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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Horsin' Around with Photography

Muybridge's "The Horse in Motion", 1878.  Image courtesy of the LOC.

In 1872 the popular question in some circles was whether a horse when running ever had all four hooves off the ground.  Most paintings of horses galloping showed the forelegs and hind legs extended out in their respective positions, but no one knew if this was true.  Enter former California governor, Leland Standford, who was then the owner of race horses.  He thought that "unsupported transit" was true, and hired Eadweard Muybridge, a well-known British photographer living in San Francisco, to prove it.

Eadweard Muybridge, circa 1900.

Muybridge (who was born Edward James Muggeridge) set up a course with a series of large cameras with glass plates in a line, and tripwires that were triggered by the horse as it ran by.  Later he came up with a clockwork device to shoot this. The images were copied in silhouette onto a disc, then shown in a machine called a "zoopraxiscope", which he invented in 1879.  This device is credited with inspiring Thomas Edison and William Kennedy Dickson's Kinetoscope, which was the first system for showing film.

Zoopraxiscope, 1893.

Muybridge settled the question in 1877 with a single of Stanford's horse "Occident" airborne.  (This negative is now lost, although there are woodcuts made of it from that time.)  A year later Muybridge did a series of photos of Stanford's horse "Sallie Gardner" which proved that all the hooves are off the ground, though not extended, but rather tucked in under the horse.

Another horse study by Muybridge of "Daisy".

Muybridge and Stanford had a falling out over the whole thing.  Stanford published a book, The Horse in Motion, without crediting Muybridge, causing the Royal Society to rescind their offer to sponsor Muybridge's stop-motion photography.  Stanford was unsuccessfully sued.

Muybridge's works are still published as reference books for artists and animators, and there are even flipbooks published using his sequences.  He is credited with influencing not only Edison and Dickson, but artists Francis Bacon, Thomas Eakins, and Marcel Duchamp, among others.

Marcel Duchamp's "Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2", 1912.

But wait!  Was he the first to do use photography to study movement?  No, as it turns out.  He, in turn, was influenced by the rather unsung French pioneer of photography and chronophotography, Étienne-Jules Marey.

Étienne-Jules Marey, circa 1850.

Marey was a physiologist, and used photography in his pursuit of science.  He began his work in the field of cardiology, studying blood circulation in the body, then turned to analyzing heart beats, respiration, and movement of the body.  He developed instruments for measuring, such as the sphygmographe to measure the pulse.

Marey's sphygmographe.

In 1869 he built a delicate artificial insect to show how it flew.  This led to his investigation of flying creatures.  In the 1880s he developed chronophotography, a photographic technique that captures movement in several frames of print, which can then be subsequently layered in a single frame or arranged like animation cels. Although it was created to study movement scientifically, it  became the impetus for cinematography and moving film that involved a series of different cameras.

A 12-lens camera was used for chronophotography.

He published a volume of his work, Le Vol des Oiseaux (The Flight of Birds), in 1890 with lots of photographs, drawings, and diagrams.  He studied other animals as well, and wrote that a galloping horse had all four hooves off the ground for a brief moment.  Muybridge knew of Marey's work, had even visited him, and said that his "Photographic Investigation" with Stanford's horses was to prove Marey right.

A photo of a flying pelican by Marey, circa 1882.

Marey played with his chronophotographic images, comparing them to images of skeletons and muscles of the same creatures.  He produced a series of drawings showing a horse in the flesh, then as a skeleton, trotting and galloping.  He developed a chronophotographic gun in 1882, capable of taking 12 consecutive frames per second on the same picture.  Using this process he studied horses, birds, dogs, sheep, fish, elephants, donkeys, reptiles, and insects.

Marey's chronophotographic gun.

He conducted a study of the famous idea that a cat always lands on all fours.  He then applied that same study to a chicken and a dog.  The results?  All could do it about the same.  Marey went on to study human locomotion, and published another book, Le Mouvement, in 1894.

A pole vaulter, 1890.

