Phillips offers moving look at relationship of art, early film

Critic's Corner - - Art

Paintings, cinema paired in uncommon examination

Art Column

February 21, 2007|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

The raging waters of Niagara Falls, a steam locomotive arriving in New York City, a serpentine dancer clad in diaphanous robes. These and other images fascinated turn-of-the-century Americans not only because of the novelty of their subjects but because they were pictures that moved.

Today, we take it for granted that "the movies" are first and foremost theatrical dramas captured on film. But it wasn't always so. The first motion pictures weren't dramas at all but celebrations of the camera's uncanny ability to capture an illusion of movement.

When the Edison Manufacturing Co.'s first "moving pictures" were shown commercially in New York City in 1896, the flickering images on the screen were surrounded by an elaborate gold border that reminded viewers of the carved gilt frames in which paintings were hung.

Now the surprising and fruitful interaction between film and painting is the subject of an extraordinary exhibition at the Phillips Collection in Washington titled Moving Pictures: American Art and Early Film 1880-1910.

The show presents about 85 paintings and works on paper mounted on the wall alongside 60 early films displayed on a stunning installation of 46 flat-screen video monitors.

The juxtaposition of static and moving images reveals that early filmmakers -- and film audiences -- interpreted the new media of motion pictures in terms of the visual conventions that were most familiar to them: landscape views, biblical and historical re-creations, portraits and genre scenes.

Among the many intriguing examples of this dialogue between film and painting are John Singer Sargent's atmospheric paintings of Venice, Italy, alongside the Edison company's cinematic travelogue of the city; Mary Cassatt's impressionistic depiction of a mother and child juxtaposed with a charming Lumiere brothers film clip called "Feeding the Baby"; and William Morris Hunt's dramatic view of Niagara Falls paired with shots of the waters by Edison and Lumiere cinematographers.

It is curious but true that until now hardly anyone has bothered to look at the relationship between cinema, the most popular of 20th-century art forms, and painting, still the most widely respected.

Why this should be so is something of a mystery. Consider that, for at least a generation, art historians and critics routinely incorporated the history of still photography into the history of European and American art.

Today, hardly anyone questions that still photography was a major influence on painters from Eakins and Homer to Warhol and Rauschenberg.

But until now, "the movies" had virtually no place in the art history of America. The Phillips show is a fascinating first step toward redressing this historic omission.

Moving Pictures: American Art and Early Film runs through May 20 at the Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. N.W., Washington. Call 202-387-2151 or go to phillipscollection.org.

Photography talks

Regarding photography, next month the Baltimore Museum of Art will begin to host a series of four talks by distinguished contemporary photographers. The first installment on March 1 features artists Jeff Wall and Stephen Shore.

Later installments of Conversations With Contemporary Photographers are scheduled for March 21, April 12 and April 26. Participating photographers will include Thomas Demand, James Welling, Thomas Struth, Mitch Epstein, Anthony McCall and Tacita Dean.

The discussion will be moderated by Darsie Alexander, the BMA's senior curator of contemporary art, and Johns Hopkins University professor Michael Fried, a prominent art critic, historian, poet and scholar who is writing a book about contemporary photography.

The talks will be held at 7 p.m. in the Rebecca and Joseph Meyerhoff Auditorium at the BMA, 10 Art Museum Drive. Call 443-573-1700 or visit artbma.org.

Lithuanian ceramics

From the beginning of World War II until the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, the tiny Baltic nation of Lithuania was occupied territory, first by Nazi Germany and later by Soviet Russia.

The fine arts were tightly controlled by both totalitarian conquerors, and only the humble crafts were likely to escape the censor's eye, especially after the Soviet occupation in 1945. Lithuanian ceramists took advantage of the relative obscurity of their labors to create some of the most original and inventive works produced in the Soviet empire.

Anthony Stellaccio, a consultant at the Lithuanian Art Museum in Vilnius, will discuss the role Lithuanian ceramics played in preserving the country's national identity during that dark period. The lecture will take place at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the auditorium of the Brown Center at Maryland Institute College of Art, 1301 Mount Royal Ave. Call 410-225-2300 or visit www.mica.edu.

glenn.mcnatt@baltsun.com

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