Clark symposium assays art and film

“Stillness or movement, silence or sound, duration or moment” were some of the dichotomies posed by the Image and Movement: Film Studies and Art History symposium held at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute last Friday and Saturday. After two years of planning, the program included speakers from not only the Clark and the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA), but also establishments such as Yale, Stockholm University and the Georgia Institute of Technology. Organized with the intent of examining possible intersections of art history and film studies, Image and Movement incorporated cinematic and traditional artistic media into its study of two customarily divergent disciplines.

The first session, titled “Early Encounters of Art and Film” and chaired by WCMA’s own Nancy Mathews, curator of 19th and 20th century art, looked at two aspects of early art and film: the studio of the artist and abstract art’s connection to early film. The first of two lecturers was art historian Lynda Nead of Birkbeck College, University of London. Sporting a dark suit and Converses, Nead explained that her paper “The Artist’s Studio: The Battle of Art and Film” is part of a larger project to uncover the artist’s studio.

Nead explored early films that mocked the masters of the old media by portraying those artists as lazy, sleeping, stupid and always outdone by the pioneering filmmaker. Early films claimed victory over the fine arts because while painting or sculpting made an image of life, the moving film could breathe life into the representation.

Nead first presented Thomas Edison’s The Artist’s Dilemma, filmed in 1901. As an example of this particular genre, the film follows a symbolic story of clowns, clocks and an artist protagonist. Alongside another similar work by early filmmaker Robert Paul, The Devil in the Studio (1901), these examples of mischievous, powerful filmmakers wreaking havoc in the studio show how film claimed to have superseded the sanctity of the studio as well as the old artist’s creative process.

Approaching her theory from the opposite stance, Nead showed a clip of Le Mystère Picasso (1956) from Henri-Georges Clouzot. Here, the French director focuses almost solely on Picasso’s canvas and shows how his brushstrokes build through the paper, glorifying the creativity of this artist in a documentary. Nead arbitrated both points of view on the studio, but she left to the audience the question of whether the artist or the filmmaker was the true alchemist of the studio.

The second lecture, “A Moving Picture in Early Abstract Art,” came at the interplay between film and art history from the standpoint of the many ways to capture and express essential optical qualities via abstraction. Delivered by Nell Andrew, an art historian from the University of Georgia, the presentation stemmed from the speaker’s experience in the world of dance and drew from a variety of material. The particular works included another Edison film, Serpentine Dance, and Hans Richter’s Rhythmus 21, both of which focus on the movement of basic shapes to evoke a visual reaction.

Andrew compared abstract film with abstract art from the same period, taking, for example, the work of painter Maurice Denis, which plays similar optical tricks to capture the essence of the subject matter. Andrew also delved into the aspect of performance art in the abstract, specifically the dancer Akarova’s use of costume, set, movement and music as a space in which to perform. The presentation covered a great deal of ground in establishing many relationships among multimedia abstraction, although no significant elaboration on these relationships was ever established.

Nead and Andrew had few overlapping discussions, but their disparate lectures effectively contributed to the guiding topic of the session. In some ways, their papers’ stark dissimilarities made transitioning from one lecture to the next a little jarring or difficult. Nonetheless, the work of Nead and Andrew played its part in sparking discussion of the correlation between film studies and art history.