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Lesson Six - Movement

Zeuxis and Arte are sitting together near the house. The sun is wonderful, and they take delight in the warmth. Arte eats an apple, and Zeuxis looks at Parr. The dog runs after a stray cat, and jumps over a bush. There are birds everywhere. They merrily chirp and fly. A few birds chirp close by in the garden, other are high in the sky and hover there. A slight wind stirs the leaves of trees and plants.

Arte, while chewing: I read your letter and your article on the Golden Mean, Zeuxis. They were interesting. Piero della Francesca was after immutable laws of perception, wasn’t he?

Zeuxis: Yes, Arte. We have seen enough, though, of structure and fixed compositions. I would like again to talk a little about illusion, and when I look at all those birds, I think of movement. I’ll teach you how to create movement in a picture.

Arte: Now you are talking nonsense, Zeuxis. A painting is a fixed object, it doesn’t move. Nor can pictures on frames.

Zeuxis: I pronounced the word illusion, Arte. Showing volume, depth and space in a painting is an illusion, since the canvas is only two-dimensional. But after all, volume, depth and space remain properties of static. One can look and continue to look at a wide and deep landscape, just as one can look at a picture of it. Reality and image do not change.
It is more difficult and much more illusionary to create a sense of movement, of action in pictures. The canvas does not move, and a scene cannot move. It seems impossible to show the swiftness of a moving object in addition to the illusion of volume and depth in a painting. Yet, painters are masters of illusion. They also discovered several techniques to depict movement.

Arte: How then did they do that?

Zeuxis: A first technique is the use of oblique lines. We already talked about the illusion of movement in paintings when we discussed unsupported slanting lines. Slanting lines are a departure from equilibrium, and thus give an impression of movement in pictures. When representing dancing or running figures, these figures are usually painted in positions away from the natural equilibrium, and the oblique positions indicate action.
Among the first painters to remark the power of oblique lines for creating movement were Jacopo Robusti, the Tintoretto, as well as Pieter Bruegel. Michelangelo Merisi, called Caravaggio, brought the technique to perfection, and he used it suddenly in very obvious ways. Later painters, like Nicolas Poussin, then analysed and formalised the technique.

Zeuxis projects a painting of Nicolas Poussin.

-> Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665). The Adoration of the Golden Calf. The National Gallery. London.

Zeuxis: A good example of using unsupported slanting lines is in Nicolas Poussin’s "Adoration of the Golden Calf". Various dancers are seen in the foreground, around the statue of the Golden Calf. In order to give an impression of wild elation, Poussin painted the dancers in oblique directions. Other painters have used this technique to represent dancers.
The movements of the dancers seem exaggerated. The dancer in the foreground is completely out of any gravity’s balance, and also in real dancing would immediately fall to the ground. Poussin needed to depict the perception of wild dancing, so more than any position of mid-dance, the potentiality of the dance had to be shown.
We find this technique in many other paintings. More than the evident stages of movement, the potentiality, the symbol of movement is shown, and this then evokes in the viewer even more a sense of the movement than any realistic, "right" position could have done.
Nicolas Poussin used other techniques to indicate the dancing as movement. I will explain these later.

Zeuxis: A second technique consists in grasping one moment of the movement, and by the image created in that moment to suggest the movement.
In Rubens’ "Descent from the Cross", several figures are caught in the act of lowering the body of Jesus down from the cross. These figures are shown in a frozen moment of time, and by this alone the viewer also obtains a suggestion of movement.
One of the main techniques for showing movement is thus to paint figures, animals or moving objects in one moment, in the middle of the very act of moving. This moment is of course always a moment of lack of equilibrium. The effect can be enhanced by showing the figure in mid-air, such as showing a leaping tiger in the middle of its jump, while it touches neither rock nor ground but flies in the air.
Flying in the air is the very epitome of movement, so since very early times painters have shown birds flying in the air to give a sense of movement to viewers. You will often find birds in medieval paintings such as the pictures by the Van Eyck brothers. The birds and the leaping tiger must remain static on the canvas, but the mind of the viewer adds the impression of motion to the scene.

Zeuxis shows a picture of prancing horses on his magic screen.

-> Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863). Arab Horses fighting in a Stable. Le Musée d’Orsay. Paris. 1860.

