PRINT September 1971

The Films of Man Ray and Moholy-Nagy

THE FILMS OF THE HUNGARIAN Constructivist Moholy-Nagy and the American Dadaist Man Ray have special relevance as historical precedents for current cinematic activity on the part of painters and sculptors. Their films were a response to certain contradictions inherent in the very aims and ideologies of the modern movements themselves, and thus provide a locus for studying a crisis, within the plastic arts, which reasserts itself today.

Conceived during the period between the two world wars of the détente from Cubism, the films of Man Ray and Moholy-Nagy attempted to formulate an alternative to painting at a time when painting had lost much of its innovational impetus. This period of relaxation after the extraordinary decade of experimentation that closed with World War I called forth doubts regarding not only “progress” in abstract art, but also doubts regarding the function of painting and sculpture within mass industrial societies. In this context artists questioned, as they are questioning today, the social relevance of the traditional arts, as well as their ability to sustain a level of innovation equal to that of modern science and industry. Given the problematic status of the traditional arts within such a revolutionary situation, the new art of film appeared to some a possible antidote to demoralization and paralysis. A mass art born of modern technology, free of the deadening burden of tradition, film began to attract artists eager to experiment with a young medium that seemed by definition the characteristic art of the industrial age. The camera had no need to ape machine imagery or adopt its mechanical forms because it was, quite literally, a machine. Not only artists eager to break with inherited traditions but the very apologists for those traditions, such as art historians Erwin Panofsky and Arnold Hauser, speculated that film might indeed prove the most significant medium in modern times.

Film fitted perfectly the futuristic prescriptions of the modern movements: a reproductive art of multiple originals, hence a popular social art, fiIm referred to the greater world beyond the narrow confines of the studio, which in a revolutionary climate often seems stifling. Eventually, film came to be seen, for reasons we will examine, as the means of reconciling the avant-garde artist, so long alienated from society, with his fellow men. In the context of the difficulties confronting the progress of abstraction—even Picasso and Matisse returned to more explicitly figural styles during the détente—film had a distinct advantage: its images were mechanically, and not manually, recorded. It had the capacity to banish the hand of the artist, detested by both Dadaists and Constructivists alike for related reasons. The revulsion against “painterly” painting among artists who carried the banner of vanguardism between the two world wars can be explained by political and geographical factors. The tradition of painterly painting was a Mediterranean tradition. But Dada and Constructivism were creations of provincial artists. Revolting against painterly painting in the name of political protest, their radical manifestos implied that the single feature separating the fine artist from the mass of men was his unique talent, that is, his “hand.” Democratization of art hence entailed the obliteration of such inherited distinctions in talent as well as that of wealth. Along with the hand would go that other relic of Renaissance individualism and social stratification, personal style.

Handcraft had already disappeared with folk art in advanced industrial societies. It was now proposed that handwork should equally disappear from art. Toward this end, Moholy-Nagy phoned in an order for an enamel painting to a sign factory in 1922, proving that art was a matter of concept and concept alone. The sense that the Renaissance world of fixed values was dead and that a new civilization as yet unnamed and unknown was being born, created a mood of imminence and a climate of disorganization nearly as exaggerated as our own. Artists searched for “modern” themes, exalted the urban environment, and envied scientists their greater prominence in the world. The interest in science had already generated an obsession with breaking through the traditional limitations of the space arts among Cubists and Futurists. Influenced by chronophotographs, the Futurists illustrated the passage of time through a literary conceit. The Cubists, more sophisticated conceptually, superimposed views of the same object from differing vantage points, and tried to incorporate the fourth dimension through simultaneity.

Their images picturing time were dramatic, but it soon became obvious only actual movement could combine time with space. Around 1920, a number of painters and sculptors experimented with kinetic art literally involving the dimension of time. Among them were Thomas Wilfred and Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack who worked with colored light projections and the early kinetic sculptors, the Constructivists Vladimir Tatlin and Naum Gabo and the Dadaist Marcel Duchamp.