Marey's research on capturing and displaying moving images helped the nascent field of cinematography.  He had made movies with excellent image quality at high speed - 60 images per second, and created almost perfect slow-motion cinematography.  His finale was to study inanimate forms, like a ball, and his observation and photography of smoke trails led to his creation of a smoke machine with 58 smoke trails, which became one of the first aerodynamic wind tunnels.

Print from 1901of his smoke machine.
Image courtesy of the Musée d'Orsay.

The difference between Muybridge and Marey was this:  Muybridge was interested in the art of images, while Marey was strictly interested in obtaining scientific knowledge.  Although Marey is largely unheard of, his work became important in the development of cardiology, aviation, and cinematography, as well as other fields.  Muybridge influenced art and photography.  I'd have loved to have been a fly on the wall when they met.  Oh!  But then they might have used me for their motion studies!

Images, unless otherwise noted, are courtesy of Wikipedia.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

A Warning to Women From 700 Years Ago

The last scene of the Admonitions Scroll, showing the Court Instructress.
The exact date of the scroll is unknown, but estimated to be circa 6th-8th
century CE, and is a copy of one made in the 4th-5th century.

One of the most important paintings in the world was created for a Chinese empress.  Not to honor her, but to chastise and correct her.  Empress Jia Nanfeng was the first wife of Emperor Hui of the Jin Dynasty (265-420 CE), and earned a notorious reputation for murder, intrigue, and manipulation.  The painting is on a scroll and is called "Admonitions of the Instructress of Ladies in the Palace".

Scene 11:  A lady sits and reflects upon her conduct.

After the collapse of the Han Dynasty, China was in a state of chaos, with different factions competing for supremacy.  Emperor Hui was considered developmentally disabled and his wife, Empress Jia, assumed much of his power and is said to have misused it.  Her courtier, Zhang Hua, a poet-official of the palace, was appalled at her usurpation of her husband's power, and thought by appealing to her through his poem he would inspire her to commit correct actions.

Scene 2 from the Palace Museum scroll.  Lady Fan, the consort of
King Zhuang of Chu, refused to eat the meat of any animals he killed
in protest of her husband's excessive feasting and hunting.

Zhang Hua wrote the poem to all the ladies of the court, but it was meant for the Empress.  Some consider it a political parody which took a moralizing tone.  Some think it is an insightful look at statecraft and principled ruling, in line with the prevalent Confucian thought, and shows humor and wit.  Yet others consider it a moral reflection with aspirations of virtue:

Keep an eager guard over your behavior;
For then happiness will come.
Fulfill your duties calmly and respectfully;
And then shall you win glory and honor.

A century later, the situation was the same, and the court was scandalized by the murder of Emperor Xiaowudi by his consort.  To remind the court how to properly behave, the poem was resurrected and placed in a scroll done by the leading artist of the time, the legendary Gu Kaizhi.  This scroll is spectacular for its blending of the three most valued forms of expression at that time:  painting, poetry, and calligraphy.

Scene 4:  Lady Feng, consort of Emperor Yuan of Han, placed herself in front of
him to protect him from an attacking bear.  Fortunately his guards killed the bear
 which saved her.  This is the first surviving scene in the British Museum scroll.

Each of the painted scenes on the scroll are divided by the text of the poem.  It was meant to be unrolled frame-by-frame - the unrolling was part of the experience. The imagery was established in the Han Dynasty, and the message is clear:  a healthy and successful society is the result of everyone assuming their proper roles and places.  Women, in particular, must remember to be humble and a positive force in promoting social order.

Scene 7:  the palace ladies at their toilette.  It is suggested that the two
mirrors in the scene "reflect" the inner natures of the women.

The scroll is clear in "admonishing" that a woman should never exploit the weakness of her man, unless she is protecting him from danger.  Self-sacrifice is tantamount.  A woman must always play by the rules.

Scene 3 of the Palace Museum scroll:  Lady Wei, consort of the Duke Huan
of Qi, refused to listen to his licentious music, choosing instead to listen to
morally uplifting ritual court music of bells and chimes.

