Online Magazine of the Visual Narrative - ISSN 1780-678X
Issue 1. Cognitive Narratology
Muybridge with(out) Marey. Rereading Aaron Scharf's Art and Photography
Author: Jan Baetens
Abstract (E): The aim of this article is to propose a new reading of Aron Scharf's still very influential "Art and Photography". More specifically, I try to analyze 1) why Scharf's 'one to one' relationships between the two media are no longer sufficient to understand the complexity of this type of exchanges and 2) why possible alternatives should be found in the field of the system-theory based approaches. Throughout the whole article, I use the double exemple of Eadweard Muybridge and Etienne Jules Marey, two photographers who have been among those who have most influenced painting and art in general.
Abstract (F): Cet article propose une relecture critique de l'étude classique d'Aaron Scharf, "Art and Photography". Il tente d'abord de démontrer qu'il n'est plus suffisant d'établir des rapports directs et linéaires entre les deux médias pour comprendre la complexité des échanges. Il s'efforce ensuite d'avancer quelques alternatives qui s'inspirent de la théorie des systèmes. Les exemples cités proviennent de Muybridge et de Marey, qui sont parmi les photographes dont l'influence sur la peinture est la moins contestée.
Keywords: Marey, Muybridge, Scharf, chronophotography
Art and influence
It would not be an exaggeration to say that there has always been a kind of love story between Art and Photography (Scharf 1968/1986) and the cultivated public in the very broad sense of the word. Ever since its first publication, this much acclaimed survey of the relationship and exchanges between the -supposedly antagonistic?- domains of 'art' and 'photography' has enjoyed a never fading success. Of course, the undeniable qualities of the study are the major reason of this ever lasting lune de miel with the public, both academic and otherwise. Thoroughly documented, enjoyable to read, judiciously and generously illustrated, and, last but not least, convincing on most of the points it develops, Scharf's book seems not to have suffered too much from the general suspicion towards traditional art history and its bias in postmodern theory.
However, time has come to propose a new reading of Art and Photography. Not in order to criticise the extremely useful and constantly stimulating cross-overs Scharf discovered and described, nor to update his views in a more contemporary language (which approaches this kind of relationships in terms of 'intermediate' or 'multimedia' applications), but in order to see how the renewed vision on art and photography can help create new meanings out of the corpus built by Scharf. Indeed, whereas at the first publication of the book, the 'and' in the title still had some programmatic value, the inclusive conjunction it intended to achieve has now become definitely anachronistic. The problem is no longer to defend photography as a medium by stressing its influence on the older, and thus more noble arts: in this regard, one could say Art and Photography is the final -and finally victorious- moment of the long chain of discussions on the artistic pretensions of a mechanic medium confronted with the prestige of painting, that most prestigious of the former liberal arts (from this viewpoint, the discussion on art 'and' photography is but a modern reminder of the Renaissance paragone debate (on this peculiar genre, see Panofsky 1954)). The point nowadays -if the project of Scharf had to be remade- should rather be to say what is left of art outside of the photographic field, which has now totally invaded the area of the former art (one could say that art no longer exists unless it is able to become a picture and thus to appear as such, as is argued by Dubois 1987) and which has done so in a way that has completely shattered all our traditional conceptions of art (following the polemical thesis advanced by, among others, Thierry de Duve 1984 and Rosalind Krauss 1991).
Notwithstanding the fact that the artistic 'essence' or the artistic 'virtualities' of photography are no longer hot issues, the 'use value' of Scharf's work nevertheless remains considerable. Not that it will provide a strong assistance in the reflection on the clash of the mechanic and the digital images (Mitchell 1992, Wells 1997). But its way of methodologically describing the specific historic relationships of one medium with another forces us to reconsider a theoretical problem often obliterated by contemporary studies in the field of interartistic comparatism (a discipline that much have criticised and find now hopelessly outdated, helplessly untheoretical, definitely superfluous, but also a discipline which provides us a description of an undeniable reality: the interaction of artists and arts, the mutual transformation of practices and works). If one accepts the critiques addressed towards the discipline of interartistic comparatism (see Mitchell 1994: 83-106), it should become clear that the most crucial problem raised by a new reading of Scharf ought to concern the notion of 'influence', which Art and Photography treats in a rather impressionistic way (in fact without ever problematising the very concept of influence at all).
