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Dec 2010 Journal

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Art Notes (review)

You could call Eadweard Muybridge the bad boy of Anglo-American photography. He shot his wife’s lover in San Francisco, but was acquitted of murder on grounds of justifiable homicide. On his wife’s death that same year, Muybridge sent their two-year-old son to an orphanage, believing him to be the son of the lover. The stuff of fiction, perhaps, but this artist’s work was among the first to herald the moving image. In fact, you could call him one of the fathers of the cinematic arts.

Tate Britain pays tribute to his ground-breaking photography in a major retrospective of 150 works. Muybridge began looking at landscapes in quite a new way with his three-dimensional images of Alaska on albumen silver print. At a time when photography was in its infancy, his panoramic landscapes, his geographic images of the Yosemite Valley, Alaska, Guatemala and San Francisco, and the magnificent sweep of his landscapes became history in the making, a kind of cartography of land mass as never seen before. Alaskan labourers were employed in constructing vineyards as well as the Eastward-bound Railroad through California, Nevada and Utah, which he documented. His lighthouses on the Pacific coast blended brown sky with brown land and, to capture these images, Muybridge would walk miles, carrying heavy equipment.

With the industrial dawn of the late-nineteenth century, Muybridge became ever more inventive. He tried to prove that a racehorse in motion had all four feet in the air. Poor light made proof difficult, but he invented and patented a shutter mechanism for his camera which could speed up the image. In 1879 he modified a projector to operate in conjunction with a shutter and glass disc in order to capture the 1000th of a second. By repetition of the same image with a slightly different perspective, the view became a three-dimensional moving image - heralding the birth of film. The horse in motion spawned other ‘moving’ animal images - elephants, baboons, buffalo and eagles. Finally he turned to the human form and his dancing figures, his athletes, and a child with infant paralysis walking on hands and feet, or a hemiplegic walking with a stick. In the centre of one room a dancing woman in a floating blue dress reflected on a glass zoopraxiscope disc.

His broken-down images are claimed to have influenced artists like Marcel Duchamp, Jasper Johns, Cy Twombly, Douglas Gordon and Francis Bacon, whose portraits suggest cinematic facial fragments themselves. The exhibition runs until 16 January 2011.

Nothing is too small to capture Rachel Whiteread’s imagination – especially if it’s oblong or rectangular. Also at Tate Britain until 16 January is Rachel Whiteread: Drawings, which she describes as a ‘diary of her work’. She is noted for many prestigious commissions, such as the Holocaust Memorial 2000 in Vienna, an inverted concrete library described by a passer-by as ‘harrowing’, and her 2005 Embankment installation in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, which was a mass of white polystyrene boxes. But, while the massive scale sculptures can look impressive, these works on paper, which she describes as ‘doodles to aid [her] thought processes’, suggest absence, loss, voids and hidden presences. They also imply fluidity, uncertainty, a sense of incompleteness. But essentially they are drawings of boxes and, much as they may be a useful artistic diary, they give little intimation of her thought processes on their own.

Gloria Tessler

previous article:Does anyone remember Elly Rothwein?
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