Visual archaeology

A couple of items on magic lanterns in America. Firstly, the Museum of Modern Art in New York is currently hosting an exhibition, Panoramas of the Moving Image: Mechanical Slides and Dissolving Views from Nineteenth-Century Magic Lantern Shows. This is a combination of modern and traditional takes on ‘pre-cinema’ technology. At the heart of the exhibition is experimental media artist Ernie Gehr’s Panoramas of the Moving Image (2005), a synchronized five-channel video installation that uses eighty-seven original slides and views selected from Gehr’s personal collection and that of film archivist and magic lantern collector David Francis. This is accompanied by a display of paper Zoetrope strips and Phenakistiscope discs, complementary nineteenth-century moving image technologies. The exhibition runs until 25 February 2008.

Herman Bollaert

Herman Bollaert uses all three lenses of his 19th-century magic lantern to give the “Warehouse in Flames” image added smoke-and-fire effects, from

Meanwhile, in Washington, we have the Belgian Herman Bollaert and his troupe of musicians putting on the The Lanterna Magica Galantee Show at the French embassy. There’s a fine review by Philip Kennicott of this recreation of a nineteenth-century magic lantern show in The Washington Post, which places the lantern within a wider history of visual technologies, following its inheritance through to PowerPoint and the Xbox:

Watching Herman Bollaert and his crew of projectionists manipulate his 19th-century magic lantern is a bit like watching a very old and finicky sailboat being steered into the wind. There is a lot of fussing and fiddling, turning and cranking, all in the service of a charmingly antiquated technology. If you would rather take a powerboat than sail, or watch “The Matrix” on DVD than spend an evening with hand-painted slides of country cottages and windmills, there’s really no point in showing up this evening at the French Embassy, where Bollaert and his Belgian troupe of musicians and lanternists are performing a bit of visual archaeology.

Bollaert’s contraption, a three-lens wooden box from 1880, was made during the great era of magic-lantern shows. Its basic technology was in use during the 17th century, and quite possibly much, much earlier. But in the 19th century, with the growth of all forms of popular entertainment, lanterns became the precursors of the cinema. Slides with moving parts created special effects. Popular novels were presented in narrated slide shows, and science was taught to professionals and amateurs alike through projected images. Musicians often accompanied such popular entertainments, which could include a survey of historic places, short parables and stories, religious spectacles and Gothic horror shows.

The technology was basic – limelight (made by superheated limestone) or kerosene flames were used to project the images onto screens – but its impact was long-lasting. The magic lantern enjoyed popularity well into the 20th century, fading only as cinema took over. It persisted in the form of school slide shows and filmstrips, and is still the animating spirit behind projected PowerPoint presentations. Whole generations of Americans got their first glimpse of human sex organs in health class through a filmstrip projector – a descendant of Bollaert’s machine – which cast lurid pictures into the semi-darkness, into a room of tittering, blushing and sometimes salivating adolescents.

You can read the rest of the article, which brings in Arthur Schopenhauer and Marcel Proust, on the Washington Post site. But here’s the thoughtful final paragraph:

It’s difficult to coax the contemporary mind into the position of someone of two or three centuries ago, who found the basic images projected by lanterns to be amazingly lifelike (aesthetically), emotionally powerful (artistically) and profoundly troubling (philosophically). But like the water wheel set turning by Bollaert’s expert hand, things will come full circle. With the rise of ever more complex virtual realities, once again the philosophical mind is set puzzling over the nature of the real. But now, in our world of Xboxes and Wii consoles, one is hardly aware of the machine that creates the representation, there is no tactile connection between the image and its master, and the boat of illusions sails forth with no hands on deck.

The so-called optical toys of the nineteenth-century, such as the Phenakistiscope, the Zoetrope and the Thaumatrope, were sometimes referred to as philosophical toys. We should always bring a philosophical mind to the moving images placed before us. It is what they are there for.

