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Motion Pictures

Technology is now allowing artists to do something they’ve aspired to since the stone age: make their paintings move.
August 15, 2015

“By and large, visual art has always been defined as static,” the abstract artist Frank Stella observed to me in 1998, “but the tradition has always been to use illusion to create a sense of motion.” He was quite correct, historically speaking. From the days of the cave artists of the Cro-Magnon era, tens of thousands of years ago, artists have attempted to make images of a world that is constantly rushing, drifting, rippling, and shifting. Or as Stella put it: “If something moves, that’s how you can tell it’s alive.”

Many of the most memorable images in the canon are of figures and animals in motion: the Victory of Samothrace from around 190 BCE, her drapery fluttering with the rapidity of flight; Titian’s Bacchus of 1520–23, depicted in midair leaping from his chariot toward Ariadne; Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2) (1912), like a multiple-exposure photograph of naked woman walking. But even as Stella spoke, changes in technology were giving artists the opportunity to do something more: to make not just pictures that appeared to move but images that actually did. Increasingly, over the last decade and a half, they have been exploring and exploiting animation—that is, making drawings and paintings that move.

To see an example, go to Calgary, where a 24-foot tower stands on a site near East Village. On four specially constructed LED screens mounted on its sides, six figures constantly pace and saunter, drawn in a style of bold but precise simplification, so while a head may be merely a circle, their garments bunch and bag in a distinctively naturalistic fashion. Round and round they go, bunching up and separating, each with an individual gait: an updated version of the running figures on a Greek vase.

This is Promenade (2012) by the British artist Julian Opie, and the methods he used to make it involved interplay between digital technology, photographic media, and graphic invention. He first filmed individuals and then drew over the resulting images on a computer, reducing them to spare, essential outlines.

“Promenade” by Julian Opie (2012)

The avant-garde art world was slow to take up animation—about a century late, to be precise. The first public showing of an animated cartoon—Pauvre Pierrot by Charles-Émile Reynaud, presented in Paris in 1892—actually predated the initial such screening of a movie (by the Lumière brothers, in 1895). There were reasons, however, both practical and psychological, why highbrow artists didn’t take easily to Looney Tunes.

Animation was very big business, and a more significant medium than conventional histories of film allow. The biggest movie stars of the 1930s—or so the painter David Hockney has argued—were not Clark Gable and Greta Garbo but Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. But to work like Disney required huge resources: teams of draftsmen at drawing boards, a mighty studio. And the results were the epitome of what the highbrows of the mid-20th century were encouraged to despise.

One of the most influential utterances of that period was the essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” (1939), by the critic Clement Greenberg. In that dichotomy, high art was Braque, Miro, Mondrian, Kandinsky, Brancusi, Klee, Matisse, and Cezanne. Disney was self-evidently kitsch (even if he may be retrospectively hailed as an important artist). Therefore, if artists of that time dabbled in animation—as the eclectic Beat Generation figure Harry Everett Smith (1923–91) did—the results were likely to be both low in production values and nonfigurative in imagery. Smith’s pioneering Film No. 3: Interwoven (1947–49), for example, is a flickering sequence of bobbing colored squares and rectangles. Not Tom and Jerry but a mobile Mondrian.

What artists, critics, and audiences alike have to decide is whether and when the blunt reality of animated motion is an improvement over the illusion.

The low-tech quality persists in the work of the South African artist William Kentridge (born 1955), who has built a huge reputation largely by making animated films. It was the series he titled Nine Drawings for Projection (1989–2003) that really caught the attention of the international art world. The works, which are concerned with the struggle for freedom in the Apartheid era, feature two recurring characters, Soho Eckstein and Felix Teitlebaum.

