It’s unlikely, half a century from now, that a shadow oeuvre will appear among the personal effects of many contemporary artists, a secret body of work that parallels or even exceeds their public output. This is what happened with the Dutch painter George Hendrik Breitner (1857–1923), whose several thousand photographs emerged from obscurity only in 1961 and might plausibly have been lost forever. Now regarded as a forerunner of street photography, Breitner is an intriguing inclusion in the exhibition Snapshot, currently showing at the Phillips Collection in Washington, which sets the work of seven turn-of-the-twentieth-century artists (the Nabis painters Bonnard, Denis, Vallotton and Vuillard, along with Henri Evenepoel, Henri Rivière and Breitner) in dialogue with their private, and sometimes quite amateurish, portable-camera photographs. He and Edouard Vuillard stand out as the group’s most accomplished photographers. Due to his relative paucity of domestic or sentimental snapshots, and particularly because of his attraction to the hectic pulse of the city, Breitner is the exhibition’s odd man out — a modernist malgré lui, whose once-hidden efforts as a photographer come to us bearing a tantalizingly mysterious relationship to his painting, as perhaps they did for the artist himself.
It has sometimes been assumed that Breitner took photographs simply as studies for his paintings, loosely executed, heavily impastoed canvases often of outdoor scenes in Amsterdam and other cities. This claim has some support, but most of the pictures have no bearing on his other works. In the Snapshot catalogue, curator Hans Rooseboom leaves the matter an open question: “it is not clear if he regarded his photographs primarily as study material or if he also took pictures for pleasure.” We might ask what it means for a visual artist to take photographs “for pleasure,” a phrase that suggests kinship with the tossed-off images of the tourist or paterfamilias or, at best, the diligent productions of the inspired hobbyist. The characterization may seem slighting, but it also evokes a field of opportunity, a realm unburdened by the accepted strictures of visual form.
In making photographs Breitner could adopt a less straitened attitude toward the world than demanded by the conventions of fine art. Occasionally the revealed moment yields a fleeting discovery — a passerby shoots a fuzzy smile at the camera or a man is caught urinating against a wall — but what is most striking about these works is not the instances of serendipity but the drama of a tentative formal vocabulary working itself out, with varying success. Breitner forged a kind of anti-pictorialism by making aesthetic decisions that his contemporaries would have frowned upon. Blotchy silhouettes and off-kilter viewpoints distinguish a study of horses and a mysterious glimpse of two girls in the snow; poor contrast results in images suffused in hazy scattering of grayish light. His experiments with exposure and his tolerance for blurs and other awkward effects are like the notebook drafts of a poet who has let himself drift into uncharted waters.
In the exhibition, before encountering Breitner’s street scenes we are given a selection of his nudes. The motivation behind these pictures is obvious, and they lack the exploratory impulse of the photographs taken outside. A lesbian scene sets the tone: Breitner is the assured erotic choreographer, submitting his models’ bodies to an imperious male assessment. But these images seem rawer and more powerful in counterpoint to Snapshot’s other series of nude photographs, taken by Pierre Bonnard. Often related to illustrative projects for texts such as Longus’ Daphnis and Chloe or Verlaine’s Parallèlement, Bonnard’s nudes are literary, almost decorous, even if, as with Verlaine’s posthumously published collection of erotic poems, shock was part of the intended decorum. Breitner’s nudes are more pornography than Parnassus, with bodies sometimes contorted into unwieldy poses. Free of classical or other narrative associations, these images were not intended to signal anything other than a specific desirable body in a particular room.
Breitner’s games with his models can influence our perception of some of his urban snapshots. When a servant girl casts a sudden glance behind her, the moment plays out as a vignette of creepy voyeurism. But mostly the images do not show such a domineering attitude toward their subject matter, which more often than not seems to be the unknowability of the modern city. Breitner’s misgivings about the relentlessness of progress ran deep. His numerous photographs of demolition and construction sites impart a Baudelairean sense of the metropolis in permanent flux. At the same time he shied away from depicting the more triumphant harbingers of change. As the Snapshot catalogue points out, horses abound in his photographs of Amsterdam, but rarely the electric trams that were introduced in 1900, which he derided as “nasty, soulless boxes.” His architectural studies tend to focus on ordinary buildings rather than such recently built prestige projects as Amsterdam’s Centraal Station. Yet one always senses the future just offstage, ready to pounce.
Breitner’s photographs now exert a greater fascination than his paintings because his conservative attitudes — he once disparaged the efforts of his friend Van Gogh as “crude and repellent” — are overpowered by the revolutionary, democratic technology embodied in the box camera. He surprises us by offering a vision of the city that does not succumb to nostalgia but gazes backwards and forwards at once, and does so primarily via formal means. What is picturesque in these images seems plucked from the future: the silhouetted equine forms in Horses seen from above might easily be translated to a German Expressionist woodcut, and one readily spots parallels with later photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank.
There was no direct lineage to his successors because Breitner buried his achievement. Carried by the currents inherent in the very fact of the portable camera, he explored its possibilities without affirming its implications. We come to his images from our own historical moment of sweeping perceptual change, when entrenched modes of knowledge and expression are being dislodged by the mere availability of an irresistible array of technology. Breitner would have understood our ambivalence toward our novel and magical devices. In his analog images of horse-carts and pedestrians we find something of the predicament of the digital age.
Snapshot: Painters and Photographers, Bonnard to Vuillard is on view at the Phillips Collection (1600 21st St, NW, Washington, DC) until May 6, and at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, June 8–September 2.