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Movement & light in today's art

Man's ideas about movement have varied considerably through the ages. In turn he has feared it and has longed to halt its flight; he has wished to take part in it, then to analyse it, and finally to make use of it. Ever since prehistoric times the artist has tried to give visual expression to movement, and seeking ways to represent it, he has been torn between the urge to arrest each changing scene that met his eye and the wish to breathe new life into the vision he had just set down. Increasing powers of analysis brought greater knowledge; fresh materials became available for the artist's use, and movement began to find expression in new ways.

by Frank Popper

So we should not be surprised today to witness the emergence of Kinetic art, i.e. the use of mechanical, or "visual" and "natural" movement, and to find others who are reviving the sporadic studies of a few pioneers, such as the American, Thomas Wilfred, the Hungarian, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and the Russian composer, A.N. Scriabine, all of whom made a very direct use of light in art to give an impression of actual movement. 

Scriabine had rays of coloured light projected as an accompaniment to his symphony, Prometheus, and Wilfred designed an instrument he called the Clavilux; by "playing" on its keyboard he cast moving shapes and colours on a screen. In our own day the most important work with light and real movement is being done in painting by an American, Frank J. Malina, and in sculpture by a Frenchman, Nicholas Schöffer.

Nuclear fission, cybernetics and the whole range of scientific discoveries are making a deep impact on the outlook of the average person; their effect on the artist is no less marked. And it is against this background of modern science and its relationship to the basic preoccupations of art, that it is interesting to examine the new role played by light and movement.

What actually are the latest developments in this field of art? What objections to their work do these artists have to face? And how are these criticisms answered?

Apart from works which make use of artificial light and movement, there are today three distinct trends in which the element of time is a paramount factor.

This mechanical or mechanistic trend, which tries to be both amusing and poetic, has a fairly recent history of some importance. Francis Picabia, a French artist, visualized what he called "irrational machines." Another Frenchman, Marcel Duchamp, actually built some in 1913. He constructed his first "ready made" a bicycle wheel mounted on a stool and followed it up with various pieces of "high precision optical apparatus," as he called them, such as the "rotary hemisphere." Man Ray, the American photographer, was also constructing "ready mades" at this periodamong them a mobile arrangement of coat hangers; while two Russians, Vladimir Tatlin and Naum Gabo, included mobile elements in their constructions.

Among other great pioneers of mechanical movement, we of course find Alexander Calder, of the U.S.A. Calder, though, first used mechanical propulsion in his Circus and in the toys he designed before producing his "Mobiles" sculptures made up of suspended metal plates and wires, which are delicately poetic yet amusing at the same time. More recently, Jean Tlnguely, of Switzerland, has been trying to advance beyond the mechanics of science to a new kind of "metaphysics," Illustrated by the titles of his constructions  - Métamécanique, Métamatic, Relief Métamécanique Sonore. A Belgian, Pol Bury, uses a concealed motor to give slow movement to his three-dimensional constructions made of wood metal and other materials.

The second trend is based on the movement of the spectator's eyes, either by the manner of looking at the work (the eye is guided) or by changing position before it and so causing the eye to move. A Hungarian-born French artist, Victor de Vasarely, and a Venezuelan, J.R. Soto, are reviving a long-standing tradition that leads us back to the linear and perspective trompe l'oeil works of the Renaissance and Baroque periods.

Vasarely began his study of the subject before the war, by experimenting with transparent plaques which slid in grooves. He became the leader of a movement known as Chiétisme Plastique. His designs are usually constructed with simple elements diverging lines or geometrical figures skilfully repeated, cut out and superimposed. These may be black and white or polychrome; it is their juxtaposition which gives them depth and creates a three-dimensional effect. The spectator's change of position when looking at a picture gives the work yet another dimension duration. These qualities relate Vasarely's work to architecture, to which it may indeed belong. By the play of specially wrought metallic shapes suspended before a fluted background, Soto achieves a poetic effect of great subtlety. Similar trompe l'oeil effects are achieved by Francisco Sobrino and the Frenchman, Yavaral, with plexiglass and vinyl wire.

The third trend is exemplified by artists who, though working in a similar vein to those just mentioned, use natural elements such as air, water and fire to achieve actual motion.

One group, employing here light and ingeniously suspended materials, obtains movement in the same way as Calder does with his "Mobiles" by using air as the motive force. Thus, J. Le Parc, of Argentina has built structures made of tiny metallized plastic plaques which move with the air and shimmer with light. Another Argentinian, G. Kosice, introduces the force of water into his "hydraulic sculpture," while the Frenchman, B. Aubertin uses matches in his "fire pictures" to produce a real "firework display." In addition to these three main trends mention might be made of the work of the Greek sculptor, V. Takis, and his use of the magnet and its power of attraction.

Thus far, reflected or refracted light have played a limited role. Before going on to consider artists who have used it more deliberately, let us look at some of the criticisms levelled at this new form of art.