The Turner Prize


Steve McQueen’s Deadpan, from

I visited Tate Britain today and saw the Turner Prize retrospective exhibition. There are exhibits there which relate to silent film. Best known probably is Steve McQueen’s Deadpan (1997), where the artist recreates Buster Keaton’s legendary stunt from Steamboat Bill Jr, with a similar wooden frontage of a house seen falling around McQueen from assorted angles. But you can also see Gillian Wearing’s 60 Minutes’ Silence (1996), a hilarious work in which a group of twenty-six police officers pose for a photograph in rows but have to stay still for sixty minutes. The more you look, the more they wobble, and the more hypnotic it becomes. And equally hypnotic is Douglas Gordon’s video installation Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1995), which shows blown-up sequences from the 1931 Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, with Fredric March, one positive and one negative side-by-side, eerily run slowly (and silently) as though digging inside the agony.

All this and the usual cows split in half, elephant dung and light bulbs switching on and off. Well worth seeing.

Now Playing

Now Playing

Now Playing is the title of a book and an exhibition on the hand-painted movie poster. The book is by Anthony Slide, Jane Burman Powell and Lori Goldman Berthelsen, and its full title is Now Playing: Hand-Painted Poster Art from the 1910s through the 1950s. The beautifully illustrated book cover the history of posters which were commissioned by individual cinema theatres and theatre chains, and celebrates the work of artists most of us have never heard of, such as Batiste Madalena, Ike Checketts, O.M. Wise and R.J. Rogers. There’s a really interesting interview with Slide, one of the most prolific and knowledgeable of silent film historians, on the Alternative Film Guide. Some amazing research has clearly gone into recovering a lost history of promotion and extraordinary artistic vision.

Now Playing at the Dunn

The book is complemented by an exhibition of original hand-painted movie posters at the Linwood Dunn Theater, at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Pickford Center for Motion Picture Study in Hollywood. The exhibition is entitled Now Playing at the Dunn, and it looks gorgeous.

West End Live

West End Live

This weekend, why not come to Leicester Square (should you be in London) and see West End Live, billed as “Free for all the family, this spectacular event includes performances from top West End shows alongside a variety of other musical acts. There will be a host of interactive displays and exhibits for a fun-filled action packed day.” Billed among all this fun for the family, which includes a Saturday Morning at the Pictures event organised by the BFI, you will find the Moving Pictures exhibition of film production and exhibition in London before the First World War, hosted by London’s Screen Archives. I was involved in the research for this, so do pop by if you can. You’ll find it in the same marquee as the BFI and Film London. Failing that, the exhibition returns to Westminster Archives Centre thereafter until the end of June.

Nineteen (Obscure) Frames that Changed the World

In October 1888 the French-born inventor Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince recorded what is thought to be the first ‘film’ in the history of cinema. His subject was Leeds Bridge – the ebb and flow of humanity – people going about their daily business unaware that their motions were being inscribed into history. The surviving frames of this footage are owned by the National Media Museum in Bradford where Curator of Cinematography, Michael Harvey, has been working with New York video artist Ken Jacobs for 18 months to provide footage for the unique exhibition Nineteen (Obscure) Frames That Changed the World. As the blurb puts it, “Ken Jacobs probes the magnitude and infinity of the existing frames, using a unique 3D projection system (with 3d glasses) to reveal hidden beauty and unlock great waves of motion. Ken Jacobs’ films, performances and installations inspire a sense of awe and mystery that audiences must have felt when confronted by moving images at the very start of cinema.” The exhibition opens on Thursday 24 May and runs from 25 May–1 June, 11.30am–6.30pm with free entry. Further information here.

Moving Pictures in Westminster

The Moving Pictures exhibition on the film and cinema business is London before the First World War will be on show at the City of Westminster Archives Centre 5-30 June. The exhibition, which was previously shown at Hornsey Library and Hampstead Museum, focusses on the highly active film industry and cinema business in London before 1914, with an emphasis on the relationship with local communities. The exhibition is based on The London Project, a research project hosted by Birkbeck College, London, which resulted in The London Project database of film businesses and cinemas in London before the First World War.

There are associated talks taking place at the Centre on 19 and 26 June, at 6.00 pm (admission free). The Archives Centre is located here.