Through Duchamp, whom he met in 1915, Man Ray became interested in movement. Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel of 1913 was not only the first “ready-made,” it was also the first modern kinetic sculpture. In a single revolutionary gesture, Duchamp introduced the new genre in which he made several experiments, including one that almost killed Man Ray. Shortly before the two left New York for Paris, Duchamp was working on a revolving construction made of transparent planes painted with parts of a spiral supposed to fuse optically. Unfortunately, Duchamp’s conception was ahead of his engineering. As Man Ray stood before the piece to photograph it, one of the planes of glass came flying off and hit him on the head. Duchamp continued to experiment with “rotoreliefs” as he called his kinetic paintings. Eventually, the optical discs containing spiral motifs were mounted on the bicycle to make Anemic Cinema, which Man Ray filmed for Duchamp in 1926. In Anemic Cinema, Duchamp accomplished what he had set out to do in the ill-fated Rotary Glass Plate of 1920: he created the illusion of a spiral projecting three-dimensionally toward the audience.1

It is impossible to disengage Man Ray’s career from Duchamp’s. His best known painting, The Rope Dancer Accompanies Herself with Her Shadows is in a sense, a hard-edged synthetic Cubist female pendant to Duchamp’s notorious Nude Descending the Staircase. Next, Man Ray proceeded to literalize motion by cutting the “shadows” of such a figure out and pasting them on pieces of cardboard attached to a revolving spindle. In Paris, he followed Duchamp by abandoning painting completely, turning to photographs, Rayographs, and Dada objects. From his interest in photography and motion, it was but a brief step to film, although it was a step it took him a few years to take. Initially, his interest in photography had been inspired by Alfred Stieglitz. In Paris, his assistant, Berenice Abbot, herself a gifted portrait photographer, introduced him to Atget’s piquant and nostalgic Paris street scenes, which find echoes later in the scenes of Emak Bakia. Man Ray turned to photography as the modern form of representation. “I could not help thinking,” he wrote in his autobiography Self-Portrait, “that since photography had liberated the modern painter from the drudgery of faithful representation, this field would become the exclusive one of the photograph, helping it to become an art in its own right.”

His final experiments in painting involved the search for an automatic mechanical technique. In 1919 he executed his first Aerographs, paintings made with the commercial technique of airbrushing, often used in photo-retouching. One of these Aerographs, titled the Admiration of the Orchestrelle for the Cinematograph, contained a rectangular grid on the left margin reminiscent of a film strip, marked with numbers indicating a progression in time.2 He was particularly proud of the nonpainterly quality of the Aerographs, which closely resembled photographs. “It was thrilling to paint a picture, hardly touching the surface—a purely cerebral art, as it were,” he said of them.

The following year, apparently by accident, Man Ray stumbled on the process of cameraless photography while developing some negatives. The process had been known since 1839 when Fox-Talbot first created photographic images directly in his photogenic drawings, but Man Ray’s use of the technique to create elegant pictorial effects involving space, texture, and abstract composition, were remarkable.

Man Ray called these automatically recorded images Rayographs. According to Moholy-Nagy, he was not aware of the Rayographs in 1922 when he began making Photograms, photographic images also produced without a camera.3 Technically identical, the Rayographs and Photograms differ, however, in the type of imagery record. The Rayographs emphasize poetic, allusive, and witty associations, whereas the Photograms tend toward purely abstract geometric arrangements. Not surprisingly, when the two turned to film, their imagery diverged in the same manner.

Man Ray was particularly pleased with the visual, nontactile quality of his films as well as with the Rayographs. He described his second film Emak Bakia as “purely optical, made to appeal only to the eyes.”4 Freed from adherence to any convention of narrative, he mixed abstract and representational elements in both Rayographs and films. The sense of discovery he felt in so doing is understandable: the freedom to combine previously unrelated material was one of the few new areas of exploration available to experimental artists of the twenties and thirties.

Indeed the period between the two wars saw the principle of assemblage—of forms, concepts, materials, and images associated to produce new meanings—gain ascendance in all the arts. In literature, the stream-of-consciousness technique allowed the free merging of material from the newly discovered subconscious. The common denominator of Dada and Constructivism formally was that both were basically arts of assemblage: Constructivism assembled planes, shapes, textures, and materials; Dada depended on collage (both flat and three-dimensional) to strike new meanings from the association of familiar objects. Man Ray’s 1921 Dada object, Gift, one of the first Dada objects he made on arriving in Paris, combines an ordinary iron with a row of spiked nails to create a menacing image of aggression and potential danger. In film, the equivalent of assemblage and collage was, of course, montage. Through montage the film artist could create complex fusions of images charged with poetic and allusive meaning.