In this article, I will try to make a contribution to the redefinition of 'influence' (an uneasy but, alas, inescapable tool of writing history), first by criticising some types of misreading produced by Scharf's traditional viewpoint in Art and Photography, second by formulating some new proposals whose intention is to authorise a re-use of Scharf's material. In both cases, I will largely use the 'influence' of just two photographers, Eadweard Muybridge and Etienne Jules Marey. Not only does their work belong to the most 'influential' productions of the medium (both inside and outside photography, by the way), most of all it allows a wide variety of theoretical issues to be considered. Renewed attention for the concept of 'influence' in literary theory (see Delabastita 1997) certainly has encouraged me to undertake this exercise. It has also drawn my attention to several points I hope not to have interpreted too incorrectly.
Small encounters of an ancient kind
Without any doubt, the major problem of Art and Photography is that the question of influence tends to be reduced to a kind of 'hit', a local and locally describable contact between two clear and distinct items, and that furthermore -even if retroactive influences and cases of zigzagging are perfectly acknowledged- the set of 'hits' occurring in time mostly obey to a chronological line.
The problem here is at least twofold. On the one hand, by considering influence in terms of one-to-one relationships, historic interpretations always risk seeing too much and not enough at the same time. Too much, because they are tempted to admit a particular influence even when this influence is difficult to prove. Not enough, because they are not less likely to privilege one type of relationships over others. On the other hand, such a way of reading and interpreting always starts from the 'source' (the work that influences something that comes after it) and stops with the 'target' (the work or works that undergo(es) the influence of some anterior work). But as we all know thanks to Borges (1981), a writer creates those who are influencing his work, and examples from the visual arts seem to prove that the situation there is not very different.
But before we continue to criticise the notion of 'influence', let us turn to a famous case of art history (see Scharf 1986: 230-231), i.e. the influence of Marey's chronophotography (the technique which enables the reproduction of a moving object by the concentration and superposition within one single picture of the successive phases of a short but continuous movement) on Seurat's Le Chahut (a pointillist painting representing a row of dancers). Chronologically speaking, this relationship is acceptable: Seurat painted his work in 1889-1890, and it is acknowledged that he knew of the experiments of Marey. But is this enough to admit the very strong analogy between the Seurat painting on the one hand and some images by Marey on the other hand? The fact that Scharf's interpretation has been taken up by several scholars, and even by scholars specialised in the same field such as Billeter (1979), is not a very convincing argument: there have unfortunately been plenty of cases of misreading and misunderstandings which have been repeated for many years and by many scholars (in a different field, that of cultural and media studies, John Docker (1994) has given some hilarious -but also frightening- examples of the way some modernist and postmodernist clichés have been repeated over and over again without any critical reflection, becoming apodictic truths without ever having been exposed to any serious examination). The case of the Seurat painting is a good illustration of the uncritical repetition under discussion. When we look closely both at the two pictures and at the larger context, the thesis of the relationship suggested by Scharf -very cautiously by the way, contrary to the much less hesitating way Scharf's readers have done- remains very vague and unsatisfactory. There are many reasons to deny rather than confirm the influence in question: technically speaking, the 'influence' of chronophotography does not enable us to interpret the row of several dancers -however analogus they may be- as the successive movements of one single dancer (there is of course the curious fact that the legs are all female, whereas the range of dancers shows an alternation of female and masculine bodies, and the separations between the various feet and legs always remain very clear); moreover, the presence of Marey's techniques can in no way help us to better understand the artistic project of pointillism in general, where colour was so crucial an item; finally, the testimony quoted by Scharf is not direct, but indirect (he mentions comments by Theo Van Gogh, Charles Henry, Jean Renoir, but not by Seurat himself, the only direct comment by Seurat being on Muybridge (Scharf 1986: 363)). Moreover, there are other reasons which should force us to think of other and different types of influences instead, such as for instance -but who is imitating whom in this case?- the experiments with applied colours in photography (mentioned by Scharf himself (Scharf 1986:362); their role for the understanding of the whole of Seurat's work is undoubtedly more important than his attempt to apply chronodynamism). And as far as the other aspect of the problem is concerned -not that of the reduction to the one-to-one relationship, but the acceptance of its linearity- the same analysis could be made. If the influence of Marey on Seurat can seem futile, the inversion of their relationship enables us to better appreciate the problem of colour -or, better, the interdiction of colour- in the experiments of Marey, who had always been trying to keep the distinction between the photographed item and the neutral background as sharp as possible. In this regard, it is also crucial to remember that representations of moving, blurred and multiple members did not only 'frequently (appear) in the popular journals of the two or three decades preceding the arrival of futurims' (Scharf 1986: 258), but that these images were already a very familiar part of the cartoons ever since the discovery of photography (Trachtenberg 1991: 28-29; Kunzle 1991). However, it were most of all the recent discussions on the comic strips' centenary (Groensteen & Peeters 1994) that shed a new light on this material.