Despite his legendary status, none of Gu Kaizhi's original work has survived. Copies of his work exist, and he has been mentioned in dynastic histories.  He also appears in a seminal text on painting that was written by Zhang Yanyuan in 847 CE.  Known for his "gossamer brush line", Chinese artists have sought to emulate his work for centuries.

Scene 8:  the emperor visits a consort, but since his feet are on the floor, it
seems he can't decide to enter.  Or perhaps he's leaving?

The main copy of the scroll, estimated to have been made one hundred years after the original, is in the British Museum.  It was last known to be in the hands of the Qianlong Emperor, who had designated it as one of his "Four Beauties", which could stand for his four most precious paintings or the four qualities of leadership he aspired to - kindness, righteousness, loyalty, and trustworthiness - but never seemed to achieve.  The scroll has a unique aspect to it, as it harbors the seals and colophons of the Chinese emperors and collectors who once owned it.  In the aftermath of the Boxer Rebellion (1899), a British officer "acquired" it and sold it to the British Museum.

Scene 9:  The Family scene showing the Emperor surrounded
by his wives and children, suggesting stability.

It is very fragile and can only be seen for brief periods and in low light levels.  UV light is particularly harmful, and when not on view it is kept in the dark.  Painted on silk, the fabric is very frail and the paint has cracked and flaked.  It is kept where rapid or extreme changes in temperature or humidity cannot affect it or weaken it by shrinking or expanding.  Initially it had twelve scenes, but nine remain.

Scene 10:  The emperor rejects his consort with his gesture and a look.

There is another copy, in monochrome paper with twelve scenes, in the Palace Museum in Beijing.  This one was made during the Southern Song era (1127-1279), and is believed to be a copy of the one in the British Museum.  The additional scenes in this one are not as detailed as the rest of the scroll, so the other copy may have already lost the scenes when this one was made, and the additional scenes were reconstructions by the painter of what he imagined they might have been.

Scene 5 from the Palace Museum scroll showing Lady Ban refusing to
ride in the Imperial litter.
Same scene from the British Museum scroll.  She was the consort of the
Emperor Cheng of the Han Dynasty, and refused to ride with him as paintings
of wise rulers always showed them riding with their ministers and not women.

Whether her ruthlessness was warranted at the time she lived or not, Empress Jia apparently ignored the admonition.  There were civil wars, and she was captured in a coup and forced to commit suicide in 300 CE.  But rather than correcting her behavior, the scroll immortalized her and she has become part of the history of a remarkable and precious work of art.  We may never know her true story, but she lives on tied to a thing of great beauty.

All nine scenes of the scroll, which is 10'10" long and 9.8" high.
Images courtesy of Wikipedia (which had the best quality).
The British Museum webpage is here.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Social and Political Satire Two Hundred Years Ago...

James Gillray by Charles Turner, 1819.
Image courtesy of the NY Public Library.

Caricaturists are all the rage today, especially with the political situations occurring worldwide.  But one of the best ever lived in what has been called the "golden age" of English caricature (circa late 1700s to early 1800s).  James Gillray was an equal-opportunity caricaturist, and no one was safe from his often outrageous caricatures, which were works of art.  This "no one is safe" approach also accounts for the long success of South Park.

L'Assemblée Nationale, 1804, is considered one of best caricatures ever done
because of its remarkable likenesses.  It depicts a reception given by Charles
James Fox for the Prince of Wales; all the participants were anti-government.
The Prince of Wales paid big bucks to suppress it and have the plate destroyed.

In the late 1700s London booksellers and print shops displayed prints in their storefront windows.  People would crowd the sidewalks, especially people who couldn't afford to buy, and look at the prints.  At this time the term "caricature" came to be used for any print that was humorous or satirical.  Soon these prints became so popular that shops catering solely to caricatures were established. Collectors, mostly upper class, collected them by the hundreds, and often had them bound.  Caricaturists became celebrities, known internationally.

May 29, 1787, shows the Queen, the Prince of Wales, and King George
(dressed as a woman) scarfing gold coins from a bowl.  They (except the
Prince of Wales) have full bags hanging around their necks like goitres,
and the door of the treasury behind them is open.