Because its very construction depends on this principle of association, film solved many dilemmas for Man Ray. Much as he loved photography, he also hated the literalism of “reality.” (He left America, he claimed, because it had no mystery.) In film, he could combine “found” images, that is, images preexisting in the world, in novel and imaginative ways which poetically inverted and subverted reality. Later the Surrealists’ desire to create peinture-poésie drove Dali, Ernst, Delvaux, and Magritte—and eventually Man Ray—to adopt all the conventions of academic art Cubists had discarded.

But “film poetry” permitted the literary identification of subject matter without requiring such a compromise with academicism. Given this situation, the cinépoème, Man Ray’s subtitle for Emak Bakia, was a natural solution to the dilemma of reconciling representational imagery with modern attitudes. This problem of imagery, a result of the literary origins of Surrealist imagery, could never be adequately solved in painting that aspired to be poetry. Film, however, offered the possibility of cinépoesie, which might even include abstract elements, provided they were subsumed in a context of poetic allusion.5

Despite the obvious logic of Man Ray’s debut as a film maker (he prophetically signed Picabia’s guest book as “Man Ray, Director of Bad Films” on his arrival in Paris), he fell into film work with characteristic insouciance. His initial film experience came in helping Duchamp try to make 3-D movies in New York in 1920, just prior to their departure for Europe. Always one jump ahead of the game, Duchamp used dual cameras attached to a single gear to record the same image simultaneously. Most of the film was ruined because the two experimenters used old garbage can lids which leaked as developing tanks; but a few feet were eventually projected through a standard stereopticon. According to Man Ray, the result was of three-dimensional images fused through binocular vision.

Man Ray made his own first film, characteristically, by chance. The poet Tristan Tzara announced he had placed a film by Man Ray on the program of the last great Dada evening, the Coeur à Barbe, held in 1923. Man Ray complained he had no such film, only a few random shots taken with a movie camera. Tzara suggested he make a lot of quick footage by using the technique of cameraless photography on film. Combining what he had with footage produced by placing objects on undeveloped film and then exposing it, Man Ray had enough for a five-minute film he called Return to Reason—the last thing any self-respecting Dadaist planned to do. A fight broke out, so that the film was a success by Dada standards. This persuaded the wealthy patron Monroe Wheeler to give Man Ray enough money to make Emak Bakia, a film of sufficient interest and originality to suggest Man Ray might have become a major Surrealist film maker, had he not been, as he readily admits in his autobiography, simply too lazy.

Between the making of Return to Reason, which is hardly more than an assemblage of unrelated images, and the far more ambitious Emak Bakia in 1927, André Breton had published his Surrealist manifestos, Léger had filmed Ballet Mécanique, and Man Ray had worked with Duchamp on Anemic Cinema. These events obviously contributed considerably to Man Ray’s ideas on film. After Return to Reason, Man Ray had continued to think of film, experimenting with animating black and white stills. At about this time he was approached by the American film maker Dudley Murphy. Although Man Ray declined to work with Murphy (apparently for financial reasons), Murphy found another artist interested in making a film with him. Before starting Ballet Mécanique with Léger, however, Murphy introduced Man Ray to the lenses that would deform and multiply images that lend Ballet Mécanique its distinctly Cubist quality. For this reason, Emak Bakia, whose title is most likely a punning reference to both Ballet Mécanique and Anemic Cinema, has certain visual effects, such as splintering images and fragmenting planes for example, that relate to images in Léger’s film.6

Emak Bakia is a classic of early experimental cinema. With the help of special lamps, an electric turntable, and an assortment of crystals, Man Ray was able to create a number of stunning visual effects. Abstract passages, as well as the images developed through the Rayograph process incorporated from Return to Reason, were interleaved rather than organically related to the realistic action scenes Man Ray shot with a small automatic hand camera. These random shots recorded diverse kinds of movement: the legs of Kiki of Montparnasse dancing the Charleston; Monroe Wheeler’s wife driving her Mercedes at 90 m.p.h.; a herd of sheep charging across the screen.

