Chimney Sweep

Oscar Rejlander, the daddy of artwork pictures

In an 1857 photograph so epic and populous that it resembles a history painting, Oscar Rejlander presents an allegory of the tension between virtue and debauchery. On display at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, a bearded sage escorts two young men onto the stage of life. An eager youth crouches to the right, toward an abundance of temptations: drinking, gambling, and a swarm of dreamy nudes. The other marches, eyes closed with delightful sobriety, towards a future of study and good works. There, patients are cured and penitents are acquitted, workers work with hammers and saws, and a scholar stabs a globe with his compass.

Your choice, the old man suggests: satisfy the body or uplift the soul?

As a bit of a sophisticated Victorian moral code, Rejlander’s “Two Ways of Life” is ambiguous. Yes, the path of devotion is its own reward and all that, but the tableau makes the voluptuous side appear much more appealing. If the sin has disadvantages, the photographer does not respond to it. Even the grizzled prophet in the center seems undecided; he tends to lust in one version and to light in another.

Rejlander, who began as a painter in his native Sweden and then settled in England as a photographer in the mid-19th century, was one of the forgotten pioneers of this art form. A trickster, darkroom virtuoso, and technological convertor, he had never had a retrospective until the Getty Center released 150 prints with insightful insights into his techniques. For example, “Two Ways of Life” is a composite of more than 30 negatives that were seamlessly joined together more than a century before Photoshop first shone in the eyes of a programmer.

The debut of the work provoked allegations of impropriety and humiliation. One critic praised Rejlander’s technical ability, but claimed that “such a photo has neither art nor decency”. It was one thing to idealize a bare Venus, as painters had done for centuries, and quite another to “see the public realistically and in great detail photographs of naked prostitutes in flesh and blood.”

‘The Juggler’ (around 1865) © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Oscar Gustaf Rejlander British, born in Sweden, 1813–1875 mourning (her face hidden, but her torment visible), 1864 albumen silver print Image: 19.6 x 14 cm (7 11/16 x 5 1/2 in.) Museums of the Fine Arts of San Francisco, MH de Young Memorial Museum.  Gift of John H. Rubel EX.2019.5.143

‘Mourning’ (1864) © Museum of Fine Arts of San Francisco

Some saw the picture as an attack by industrial production on the realm of the handmade. “Works of high art cannot be carried out by a mechanical device,” snorted one critic.

Prince Albert loved the epic tableau, and Queen Victoria bought a print for each of the royal residences: Windsor, Osborne House, and Balmoral, where it was intended for the Prince’s wardrobe. Rejlander’s most famous work often appears in the history of photography as a vulgar copy of Victorian kitsch. In the 20th century, sober modernists evaded a path they found bathing. Compound narratives fell into disrepute, and artists endorsed Alfred Stieglitz’s definition of “linear photography” – “brutally direct, without flicker; free of tricks and any ‘ism’. “

This retrospective offers a counter-narrative that suddenly appears contemporary. Postmodern practitioners with little interest in authenticity – such as Gregory Crewdson or Cindy Sherman – have taken up the theater model. And digital tinkering has finally shattered any remaining belief that the camera is telling the unvarnished truth. The Getty celebrates a sensitivity that undermines strong realism with sentimentality, but that is also heartbreaking, hilarious, and tech-savvy.

Oscar Gustaf Rejlander British, born in Sweden, 1813–1875 Non Angeli sed Angli (Not Angels but Anglos), after Raphael's Sistine Madonna, c. 1854–1856 Albumen silver print Image: 20.5 x 26.3 cm (8 1/16 in.) x 10 3/8.) in.) Princeton University Art Museum.  Museum purchase, David H. McAlpin, year 1920, find EX. 2019.5.91‘Non Angeli sed Angli’ (1854–56) © Emile Askey

Rejlander was at his best taking pictures. He approached the subjects the way a director treats actors and persuaded them to project emotions as if they were on stage. He was so effective that Darwin recruited him to document the full spectrum of human facial expressions.

For his part, Rejlander pushed children, friends, neighbors and passers-by into his studio and dressed them from his well-stocked costume box. There he could control the lighting and take his time – and later, if necessary, exchange a background from the Scottish Highlands or a charming stream. His favorite subjects were the most available: his wife, his dog, and himself. The three appear with reassuring regularity. “Happy Days (Returning from the Fair)”, for example, shows Oscar and Mary arm in arm in matching hats.