Zeuxis: A picture in which this effect is brought to its fullest form is for instance the "Arab Horses fighting in a Stable" of Eugène Delacroix.
Delacroix once accompanied French ambassadors on a mission in Morocco, and he saw a scene there of fighting horses. He painted such a scene. In his picture we see two horses fighting, two servants thrown down on the ground but still trying to stop the horses with up heaved arms, and another servant running from the right corner of the canvas, almost leaping out of the room into the scene. The canvas remains static of course, but Delacroix catches all the figures and the two horses in full action. Remark how the artist used slanting lines, as well in the horses as in the running figures. The Moroccan servant on the right leaps towards the scene, and he also is painted in a slanting way. Moreover Delacroix used hard brushstrokes, and contrasting colours to enhance the effect of conflict.

Arte: This way of depicting movement can be called "movement caught in the act".

Zeuxis: Very rightly so. Movement can also be indicated in a very simple way, and elementary way, by using abstract or natural forms. That would be a third way to create a feeling of movement in pictures. Painters can set various shapes along each other in a certain direction, and maybe elongate them gradually in that direction, suggests a movement in that direction. Let me show you.

Zeuxis draws plate 69.

Zeuxis: Movement is repetition. In the first days of photography, experimenters invented rapid photography, so that movements could be analysed by taking a series of pictures in rapid succession. Such a procedure can also be used in painting. One specific technique of suggesting movement is thus to repeat many times the same image of an object or figure and to show this repetition on the canvas. The painter can even superimpose the images but draw their contours just a little next to each other. And he can gradually change the images, usually of figures, as deformed by the movement.
The modern painters of the beginning of the twentieth century that were in quest of pictorial innovation exploited this process, to show the speed of modern mechanics. But the technique is much older. The painting of the "Blind leading the Blind" of Pieter Bruegel is a marvellous example of the effect.

Zeuxis shows on his magic screen a funny picture of blind men falling in a hole. Arte starts to smile suddenly.

-> The Parable of the Blind. Pieter Bruegel the Elder (ca. 1527/1528 – 1569). Museo e Gallerie Nazionali di Capodimonte. Naples. 1568.

Zeuxis: That is a nice picture, isn’t it! Pieter Bruegel painted falling blind men. Several blind are following each other. The first blind man stumbles and falls into a hole in the ground. He falls thoroughly, but the following men all are seen in some other and subsequent moment of the same act of falling, each one falling somewhat less. The last man is aware of nothing, and he continues to walk, but the man before him senses already that something is amiss since the one before him just pulls him a bit more forward and down. The various stages of the fall are thus suggested in this remarkable picture of Pieter Bruegel. Also in other paintings, Bruegel showed such moments of action. In the "Parable of the Blind" we find however an obvious exercise in style.
Remark how Pieter Bruegel the Elder favoured the right side of the painting. It is towards this side that the movement of the falling blind men is directed. This direction is most agreeable to viewers, as we remarked earlier. It is also the direction shown in our previous figure. Painters preferably sent movement this way. The two horses fighting in Delacroix’ picture also prance to the right, and many other examples of the right side as the direction of honour in painting can be found.

Arte: I liked that Pieter Bruegel painting, Zeuxis. It was funny. Those silly men! Who would think of a blind leading blind?

Zeuxis: Yes. That is humour. Have you ever remarked that humour is a very dynamic process? Humour always involves a sudden, unexpected element, a surprise. When the surprise disappears, and that is usually very quickly, in an instant of time, humour disappears.
Humour has been particularly difficult to show in paintings, just because of this quality. A picture and a painting is a very static, unchanging object by its very nature. Surprise is almost impossible to obtain with a static picture, and even if a picture could create an element of surprise in a viewer who passes by, that effect would disappear rapidly, leaving a picture in which the humour would quickly be absent again. That is a fundamental characteristic of all humour. As all clowns know well, an act of humour loses its effect when it is repeated over and over again. Since a painting is a constant picture, if it were truly humorous the humorous effect would be seen repeatedly, and obviously lose its quality of humour instantly.
It is not astonishing therefore that a painting may be nice, sweet, joyful, light-hearted, naughty, funny, gimmicky, but a painting always remains quite serious. Nobody has ever been hilarious before a picture, or suddenly bursted out into open laughter. At most, a delicate smile can be induced in the viewer. Museums of paintings always have a very serious atmosphere. That is more so, because most museums show pictures made by artists long dead so that an atmosphere of nostalgia, respect and sadness lingers. And once a picture is finished, something always dies in the artist.
The painter Ad Reinhardt once said, "A museum is a treasure house and tomb, not a counting-house or amusement-centre G86 ." A visitor must seek other emotions than glorious, overt laughter in museums. This in itself may be a sad remark, but it is a true one. Even Pop Art, which seems often outrageous and funny, ultimately remains serious, because it lacks the dynamism of humour.
Humour is therefore an effect that has been very difficult if not impossible to create in paintings. The moving pictures obtain humour far more easy. Painters have learned how to produce illusions of volume, depth and even of movement, but real humour has remained quit elusive. Painters came only close to humour by being funny, witty and in producing a smile of surprise in viewers.

