Motion pictures: Movement in art and popular culture

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Jonathan Miller is the curator of a dynamic new show that tracks movement in art and popular culture. It's a revelation, says Michael Glover

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 April

Arts and Entertainment
There has been a boom in ticket sales for female comics, according to an industry survey
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Burr remains the baker to beat on the Great British Bake Off
tvRichard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
Arts and Entertainment
Kristen Scott Thomas in Electra at the Old Vic
theatreReview: Kristin Scott Thomas is magnificent in a five-star performance of ‘Electra’
Arts and Entertainment
Swiss guards stand in the Sistine Chapel, which is to be lit, and protected, by 7,000 LEDs
artSistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer, Lord Alan Sugar, Karren Brady are returning for The Apprentice series 10

TV
Arts and Entertainment
There has been a boom in ticket sales for female comics, according to an industry survey

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Angelina Jolie and Winona Ryder star in 'Girl, Interrupted'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Ed Stoppard as Brian Epstein, Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Elliott Cowan as George Martin in 'Cilla'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Thomas Pynchon in 1955, left, and Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix in Paul Thomas Anderson's adaptation of his novel, Inherent Vice

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Nicole Scherzinger will join the cast of Cats

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Fans were left surprised by the death on Sunday night's season 26 premiere

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Watson has become the latest target of the 4Chan nude hacking scandal

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lady Mary goes hunting with suitor Lord Gillingham

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Dunne, played by Ben Affleck, finds himself at the centre of a media storm when his wife is reported missing and assumed dead

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lindsay Lohan made her West End debut earlier this week in 'Speed-the-Plow'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Artist Nathan Sawaya stands with his sculpture 'Yellow' at the Art of Brick Exhibition

art
Arts and Entertainment
'Strictly Come Dancing' attracted 6.53 million viewers on Friday
tv
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant plays Detective Emmett Carver in the US version on Broadchurch

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor goes undercover at Coal Hill School in 'The Caretaker'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ni , Rock of Rah, Vanuatu: The Ni live on one of the smallest islands of Vanuatu; Nelson flew five hours from Sydney to capture the 'isolation forged by their remoteness'
photographyJimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style
Arts and Entertainment
David Byrne
musicDavid Byrne describes how the notorious First Lady's high life dazzled him out of a career low
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Italian couples fake UK divorce scam on an ‘industrial scale’

    Welcome to Maidenhead, the divorce capital of... Italy

    A look at the the legal tourists who exploited our liberal dissolution rules
    Time to stop running: At the start of Yom Kippur and with anti-Semitism flourishing, one Jew can no longer ignore his identity

    Time to stop running

    At the start of Yom Kippur and with anti-Semitism flourishing, one Jew can no longer ignore his identity
    Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

    Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

    The vintage series has often been criticised for racial stereotyping
    An app for the amorous: Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?

    An app for the amorous

    Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
    Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid. Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?

    Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid

    Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
    Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

    Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

    After a few early missteps with Chekhov, her acting career has taken her to Hollywood. Next up is a role in the BBC’s gangster drama ‘Peaky Blinders’
    She's having a laugh: Britain's female comedians have never had it so good

    She's having a laugh

    Britain's female comedians have never had it so good, says stand-up Natalie Haynes
    Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows

    Let there be light

    Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LEDs designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
    Great British Bake Off, semi-final, review: Richard remains the baker to beat

    Tensions rise in Bake Off's pastry week

    Richard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
    Paris Fashion Week, spring/summer 2015: Time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris

    A look to the future

    It's time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris
    The 10 best bedspreads

    The 10 best bedspreads

    Before you up the tog count on your duvet, add an extra layer and a room-changing piece to your bed this autumn
    Arsenal vs Galatasaray: Five things we learnt from the Emirates

    Arsenal vs Galatasaray

    Five things we learnt from the Gunners' Champions League victory at the Emirates
    Stuart Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

    Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

    This deal gives England a head-start to prepare for 2019 World Cup, says Chris Hewett
    Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

    The children orphaned by Ebola...

    ... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
    Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence