You are here:   Civilisation >  Critique > How Monet created motion pictures

Left: “Rouen Cathedral: The Portal (Morning Effect)”, 1894. Right: “Rouen Cathedral: The Portal and the Tour d'Albane at Dawn”, 1893-4 (LEFT: ©Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel, Beyeler Collection / photo Robert Bayer. RIGHT: © Museum of Fine Arts, BostonTompkins Collection - Arthur Gordon Tompkins Fund 24.6)

Claude Monet once wished he had been born blind so that, when his sight was restored, he could see everything with a completely new vision. To achieve this, he painted 30 versions of Rouen Cathedral that reveal the cinematic aspect of his art. Five pictures from this vivid series appear in the current Monet & Architecture exhibition at the National Gallery until July 29. Monet raced back and forth between these canvases, painting a whole sequence simultaneously, just as a silent film director rushed from scene to scene. His paintings were motion pictures. Monet’s eye was the camera, the cathedral his image, the paint his unexposed film, the canvas his screen.

Both verbal and visual art reflected the rapid industrial and technological changes that took place in the 19th century. The factory smoke polluting the landscape and steaming trains rushing through the countryside in the background of Monet’s earlier pictures suggest the transition from pastoral to urban life, from plein air painting to indoor filming. His series foreshadowed the cinematic movement of Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending the Staircase (1912), the dynamic Futurism of Umberto Boccioni’s Simultaneous Visions (1912) and Giacomo Balla’s Abstract Speed & Sound (1913).

John Carey writes that “the 19th century was essentially a struggle towards visual representation. Dioramas, daguerreotypes, lithographic newspaper illustrations — step by step they all brought camera and film closer.” Tennyson’s In Memoriam (1849) had imagined geological change as a kind of speeded-up film:

The hills are shadows, and they flow
From form to form, and nothing stands,
They melt like mist, the solid lands,
Like clouds they shape themselves and go.

In the 1870s Eadweard Muybridge’s series of photographic studies portrayed animals and human beings in motion. The painters Edgar Degas and Edvard Munch were both expert photographers.

Lynda Nead confirms that at the turn of the 20th century “the dream of motion haunted the visual art. . . . The transformation from stasis to movement and the varieties and velocities of motion possessed all forms of visual media,” from still photography to film and magic lanterns. In Proust’s Swann’s Way (1913) Marcel is fascinated by the lanterns that display a series of chromatic images painted on glass slides. He is transfixed by the way the brightly coloured yet insubstantial projections transform his bedroom walls with “an implacable iridescence, supernatural phenomena of many colours, in which legends were depicted as on a shifting and transitory window.” Two years later, in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, T. S. Eliot imagined a magic lantern that penetrated the body like the recently discovered X-ray and “threw the nerves in patterns on a screen”.
View Full Article

Post your comment

This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.