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BETWEEN CANVAS AND CELLULOID
Visual Music, Motion Paintings, and Cameraless Photography
In 1926, Hungarian artist and Bauhaus professor László Moholy- Nagy produced a still image by placing his own hands, as well as a paintbrush and other objects, on photographic paper and exposing the composition to light. Bearing the unassuming and yet self-descriptive title Photogram — the appellation Moholy-Nagy applied to his cameraless photographs — the picture depicts the hands and their painterly instrument floating as intertwined dream presences, where the paintbrush holds within its contours the bright, partial image of one of the hands. Reversing convention and common sense, the brush now holds the hand. This upending of the relation of hand to tool describes a scenario in which the paintbrush is no longer the operative means for picture making, but rather the result of an automatic process and the photochemical operations of the paper. This photogram of the hand was not mechanized — not fashioned with the lens or shutter of a camera — but rather a play of material and immaterial, body and indexical trace, fastened in place by light. The picture rests in a liminal state between the handmade and the machine-made. The hand could only be placed into the image by the artist, but its material presence is strangely absent in the image itself, transformed from flesh into a ghostly gleam. Moholy-Nagy's image acknowledges both the role of the hand as well as the prescient idea that that role might become harder to place or identify in the technological arts of the future.
Moholy-Nagy's cameraless photograph, and its simultaneous focus on — and displacement of — the hand, provides one path toward articulating the origins of the handmade film. This chapter unearths the handmade film's intermedial past in order to beginmapping a new terrain for studying the moving image. I begin with early modernism — a collection of aesthetic developments marked not only by a concern with distinguishing one medium from another, as discussed in the introduction, but also by a desire to uncover the relationships of music to color and motion to painting. As evidenced by the intersecting and at times parallel developments of early cinema, abstract painting, color organs, and cameraless photography, a range of artists working both within and across a range of media forms sought to extend the potential of both painting and photography. An accounting of these mutually informing practices, and the ideas about visual music, synesthesia, and Theosophy that motivated them all, will confirm both how and why moving-image artists in the early years of the twentieth century sought to make films without recourse to photography: their desire was to create abstractions in time.
THE PROTO-CINEMATIC ORIGINS OF ABSTRACTION
The story of the handmade film could begin long before the twentieth century, and it could be firmly rooted in the history of cinema. Indeed, the centrality of ideas relating to artisanal process, abstraction, and intermedia can be found in a host of pre- and proto-cinematic technologies. The magic lantern, a projection device first developed in the mid-seventeenth century to display painted glass slides, proliferated for another two hundred years. Many magic lantern programs have been consistently posited as direct precursors to cinema — for example, William Robert Hill's full-color, cross-dissolving lantern show, which he projected onto an enormous screen at "the temple of projection" at London's Royal Polytechnic in the 1860s, or Charles-Émile Reynaud's Théâtre Optique in Paris, which utilized multiple projectors in shows that were enjoyed by huge audiences.
Reynaud patented his first device, the praxinoscope, in 1877 — the time of Impressionism's cultural ascendancy in Europe. Impressionism valorized the subjectivity of vision, and in the process helped diminish painting's mimetic function. The praxinoscope was a cylinder that held a colored strip of paper bearing twelve images. A twelve-piece mirror at its center allowed the viewer to see the pictures in motion once the cylinder was spun manually. Reynaud continued to refine his methods, culminating in a large-scale projection system that featured his own hand-painted glass slides connected by metal strips and arranged into two reels, which would pass by the projecting lantern. In October 1892 Raynaud premiered his Pantomimes lumineuses, consisting of three cartoons, each comprised of between five hundred and six hundred individual drawings, which were manually projected in the style of what the historian of animation Giannalberto Bendazzi calls a "cinematic puppeteer." Although the cinematograph, introduced in the early 1890s, would soon render his chosen technology obsolete, more than a half a million people saw his work by the turn of the century.
Cameraless moving images devised by hand, often via painting, and projected by a hand-manipulated device of unique design such as the praxinoscope were part of a rich and variegated genealogy of moving-image devices and methods, or what Charles Musser has called the "history of screen practice." Though the cinema camera and projector eventually came to dominate moving-image technology to the point where "cinema" and "moving images" became interchangeable terms, idiosyncratic optical toys in the mode of the praxinoscope continued to be built in parallel to and contradistinction from the dominant manifestations of cinematic capture, storage, and projection. The history of the handmade film's development is, therefore, neither straightforward nor strictly chronological. Rather, it is characterized by recursions, divergences, and parallel paths mixing technological innovation with ancient thought, or applying old techniques within an emergent modernity. The lineage traced here is therefore not linear, but both circuitous and branching, as befitting the diversity of the sites and styles of media production that engendered the handmade film.
