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Moving Pictures: American Art and Early Film

February 17 - May 20, 2007


The surprising exchange between American artists and the first filmmakers at the turn of the 20th century is the subject of a provocative exhibition on view at The Phillips Collection beginning February 17, 2007. Moving Pictures: American Art and Early Film is the first exhibition to fully integrate cinema into the history of American art, rewriting traditional views of visual culture in the early 1900s. This critically acclaimed exhibition features a landmark installation of 44 flat-screen monitors playing 53 of the earliest films, juxtaposed with 85 paintings, illustrations, photographs, posters, and flipbooks from 1880-1910. By displaying these short films -- by Thomas Alva Edison, the Lumière Brothers, and American Mutoscope & Biograph Co.-- alongside works of similar subject matter by artists such as George Bellows, Thomas Eakins, Childe Hassam, Maurice Prendergast, John Singer Sargent, and John Sloan, Moving Pictures reveals how the powerful relationship between film and the visual arts created a radically new vision of modern life. The Phillips Collection is the final stop on the national tour of the exhibition. Moving Pictures remains on view through May 20, 2007. (right: Edison Manufacturing Company, May Irwin Kiss, 1896, 50 feet, Producer: New York World; camera: William Heise, The Library of Congress, Washington, DC, Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division, Hendricks Collection.)

In an era when railroads were the swiftest means of transportation, Americans relied on paintings and illustrations to show them the world. The popular subjects among artists and audiences in the late-19th and early-20th centuries -- Niagara Falls, Venetian canals, boxing bouts, and the famous Serpentine dances -l so captured the imagination of pioneering filmmakers, who took these visions from the canvas to the projection screen. In the truest sense of the term, these were the original "moving pictures": films that were inspired by the art of the time, yet also brought it to a new plane of visual impact.

Moving Pictures explores how filmmakers and visual artists motivated one another, worked together, and related to each other's works. By tracing the timeline of art and film from the experiments of stop-motion photographers through the dawn of cinematography, the exhibition adds to the existing understanding of American realist painting and the subject of modern life. The exhibition also shows how film influenced the generation of artists who came to be known as the Ashcan school in the first decade of the 20th century.

"Moving Pictures provides a fascinating and thoroughly entertaining analysis of visual languages, revealing the impact that technological developments had on the way we all see and think," said Jay Gates, museum director.

Moving Pictures: American Art and Early Film was organized by the Williams College Museum of Art, Williamstown, Mass., and made possible in part by The Henry R. Luce Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. Additional support is provided by the Thaw Charitable Trust and George and Trish Vradenburg.

The exhibition is curated by Nancy Mowll Mathews, Eugenie Prendergast Senior Curator at Williams College; the coordinating curator at The Phillips Collection is Susan Behrends Frank, assistant curator.



Before feature films like "The Great Train Robbery" (1903) came to dominate commercial cinema after 1914, the earliest period of filmmaking centered solely on the power of visual motion and a fascination with capturing everyday life. Using contemporary themes in the fine arts as subject matter, these brief snippets of film were unscripted, without drama or plotline. Deemed "modern poetry" due to their lack of narrative and focus on motion and everyday activities, visual artists soon began to look to the new medium when creating their own works.

The original filmstrips, known as Kinetoscopes, were introduced to the American public in 1893. When Thomas Edison first presented projected commercial films to New York audiences three years later, they were shown in theatrical venues and music halls on canvas screens life-size or larger, surrounded by painted gold frames. Films of men, women, and horses in motion were popular, but viewers' greatest enthusiasm was reserved for animated landscape scenes-especially of waterfalls and waves breaking on the shore, which seemed so realistic that audiences initially feared being splashed by the water on screen. The press dubbed these first projected films "moving pictures," a literal reference to their pictorial associations.



The exhibition is presented in four sections that trace the historical interplay between early film and the visual arts. Art and Film: Interactions illustrates the mutual fascination between these two media in paintings, prints, posters, and illustrations that were made to promote and record critical reactions to the films of the day. Sloan's etching Fun, One Cent (1905), for instance, depicts the Kinetoscope parlor as a seamy, working-class venue, whereas promotional illustrations in the New York Herald in 1894 show Edison's invention as a leisure activity for the "refined" audience. Some of Edison's first films are on view as well, including The Blacksmith Scene (1893) and the May Irwin Kiss (1896), which Sloan declared "offensive" when he first saw it projected 50-feet high in 1896.

Early Film & American Artistic Traditions examines how late-19th-century cameramen drew on pre-existing artistic traditions for their subject matter, especially the popular panoramic scenes of nature. The public flocked to galleries throughout the nation to view paintings of the American landscape, such as William Morris Hunt's Niagara Falls (1878). Hunt's grand panorama is juxtaposed with two films, Edison's American Falls from Above, American Side (1896) and the Lumière Brothers' Niagara, Horseshoe Falls (1878), which is shown on a plasma screen more than five feet wide.

The Body in Motion looks at how photographs explored the movement of animals and humans in the 1890s and influenced artists. Eadweard Muybridge's stop-motion photographs of horses galloping, people running, boxing, and dancing were particularly influential-both in subject matter and in their focus on movement. Footage of Edison's famous Corbett and Courtney Cone Round (1894) is displayed alongside Bellows' iconic boxing painting, Club Night (1907), while Edison's Ninth Infantry Boys' Morning Wash (1898) and Eugene Sandow, The Modern Hercules (1894) is shown next to Thomas Anschutz's The Ironworkers' Noontime (1880).

The City in Motion examines the dramatically different points of view between impressionist cityscapes and early 20th-century urban scenes in films and works of art representing an array of New York locales. Hassam's Snowstorm, Madison Square (ca. 1900) is exhibited with American Mutoscope's The Blizzard (1899) while Sloan's Six O'Clock, Winter (1912) is paired with Edison's New Brooklyn to New York via Brooklyn Bridge (1899) and the Lumière Brothers' Fulton Street Under El (1897).



The Phillips Collection owns many iconic masterworks by American artists who are featured in the Moving Pictures exhibition, such as Eakins, Prendergast, Sloan, Hassam, Luks, Robert Henri, Everett Shinn, and Bellows. Major works in the exhibition from the museum's permanent collection include Sloan's Six O'Clock, Winter (1912) and Wake of the Ferry, II (1907), Jerome Myers' The Tambourine (1905), Paul Dougherty's Storm Voices (1912), and Henri's Dutch Girl (1910; reworked 1913 and 1919). Along with the 53 films -- all less than one minute long -- in the exhibition, the Phillips plans to screen films including Edwin S. Porter's The Great Train Robbery (1903). Related exhibition programs also include gallery talks and special lectures by exhibition curators as well as Charles Musser, professor of Film and American Studies at Yale University.



The exhibition catalogue, authored by Nancy Mowll Mathews with Charles Musser, features essays by 13 prominent scholars from the fields of art history, film studies, and American studies. A companion interactive DVD of the paintings and films is included. The catalogue, published by Hudson Hills Press in association with the Williams College Museum of Art, is available in the Museum Shop.



For the first time at The Phillips Collection, visitors are able to use their own cell phone to access a self-guided tour of Moving Pictures. There are approximately ten different stops in the exhibition and visitors can activate the tour at any time by entering the corresponding code on the keypad of their phones. The audio tour is offered free of charge though visitors will have to use minutes from their cell phone plans.


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