PRINT September 2007


Film and Early Modernism

LONG AGO IN THESE PAGES, Annette Michelson wrote that “almost all the major authentic movements and styles of [the twentieth] century—Futurism, Surrealism, Dadaism, Constructivism—reacted to the growth of cinema.” Each saw in film’s capacity for spatial and temporal manipulation ways of solving problems and furthering goals first articulated in other media. This was certainly true of Hans Richter, a member of Zurich Dada in the late 1910s, and Viking Eggeling, both of whom began to employ film in addition to drawing in the ’20s in their search for a universal language, as a recent exhibition at Maya Stendhal Gallery in New York demonstrated. Some historians have gone further, however, arguing not just that modernist movements turned to the cinema at certain moments in their development but that film helped give rise to such movements; this was the thesis of another exhibition on view this past summer, “Picasso, Braque, and Early Film in Cubism” at PaceWildenstein in New York.

The latter show’s claim that the cinema played “a catalytic role in the development of Cubism” will not, as predicted by a New York Sun reviewer, “shake up the scholarly world.” More than two decades ago, in his well-known book The Culture of Time and Space (1983), Stephen Kern wrote that “the two pioneers of Cubism, Picasso and Braque, incorporated the innovations of Cézanne and the cinema and brought about the most important revolution in the rendering of space in painting since the fifteenth century.” What the PaceWildenstein show did for the first time was put this claim to the test by placing early films and Cubist paintings side by side; the evidence, however, was unconvincing.

View of “Picasso, Braque, and Early Film in Cubism,” 2007, PaceWildenstein, New York. Photo: Ellen Labenski.

On entering the gallery, the viewer was met by a digital projection of films by Thomas Alva Edison from the 1890s. In one, a performer imitates Loïe Fuller, the celebrated “skirt dancer” who used multicolored stage lighting to illuminate her swirling costumes and choreography, rendering them semiabstract. The wall text, written by the show’s curator, Bernice Rose, and accompanied by a small reproduction of Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907, asserted that “a primary challenge to be met by the Demoiselles was the necessity to capture in painting the intoxication of motion that belonged uniquely to the cinema,” a task for which Fuller’s “art of movement” was a “catalyst.” Neither here nor in her lengthy catalogue essay, however, did Rose provide a single shred of proof to support this bold assertion—except to mention that Picasso frequented the cinema and might have seen Fuller perform at the Exposition Universelle during his first trip to Paris in 1900. Nor did Rose address the obvious questions thus raised: Why the time lag between the painting of Les Demoiselles and the exhibition of early films of Fuller imitators? And why was it not their or Fuller’s live performances onstage—as opposed to on-screen—that served as the painting’s inspiration?

Moreover, the film and the painting appear to have nothing in common. The dancer is barely visible beneath her billowing costume, which is the central attraction of the film, while it is the naked, sexually threatening bodies of the demoiselles that are the primary concern of the painting; the woman is shot alone and at a distance, facing the camera, against the background of Edison’s Black Maria studio, unlike Picasso’s five figures, who occupy nearly the entire surface of the canvas, confronting the viewer; she is in constant motion, her movements fluid and graceful, whereas the demoiselles are posed, their forms broken up into angular, anamorphic, at times primitivist facets facing in different directions.

Two other screens showing compilations of contemporaneous films were juxtaposed with forty-five of Picasso’s and Braque’s gorgeous works from the period 1907 through 1915, which were a delight to view in such an intimate setting. But, again, no proof was provided that the artists saw any of these films, let alone that either’s painting was affected by them, and the works themselves suggest otherwise. A common refrain in the catalogue essays (the others were written by film historians Tom Gunning and Jennifer Wild) was that the cinema’s capacity to depict something from multiple perspectives through camera movement, editing, and changes in focus influenced the avant-garde in general, and Picasso and Braque in particular (which is essentially Kern’s argument). Rose describes film as follows: “Dissolves, close-ups, multiple exposures, parallel and crosscuts, inserts to create different viewpoints in which one figure might be seen from the other’s point of view as if from inside the frame.” However, the period covered by the show was a transitional one in film history during which most of these techniques, far from having been established, were being experimented with unevenly by filmmakers in an effort to make their stories more intelligible as the cinema increasingly became a narrative medium. For example, cut-ins from longer to closer shots in order to show a gesture or a small object (known as “analytical editing”) were used only occasionally between 1907 and 1911 and did not become common until the mid-1910s. It is unlikely, then, that the cinema guided Picasso and Braque’s move toward the fragmentation of their subjects in 1909 works such as Picasso’s Woman with a Book and Braque’s Little Harbor in Normandy, both on view in the gallery. It is true that, by this time, films were already depicting their subjects from multiple perspectives as characters moved from one space into another (as in the chase film, for example), but it was not until the ’20s that they would do so simultaneously, through the use of superimposition, rapid editing, and split screen. It is, of course, the simultaneous depiction of subjects from multiple perspectives that is central to Cubism.

