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On the Move: Visualising Action

Exhibition preview

A FASCINATING and eye-opening exhibition exploring the representation and analysis of movement in the visual arts and sciences will be on view at the Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art from January 13 to April 18 2010.

Curated by Jonathan Miller, On the Move: Visualising Action will draw on a wide range of material in many different media to provide an in-depth examination of this complex and intriguing subject.

The birth of the Italian Futurist movement in 1909 signalled the beginning of a renewed interest in the problematic relationship between movement and its static representation in painting and sculpture – an issue that had long concerned artists.

Taking as its starting point the Estorick’s own collection of Futurist masterpieces, such as Giacomo Balla’s The Hand of the Violinist and Umberto Boccioni’s Dynamism of a Cyclist, the exhibition will reveal how Futurism’s pictorial innovations were in fact built on foundations laid during the nineteenth century, when the emerging medium of photography began to reveal previously unseen aspects of reality.

A central element of the exhibition will be the pioneering photographic work of Eadweard Muybridge and Etienne-Jules Marey (both 1830 – 1904).

On display will be an extensive selection of Muybridge’s work, including fragile lantern slides, rare and beautiful zoopraxiscope disks, and photographic plates drawn from the unique archives of the Kingston Museum, to which he bequeathed an important collection of his equipment and prints.

Although Muybridge was born in Kingston upon Thames, he moved to America around 1852 where he made his ground-breaking studies of animal and human locomotion after being challenged to investigate the theory of ‘unsupported transit’ (that is, whether or not all four of a horse’s hooves are off the ground at any one moment during the gallop) by the racehorse owner and governor of California, Leland Stanford.

His imagery, closely resembling photographic frames on a strip of film, was to exert a significant influence on artists, enabling them to correct previous errors in the depiction of moving figures and animals, such as that typified by John Wootton’s painting A Race on the Round Course at Newmarket, which will be on loan from Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum.

The interest of Muybridge’s work for later generations of artists such as Francis Bacon and Idris Khan will be represented by loans from Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane and the artist/Victoria Miro Gallery, respectively.

Where Muybridge represented the successive stages of motion in individual frames, the French scientist and photographer Marey captured them on a single photographic plate, creating overlapping, ‘chronophotographic’ images that revealed the movement of figures through space and time in wave-like trails.

In the late 1880s Marey undertook a photographic study of the flight of birds, which had until then defeated his technical ingenuity. So pleased was he with the resultant images that he created plaster models based on them, which were subsequently cast in bronze.

One of these sculptures – of which only three exist – will be included in the exhibition, showing the extent to which Marey’s imagery influenced not only the pictorial vocabulary of Futurism, but almost all subsequent analytical representations of movement.

The influence upon painting of other aspects of early photography will also be considered, in particular the way in which long exposure times led to the blurring of subjects in motion. Initially considered a flaw by photographers, such effects were seized upon by painters – and later, photographers themselves – as offering the visual arts rich new expressive possibilities.

Links will be made between the work of Muybridge and Marey and that of figures such as Thomas Eakins (1844 – 1916), as well as more recent photographers and artists including Gjon Mili (1904 – 84), Harold Edgerton (1903 – 90) and Jonathan Shaw who have in different but complementary ways explored the manner in which the camera is able to capture events too rapid to be perceived by the human eye.

Mili and Edgerton’s development of stroboscopic photography during the 1930s, achieved by firing a high-speed flash at moving subjects, enabled them to take graceful and dramatic images of objects in motion at several points along their trajectory, making them the true heirs to the experiments of Marey.

The representation of motion in popular culture and comics (typified by so-called ‘woosh-lines’) will also be examined, as well as the ways in which artists have explored how specific movements and actions may be implied by placing their figures in expressive postures – a technique most famously described by the eighteenth-century German writer Gotthold Lessing when he observed: ‘Since the artist can use but a single moment of ever-changing nature […] the most fruitful moment and the most fruitful aspect of that moment must be chosen’.

A further dimension to the exhibition will be provided by examples of scientific research into the perception of movement, such as the work of Peter Lovatt and Richard Wiseman of the University of Hertfordshire.

Their analysis of motion by means of attaching points of light to moving human figures in darkened rooms employs a similar method to that of Gunnar Johansson’s famous experiments, and will be complemented by other animated studies, such as those of Heider and Simmel, that illustrate the ways in which our mind is programmed to attribute human qualities to the movements of abstract symbols and geometric shapes.

Optical toys such as the phenakistoscope, praxinoscope and zoetrope, will also be on display, both as vintage examples and working, modern-day replicas for visitors to use. Foreshadowing later cinematic developments, these instruments enabled a sequence of subtly different, static images to be viewed in rapid succession, thereby creating the illusion of movement.

Occupying a position on the cusp of the arts and sciences, the representation of movement has long been a preoccupation of Jonathan Miller, who is not only a writer, theatre and opera director but also a passionate scientist and communicator.

With loans from public and private collections, including the Wilson Centre for Photography, Birmingham Library & Archives, the Michael Hoppen Gallery, the Imperial War Museum and The British Library, this personal selection of works illustrates the full range of the artist’s resourcefulness in tackling this most elusive of subjects.

On the Move: Visualising Action Gallery

Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art, 39a Canonbury Square, London, N1 2AN

Telephone: +44 (0)20 7704 9522