Degas and ‘Picturing Movement’ at the Royal Academy

Your tardy blogger has finally been to see Degas and the Ballet. Picturing Movement, at the Royal Academy of Arts, London. A brief visit only, and I shall be returning for a more extensive tour – to learn more about Degas and enjoy his paintings, drawings and sculptures, and not just to admire the exhibits relating to chronophotography – before the show closes on 11 December.

An unrepeatable opportunity to see all of these Degas works, so do try to get to the exhibition if you can. First impressions then.

The catalogue, by Richard Kendall and Jill Devonyar is an attractive and engaging piece of research and presentation and great value (reduced to less than £15 at the time of my visit). Muybridge images used include the usual Zoopraxiscope colour photograph (with the top and chimney that don’t actually belong); the colour disc White and Black Running Race; a nice 1889 letter from Muybridge to Frederick A. Eaton of the RA, concerning Muybridge’s forthcoming lectures there; and a single image from ‘Annie G. in Canter’ (Animal Locomotion plate 621) together with an exact copy in chalk by Degas. Many images relating to Marey’s work are also included. The text concerning the relationships between the work of Marey, Muybridge, and Degas is carefully researched and well written and very interesting to read; and of permanent value.

White and Black Race (Zoopraxiscope disc)

The exhibition is spread through several rooms and wasn’t crowded during my visit. There’s a great deal of material concerning the relationship between Degas and photography in general, as well as chronophotography. Most of the Muybridge material relates to aspects of dance postures. One of Marey’s large chrono plate cameras sits in a rather gloomy cabinet in one corner, failing to look interesting. The Zoopraxiscope is better presented, but in a context that raises some questions. In the same cabinet is one picture disc, the 1893 Athletes Running (White and Black Running Race); two athletes, one white and one black, compete in a track race, with a large audience of matchstick figures in the background. This disc is one of the series of drawings based on Muybridge photo sequences combined with imaginary elements – in this case the people watching the race. On the wall above the machine is a large video projection; an animation of a Muybridge sequence of a male athlete performing a ballet-related movement, taken from an Animal Locomotion reproduction of the actual photographic images. Judging from the overheard discussions of those examining this exhibit, visitors are understandably confused. The animation that they’re watching doesn’t appear to have anything in common with the images on the displayed picture disc.

First Ballet Action (from Animal Locomotion)

Of course it’s tempting to animate the Animal Locomotion sequences as the result is very seductive, but it seems to me that this particular exhibit should have had, instead, an accompanying video of a disc animation – perhaps the popular subject Woman Dancing [Kingston EM0052] which is probably the most relevant to the exhibition’s subject – to bring some point to the display of the Zoopraxiscope. The exhibition curators have missed an important trick here, since the animated disc images would have made apparent to the visitor a lesser-known aspect of Muybridge’s work that relates directly to drawing and painting, surely of interest in an exhibition about Degas and movement. The catalogue touches on the production methods of the actual disc pictures and gets it nearly right, so it’s difficult to understand how this misleading display option was decided upon. And since the name of the artist, Irwin Faber, who interpreted and drew these extrapolations from Muybridge sequences is known, that name should have been there too. It seems that there’s still some way to go before art historians apply their usually very meticulous discipline in presenting accounts of technical processes and artist attribution, to peripheral subjects such as Zoopraxography. But there was a certain satisfaction in seeing the Zoopraxiscope back at the RA, after almost 130 years.

More on the exhibition, with less harping on about my own view of its very few shortcomings, soon.

Posted here by Stephen Herbert

(White and Black Race Running Race photo courtesy Kingston Museum)

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All Change at Kingston

Jill Lamb (Photo: Kingston Museum News)

Staff News
One of the world’s most important collections of Muybridge material is held by Kingston Museum, in Muybridge’s home town. As with all local authorities, Kingston Council has had to make changes to its staffing and access, following a reduced Heritage budget. The Museum will now close on Mondays (in addition to Wednesdays and Sundays), so is now open four days each week, including an extended evening opening (until 7pm) on Thursdays.

Peta Cook left as Curator in September, after more than five years in post. Grace McElwee, Head of Libraries and Heritage, writes: “Peta has decided to travel the world and also visit relations in Australia, picking up museum jobs along the way… Peta was meticulous and conscientious in all she did but she will be especially remembered for her promotion of the Muybridge Collection which has put the work of this important pioneer on the map locally, nationally, and internationally…”

Our congratulations are due to several other long-standing members of the team. I was delighted to learn that Jill Lamb has been appointed Heritage Team Leader and Borough Archivist. For many years, one of Jill’s many responsibilities while working at the North Kingston Centre has been providing access to the Muybridge Collection, and for the past two decades Jill has always been most helpful to me with my own work at Kingston. And very recent news is that congratulations are also due to  Emma Rummins, another of Kingston’s stalwarts who has also been of great assistance with Muybridge artefacts over the years, will be changing jobs – from Local History Officer to Museum Curator, replacing Peta Cook. A new member of staff, Amy Graham, joined the museum team as a Heritage Assistant for 3 months, starting in October 2011. Amy recently moved to Kingston from Newcastle where she worked in the University of Northumbria’s art gallery. Sandra Murphy is Visitor Services Officer; Tove Bellingham is Exhibitions Officer; and May Cheyne is Administration Officer. A new post of Learning & Engagement Officer has been created. Less happy is the news of Rod Lewis’s departure at the end of this year.