At the same time that Reynaud and others were perfecting the magic lantern, a parallel set of figures, intent on representing movement, motivated the development of what are known as optical, or philosophical, toys. The zoetrope, phenakistoscope, and mutoscope, among others, all mobilized discrete images into apparent motion, often without the use of photographic mechanisms. Eadweard Muybridge's early zoopraxiscopes spun sequences of painted images of human and animal motion, derived from his photographic studies, on glass discs. Later iterations featured drawings that were photographically printed onto the glass before being hand colored. Optical toys were also used to create cameraless abstractions in time. Scottish scientist David Brewster, who invented the kaleidoscope in 1817, updated his device in 1846 as the chromatrope, an object that users manipulated with an external handle, which activated gears that turned the hand-painted glass discs within. The chromatrope could be illuminated from behind by a magic lantern in order to produce constantly changing projections of vibrant color. Both Muybridge and Brewster demonstrate how photography was not the sine qua non of proto-cinematic invention. Instead it was motion, as much as form, that provided the impetus for a range of technological developments that would later influence the cinema.
Other proto-cinematic devices were, like the chromatrope, developed expressly for their ability to create abstraction, rather than the representational images that would come to define early cinema. For instance the phantoscope, a projector introduced by Charles Francis Jenkins in 1894, was designed to display "loud and soft" colors with qualities that its inventor believed corresponded to musical notes. The phantoscope featured a projection mechanism through which discrete frames could be projected before being replaced by others; this innovation became the basis for conventional motion-picture projection. In his work on early color in cinema, Joshua Yumibe uses Jenkins's example to demonstrate cinema's intermedial origins: "The cinema was not conceived so much as a unique medium but rather as an extension of existing media," including magic lantern displays and enchanted pictures. But it is telling that these proto-cinematic devices, from their earliest instantiations, were also tools for producing abstraction — well before the advent of full-blown abstraction in European painting.
But proto-cinema alone does not explain the emergence of the handmade film. The ideas associated with handmade moving images, and the technologies used to make them, were also strongly influenced by several sources outside the standard history of the cinema: the intermixing of senses and media fostered by the Romantic poets and epitomized by Richard Wagner's music theater; the theories and practices of modern abstract painting; and the artistic development of the photogram. Each of these sources helps to distill crucial ideological and material underpinnings of handmade cinema and begins to shift the ontology of cinema more generally away from the photographic and toward a more intermedial conception of the moving image.
THE SYNCRETIC AND SYNESTHETIC ORIGINS OF MODERNISM
By the start of the twentieth century, Paul Cézanne had successfully upended four hundred years of Renaissance perspective by flattening the picture plane, Georges Seurat's pointillism "succeeded in painting the vibrations of the air," and the Futurists were prizing the depiction of speed and movement above all other aesthetic principles. Buttressing these new art practices were contemporaneous art historian Bernard Berenson's writings on perspective in fourteenth-century Italian painting, which put forth the idea that "form is the principal source of our aesthetic enjoyment" in the works of the Florentine masters, thereby elevating the surface play of color, tone, and shape to a primary concern. Berenson additionally argued for an aesthetic based on a painter's ability to grant "tactile values to retinal impressions" — a synesthetic conflation of sight and touch not unlike Jenkins's experiments. Significantly, Berenson expanded his ideas regarding "tactile values" to include the impression of movement as one of the greatest attributes of painting. The earliest handmade films were therefore one media form among many — others included theater and color organs — that sought to bring these formal, physical, and synesthetic qualities together via paintings in time. What is more, these efforts across media were together undergirded by spiritual beliefs that linked the mind with the cosmos, and thoughts with images.
To wit: In 1908, Futurist Arnaldo Ginna began working on a series of abstract paintings, including Neurasthenia (1908), that depicted the states of the soul. These paintings were influenced by the same synesthetic impulse identified by Berenson, particularly as expressed by the Theosophist teachings and paintings of "thought-forms" by Annie Besant and Charles Leadbeater. Theosophy, the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century religious philosophy that attempted to bridge major belief systems, as well as science, held that present-day materialism would be swept away by an imminent spiritual age. Ginna and his brother, Bruno Corra, attended Theosophical Society lectures in Florence and Bologna and were intrigued by the fourth-dimensional theories of architect Claude Bragdon, one of light artist Thomas Wilfred's (chapter 5) partners in the short-lived group the Prometheans, spiritual searchers who attempted to convey their ideas through color display devices. The brothers had long sought to combine the arts, and in the color organ they identified the technological means to do so. They attempted to apply Bragdon's ideas — as articulated in Corra's 1912 essay-cum-manifesto "Abstract Cinema — Chromatic Music" — in the construction of their own device for merging color with time.