All of Man Ray’s strengths as an artist are present in Emak Bakia. There is the spirit of adventure and risk, his willingness to use chance as a creative element in the unconventional shots achieved by throwing the camera in the air and catching it. This sequence, which follows that of Mrs. Wheeler in her Mercedes, he thought suggested a collision between the car and the herd of sheep. It reads of course more like a blur, but an exciting blur. Because of the randomness of Man Ray’s approach, one cannot really speak of the structure of Emak Bakia, which like Un Chien Andalou, is basically a series of disconnected visual gags. Certain images reoccur, however, creating a kind of leitmotif that might be considered structural: there are many close-ups of eyes, including a montage of eyes overlaid with car headlights. The final dramatic sequence features Kiki, Man Ray’s celebrated mistress, appearing to stare straight at the audience, only to open her eyes, revealing the eyes we have seen as painted on her closed eyelids! This image is pure Man Ray: a witty ironic double entendre concerning the process of vision itself—piece of sly trickery unveiled at the last moment to convince us of the cleverness of the artist and his awareness of his illusionistic means. Together with the image of Man Ray with the movie camera that opens Emak Bakia, it frames the film and exposes its optical trickery.

So concerned was Man Ray that he might be taken too seriously that he chose to end with a satire on conventional movie endings. The last sequence of the film, which has been a Dada hodgepodge without rhyme or reason throughout, opens with the words—The Reason for this Extravagance—raising the expectation that we will be given the cause of all this madness.7 According to Man Ray, he ended with such a satire on the movies “so that the spectator would not think I was being too arty,” Actually, the effect is to introduce a false note of realistic narrative to further frustrate the spectator and deny him his right to logical explanations, Set up to expect a conventional flashback treatment of the cause of the events we have witnessed, we are allowed no such catharsis. Here is the essence of Dada, with its disdain for teleology as well as for the feelings of the audience.

The closing scenes of Emak Bakia are as topsy-turvy as the rest. A man drops collars to the floor. The collars come to life and jump around, twisting and revolving like kinetic sculptures.8 If Emak Bakia reveals Man Ray’s strengths as an experimenter and imaginative artist, it exposes his weaknesses as well, which are not only his own, but those of the Dada esthetic generally, For Dada’s main purpose, according to Man Ray was “to try the patience of the audience.” Directed to the reaction of the viewer, Dada allowed audience reactions to gain precedence over artistic necessity.

Man Ray’s next film, L’Etoile de Mer, was based on the Surrealist poem by Robert Desnos. The poem’s imagery was easily translated into a film scenario closely following Desnos’ text. Technically, L’Etoile de Mer is notable for the distortions created by use of a treated gelatin filter, which caused images to appear mottled “like a sketchy drawing or painting,” according to Man Ray. Undoubtedly Desnos’ poem appealed to Man Ray because of its calculated eroticism and romantic fantasy combining nature images with mysterious sinister undercurrents. (The filter apparently had to be designed because the nude scenes would obviously not pass the censors otherwise.) Like Emak Bakia, L’Etoile de Mer had a considerable success in art houses throughout Europe.

Man Ray’s last film, Les Mystères du Chateau du Dé, was financed by the Vicomte de Noailles, a well known patron of the avant-garde. Filmed in a cubistic mansion designed by the fashionable architect Mallet-Stevens, it featured as cast the Vicomte’s aristocratic friends, lavishly turned out in period drag. It is Man Ray’s most preposterous and pretentious film, full of heavy references to Mallarme’s line, “A throw of the dice can never abolish chance.” Essentially a sophisticated home movie made for the amusement of the idle rich, the Chateau du Dé suggests the malingering ennui of Axel’s Castle with its “shall-we-go?,” “shall-we-stay?,” and “what-difference-does-it-make-anyhow-since-life-is-just-a-game?” dialogue.

Although the Vicomte de Noailles offered to back Man Ray as a film maker, the latter refused, and the money was given to two other rising Surrealist directors, Luis Buñuel and Jean Cocteau, to make the twin touchstones of Surrealist film, L’Age d’Or and Blood of a Poet. From this evidence, one may assume that Man Ray was not really interested in film as an independent art; indeed, he tells us so in his autobiography. It is not surprising then that little is distinctly cinematic even in his best film, Emak Bakia. Except for a few sequences such as the one in which Mrs. Wheeler’s car hurtles forward directly into the spectator’s space and another in which a figure walks back and forth through a series of doorways receding into space articulating a filmic third dimension, Man Ray confined himself mainly to the flat pictorial effects of still photography. The specifically illusionistic scenes of projection and recession within the film space were probably inspired by Duchamp’s preoccupation with spatial effects in Anemic Cinema.