As far as the presumed influence of both Marey and Muybridge on cubism is concerned -a relationship never seriously questioned in scholarship- the issue of one-to-one relationship (in this case between a set of photographic techniques and an ensemble of painterly devices) is even more impossible to determine. Very different influences have been acknowledged, such as that of aerial survey photography (Cézanne, for instance, knew of the pictures made by Nadar during his balloon flights) and the fascination of speed, but once again not in a linear or monovectorized way. As Gertrud Stein puts it in a perfect synthesis of the paradoxes of influences I am trying to disentangle:
"One must not forget that the earth seen from an airplane is more splendid than the earth seen from an automobile. The automobile is the end of progress on earth, it goes quicker but essentially the landscapes seen from an automobile are the same as the landscapes seen from a carriage, a train, a wagon, or in walking. But the earth seen from an airplane is something else. So the twentieth century is not the same as the nineteenth century and it is very interesting knowing that Picasso has never seen the earth from an airplane, that being of the twentieth century he inevitably knew that the earth is not the same as in the nineteenth century, he knew it, he made it, inevitably he made it different and what he made is a thing that now all the world can see. When I was in America I for the first time travelled pretty much all the time in an airplane and when I looked for the earth I saw all the lines of cubism made at a time when not any painter had ever gone up in an airplane" (Stein 1959: 49-50, quoted in Côté 1997: 27)
From contact to framework
The examples given clearly demonstrate that it no longer makes sense to reduce the relationships between media, genres, practices and artists to a set of successive and local 'hits'. A much broader framework is needed, which makes room for less anecdotal encounters between the arts. It should for instance become clear that there is no use in making lists of all types of artists (photographers and painters, writers and dancers, to name just some of the categories in the studies on the Marey-Muybridge topic) influenced by a discovery, an invention or a new tendency within photography. Such a way of working does not bring into the picture more fundamental issues such as, for instance, the shifts in influence, or the failures of the process. In other words, what is necessary is not to obtain a list of items but a more general survey of the creative and non-creative heritage of a technique or an artist. Correspondingly, what is needed is not a description but an analysis and an interpretation of the reasons why and to what extent influences can be recognised (without such an analysis it becomes necessary to reconstruct -at the cost of the specificity of sometimes irreducibly singular events and works- the whole 'system' of an artistic period (de Geest 1995)).
In the specific case of Marey and Muybridge, who both played a crucial role in the representation of movement in the visual arts , such a frame work analysis -in the general and neutral sense of the word- should be able to reveal, among other things, what the fundamental divergences on the level of their respective reception are. A first approximate examination of these differences yields a result that does not contradict Scharf's observations, but that enables us to see them in a new perspective, instead of confronting us with a myriad of small relationships linked in a purely chronological way.