Arte: Do not continue like that, Zeuxis! I want to be witty, and if I ever fall in love it will only be with a man that can make me laugh. I guess, now that you told me this about paintings, that my fiancé will not be a painter. If I understood you well painters are not funny.

Zeuxis, mockingly: Oh Zeus, what have I done now to painters? Well, you’ll find that out later, Arte. Let’s continue with our lesson.

Zeuxis: The technique of repetition can be coupled to another way of representing movement, which is by its effect on the environment. That would be our fourth way of representing movement.
An aeroplane pierces the air, and leaves behind it turbulence in the air, which can be seen. Painters can use this effect of air that is broken, or of ripples of water behind an object that moves. The effect of a moving object that passes through a gas or fluid is of course a technique of content, and less of lines or forms. But the illusion of the displacement of air or water can be obtained by repeating forms or patterns.

Zeuxis shows Luigi Russolo’s car.

-> Luigi Russolo (1885 – 1947). Dynamism of an Automobile. Musée National d’Art Moderne. Centre Pompidou. Paris. 1911.

Zeuxis: An example of this kind of arrangement of shapes can be seen in Luigi Russolo’s "Dynamism of an Automobile", in which the automobile breaks through the air. By arranging several triangular forms one above the other, Russolo induces an impression of the car that pierces air and creates shockwaves behind it. Remark also the strong sense of direction generated by this process.
Russolo was a member of an Italian school of artists who particularly gave attention to the dynamic effects of modern technology. This school was called the "Futurists".
Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (1876-1944) wrote on this in 1909 in "The Manifesto of Futurism", "we affirm that the world’s magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing car whose hood is adorned with great pipes, like serpents of explosive breath – a roaring car that seems to ride on grapeshot is more beautiful than the "Victory of Samothrace". G86 ."

Arte: I see this car whamming through the air when I move my head rapidly from right to left, like this. Whoaam!

Zeuxis: Easy, easy, girl. I see movement inspires you. But stay calm, now! You, youngsters, seem to be obsessed with speed ever since Luigi.
Movement in a picture needs to be seen indeed in a rapid movement of the eyes. Then you will perceive immediate action, perceive the moment of change.
Movement in paintings is expressed action, and usually shown by the crossing of oblique lines in composition or by the attitudes of the figures. We know from real life that an outstretched arm, a grasping of an object, a prancing horse, are all attitudes that cannot be sustained for long in figures. They are brusque movements. Painters will show just these, and therefore their picture will have a striking immediacy in the display of emotions. But a painting is also a static picture. When movement is too much emphasised and does not have at least some static quality, then the viewer will soon sense that something is missing or wrong in the picture. Movement is direct and very visible, but the viewer knows that such a movement cannot be continued. When he or she continues anyhow to look at the painting, the sense of movement becomes so strong that after a while it will be perceived as being unnatural.
Only very great painters know how to present movement in their pictures, and still give that representation a static character that makes the painting acceptable, realistic, balanced also in motion, even when the viewer looks at it for longer periods.
Nicolas Poussin, for instance, painted dancing figures and one dancing figure would soon become artificial for a viewer; but a round of several dancers is a stable form, a form that can continue to exist for long. Great painters will seek for such stability in aggregation of movement or for the static element in action. Luigi Russolo’s painting of a driving automobile is also acceptable as a static picture. The impression of cleaving the air is one that our mind forms, but the viewer can continue to look at the object, as it is stable also in the way it is shown in the picture.

Arte: Can we stop here, Zeuxis? It gets late.

Zeuxis: Sure, Arte. Movement tires, doesn’t it?

Zeuxis takes a last long look at the birds. He sighs and disappears.

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: June 2010
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