The British Problem Picture

Story posted December 18, 2003

In Pamela Fletcher's new book, "Narrating Modernity: The British Problem Picture, 1895-1914," the assistant professor of art history examines a British art phenomenon with which many Americans are unfamiliar — the problem picture.

Problem pictures were popular from 1895 until about 1914. They were nearly life size, narrative paintings and have names such as The Prodigal Daughter, The Cheat, and Defendant and Counsel.

"What they are are these sort of deliberately ambiguous scenes of modern life," Fletcher said.

Problem pictures were shown at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, though by that time the Royal Academy was considered by many in the art world to be conservative and conventional and not a place where cutting edge art was shown. Nor were the problem pictures considered cutting edge art, in fact the rise, the peak in popularity and the dismissal of the problem picture all happens in the space of 20 years.

In her book, Fletcher examines how problem pictures functioned in society and how they related to critical attitudes toward modern art.

People got very involved in discussing, even arguing over, what the story behind the painting was. People wanted to know who had cheated in The Cheat. They wanted to know whether the prodigal daughter was leaving or coming home. Defendant and Counsel made people desperate to know what the crime was and whether the defendant was guilty. People would even write to the artists asking them to explain the pictures, to give them the answers.

Problem pictures even had a place in the media of the day; newspapers would run competitions and offer prizes for the best solutions.

"So they really turn into these public kind of pop culture events," Fletcher said. "They were really amazingly popular."

At the time that the idea of modern art was developing, art was being pressured by forces of entertainment and commodification. One of the problems with the problem picture was that it was too similar to entertainment.

Fletcher looks at problem pictures as an attempt to update the traditional Victorian genre painting — to discuss similar themes and ideas but speak to a turn of the century public.

Traditional Victorian genre paintings had a very heavy handed morality and clarity to them, and they supported "middle class values," such as chastity, piety, thrift and industry.

By the 1870s and 1880s, these genre paintings were out of favor. They were seen by art critics as not beautiful enough or meaningful enough to be valuable. Fletcher sees a similarity between genre paintings and problem pictures.

"These paintings invoke those [same] situations, but they don't give you enough clues so that you can come to that moral conclusion," Fletcher said. "How I read the ambiguity of the scenes is in sort of moral terms."

At the turn of the century, ideals and mores that had seemed settled in Victorian England were becoming unsettled again. Britain was a culture in the process of determining what appropriate behavior was.

"Gender and sexuality are really key because at the turn of the century, these are considered the modern subjects and problems," Fletcher said. "Changing gender relations exerts a huge pressure on a culture....As gender relations start to shift, it becomes a fulcrum for opening up other anxieties and debates."

Many of the problem pictures dealt with these kind of anxieties, particularly women and their place in society.

In criticizing the paintings, people ended up having moral debates, and they debated the pictures according to their views.

Of interest to Fletcher is the fact that problem pictures were very quickly written out of the understanding of what modern art was about: Modernism emphasized challenge, formality and non-narrative form.

"Problem pictures really are the antithesis of that so they sort of dropped out of art history," she said.

At the time that the idea of modern art was developing, art was being pressured by forces of entertainment and commodification. One of the problems with the problem picture was that it was too similar to entertainment.

"It retains too many of those features of popular culture,"

Because modernist critics were attempting to define an art that defended against commodification, they had to get rid anything too close to it.

According to Fletcher, critics felt a need to fault problem pictures for two major reasons: the paintings were accessible and they were narrative.

Many of the problem pictures dealt with these kind of anxieties, particularly women and their place in society.

To have artistic value, critics felt that art needed to be difficult.

"It's not necessarily a socially elitist model although it quickly becomes one," Fletcher said. There's the idea that "art is work."

Critics also believed that what was valuable about the experience of art was that it exceeded words, and story is always reduced to words. They sought something different from art than story, which was available from newspapers, magazines and books.

"They're looking for an experience that art can give you that can't be replicated," Fletcher said. "So the problem pictures are eliciting the wrong kinds of responses from their viewers."

Fletcher also pointed out that narrative implicitly has a moral because it relies on cause and effect, and art critics didn't want art to be a tool for that kind of didactic morality.

By 1914 the problem picture represented all that art was not supposed to be.

"Problem picture, in fact, becomes a phrase that is shorthand for outmoded views of art," Fletcher said.

Society magazines played a role in conveying this disapproval to the public. They featured cartoons that portrayed caricatures of lower middle-class women attempting to be cultured. The cartoons portrayed problem pictures as ridiculous pictures appreciated by lower-class people.

"So you start to see some of the mechanisms of the popular press, of teaching people a new way to look at art," she said.

In 1895 people think it's okay to write the artist to ask what a picture means; by 1910, they know that it's not okay to talk about art and what it means, instead it's supposed to be an aesthetic experience, Fletcher said. "So it's a very quick switch."

Fletcher began with somewhat of a critical attitude toward the modern art critics, but as she got deeper into her research and writing she began to see the book not as an argument about better or worse, but as "going back to a moment where you can see the question posed more clearly."

"It's not in opposition to modernism, it's an investigation into the conditions that art was operating under that made that a necessary response."

The problem picture was a different approach to the same questions about life that modern artists were dealing with.

Though they were long ago dismissed by most critics, the pull of the problem picture still exists. When Fletcher speaks at conferences she notices that at some point, people always start arguing about the story behind the picture.

"They're just engaging images in that storytelling way," she said.

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