Glover, Michael, The Independent (London, England)
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. …