Do the Locomotion

By Lambirth, Andrew | The Spectator, January 23, 2010 | Go to article overview

Do the Locomotion


Lambirth, Andrew, The Spectator


On the Move: Visualising Action

Estorick Collection, 39a Canonbury Square,

London N1, until 18 April

The Estorick Collection, which specialises in modern Italian art, has mounted a series of rewarding exhibitions in recent years, all of which bear some essential relationship to its permanent holdings. Futurism remains the best known and most widely celebrated modern Italian art movement, and the current exhibition helps to put in context the Futurist obsession with recording movement through the static image. This display, curated by Jonathan Miller, offers a background to and explanation for the way in which the Futurists depicted movement by examining how animal locomotion was first represented and analysed through the developments in scientific photography.

It is essentially a photographic exhibition, and the two big stars of the show (and the accompanying catalogue, price £12.95) are Eadweard Muybridge and Etienne-Jules Marey. Muybridge is familiar to art-lovers for the crucial inspiration he provided Francis Bacon, while the more scientific Marey is rather less known. The visitor to the exhiqbition is greeted in gallery one by a bronze flight of seagulls merging into each other.

This dramatic and beautiful sculpture is by Marey, and is the culmination of his research into how birds actually fly. This 'endless column' of birds is like a spine with many wings, showing all the positions of flight from the nearly closed (wings underneath the body), to the full span at the sides, to the archetypal V arching over their backs. This sculpture is juxtaposed with John Wootton's 18th-century painting 'A Race on the Round Course at Newmarket', in which the steeds are depicted in classic 'rocking-horse' stance, with front and back legs extended. Thus are the scientific approach (based on direct observation) and the artistic (based, in this case, on assumption) tellingly contrasted. It was to cure art and society in general of such misunderstandings that Muybridge was first commissioned to record animal locomotion accurately in photos.

Sheets of Muybridge's photographic studies (collotype prints from c.1887) hang in this gallery, first of male and female humans, then of vultures and cockatoos. Next to them are platinum prints by Idris Khan (born 1978), inspired by Muybridge, but featuring superimposed shots of figures rising. Shot is an operative word here: in one of the display cases is Marey's photographic rifle, an early attempt to trace the changes of rapid movement. A handful of linocuts from the artists of the Grosvenor School follows, particularly fine being Cyril Power's 'The Giant Racer'.

Then comes the Estorick's own Balla painting, 'The Hand of the Violinist'. It has never made such sense as it does in this context.

There's a wonderfully eccentric photo of Marey's collaborator Georges Demeny in a black suit with white lines and points on it, invented in another attempt to track movement, through geometrical chronophotography. …

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