Kentridge’s term for what he does is significant—not cartoons, or even animated films, but “projected drawings.” His technique is idiosyncratic, even primitive. Each film consists of changes made to a single sheet of paper, which is drawn on in charcoal with a limited amount of color applied in pastel. He erases part of the image and redraws to create each change and movement, then takes some 35-millimeter frames of the image and alters it again. The result, which often contains ghostly traces of imperfectly erased lines (Kentridge has explained this is simply because he “could never make a perfect erasure”), has a haunting quality. The effect of a work such as his Felix in Exile (1994) is not so much of an animated film as of a drawing come to life: not slick and professional, but stark and sincere, which perfectly fits the subject.

“Felix in Exile” by William Kentridge (1994)

This kind of consciously hand-drawn look continues to have its appeal to artists making animations. David Shrigley’s short digital animations, such as Headless Drummer (2012), have a minimalist style somewhere between cartoon and graffiti, with a surreal edge. (Why does his manically rhythmic percussionist not have a head?)

“Headless Drummer” by David Shrigley (2012)

Drawing remains the starting point of the art duo calling itself “IC-98.” IC-98 is based in Turku, Finland, and is made up of Visa Suonpää and Patrik Söderlund, who represented their country at the 2015 Venice Biennale. Their animations start with collage and those venerable graphic tools, paper and pencil.

The image then undergoes manipulation in Photoshop; a professional animator, using digital tools, adds additional effects. The result is fundamentally a landscape drawing that changes very slowly, sometimes almost imperceptibly, as nature does. Over the hour and 10 minutes of A View from the Other Side (2011), the constant view is of a classical portico. As we watch it, seasons come and go, leaves grow and fall, until eventually the structure falls into ruin. This is animation on the time scale of history and ecology.

A View from the Other Side” by IC-98 (2011)

Another younger artist who has recently risen to prominence using a homemade-looking variety of animation is the Swedish Nathalie Djurberg (born 1978). Her most distinctive works use the technique known as clay animation, or “claymation,” in which malleable sculptures made of a material such as Plasticine are altered between frames to create the effect of movement. This medium—used to great effect by Nick Park in movies such as Chicken Run (2000)—is not quite as old as drawn stop-motion animation, but it dates back to 1908. Djurberg’s innovation is not technical; indeed, her moving images—like Kentridge’s—have a jerky, unpolished quality. The novelty lies in the bizarre and erotic quality of her subject matter: a hugely overweight woman giving birth to a rhinoceros, for example, or the self-explanatory Tiger Licking Girl’s Butt (2004).

Stills from “Tiger Licking Girl’s Butt” by Nathalie Djurberg (2004)

Since the millennium many artists have embraced newer technology not only to make but also to distribute their work. From the late 1990s, software such as Adobe Flash made it relatively easy to be your own Disney—or, at least, your own Kentridge. A number of young painters, especially in the Far East, used such tools to make animated films and posted them to the Web so that a large audience could enjoy them. One of the first of these was Bu Hua (born 1973). Trained as a painter and based in Beijing, she rapidly created a series of short films in 2002, including Cat.

In aesthetic terms Cat retains a freehand expressive line that looks close to Kentridge’s, and the story about a wandering, homeless, unfortunate feline parent and kitten has a touching—or, according to taste, cloying—emotional quality. It has been viewed 633,451 times on the website, a number that would be extremely impressive for a major museum exhibition and is unprecedented for a youthful and little-known artist (although, of course, quite normal for a viral Web hit).

In 2008 another Chinese artist, Cao Fei (born 1978), created a work of art in the form not of an animated film but of an interactive, computer-generated environment: RMB City, which exists in Linden Lab’s online virtual world, Second Life. This is both a work of art and a platform on which further works can be staged, among them film and photography exhibits by Cao, featuring her virtual avatar, China Tracy. People’s Limbo and Fashions of China Tracy (both 2009) are two examples.

RMB City has the look and characteristics of a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (or MMORPG), but no game is involved. Instead, it is a landscape parallel to the rapidly expanding China of the early 21st century, in which a grand hall from the Forbidden City coexists with a version of Herzog and de Meuron’s stadium for the Beijing Olympics, facilities for teleportation, high-rise blocks, and elevated highways.