Oscar Gustaf Rejlander British, born Sweden, 1813–1875 Eh !, negative approx. 1854–1855;  Print around 1865 Albumen silver print Image: 8.9 x 5.9 cm (3 1/2 x 2 5/16 in.) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles 84.XM.845.14

‘Ah!’ (1865) © The J. Paul Getty Museum

Oscar Gustaf Rejlander British, born in Sweden, 1813–1875 Mental Distress (Mother's Darling), 1871 Charcoal print of a polychrome drawing after a photo Image: 54 x 43.2 cm (21 1/4 x 17 in.) The Royal Photographic Society Collection at the V&A, acquired with the generous support of the Heritage Lottery Fund and Art Fund Image © Victoria & Albert Museum, London EX.2019.5.63

‘Mental Distress’ (1871) © Victoria and Albert Museum

This picture suggests that even the most brazen forgery can have a real streak: an expression of marital affection binds the two spouses together. As Thespian-Manqué, Rejlander assumes a variety of comical poses, inexplicably sits at the table with a handkerchief on his head or stares at his desk, while a parrot seems to mock his profession as nothing but stupid facial expressions.

Rejlander adored Garibaldi, the Italian nationalist and revolutionary, with whom he bore an uncanny resemblance. He posed as the wounded Patriot more than once, comforted and encouraged by Hope (his wife again). In a quasi-religious image, St. Peter’s Basilica hovers in a balloon over his head, a vision of the liberator’s dream of wresting Rome from the Pope.

Oscar Gustaf Rejlander British, born in Sweden, 1813–1875 Hard Times (The Lament of an Unemployed Worker), 1860 Albumen Silver print Image: 13.8 x 19.7 cm (5 7/16 x 7 3/4 in.) George Eastman Museum purchase photo: Courtesy of the George Eastman Museum EX. 2019.5.109‘Hard Times’ (1860) © George Eastman Museum

Like Garibaldi, Rejlander thought he was a man of the people and went out into the streets to find subjects among the poor. His chimney sweeps, organ grinder and laundresses are marked by cliché and condescension, similar to Dickens or Doré in their most kitschy form. But his depictions of children almost always hit the right note. The boys in their ragged clothes and bare feet maintain dignity, beauty and grace despite their circumstances – or, to be more precise, despite the circumstances Rejlander created for them. We see “Poor Joe”, folded in his rags to seek protection from a brutal London night that is only visible through the photographer’s affectionate sympathy for elegant society. The same boy appears in another picture during the day and rages in undisguised exuberance.

Oscar Gustaf Rejlander British, born in Sweden, 1813–1875 Night on the City (Poor Jo, homeless), before 1862;  Print after 1879 charcoal Image: 20.3 x 15.7 cm (8 x 6 3/16 in.) National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.  Bought 1993 (37076) Photo: NGC EX. 2019.5.5

‘Night in Town (Poor Jo, Homeless)’, (before 1862; printed after 1879) © National Gallery of Canada

Oscar Gustaf Rejlander British, born Sweden, 1813–1875 Self-portrait with a parrot, around 1865 In “Album of Photographs by Oscar G. Rejlander”, 1856–72 Albumen Silver print Closed: 37.4 x 27.6 x 0.3 cm ( 14 3/4 x 10 7/8 x 1/8 in) Sir Nicholas Ma

Self-portrait with a parrot (c1865) © NPG

Rejlander was one of the earliest advocates of photography to realize it could rival painting, and he made his strongest case in an 1866 portrait of Mary Constable and her brother. The young couple crouch thoughtfully, temple to temple gazing at a fireplace backstage and faces lit by the embers. Actually, Rejlander probably used a more reliable source – sunlight streaming through a window – but the resulting double portrait has a kind of romantic glamor that the film studios would eventually perfect all over again.

Had he lived a few generations later, Rejlander would surely have made it straight to Los Angeles. It’s good to know that it has finally arrived.

Oscar Gustaf Rejlander British, born in Sweden, 1813–1875 Mary Constable and her brother, 1866 Albumen silver print Image: 16.8 x 22.1 cm (6 5/8 x 8 11/16 in.) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gilman Collection, Purchase, Harriette and Noel Levine Gift, 2005 (2005.100.24) Image: www.metmuseum.org EX.2019.5.145“Mary Constable and Her Brother” (1866)

Until June 9th getty.edu

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