Man Ray renounced painting like a good Dadaist, but he continued to think as a pictorial artist when he made films. In the scenario of the Mystères du Chateau du Dé, the last scene is described as follows: “The pose becomes fixed like a photograph, against the sky as a background. The view gradually changes into a negative, white bathing suits against a black sky, like a piece of sculpture.” It is true that Man Ray occasionally uses unusual camera angles, such as the shot from directly overhead in Emak Bakia; however, the movement of his camera is not the fluid continuous movement of film, but the series of disconnected shots of the same object from different points of view familiar from Cubist paintings. Even his most radical shot—the full 180-degree inversion of sky and sea—is not explored in depth, but remains a frontal, surface statement, a pictorial image that owes more to Surrealist conventions of inverting normal relationships than to any concern with articulating film space as such. Similarly, when a sculptural object, such as the dancing collars or the Dada object reminiscent of a violin handle known also as Emak Bakia is shown, the camera does not move in space to explore the object, rather the object revolves in front of a static camera. From this we may conclude that despite the use of trompe l’oeil effects created by detracting crystals, reflecting mirrors, and distorting lenses to deform and multiply images, Man Ray seldom if ever conceived films as anything other than animated painting and sculpture, kinetic solutions to pictorial problems regarding time, motion, and representation.

The same may be said of Moholy-Nagy, although he was far more informed and systematic in his thinking about film than Man Ray. When working in film, Moholy exhibits that unnerving discrepancy between theory and practice characteristic of his entire oeuvre, with the possible exception of his highly influential typography. Long before he actually was able to execute one, Moholy dreamed of making films. In 1921–22 he wrote the scenario for a film sketch called Dynamics of a Metropolis. Bridges, cars, trains, crowds, the typical mise-en-scène of the Constructivist cinema, are all present. Camera movements are not only described, in the original version they are diagramed like a musical score. Interestingly, all the directions can be projected on a two-dimensional plane; none describes a complex movement into space, or any sequence of shots of continuous movement. The opening sequence of a crane is described as follows: “shot from below, diagonally, from above.” In other words, from the different viewpoints from which a Cubist painter might depict an object he is analyzing.

Given his belief in artistic “progress,’’ Moholy’s emergence as a film maker was inevitable. Early in his career he had already begun numbering painting’s days.9 In fact his first thought on seeing Malevich’s White on White was that it was the ideal projection screen for moving reflected images. In 1934 he wrote a friend: ”Ever since the invention of photography, painting has advanced by logical stages of development ‘from pigment to light’. We have now reached the stage when it should be possible to discard brush and pigment and to ‘paint’ by means of light itself. We are ready to replace the old two-dimensional color patterns by monumental architecture of light."

From photographs, Moholy progressed to kinetic sculpture, and finally film. His first film was a city picture, Berlin Still Life, made in 1926. Its reference to a painting subject is hardly coincidental, since his treatment of the city was as a pictorial study set in motion. In 1929, he made another city study, Marseilles Vieux Port, which had a number of striking photographic effects, and in 1930, the Lichtspiel, his only abstract film. During the thirties, he filmed a series of documentaries: Gypsies, the C.I.A.M. Congress in Athens, Street Scene, Finland, the Life of the Lobster, and a film on the architecture of the London Zoo. These films gave him an opportunity to concern himself with human and social issues without lapsing into illustration or sentimentalism. His last project was the special effects sequences for H.G. Wells’ futuristic science fiction movie Things to Come, which was dropped from the final film. There was a certain irony in this, since Moholy had written in behalf of “a new vision,” a Utopian communal expression marrying science, art, and technology with all the other “things to come.”

Moholy’s knowledge of film was extremely sophisticated. In a provocative article on film esthetics, “Problems of the Modern Film,” written in 1928–30, he criticized films “exclusively confined to the projection of a sequence of ‘stills’ on a screen.” He identified the elements of film as vision, motion, sound, and psychological content. This last he left to the Surrealists, for he obviously had no interest in such subjective data, confining himself to objective documentaries or, in Lichtspiel, to the play of light. With a dogmatism quite astonishing considering later reversals in his career, Moholy announced: “It is quite conceivable that painting, as an exclusively manual craft, will continue to exist for some decades to come and that it will be retained for pedagogic reasons and as a means for preparing the way for the new culture of color and light.” Moreover he was all for hastening the process of liquidation. This preparatory phase can be shortened, he advised, “if the problem is correctly postulated and systematic optical research is organized on these lines.”