Gillray began as an engraver's apprentice at an early age.  Bored, he joined a band of strolling players, along with some of his fellow apprentices.  When that didn't pan out, he began selling his work again in London.  He was a student at the Royal Academy in 1778, and supported himself on the side by engraving.  At this time caricaturists were considered to be a "disreputable" profession, and were on the bottom of the hierarchy among printmakers, despite their work being avidly sought by the upper class (being "disreputable" may have added to their marketability.)

The Plumb-pudding in danger, February 26, 1805, shows William Pitt and
Napoleon carving a plum pudding which is also the world.

He wanted to be a portrait painter, but got few commissions, so he went back to engraving for local print shops.  He sold his work mainly through William Humphrey, but later began working for Humphrey's younger sister, Hannah. Gillray helped her become London's leading print seller, living with her in a room above her shop.  Rumors of their relationship ran rampant, but there are no facts concerning their relationship, although she was a stabilizing force in his life and physically cared for him until he died.

Very Slippy Weather, February 10, 1808, shows a scene outside
Miss Humphrey's print shop with a crowd looking at the prints.

His prints were made by four men who manned two flat-bed presses, then they were hand-colored by a crew of women.  Miss (often called "Mrs.") Humphrey sold them in her shop and also was the wholesale distributor to other dealers.

Two-Penny Whist, January 11, 1796, the second woman (with glasses) is
Hannah Humphrey, the other woman is her shop assistant.  Image courtesy NYPL.

He was a liberal initially, but then his work started showing support for the Tories. When asked why he drew things that were adverse to the Whigs, he stated that the Whigs were poor and did not buy his prints, hence demonstrating that like most satirists, his skills were for hire.  Therefore he cannot be seen as a political adherent to either side, since his work covered the entire political scene.  It was a good time to be a caricaturist, as party warfare, like today's, was quite bitter and active.  Gillray's biting humor and sharp sense of the ridiculous paired with his skills made him highly sought after and admired.

A Connoisseur Examining a Cooper, 1792, is one of Gillray's most
famous satires.  King George III (the figure depicted) once said that
he didn't understand Gillray's caricatures.  Gillray shows him using
a candle, evidence of his miserly habits, to look at a small picture
of Oliver Cromwell by Samuel Cooper, evidence of his pretension
of knowing art, and reflecting republicanism in Britain.  Image
courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Along with skewering the political figures such as King George III, the Prince of Wales, and Napoleon Bonaparte, he turned his deft mind and skills to social issues as well, which are just as amusing.

The Gout, published May 14, 1799.

Gillray's eyesight failed in 1806, and spectacles did not help.  He became depressed and turned to drink. In 1811, he tried to commit suicide by jumping out of the attic window of Miss Humphrey's shop.  He suffered from insanity, but was looked after by Miss Humphrey until his death in 1815.

The Cow-Pock, 1802, Edward Jenner administers cowpox vaccine to frightened
young women at St. Pancras Hospital.  There was much controversy over the
smallpox vaccine, inspiring this satire.  Cows are emerging from the bodies of
the innoculees.

The "golden age" of the English engraver has provided us with information about the historical events of the day, fashions, and what people thought and felt.  These documents are still highly collectable.  Initially they were priced for and collected by wealthy patrons.  One of the most remarkable collections of Gillray's work was amassed by Samuel J. Tilden, lawyer, New York governor, and candidate for president of the United States.  Today, the Tilden Trust is one of the cornerstones of the New York Public Library.

A Meeting of Embrellas, 1782, a social comment on the fact
that a man carrying an umbrella was seen as effeminate.

Gillray was brilliant and a skilled draftsman and printmaker.  His familiarity with current events, issues, scandals, and trends blended well with his knowledge of history, literature, and art history, allowing him to create sharp satires that were spot on.  He is considered one of the most influential political caricaturists, and the great French caricaturist, André Gill (born Louis-Alexandre Gosset de Guînes), chose his pseudonym to honor Gillray.  How many of today's caricaturists will be valued and collected two hundred years in the future?

Unless otherwise noted, images courtesy of Wikipedia.