“Cat” by Bu Hua (2002)

It is very much of its time. As Brian Droitcour noted in Art Forum, few works got as much attention in 2008, let alone works in construction (the making of RMB City was constantly on view in London’s Serpentine Gallery). The passage of half a decade has given it a period look. Game technology has moved on, producing ever greater verisimilitude.

All works of art contain clues to the date of their creation. But there are specific problems for artists using software created for film animation or digital games. In a few decades, no one may be able to access the software, and there are other difficulties that oil paint does not present. As Julian Opie has remarked, “It is an incredible headache to try and figure out technology, and it moves so fast that by the time we figure the whole thing out, quite often we find that that technology has been discontinued.”

Things Reviewed

  • Promenade

    By Julian Opie (2012)

  • Pauvre Pierrot

    By Charles-Émile Reynaud (1892)

  • Film No. 3: Interwoven

    By Harry Everett Smith (1947–49)

  • Nine Drawings for Projection

    By William Kentridge (1989–2003)

  • Felix in Exile

    By William Kentridge (1994)

  • Headless Drummer

    By David Shrigley (2012)

  • A View from the Other Side

    By IC-98 (2011)

  • Tiger Licking Girl’s Butt

    By Nathalie Djurberg (2004)

  • Cat

    By Bu Hua (2002)

  • RMB City

    By Cao Fei (2008)

  • David

    By Sam Taylor-Wood (2004)

  • Dame Zaha

    Mohammad Hadid
    By Michael Craig-Martin (2008)

  • Computer Portrait of Laura Burlington

    By Michael Craig-Martin (2010)

Nonetheless, he and other artists are using technology—new and not so cutting-edge—to create works that their predecessors could only imagine. On the walls of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in the Harry Potter novels are highly unusual portraits; the people in them stir in their frames and speak. Such moving portraits are not pure fantasy. We have video images of sitters, such as Sam Taylor-Wood’s David (2004), a 67-minute chronicle of the footballer David Beckham sleeping. There are also animated, drawn portraits. Opie has made a number, including Elena, Sissi, George, and Jack (all 2014)—continuous computer animations on LCD screens, who turn their heads and blink.

The British painter Michael Craig-Martin has also employed digital technology to animate his pictures, but in a different manner: in his work, the transformations are not linear but chromatic.

Craig-Martin made a portrait of the architect Dame Zaha Mohammad Hadid in this idiom for the National Portrait Gallery in London in 2008. The lines of the portrait never alter. But the colors constantly change in a varied, randomized fashion controlled by software. The potential color combinations are very numerous. His Computer Portrait of Laura Burlington (2010) divides the sitter’s face into nine sections—hair, lips, skin, etc. that slowly run though permutations of 44 shades of color selected by the artist. The sitter is married to the heir to the Duke of Devonshire, and the picture now hangs at Chatsworth House, the Duke’s country house, among the earlier portraits by Reynolds and Gainsborough.

In 1962, David Hockney painted a picture of two men menaced by a huge leaping leopard. In tiny letters he wrote a reassuring message on the canvas: “They are perfectly safe this is a still.” But more and more, what matters in art is not creating images that appear to move—as has been the case since the days of the cave paintings at Lascaux—but creating images that actually move. What artists, critics, and audiences alike have to decide is whether and when that blunt reality is an improvement over the illusion. The aurochs, stags, and horses on the walls at Lascaux were painted to be seen in the flickering torchlight, and would have shimmered with apparent movement. Yet because they are frozen in a moment, each animal still possesses a specificity, a quality of being captured, that animation may find difficult to replicate.

Martin Gayford’s latest book is Rendezvous with Art, written with Philippe de Montebello. His last story for MIT Technology Review was “Enlightened Spaces.

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