According to Moholy’s reasoning, film would supercede the easel picture, subsuming both painting and photography. In his light studio of the future, Moholy wanted to set up a scenic background for the production of light and shade patterns on a trellis and skeleton construction, with walls for the absorption and reflection of light which would act as a complex of planes. Moholy was never able to realize this dream, but in Lichtspiel he put many of his ideas into practice.

In the essay on modern film quoted, Moholy cautioned film makers against working within the conventions of the easel painting. Yet it is clear he thought movement and images painted with light rather than pigment were sufficient to define the experience of the modern film. In consequence, Lichtspiel is a film without either cinematic space or structure. The schwarz-weiss-grau of the title refers to the tonal values of Cubist painting; its movement is determined by the movement of the kinetic sculpture which was its subject.10 Its illusions are pictorial illusions, not cinematic illusions. They deal with transparencies, overlays, positive-negative figure-ground reversals, the textures of grids, grills and perforations, the alternation between solid and transparent planes, the play of silhouette and shadow, which sometimes emerges as positive shape. Lichtspiel is a unique film: it is a great animated Cubist painting. Using as man y as seven superimpositions, Moholy accomplishes what the Cubists depicted by combining different views of the same object simultaneously, examining interior and exterior in a continuous motion, reversing shadows ;ind solids in imitation of Cubist interpenetration of figure and ground.

Moholy saw the camera as the instrument of the democratization of culture. The man of the future who cannot use a camera, he claimed, would be as illiterate as the man of today who cannot write. His concern with social values lead him to documentary film; ironically his last film was of the new habitat of the animals in the London Zoo. To see it now is to have the uncomfortable feeling that even Moholy must have realized that only captive animals were going to have the rationally planned, ecologically sound environment for which he had fought. It makes a macabre double feature when viewed with the International Congress of Architectural Planning (C.I.A.M.) which he filmed earlier.

The contradictions regarding planning in modern society are no more glaring, however, than the many conflicts devolving from the problematic role and function of the arts in that disjunctive, dysfunctional society. Within the historical con text of an antagonism toward the traditional arts as exhausted conventions, inimical to experiment and bound to an outworn social order, it was inevitable that some visual artists would turn to photography and film. The identification of the easel picture as dependent on capitalist economics and a system of patronage exploitative of both artist and public must be counted as among the strongest reasons for which artists turned their backs on painting during the period between the two world wars. The rejection of the hand as indicator of special talents separating the artist from the mass, and of personal style as the mark of an individualistic rather than a collectivist ethos, must also be counted as part of the impetus to turn to film.

Revolutionary rhetoric, however, lasts only as long as the political climate which stimulates it. During the forties both Man Ray and Moholy-Nagy returned to painting of the most conventional and academic predictability. In both cases, as in the case of an artist like Charles Sheeler, their works in the reproductive areas of photography and film are consistently superior to their unique objects. Yet such is our continuing prejudice against the reproductive arts that their claim to glory continues to rest with their decidedly inferior museum pieces.

Man Ray and Moholy-Nagy were provincial artists forced to turn against the hand because neither had any real facility; in a sense they had to make pictorial films because they could not acquire the painting culture necessary for the creation of great painting. Their films were generated in opposition to a specific impasse in painting and by impatience with the limits of art. In the name of innovation outré experiments, like Charles Niedringhaus’ Smell-O-Meter mixing different odors in a symphony for the nose, occupied artists unsure of their role or of the future direction of art. Malevich’s reductiveness appeared to signal the end of experimentation in painting by defining its outermost limit. At the same time, Surrealist demands for the importance of a relevant “subject” lead back into academic art.