Three major features should be underlined here. First of all, there is the intriguing observation that chronologically speaking, the influence of Muybridge and that of Marey are rather strongly dissociated: while the publication of the first pictures of Muybridge had an almost immediate but ephemeral impact on many kinds of artists (not only on animal painters), the reception of Marey was remarkably slow but longer lasting (in fact, one had to await cubism and futurism in order to find the true applications of his chronophotographic techniques, but then the prestige of his images had been shining for more than a decade). The reason for this divergence is easy to understand: since the aftermath of the first experiences with the representation of movement and time was also the period that gave the first impetus to abstraction, and it's only Marey's images which are said to have produced the first completely imaginary representations in photography (Frizot 1995: 250), which are in accordance with the spirit of the modern, abstract times. Inversely, if the first impact of Muybridge's images was brief, their influence in the long run is much more paramount than that of Marey. Indeed, after the cubist and futurist periods, the exemplary and paramount role of Marey's images quickly vanished, whereas the famous horses series by Muybridge made an astonishing come-back in the sixties, when they inspired many conceptual artists very directly. Once again, the disappearance of one model and the return of the other is not difficult to understand: the experiments with shutter speeds and long exposures in photography pushed the work of Marey to the background, at least as a model, whereas the more static and conservative work of Muybridge, whose role as a maker of scientific images had been replaced by the film camera, remained as a uniquely bizarre reference for all those artists mainly interested in the combination of photography, sequence and figurative representations (a combination that fitted perfectly well to their refusal of the manual, unique and non-figurative art that modernist painting had become in the early sixties (Gintz, Lafon & Scherf1989)). Moreover, the substitution of the fixed image by the moving image for the representation of time also tended to keep alive the memory of the Muybridge sequences, which in more than one sense were akin to an alignment of stills (even if the representation of time they enabled was largely deceiving, at least from a scientific point of view). To put it briefly: the posterity of Muybridge is richer than that of Marey just because his work had become such an anachronism.
A second but similar point could further be made concerning the fields in which the influence of both photographers is to be observed. Marey mostly inspired painters (to the extent that photographers who lately rediscovered chronophotography often pretend to work in the spirit of Muybridge (see Baetens 1993)). Muybridge's work on the contrary admittedly served as a model for a large set of artistic and non-artistic uses (the advertising and poster industry is a regular user of the Muybridge stock), mostly thanks to its reputed role as a precursor of film art (historically speaking, a completely incorrect point of view, since neither Muybridge nor Marey were interested in the reproduction of movement: their explicit aim was the decomposition of moving corpses, see Frizot 1995: 244). At the same time, these many different examples of the sharing and re-using of their respective works, also enables us to discover an until now less analysed but crucial form of influence, i.e. an influence which also serves as a comment on the quoted or transformed 'original'. Every picture derived from an image by Marey or Muybridge should therefore also be considered as a critical (or, of course, uncritical) statement on their work, be it direct or indirect. When Francis Bacon, for instance, employs -besides many other materials- Muybridge's Animal Locomotion in some of his diptychs or triptychs, and when he does so in a manner that is not too far away from the chronophotographic distortions of Marey, the implications of such a 'quotation' cannot be restricted to a single or simple art historical problem: the specific photographic subtext of those paintings undeniably contributes to the passionately cold and chilling treatment of the models, destroyed and mutilated as well as represented by the artist.
Thirdly, one should also stress the role played be some elements which seem completely heterogeneous to art history and maybe to art itself, at least in the technical, i.e. aesthetic, sense of the word. When looking at a Muybridge picture, one cannot help thinking of some particular events in the life of the author (I refer of course to the killing of his wife's lover in Saratoga, 1873). A famous article by Hollis Frampton, 'Fragments of a Tesseract' (Frampton 1972: 69-80), does not hesitate to posit that Muybridge's entire fascination with movement and time, can only be understood when related to the fatal shot fired at colonel Larkyns. False or true, this kind of hypothesis reinforces the mythology almost every generation weaves around Eadweard Muybridge. When one studies the notion of influence, the strategic impact of such biographical data (be they real or invented) constitutes a fundamental issue. Marey's artistic reputation suffers paradoxically, not from the absence of biographemes (for this concept, see Barthes 1971), but from his boring life (if his life had remained totally unknown, the result would probably have been rather different).
To conclude, and to come back to Art and Photography, one could draw at least two lessons from this rereading of Aron Scharf's book: the necessity to adopt a more elastic but at the same time not too large definition of the concept of 'influence'; the possibility to test this new definition upon the material brought together by Scharf, who indeed remains, as the French say, incontournable , but whose work from time to time needs an influence which is also a creative betrayal.
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