new way of seeing; their special perspective and the thematisation of movement and abstraction anticipate a photographic view that only later emerged in photography itself. With views from above, with oblique views, with close-ups, and with the fragmentation of objects, Caillebotte deployed stylistic means that in a disconcerting manner resemble those of the realistic medium of photography. Sometimes he comes amazingly close to the works of the New Photography of the 1920s as exemplified by the works of Kertész, Rodchenko, Moholy-Nagy, and others.’

Karin Sagner is an internationally recognised Caillebotte expert and it shows when you read the book. It’s great to benefit years of the author’s research and her professional expertise. The book presents beautifully the close links between painting and photography. Juxtapositions of canvases and photographs from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries re-examine the relation between Impressionism and the rise of photography, in which Gustave Caillebotte played a pioneering role. The painter embraced the new medium like other Impressionists, but the way Caillebotte anticipated the new perspectives in his canvases is absolutely unique.

Camera lens inspired a new kind of perception of space, which had impact not only the way of observing the city but also portraying people and depicting objects. Thanks to substantial amount of examples, both photographic (by André Kertész, László Moholy-Nagy, Eugène Atget, Charles Marville or Édouard Baldus among others) and of impressionist paintings, we can see how inextricably both have become intertwined. Unusual perspectives and cropping borrowed from the new medium refreshed the old one and effected in extremely original and dynamic works. The end of nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century is definitely one of the most fascinating moments in the history of art. Thanks to Karin Sagner’s captivating analysis, you can immerse yourself in the aura of the time and learn a lot about the meaningful changes it brought. 

Gustave Caillebotte. An Impressionist and Photography, ed. Karin Sagner, Max Hollein in collaboration with Ulrich Pohlmann, HIRMER