The main objection is voiced by lovers of painting, art historians and by painters themselves. They maintain that the sudden introduction of movement into a picture destroys the subtle balance which exists in every well-harmonized composition. Movement can only be adequately expressed, they say, by the general rhythm of a picture, by the lines of force or the vibration of the fields of colour; and only thus can the feeling for beauty, the artist's sensitivity remain unimpaired.

Many persons have also found it extremely difficult to accept as legitimate art some of the latest trends in sculpture. According to Moholy-Nagy, the art of sculpture has evolved from a block like the pyramids to modelled sculpture (both solid and hollow) and so on down to contemporary forms in which the sculpture is perforated, suspended in the air, and finally endowed with movement as in kinetic sculpture.

The most traditional works of art draw their vitality from the various internal rhythms connected either with subject or with form. Yet this same rhythmic interplay is the guiding principle of present-day kinetic art. The artist tries to achieve a satisfactory combination of the rhythm of the moving object (mechanical rhythm) with the rhythm of human perception (psychological rhythm) and the aesthetic rhythm (our appreciation of the work of art).

Another more sweeping type of criticism denies any connexion between scientific and artistic invention. Or, in other words, scientific inventions such as cybernetics and electronics cannot be used to create works of art and, by the same token, artistic creation can have no bearing on the widening of human knowledge.

Obviously, present-day research in science takes place on a scale vastly different from that in art. Setting up a scientific laboratory demands vast resources and great discoveries are often the result of collaboration between several scientists, even whole teams of scientists. All the same, one can hardly imagine that a scientist, even a highly specialized one, could wholly ignore the sense of the aesthetic, since he must have it to picture the complex physical phenomena of our universe as well as the aesthetic needs of mankind to which his work is dedicated.

As for the artist, it is equally clear if we agree that artistic creation is partly a conscious process that a scientific understanding of the means he employs, of the world around him and of his own personality can hardly fail to enrich the artist's art. But it would be going much too far to say that scientific invention and artistic invention are one and the same process.

Yet the artist and scientist have often been combined in one person: Leonardo da Vinci was an illustrious example of this, and so were all the great figures of the Renaissance. Very few artists could lay claim to universal knowledge nowadays, of course, but some who are working on kinetic art are actually carrying out scientific experiments. Their theoretical knowledge is such that, with the help of specialists, they are able to use the most modern techniques in composing their works.

The art of the cinema has already outgrown these difficulties. The cinema welcomed every invention that could be of use to it, "and based its aesthetic theory on a precise relationship established between light and time. Movement as the technical principle of films, the movement of the camera, and many other kinetic features are of great importance here.

Unseen rhythms of our universe

Pioneers of abstract film-making, such as the American Hans Richter, and the Swede, Viking Eggeling, and their successors, have often taken the movement of forms as the central theme of their work. Motion picture cartoons from the earliest down the present day, are all related to our subject. So are drawings made directly on films like those of Len Lye, of New Zealand, and Norman McLaren, of Canada, and the work of a still younger generation. Another contribution was the film, Le Ballet Mécanique, the work of the French artist Fernand Léger, which brings us back to painting.

Frank Malina, the American painter and scientist, has introduced light and movement directly into his pictures and in this respect three aspects of his highly original work deserve special consideration.

Malina's compositions are ingeniously constructed. After experimenting with an electronic system, he finally devised an electro-mechanical technique for his "electropaintings." The basic composition is painted in various colours on a fixed transparent plaque (the "stator" ) while one or more elements ("rotors") which are also painted, are moved by an electric motor. Light, from lamps incorporated in the construction, is cast on a semitransparent screen.

Here, an interesting attempt has been made to establish a real correlation between Science and Art. A glance at Malina's career may help to clarify this point. He was a brilliant aircraft engineer, and before the war had made a special study of rocket propulsion. He directed the development of the first successful American highaltitude rocket, and as such was one of the pioneers of astronautical development. Later Malina extended his field of research to geophysics.

It is not surprising that the forms of his electropaintings should be akin to those of coral, radiolaria, diatoma and crystals photographed through the microscope. This kinship with the physical universe is even more marked in the case of stars and galaxies. 

In purely artistic terms, the work of Malina evokes the art of stained glass. The artificial light he sets behind the screens of his pictures is a substitute for the changing sunlight to which Gothic stained glass owes part of its miraculous quality.

The way in which he divides his space, the intensity of his black-circled reds and blues, and the ever-changing rays of light all transform a picture by Malina into a kind of animated stained-glass window. Unlike stained glass windows, however, Malina's pictures are enclosed in frames and are hung on walls like traditional paintings.

Malina's third important contribution to kinetic art is his co-ordination of rhythm whether physical, human or aesthetic by the use of continuous movement of coloured forms.

Movement in Malina's pictures may be compared to atomic, biological or astronomical rhythm. Psychologically speaking, these movements express the speed of time as it is lived, not as it is shown on the clock face. They bring us closer to life and to human movement than to the prodigiously rapid movement of the universe which is something our minds cannot grasp.

