Moving' Past Art

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Phillips Collection Juxtaposes Early Movies With Paintings

Psst.… want to see a new movie that’s more than 100 years old? How does “The May Irwin Kiss” from 1896 sound?

You can see some of the most original—and we do mean original—movies that you’re ever likely to see by heading down to the Phillips Collection and taking in “Moving Pictures: American Art and Early Film.”

The original exhibition juxtapositions the timeless, even groundbreaking art by such late 19th-century artists as Maurice Prendergast, Thomas Eakins, John Sloan, Mary Cassatt, Frederic Remington and John Philip Sargent, among many others, with the earliest (1880-1910), most primitive of motion pictures, also dubbed “moving” pictures. The display is one of crosspollination, examining how filmmakers and visual artists were inspired by one another, worked together and related to each other’s works.

The concept is not entirely convincing except in the obvious similarities between the two media, but what is interesting are the raw, truly kinetic slices of film and how they relate not so much to painting, but to the technology that makes it possible to see them during the course of an art exhibition.

What’s exciting is that these little movies—snippets of a man flexing his muscles, water rushing down Niagara, a whirling dancer—in their own archaic and anarchic way are as brand new as a raucous baby.

They’re not especially good in an artistic sense—the way that the paintings are—but there’s something more forceful, even gutsy, about these early moving pictures. Nor are they realistic in that they’re exactly what you might see if you happened by. Instead, they share the same features as all photographed, drawn, painted and other created artwork: borders, points of view, the limits of a frame, and black-and-white depictions.

But somehow, these strips of film—shown on 46 large flat-screen monitors continuously running 60 movies—are electric, like a shock to the system. They allow us to imagine what their effect might have been on the people who saw them for the first time 100 years ago.

The paintings, on the other hand—abstraction had not made its rowdy debut yet—are representative of what people saw in daily life. Beyond issues of style and genius, they portrayed familiar images—a woman holding a child, diners in a restaurant, etc. But artistic genius, in this case, can’t compete with raw novelty. The famous kiss in “May Irwin Kiss,” the first-ever onscreen kiss, isn’t a depiction of a kiss—it’s an actual kiss, with all of its quirky movements.

Put simply, images of that time just did not move—but these films did, and something changed when that happened: Artful imagery no longer ruled, but rather retreated into the sphere of art. The narrative in film then began to raise issues of art in cinema, beginning with the disarming “The Great Train Robbery” of 1903 and later, the wilder visions of filmmakers Man Ray and Luis Buñuel, which echoed different artistic issues of the times.

Likewise today, we’re accustomed to film doing all sorts of things—currently we’re swept up in how computer graphics change what film is capable of, forcing us to look at the medium in a new way.

That’s what happened back then too. People who read periodicals and saw posters and went to museums were familiar with high art as popular art. What they weren’t familiar with was raw footage that practically poked you in the eye.

But were paintings such as Prendergast’s “Surf, Cohasset” or Sloan’s “The Wake of the Ferry II” influenced by earlier moving pictures of the same subjects? It’s an interesting idea, as is the reverse idea that anonymous folks from the Thomas Edison Company would draw their ideas from paintings.

One thing is for sure: These moving pictures changed art, life and how people saw their surroundings and themselves. In this setting, the paintings remain beautiful works, but they become quiet and still, almost secretive. On the other hand, people stared, as if hypnotized, at a film of a woman pinning dresses to a clothing line or the froth of an ocean wave—pictures of motion actually moving.

Moving Pictures: American Art and Early Film through May 20 Phillips Collection 1600 21st St., NW For more information, please call (202) 387-2151 or visit www.phillipscollection.org.

About the Author

Gary Tischler is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999