To construct their color organ, Ginna and Corra experimented with a number of projection surfaces and environments, including "a simple white canvas, a white canvas soaked in glycerin, a tinfoil surface, a canvas covered with an impasto that resulted, by reflection, in a sort of phosphorescence, [and] an approximately cubical cage of very fine gauze penetrable by the light rays, which gave a fluctuating effect of clouds of white smoke." The exploration — and substitution — of canvas, painting's traditional material support, to accommodate the projection of light reinforces how mutually informing the nature of abstract painting and moving images were at the time. Of even greater significance, however, was that the results were unsatisfying, and the duo began collaborating on a number of films in which they painted directly on the filmstrip. Their search for a technological means of combining the arts thus led them to a medium — cinema — through which they could realize their goal. But this goal was realized only, ironically, by a process of elision: avoiding the constitutive camera of the cinematograph in favor of a direct interaction with the filmstrip by hand. The handmade film was, then, from its very inception a site for the synthesis and intermingling of media forms.
The "chromatic chord" articulated in the brothers' manifesto became the subject of their first effort at direct filmmaking. A Chord of Color, created in October 1911, represented an attempt to animate a Divisionist painting by Giovanni Segantini of an Alpine landscape. Ginna and Corra made three other films that month: Study of the Effects of Four Colors, Song of Songs (inspired by Felix Mendelssohn), and Flowers (taken from Stéphane Mallarmé's poem of the same name). They made an additional five films the following year. As Ginna later explained, "While the first film was the development of a color chord, the second studied the effects among complementary colors (red-green, blue-yellow) and the last two were chromatic renderings of music and poetry." Rather than try to exploit the unique properties of the cinematograph in order to distinguish it from other art forms, Ginna and Corra employed it explicitly in order to draw out correspondences among painting, poetry, music, and film.
Here is evidence of an embryonic modernism in which the exploration of material limits lacked the surety of an absolute. These explorations across media, taken with the specific artistic invocations of Mendelssohn and Mallarmé, demonstrate how early modernism also operated as an outgrowth of Romanticism, particularly in its attempt totranscend forms and conflate sensations. The Romantic poets — most notably Samuel Taylor Coleridge — as well as the French Symbolists Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud, famously attempted to provoke or evoke synesthesia in their writings. Coleridge's "The Eolian Harp," written in 1795, ascribed a universal rhythm to humanity, one that fused music and light:
O! the one Life within us and abroad,
Which meets all motion and becomes its soul,
A light in sound, a sound-like power in light,
Rhythm in all thought, and joyance everywhere —
As we will see, the Romantic tropes of communal understanding and the pursuit of joy marked cameraless handmade moving-image practices from Len Lye (chapter 2) to Thomas Wilfred (chapter 5) to the Joshua Light Show (chapter 7). It is therefore no coincidence that Coleridge himself was the source of the term "intermedia," which provided Dick Higgins with his descriptor a century and a half later. For the Romantics, synesthesia, shared understanding, and joy could all be captured through creative expressions that transcended a single medium.
The Romantics held that synesthesia was an indicator of a heightened form of consciousness, one that could be attained via intoxication. Nineteenth-century physiologist Johannes Müller asserted a similar belief, writing in 1838 that individuals were capable of producing their own "visual light" in the form of drug-assisted visions, or "seeing stars." By the middle of the nineteenth century synesthetic vision was increasingly taken for for an alternate form of reality, leading historian of synesthesia Kevin T. Dann to conclude that representations of synesthesia in the arts "prepared the way for new conceptions of objectivity and freed sensory perception from the need for an external referent." In truth, however, synesthesia is a rare neurological condition, not a numinous granting of otherworldly perception or power. Synesthetes experience a visible representation of mental processes, so that letters read or notes heard correspond to colors, sounds, and/or tastes. Here, then, synesthesia serves as a synecdoche for the numerous conditions of sensory and historical overlap-between the perceiving senses, between the negotiation of concrete material practice and the rhetoric of immaterial transcendence, and between the other arts engaged by the making and positioning of artisanal moving images.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Making Images Move"
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