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NAUGHTY FILMS,
PRISSY ART

by Michéle C. Cone
 
"Moving Pictures: American Art & Early Film," Sept. 13-Dec. 9, 2006, at Grey Art Gallery, 10 Washington Square East, New York, N.Y. 10003

In 1981, the Museum of Modern Art held an exhibition entitled "Before Photography: Painting and the Invention of Photography," the purpose of which was, according to the curator Peter Galassi, "to show that photography was not a bastard left by science on the doorstep of art, but a legitimate child of the Western pictorial tradition." Twenty-five years later, another show, "Moving Pictures: American Art and Early Film 1880-1910," organized by the Williams College Art Museum and currently on view at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery, tests the same theorem, but this time with regard to art and early motion pictures.

The focus is on American art between 1880 and 1910 and its relation to early film clips of the same years, many of them made by Edison Manufacturing Company. The films apparently remained unnoticed in the basement of the Library of Congress until Nancy Mowll Matthews discovered them. The question underlying the exhibition is whether the juxtaposition of late-19th-century American art and early Edison short films looped into repetitive scenes raises the stakes of American art of that period, and whether the new mechanical medium is -- was -- art.

The short answer is that Hudson River School painting is not threatened by its moving-image equivalent, large as it gets. At the same time, the work of the American realist and Impressionist painters in the show remains provincial, especially in the company of moving images that take up similar subjects -- things like street scenes, dancing girls, muscle men at work, horse parades and kissing couples.

However, fine art traditions in America have proved to be quite durable, and film clips were no more successful than photography at dismantling them. Even the moving images that were staged to resemble famous paintings launched into action (a century before Eve Sussman’s triumphant 89 Seconds animation of Velazquez’ Las Meninas) did not supersede their more established, static models. On the other hand, moving images started a tradition of their own -- sex at the movies.  

The Edison advantage may well be unfairly gained, because no sooner had film been invented than film trickery began. In Animated Picture Studio (1903), after we see a model dancing for the filmmaker and then acquiescing to his embrace, the scene reappears as a moving image inside a picture frame set up in the room where the film is staged. Seeing herself in a compromising pose, the model pushes the framed moving image out of sight but it continues to unwind on the floor nearby. Not only is the image technically advanced and entertaining, but it suggests that postmodern mise en abyme was not invented yesterday.

But even without any trickery, early film exudes not only a sense of the miraculous but an appealing, mischievous lightheartedness that the corresponding paintings lack. The Summer Girl, a film by the American Mutoscope & Biograph company of 1899, is typical of the new film mode in which naughty girls dressed in long ample white dresses ever so briefly lift their skirt to display black stockings or bare legs. Seen next to Woman in White by Edmund Tarbell, the demure portrait of a young woman in a fluffy white dress looking pensively downward, The Summer Girl film exudes a vitality and sexuality absent from Tarbell’s prissy allegory of purity and virginity.

Whether Thomas Edison, the inventor of "moving pictures," and the other directors of early film deserve a place not only in the history of science but in the history of American art is the key question here. For a generation raised on Warhol films and video art, these brief early films can easily be read as a natural extension of the art medium. But early films were aired and seen in popular arcades and Vaudeville houses, and not in art galleries. Their public included not only people fascinated by the new technology but men and women looking for titillation, who expected from the new medium the kind of fun that Victorian mores -- and Victorian art -- denied them. Small wonder that painters, though they may have been influenced by moving pictures, often saw film as a threat.

Speaking of the filmed version of the kiss between the two protagonists at the end of the musical comedy The Widow Jones (a scene that ends with the quick lifting up of the man’s fake mustache at the high moment of the kiss), the painter John Sloan noted:

In a recent play called The Widow Jones you may remember a famous kiss which Miss May Irwin bestowed on a certain John C. Rice, and vice versa. Neither participant is physically attractive, and the spectacle of their prolonged pasturing on each other’s lips was hard to bear. When only life-size it was pronounced beastly. But that was nothing to the present sight. Magnified to Gargantuan proportions and repeated three times over it is absolutely disgusting. All delicacy or remnant of charm seems gone from Miss Irwin, and the performance comes very near to being indecent in its emphasized vulgarity. Such things call for police interference.

Ironically, the same artist later documented the new medium in a series of etchings, one of which -- Fun, One Cent (1905) -- depicts attractive young girls at a New York arcade sharing a laugh in front of a bank of peep-hole kinetoscopes.

In retrospect, the contrast between John Sloan’s comments versus his own art sum up an exhibition that was intended to show the relationship between early film and painting in a positive light while, in fact, revealing a conflict between high and popular culture at the onset of the 20th century.

In 1991, Kirk Varnedoe and Adam Gopnik organized the mammoth "High and Low" show at MoMA, the first major visual history of the connection between low and high culture. They noted in the catalogue that, "Modern popular culture is scorned, then, both because it menaces true high art and because it overwhelms true low customs." They are correct, though ironically their effort ignored the very medium that the Grey exhibition shows gave most weight to their argument -- moving pictures.


MICHELE C. CONE is a New York-based critic and historian. Her latest book is French Modernisms: Perspectives on Art before, during and after Vichy (Cambridge 2001).