Great paintings are static objects. But they often pretend not to be.
Muscular discus throwers heave their great weights. Commanders strut and preen themselves on the poop deck amidst the visual rapture of cannon fire. Horses strain every last quivering nerve at Newmarket in those final few furlongs. How true is all this to the real movement of bodies and animals through time?
By the second half of the 19th century, this was a question seeking an urgent answer, as opera director and roving loose-cannon intellectual Jonathan Miller makes clear to us in this delightfully inquisitive exhibition of paintings, photographs, sculptures, toys and much else, which has been almost a decade in the making. The story begins with an 18th-century painting by John Wootton (c.1682-1764), of horses straining to reach the winning post at Newmarket, called A Race on the Round Course at Newmarket. We look at those animals. We see how their legs are splayed. We see the other effects which add to the sense that this is a scene alive with energetic human activity: a man brandishes his crop; another waves his hat; a jockey heaves back on his reins. Yet another man runs beside the horses and jockeys, trying to keep pace. How true is all of this to the way in which animals and people really move? Are there problems with perspective? Is the representation of all this movement too unnatural – too stiff and awkward – to be credible?
The man who took it upon himself to find answers to some of these questions was called Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904). Muybridge was an oddball, an eccentric, a bit of a crazy inventor – and perhaps, from time to time, a danger to other people too. He was once hauled before the courts for having murdered his wife's lover. His counsel argued insanity, and he was freed. He also invented a washing machine. Muybridge was absolutely determined to solve this question of movement once and for all. How could you track it, sufficiently minutely? Fortunately for him, photography had been invented just a few decades before he set to work, and so he was able to use cameras in his ever more elaborate experiments. He suspended a row of 12 high-speed cameras with electrically controlled shutters over a race track. He made serial photographs of horses in motion. Was it really possible for a horse to have all four legs in the air at once? That was one of the burning questions. (The answer is: yes).
What we see on the walls of the first gallery are pages of photographic plates from a book that he published in 1887 called Animal Locomotion. It is still in print. You can buy it in the bookshop. This had a huge impact upon the way artists worked. Degas paid it much attention, as did the great realist painter Thomas Eakins. It led to a new suppleness and a new subtlety in the depiction of beings in motion. Horses were less inclined to be painted, as Wootton had painted them, as if they were rocking horses – back and forth, back and forth, freshly come alive from the nursery. Muybridge didn't limit himself to horses. He then moved on to birds – and to humans. He is concerned to track movements through the air, to see what exactly it is that we do when we move. Curiously, most of the human beings in these experimental photographs are naked, both men and women. Women float about, lunge, twist, spin in diaphanous, floaty gowns; birds strut about imperiously as if they owned the planet. Unsurprisingly for the times, charges of pornography were levelled at him. And yet none of this is quite satisfactory because no matter how fine the gradations of movement, these are still sequences of single, static images. It's still one damned thing after another. Nothing really moves.
So what else could be done? The exhibition is in this museum for a very particular reason. The Estorick Collection is devoted to Italian art of the 20th century. It is the only one of its kind in this country. And the single most important movement in Italian art of the 20th century – in fact, you could even say that Italian art of the century just past is known for this and almost nothing else – is Futurism. The great ambition of Futurism, which came into being in 1909, was to make art express the dynamism of modern life. And what does dynamism mean other than people and objects in motion? So the Futurists – Giacomo Balla, Luigi Russolo and others – fit in very well here. What was their solution to the problem? They went in for a kind of multiple optical illusionism. When Balla paints a violinist, how does he show that this violinist is actually playing, that his hands are in feverish movement up and down the neck of the instrument? By multiplying the number of hands. We see no fewer than five hands – count them if you like – in The Hand of the Violinist (1912), and five violins too, all in a mad virtuosic display of hyperactive blurring. Life was like this – this is the Futurists' message. It never stops pelting along. That was why the idea of war excited them so much. There was so much going on when people massacred each other, so much crazed noise and movement. By comparison, the past could be so yawningly somnolent.
Miller shows us more than just photographs and paintings in this show. This is one of the reasons why it is so appealing. He keeps on nudging us, encouraging us to think more widely, to think about how what Muybridge and others did had an impact on art, photography, books, film, the theatre. Didn't Busby Berkeley's gorgeous choreography, all that brilliant sequencing of movement, owe a debt to what Muybridge discovered? And didn't Berkeley's choreography also remind us of the way in which Cubism broke up the human figure? Yes, and yes again. Undoubtedly.
He also demonstrates various ways in which the yearning to mimic movement has manifested itself in objects as various as children's toys, and in publications as popular and as widely read as comic books. How credible would Billy Whizz from the Beano be, for example, if his fists weren't flying in all directions simultaneously? The Futurist Umberto Boccioni had spotted this possibility as early as 1914, when he recommended that artists turn their attention to comic books as the potential source of a more "dynamic" approach to life.
And look out for the range of optical toys – on display, and also available to be meddled with. I had a go with a replica of a late 19th-century phenakistoscope, which consists of a rotatable, open-top drum mounted on a plinth. There were quite painful-looking slits in its side. A succession of single images of horses galloping had been painted on the inside wall of the drum. If you rotate it and look through the slits simultaneously, the horses seem to be in motion. It was all very childishly energising.
On the Move: Visualising Action, curated by Jonathan Miller, at Estorick Collection, London N1 (020 7704 9522; Estorickcollection. com) to 18 AprilReuse content