Eadweard Muybridge reflections

Eadweard Muybridge, ‘Tutokanula. Valley of the Yosemite No. 11’, 1872

Muybridge: a 19th century, postmodern photographer. Comparing his work to that of his contemporary Carleton E. Watkins, Rebecca Solnit (with acknowledgement to Mark Klett’s remarks about the ‘composed’ modernism of Watkins’ photographs) writes:

Muybridge, even when photographing almost exactly the same subjects, could not be more different. In his sensibility, the world is all but discomposed, constantly in flux. Even something as solid as a government building reveals itself to be a creature of change; the water we think we know becomes eerily unfamiliar whether seen too slowly, as ghostly films, or too quickly, as leaping beasts; his late portraits are not portraits of human beings but of their actions, of movement itself; some of his landscapes, via their clouds, are really two different moments spliced together; and his panoramas often promise a single sweeping glance while actually being made up of several nonconsecutive moments. Even his taste in surfaces and textures runs to the intricate, elaborate, dense, and tangled: they are not smooth, stable, or easily deciphered. Finally, his tricksterish moments of subversion of the supposed truth or continuity of a given work of art render more uncertain and less stable the subject at hand.

(from Eadweard Muybridge, Philip Brookman, Tate Publishing, p.187). This is the prevailing reflection on Muybridge from all 5 contributing essays in the book – that he destabilises the picture plane, the norms of picture-making, the solidity of people and place, the assumptions of perception. His work is ‘an exercise in impossible seeing, transcending the bounds of ordinary human vision’ (Rebecca Solnit, p.185). Corey Keller notes the continuous interest in ‘effect’ (p.217), that specific attention to the format and display of images so prevalent in Victorian times which links the spectacular image with the bodily involvement of the viewer – through stereoscopy, his zoopraxiscope, and pull-out book panoramas (and may also include the presence and authentication of the creator himself). A similar theatricality is detected by Marta Braun in the composition and manipulation of the supposedly sequential images in Animal Locomotion, Muybridge’s seminal publication of 1887.

Perhaps this ‘mixing it up’ of image practice and publication, crossing art and science, is uncomfortable for today’s high art world because it seems like a muddying of the waters of a distilled, pure ideology of the photograph. Such an ideology does not exist. It’s like the clear, sharp, focussed presentation of a window on the world which turns out to be an upside-down reflection, a magical mirage. (Incidentally, the image above, on display in the 2010 exhibition in its original published album, is deliberately printed the ‘wrong’ way up among the sequence of mammoth plates. In the exhibition catalogue, it is ‘corrected’ by the Tate publishers and turned around.) There is, rather, a constant rupturing of any synthesized whole, and the suggestion instead of a subliminal turbulence and uncertainty about the world and the way we picture it: both in terms of individual images and in terms of Muybridge’s career as a whole.

7 Reasons why I’m a John Piper fan

‘Study for Chichester Cathedral Tapestry’, 1965, by John Piper

(This by way of a personal response to both Frances Spalding’s John Piper, Myfanwy Piper: Lives in Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009) and the exhibition John Piper and the Church at Dorchester Abbey, 21/04/12 – 10/06/12)

  • Piper was a writer before he was an artist. His pre-war work (after a failed solicitor’s training, and a half-completed artist’s training at the Royal College of Art) was mostly in critical writing, whether reviews of art or architecture (especially churches), and also in poetry: 1923 and 1924 saw him publish his own collections of poems – Wind in the Trees and The Gaudy Saint and Other Poems.
  • He ‘found himself shaking with excitement in front of one of Monet’s paintings of Rouen Cathedral‘ (p.20). And Chartres knocked him out.
  • He bought into the communicative power of photography. In his seminal Oxon guide (1938), part of the Shell Guide series famously published over many years with John Betjeman, Piper launched a veritable imagetext. Under John B’s guidance of a ‘surprise on every page’, it reads more like a diary than a Pevsner-esque listing (pp.107-109), with the majority of images being Piper’s own. As well as the vernacular documentary style, Piper used a photographic negative of a collage for the endpaper design of the book. He thought the aerial photographs of the journal Antiquity (O G S Crawford) were ‘among the most beautiful photographs ever taken’ (p.123), as they revealed the layered nature of the landscape and of looking. Like Monet, he had a darkroom built near his studio (late ’40s), and in the ’60s, he was one of the first to regard photo-lithography and photographic screenprinting as a means of artistic expression – eg. Eye and Camera series (1970s) and A Retrospect of Churches book (1964).
  • He loved Ruskin. Modern Painters was a favourite book, as was the Ruskin quote, “There is nothing I tell you with more earnest desire that you should believe than this – that you will never love art well till you love what she mirrors better” (p.129).
  • He was pioneering in his contribution to and encouragement of churches engaging with contemporary art. Which didn’t necessarily mean the subjugation of art for solely illustrative purposes – originally it was the ‘transforming effect’ of stained glass on the architecture and its ‘creation of an enclosed, escapist world of colour and modified light’ which inspired him, more than the visual teaching of the Bible (p.361). He curated The Artist and the Church in 1943 in Chichester Cathedral, including modern mural designs as well as his favourite 10th century stone carvings. He exhibited in the Prophecy and Vision exhibition, which toured in 1982 to Arnolfini in Bristol, among other places. In between, he consistently straddled the overlapping worlds of art and church, with endless commissions in stained glass, tapestry, mosaic, Christmas cards, bookcovers, vestments, paintings, as well as sitting on committees like the Friends of Dorchester Abbey, and the Oxford Diocesan Advisory Committee.
  • He had a studio at home, and an amazing wife in Myfanwy, who somehow raised 4 children in a house without basic amenities for years, while writing critically for journals and newspapers, and with Benjamin Britten on librettos. Their shared love of art, and intelligent engagement with the journey of modern art in Britain (especially on the axis (cf. Axis journal) of abstract painting v. neo-Romantic painting), was foundational to the success of their working lives.
  • Piper’s Chichester tapestry design includes the 4 elements. I’ve seen 5 collage, gouache and/or tapestry studies – they affirm my own attempt to linger on the tension between abstraction and symbolism, especially in my Four Elements. Dorchester’s hanging team managed to get the study for earth and air displayed upside-down (note the similar problem in Spalding’s plate 12, compared with figure 21, of Piper’s Forms on Dark Blue). These small mistakes aside, the book and show were immensely inspiring, with such a rich range of work and related encounter. I was overcome.