Viking Eggeling, Coastline 1, ca. 1910, pencil on paper, 12 1/4 x 9 1/4".

In the absence of evidence of any direct impact of the cinema on Cubism, Gunning postulates an indirect one, suggesting that avant-gardists might have been influenced by early film’s exploration of “new forms of time, motion, and unusual relations between observer and spectacle.” However, in doing so, he describes early films as if they were avant-garde works avant la lettre, employing abstraction and other modernist strategies. Referring to another 1890s Edison film, of strongman Eugene Sandow, which was also on view at PaceWildenstein, Gunning writes: “This abstraction of bodily movement from any recognizable environment not only focused viewers’ attention but, like Fuller’s use of darkness, also abstracted motion from any familiar context.” But motion is not abstracted in this film, which consists simply of a strongman flexing his muscles against a dark background; indeed, the semiabstraction that occurs in the films of Fuller imitators is very much an exception in early cinema. Motion, like space and time, is a vague concept; various artists might explore motion in different media, but this does not mean they do so in the same way, or that one influences the other.

These criticisms are not to say that the cinema had no role in the development of Cubism. As Gunning argues, it is possible that the proliferation of new technologies such as film at the turn of the twentieth century and the new perceptual experiences they gave rise to contributed to the creation of an artistic context in which temporal and spatial distortion, along with other antimimetic strategies, were valorized and pursued. But this is an old argument about a distal cause of modernism in general, not a proximate cause of Cubism in particular. Nothing in this show suggests that the cinema played any more of a role in Cubism’s development than this.

“Universal Language and the Avant-Garde” at Maya Stendhal Gallery, meanwhile, was a smaller, more modest endeavor than the PaceWildenstein exhibition—and much more successful. The main part of the show was devoted to Eggeling and Richter, who began collaborating around 1918 in drawings, scrolls (not one of which, unfortunately, was on display here), and eventually films before Eggeling’s premature death in 1925. As at PaceWildenstein, the first room contained a digital projection, alternating between Eggeling’s Symphonie Diagonale, 1924, and Richter’s Rhythmus 21, 1921, both seminal abstract films. In the welcome absence of a didactic wall text, the viewer was left to find his or her own connections among the films and the nearly sixty drawings and studies on view. The majority were by Richter and were made in the late 1910s to ’20s and in the ’50s, by which time he was living in the United States; the works for the most part feature rectilinear forms arranged horizontally and punctuated by lines, creating a strong sense of rhythm reminiscent of an electrocardiogram. Most revelatory for me, however, were Eggeling’s rarely seen landscape drawings from the 1910s, in which one can clearly view the artist moving toward the abstract visual vocabulary present in later works such as Symphonie Diagonale; the geometric and curvilinear forms in that film derive from the trees and houses in his landscapes.

Richter and Eggeling outlined their shared vision in a pamphlet in 1920. According to Richter, “This pamphlet elaborated our thesis that the abstract form offers the possibility of a language above and beyond all national language frontiers. The basis for such a language would lie in the identical form perception in all human beings and would offer the promise of a universal art as it had never existed before.” Both turned to film because they believed it was better able to uncover certain universal “laws” of perception than the media in which they were already working, in particular the law that no form is perceived in isolation. Richter’s Rhythmus 21 uses the temporal properties of film to underscore often unpredictable relationships between multiple rectilinear forms in motion; Eggeling’s Symphonie Diagonale, on the other hand, creates the impression of perpetual organic growth and transformation as forms expand and mutate into new ones. The show at Maya Stendhal Gallery gave the viewer a rare opportunity to tease out similarities and differences such as these between the artist’s conjoined projects.

Even this exhibition, however, could not resist overstating the connection between film and artists working primarily in other media, as it included Jonas Mekas’s Film Stills and Installation Quartet: Birth of a Nation, 1997. As wonderful as it was to watch Mekas’s lyrical, diaristic portraits of 160 avant-garde filmmakers (including Richter), they had little in common with Eggeling’s and Richter’s work. Whence this temptation to force connections that aren’t there between film and other media? One reason, perhaps, is that the moving image is perceived as a way to attract more visitors to galleries and museums, and curators are bending over backward to incorporate film into their shows even when it has minimal relevance. But despite the unnecessary addition of Mekas’s work, “Universal Language and the Avant-Garde” presented a clear picture of the cinema’s role in early modernism: Film provided a way for artists such as Richter and Eggeling to further their work in other media, not a catalyst for it.

Malcolm Turvey teaches film studies at Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, NY.