The investigation of human perception has not yet been carried very far in the aesthetic sphere; but even so, the transposition of the rhythm of life into aesthetic rhythm is a particularly interesting feature of Malina's work. His essential purpose in trying to break away from traditional methods of painting, is to create a new rhythm, demanding the sustained attention of the spectator. This experiment has a certain relationship to music. Indeed, in Malina's latest works recorded music is linked to a mechanical and electrical source, so that its variations influence the intensity, while the movement of the coloured forms keeps time with the music.

One needs to see some of his one hundred kinetic pictures, such as Changing Times in the Lyons Museum, or Orbits III in the Musée d'Art Moderne in Paris, in order to appreciate at its true value Malina's contribution to art. He has achieved a synthesis of art and science by evolving a new method for the direct transmission of coloured light, accompanied by continuous movement in which different rhythms combine to create a harmonious whole.

Nicholas Schöffer, the sculptor, works with the same concern for light, movement, depth and also colour. His sculptures are metallic structures in which curved and angular elements are arranged horizontally and vertically. His most recent works are placed behind large, semitransparent screens, on which synchronized variable images are thrownformed by the shadows and reflections of the revolving sculpture and the colours cast by a mobile disc. The source of light, though placed outside the sculpture, plays an important part. Schöffer uses a kind of organ to project and vary his chromatic compositions.

He is interested, too, in the relationship between sound and image, and in his largest work, The Cybernetic Tower, a piece of sculpture 52 metres (170 feet) in height, the sound track (street noises, recorded and mingled with electronic music) plays its part in Formes et Lumières, a programme presented annually, from June to September, at the Palais des Congres at Liege, Belgium.

Schöffer Tower is controlled by an electronic computer sensitive to atmospheric changes, and it is these which regulate the movements of the sculpture. This skilful mingling of aspects of the environment with the most subtle creations of the mind is typical of Schöffer's victory over traditional limitations.

In his earlier compositions sculpture was Schöffer's chief interest; but at Liège his Cybernetic Tower is now flanked by a giant screen on which moving forms and colours are projected from a series of "light mixers."

Interpreting life's quickened pace

Other experiments in filtering, projecting and polarizing light have been made by the Italian artists Bruno Munari and G. Vardanega, by the Argentinians, Martha Boto and Le Parc and the Israeli artist, P. Hoenich who uses the sun as a source of light and natural wind for movement. Some of their revolving structures are lit from within or reflected in mirrors.

The introduction and synchronization of rhythm and movement in the theatre brings us closer to the "complete" work of art. In Russia, V.E. Meyerhold and J. Annenkoff introduced the first mobile scenery. The German, Oscar Schlemmer and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy sought to establish a correlation between visual, spatial and musical movement in drama and in dance that art of movement par excellence brought back to life by Serge Diaghilev at the beginning of the century. S.M. Eisenstein in Russia, Jean Cocteau in France and Walter Gropius in Germany even used films as part of the stage setting. Kandlnsky in Russia achieved the first "complete" theatrical production by staging Mussorgsky's "Pictures from an Exhibition."

The latest experiments again reveal a conscious effort to bring the audience into the performance so far as possible. J. Belson and H. Jacobs at San Francisco, have tried to create a new kind of drama by using electronic apparatus, while in France, Jacques Polieri has ideas about a theatre completely in motion.

Similar methods are adopted in the Son et Lumière performances, the purpose of which Is usually to bring some famous building to life and to recount its history.

But the real impulse of kinetic art is towards a complete rhythmic synthesis by using elements derived from kinetic art itself.

It thus seems that new modes of artistic expression appeal to man's hitherto neglected kinetic "sense," the connexion being established chiefly by light. It is an art which strives to intensify the relation between this sense and the others through an association of rhythms. From the social standpoint, it may help to improve the standard of aesthetic appreciation by disseminating and multiplying original images conceived by the artist.

Kinetic art will not take the place of the other arts. The poetic, intimate quality of traditional painting, the three-dimensional message of sculpture and the stable, monumental quality of architecture will continue to be subjects for the aesthetic contemplation of mankind. But man's additional need for an artistic link with the dynamism of life has always been of capital importance. In fact, it dominates man's earliest writings and pictures.

As the Twentieth Century progresses, the pace of life accelerates; distances shrink; man's contacts with his fellow men become closer and closer. His ambitions lead him to explore other real worlds, and even his imaginary worlds are now formed from increasingly familiar elements. Will man falter and fail to keep up the pace, will our artists be unable to master the new techniques? Let us hope that the artist was right in believing, as many scientists do, that human resources like those of the earth have hardly begun to be exploited.


Learn more about light in the Courier 




Frank Popper

When he published his article "Movement & light in today's art" in the UNESCO Courier (September 1963), French historian of art and technology Frank Popper was completing a doctoral thesis at the University of Paris, to be entitled "The Image of Movement in the Plastic Arts since 1860" ). Since then, he became Professor Emeritus of Aesthetics and the Science of Art at the University of Paris VIII. Popper is the author of a dozen of books among which: Origins and Development of Kinetic Art and Art, Action and Participation.