Academic journal article Framework

Light, Motion, Cinema!: The Heritage of Loïe Fuller and Germaine Dulac

Academic journal article Framework

Light, Motion, Cinema!: The Heritage of Loïe Fuller and Germaine Dulac

Article excerpt

I. Elective Affinities

Le cinéma est l'art du mouvement et de la lumière.

-Germaine Dulac, 1925

As a child, the extraordinary filmmaker and theorist Germaine Dulac had been taken to see the celebrated dancer Lo'ie Fuller even though she was under the age limit for attending a music hall. Dulac had heard about this American dancer who "danced with light" but it was only after seeing her that she realized that Fuller was more than a dancer; she had created something new, in Dulac's words-"a visual music." Years later, after being fascinated by photography, literature and the theater, Dulac adopted the cinema as her medium, but gradually realized the cinema she sought was not that promoted by the film industry. Her process of defining her sense of cinema as a new art first took the path of a via negativa; cinema as a new art must owe nothing to older forms: literature, theater, or even painting and photography. Her writings show that by 1924 she identified movement-organized in terms of rhythm, as only the technology available to cinema made possible-as the unique element of the medium.

When Dulac paid tribute to Fuller in 1928, she recognized the dancer as her direct predecessor, not simply an inspiration, but in effect, one of the inventors of her medium; perhaps the first artist to work in light and movement:

Loïe Fuller created her first harmonies of light at the same moment that the Lumière Brothers gave us the cinema. Strange coincidence at the dawn of an era which will be that of visual music; the work of Loïe Fuller borders on ours, and that is why cinéastes render her a profound and ultimate homage.1

We have, then, two women pioneers about a generation apart, each articulating a uniquely modern and technological art form, each to a surprising degree forgotten by the canonical histories of their art forms (although each now undergoing a well deserved rediscovery), and each pursuing an art of motion, a concept and practice that I think those of us who care about rethinking both the history and the future of cinema need to reconsider. Their neglect, their rediscovery, and also their vital importance relate to their gender without being exhausted by that fact. In this essay I hope to avoid the dilemma of either proclaiming an essential feminine aesthetic, or of restricting myself to an abstract formalism (without scorning either approach entirely). I hope to make my analysis of these women responsible to a history of modernist practice, recognizing that traditional accounts of modern art have tended to marginalize even the few female practitioners who managed to make a public impression. I will not isolate either of these women from the dominantly male practice and discourse that surrounded them, which they managed nonetheless to inflect in important ways. But I do want to signal an important connection between two generations of women artists, and the continuity of an alternative tradition of theory and practice.

When I claimed in a conference presentation in 2000 that Loïe Fuller invented the cinema, I did not then realize that Dulac had anticipated my claim by nearly eight decades.2 Since she is still not widely known, I will briefly review Fuller's contribution to the art of motion and visual music.3 A Chicago-born performer, in the 189Os Fuller introduced a new number, the serpentine dance. This new form of spectacle consisted of Fuller manipulating a long expanse of fabric that extended from her costume. She swirled this material into a range of protean shapes: as Dulac described it, "white veils whose mobile and airy transformations evoked flowers and butterflies".'1 In this Fuller extended the manipulation of skirts, veils, and sleeves that had supplied another dimension to dancers for centuries, perhaps millennia, but her other innovation brought dance directly into the modern age. The billowing white fabric became a screen for a variety of brightly colored projected electrical lights, as Fuller aimed a dozen or more magic lanterns fitted with revolving gels of color onto her dancing figure, "staining," to quote Dulac again, "the mobile white surfaces with a shimmering spectrum. …

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