For Man Ray, the camera was an instrument of poetic transformation; yet his images continued to adhere closely to the frontal images of painting. In a film like L’Etoile de Mer, for example, the starfish of the title which reappears as a connective motif throughout the film, is photographed as part of a conventional still-life arrangement which some other artist might paint. The geometric solids which resemble pieces from a chess set designed earlier by Man Ray arranged in changing patterns in Emak Bakia find equal analogies in Cubist still life. For Moholy-Nagy, “the rectangular screen of our cinema theaters is nothing more than a substitute for easel or flat mural painting.”11 As long as these artists continued to see film as merely “moving pictures,” they were bound and limited by the conventions of pictorial experience by which their vision was formed. Their films thus constitute a special and limited category tied not to cinematic values, but to the problems of animating painting and sculpture.

Barbara Rose



1. As usual, the image involved an erotic pun; when the spiral appears to, swell and become convex, it resembles a breast.

2. The Acrographs were the earliest experiments with an automatic technique, and in this sense (but only in this sense) they were predecessors of such later automatic techniques as Pollock’s dripping, Louis’ pouring, and Olitski’s spraying.

3. Schad, a member of the Zurich Dadaist group, had been experimenting with cameraless photography of junk collages he called “Schadographs.” Aaron Scarf, in Art and Photography, suggests that Tzara brought the news of these experiments back to Paris to Man Ray, and that he may have spoken of them to Moholy-Nagy as well.

4. Duchamp was the first artist to turn against the hand, proclaiming the superiority of an intellectual art of the mind-as opposed to a purely “retinal” art addressed exclusively to the eyes. Man Ray’s interest in film lay in precisely the “optical” qualities Duchamp had disavowed in painting.

5. Some of the most effective passages in Emak Bakia involve cuts from abstract to real images which are formally analogous (e.g., bursts of light and a field of daisies).

6. In his Autobiography, Man Ray says that Emak Bakia was named after a villa meaning "leave me alone’’ in the Breton language. It is more likely that the title is an anagrammatrc combination of the sounds of Anemic Cinema and Ballet Mécanique, two films which were extremely influential in Man Ray’s thinking. (Indeed one might think of the three films as a trilogy.)

7. The world of the experimental film maker of the twenties and thirties was even smaller than those of experimental film makers today; cross references such as those referred to above can easily be found.

8. The witty Man Ray could not resist a pun and once titled a collage, L’Age du Col. The dancing collars of Emak Bakia are thus an animated col-age.

9. Using Moholy’s own logic, one might conclude, as he appeared to have done, that kinetic sculpture is merely a transitional step between plastic art and film ; an intermediary mode doomed to wither with the flowering of abstract film, capable of subsuming all of its qualities, adding ot hers, and eliminating the principal drawback of kinetic sculpture: its tedious repetitive cycles. Man Ray and Moholy-Nagy were. of course, not the only painters to seek an art form “beyond painting.” Among those who believed painting would be replaced by a pure disembodied art of color floating freely in space were the Synchromist painter, Stanton MacDonald-Wright, and his brother, the critic. Willard Huntington Wright, whom Man Ray met in New York in 1916. In his book The Art of Painting, published the year Man Ray made Retour à la Raison, Wright considered painting’s imminent demise a fait accompli and championed color-light experiments such as Wilfred’s Lumia machine. Wright’s futuristic prophecies paralleled Moho ly-Nagy’s predictions of an art of pure light projections, although by the time Moholy’s work was known, Wright had stopped writing art criticism.

10. The kinetic sculpture which Moholy-Nagy filmed in Lichtspiel is variously known as the Light-Space Modulator, in German, the Lichtrequist, or more familiarly as the Light Prop, a title which refers to Moholy’s original idea of using it as a mobile stage prop. The original Light Prop was finished in 1930 and shown at the International Building Exhibition held in Paris that year. Motor driven, it was equipped with 128 electric bulbs of colored light operated by a drum switch. A replica constructed for the exhibition of Moholy-Nagy’s work at the Guggenheim Museum was recently purchased by the Eindhoven Museum while the original remains in the Busch-Reisinger Museum in Boston. An article by Istvan Kovacs in Form, 1968, describes the manner in which Moholy filmed the movements of the Light Prop to produce the shifting abstract patterns of Lichtspiel. The camera was focused on a perforated sheet situated between it and the lightprop.

11. As an alternative to the flat screen, he proposed a concave multi-screen surf ace resembling Cinerama. He also predicted, before their invention, color film, direct sound recording of film, and simultaneous multi-screen projections.