Considering the financial situation that this country is presently facing, the immediate future seems bright for Kingston Heritage overall, including the Muybridge Collection.

Local History Room move postponed
During August, it was officially announced that there will be a delay to the closing of the North Kingston centre for one year. This essentially means that the Local History Room, Archives and Administration Office for Kingston Museum & Heritage Service (including most of the Muybridge artefacts) will remain at North Kingston Centre until summer 2013. News of the new location has yet to be announced.

Posted here by Stephen Herbert – with thanks to Kingston Museum News (Issue 67 – October 2011.)

Muybridge / Watkins / Naef

This is from a recent blog:

Tyler Green Modern Art Notes
[October 31, 2011, 5:41 pm]
Muybridge’s Watkinses? NYPL lecture

Last June, MAN broke the news that Weston Naef, the leading Carleton Watkins scholar, believed that many works attributed to Eadweard Muybridge were in fact Watkins pictures.

Naef’s revelation prompted much debate and discussion. Philip Brookman, the curator of the first-ever Muybridge retrospective that started the debate, thought that Naef was likely on to something. However, Muybridge biographer Rebecca Solnit attacked Naef (and MAN) in The Guardian, accusing him of starting a “campaign of innuendo.”

On the occasion of the publication of his book of Watkins’ mammoth plate pictures, Naef will continue the conversation about the Watkins-Muybridge relationship in a lecture at the New York Public Library (which has significant collections of both Watkins and Muybridge). The lecture, titled “The Counterfactual Thesis: Eadweard Muybridge’s Debt to Carleton Watkins,” will take place in the NYPL’s Berger Forum, Room 227 at 6pm.

Rather than “The Counterfactual Thesis: Eadweard Muybridge’s Debt to Carleton Watkins,” the website of the New York Public Library announces the lecture under an abbreviated title:

Counterfactual: Muybridge’s Debt to Watkins
Tuesday, November 1, 2011, 6 – 8 p.m.
Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, Margaret Liebman Berger Forum

Weston Naef will speak on the visual dialogue between Carleton Watkins and Eadweard Muybridge, with reference to his forthcoming book, Carleton Watkins: The Complete Mammoth Photographs. The talk will present Watkins (a significant range of whose work is held by the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs) as the most dominant force in California photography between 1860 and 1890, and analyze Watkins’ influence on Muybridge, who is considered to be the father of moving pictures.

Tyler Green’s title “Muybridge’s Watkinses?” perhaps implies that some photographs attributed to Muybridge are in fact by Watkins, and the text of his blog piece certainly states that Weston Naef has been saying this, and indeed Weston Naef has made such statements, privately and publicly.

We could analyse this further. My admittedly limited grasp of English grammar suggests to me that “Muybridge’s Watkinses?” (possessive, followed by plural noun) – implies that Muybridge acquired objects created by Watkins. Had the blog title been “Muybridge’s / Watkins’s?” (possessive, followed by possessive), it could be seen as asking the question; ‘Are these by Muybridge or by Watkins?’ – which is perhaps what Tyler Green meant?

Now, it’s one thing to create an argument about the influence of Watkins on Muybridge, and quite another to suggest that photographs attributed to Muybridge are in fact by Watkins. As a grammatical term, counterfactual arguably suggests a causal effect (Muybridge’s photos wouldn’t have existed, or would have been different, had it not been for Watkins’ precedents); which is a very different thing to stating that some photographs attributed to Muybridge are in fact by Watkins.  Or does the counterfactual thesis claim that attribution to Muybridge of certain photographs is against the facts (or evidence)? I can’t help thinking that this insertion of ‘counterfactual’ in the talk’s title is provocative, and simply obfuscates what is really a simple question.

So what we would like to know is: Does Weston Naef, in his lecture, stick to his statements concerning attribution – that many photographs attributed to Muybridge were taken by Watkins – and give details, or is he simply making a case for Muybridge having been influenced by Watkins? Or, since Weston Naef’s new book (to be published 15 November) has only three references to Muybridge listed in the Index, is this lecture simply a puff for the book, but using Muybridge’s name to draw an audience, who probably wouldn’t have heard of Carleton Watkins? Perhaps someone who attends the lecture could let us know! And I’d be pleased to receive your views on whether I’m misinterpreting the term counterfactual. For the record, I do think there are many questions to be answered about the attribution of certain ‘Muybridge’ photographs, and I hope that continuing research will discover how much can be definitely established.

Possibly I’m being unreasonably cynical here; the main subject of the new book is the Mammoth photographs, so perhaps Weston Naef’s assertions that ‘Muybridge’ photographs in other formats are in fact by Watkins will be dealt with in other lectures, or in future publications. And a Note to the Reader states that ‘Reference to Houseworth & Co prints and Muybridge prints that relate to Watkins is made here’ – which will be very useful. I understand that details of some photographs in smaller than mammoth formats, and details of some stereographs, are also included in the book.

Muybridge aside, this volume is a great achievement for all concerned, revealing these wonderful photographs of Carleton Watkins and promising to be a superb new reference resource for historians of photography.

Posted here by Stephen Herbert