Went to the Gursky exhibition at the reopened Hayward Gallery last weekend, with a very interesting lecture beforehand. I blush to admit I knew virtually nothing about the German photographer before going along, even though he’s been described as the most important image maker of our time, and his Rhine reached the highest price ever for a photograph (£2.7m, in case you’d like to start saving up).
Gursky reminded me of the artist Hammershoi in his shunning of intimacy. While Hammershoi rarely showed a person in full face, preferring ghostly glimpses and back views in mysterious interiors, Gursky’s frames are sometimes teeming with life, but it’s ant-like, we are tiny and insignificant in his works. His photographing of various stock exchanges in the 1990s and his Amazon factory more recently demonstrate this tendency. I’m not sure I love feeling so unimportant.
I couldn’t help contrasting this with the little show of Degas’ pastels at the National Gallery. Degas’ voyeuristic craning at ballet dancers, where you can imagine his easel positioned just off-stage or him scribbling in his pad as he overhears and overlooks two women chatting in a box in the auditorium, seems so much more connected to the bustle of life and relationships. But the friend who organised the Gursky trip had also been to see Degas, and had read a caption stating that Degas didn’t like women, viewing them solely as objects. I was glad not to have seen that.
Often, ignorance is bliss. But then, if I’d stayed entirely ignorant, I wouldn’t have finally stumbled on Gursky. I think I’ll just pretend I didn’t know about the Degas caption, that way I can still enjoy his work. And, although his ballet dancers sometimes have surprisingly sturdy legs and gargoyle faces, there are also some very touching scenes that he’s captured, and his early oils of ballet practice are beautiful. It’s hard to believe he didn’t like us.