For the weekend of 23-24 June the exhibition will move temporily from the Archives Centre to feature as part of West End Live, in Leicester Square.

Picasso, Braque and Early Film in Cubism


What sounds like a remarkable exhibition is opening at the PaceWildenstein gallery, East 57th Street, New York. It’s called Picasso, Braque and Early Film in Cubism, and it builds on art dealer Arne Glimcher’s feeling that Picasso and Braque were enthusiasts for early cinema, and that what they saw on the screen helped contibute to their new art i.e. cubism. The exhibition (which runs April 20-June 23) features nineteen paintings by Picasso and Braque, nine original works on paper, sixteen prints, two books, photographs, projections of early films, vintage cameras, projectors, and other objects.

It’s an intriguing theory, but with scant actual evidence. Surviving correspondence reveals nothing. Picasso saw his first film in 1896, there are assorted references to his friends and associates going to see films in the 1900s, and art historians claim to have detected relevant elements of imagery or technology in the paintings, but mostly the exhibition will have to be based on conjecture and suggestion. No matter – it’ll set minds thinking, and it’ll be further demonstration that early film did not (and could not) exist in cultural isolation. There’s an article in the New York Times, ‘When Picasso and Braque went to the movies‘, which gives the background to the exhibition.

Clearly there is something in the air here. Check out earlier posts on Lynda Nead’s essay about the image of artists in early film, and the Moving Pictures exhibition about the influence of early cinema on some American realist artists.

Moving Pictures

Oh to be in Washington, as this exhibition sounds excellent. Moving Pictures: American Art and Early Film is running 17 February-20 May at the Phillips Collection, 1600 21st Street, NW, Washington, DC 20009. As the blurb says, “This exhibition will present American realist painting from the late 19th and early 20th centuries side-by-side with the earliest experiments in film. Approximately 100 works, including nearly 60 short films (a few minutes long) by Thomas Edison, the Lumière Brothers, and the Cinémathèque Française, along with works by American masters such as George Bellows, William Merritt Chase, Thomas Eakins, Maurice Prendergast, and John Sloan, will provide a new context for looking at the artists’ choice and presentation of subject matter. For the first time, film will be fully integrated into the history of American art.”

The connection between art and early film is a fascinating subject that needs to be explored more. The work of chronophotographers like Eadweard Muybridge, trying to capture reality through sequence photography, had a particular fascination for realist artists like Frederic Remington, whose paintings of horses must be seen in the light of Muybridge’s famous achievement of photographing a galloping horse. And then the emergence of moving pictures themselves provided an extra challenge for artists who had already had to face up to photography, provoking them into new ways of expression. The early filmmakers were the first surrealists!

Lights and shades on the South Bank

The British Film Institute has rebranded its exhibition operations on London’s South Bank as BFI South Bank. The National Film Theatre is still there, in the guise of the three cinemas NFT 1, 2 and 3, but there is a new entrance adjacent to the National Theatre, and major new space occupying part of what was previously the Museum of the Moving Image. At the centre of this new space is the Mediatheque, and the March/April programme for BFI South Bank indicates some of the programming that will be available for free via its ‘viewing stations’.

The films, all from the BFI National Archive, include some eye-catching silent material. The full list of Mediatheque titles has yet to be published, but the programme promises us such gems as A Kiss in the Tunnel (1899), Bradford Coronation Procession (1902), Pimple’s Battle of Waterloo (1913) (a hilarious Pythonesque spoof of the British and Colonial film The Battle of the Waterloo) and Anna May Wong in E.A. Dupont’s marvellous Piccadilly (1929). But it is in the ‘Pandora’s Box’ section that the real gems may be found. Here are some of the hidden favourites of the Archive. They include the mindboggling Lights and Shades on the Bostock Circus Farm (1911), a conventional ‘interest’ film about a circus which suddenly veers into high drama when the circus’ favourite elephant dies, and The Scarlet Woman (1924), a lurid amateur-made satire of the Catholic church starring Evelyn Waugh and Elsa Lanchester, before either became famous. The programme gets published online on 14 March.